Here’s the second of my three orphaned 2017 Xyzzymposium essays, this one about the THREE WHOLE NPCs nominated from Known Unknowns.
Is my take on Anja quite as unusual as I seemed to think it was? Now you can be the judge!
(FYI: spoilers abound below.)
KNOWN UNKNOWNS, BY BRENDAN PATRICK HENNESSY
Let’s start off a bit strangely. Hennessy’s Known Unknowns has seen three of its characters nominated for this category, so, rather than repeat myself, I’m going to begin with an overview of how it handles character interaction, before going into more detail for each of the three characters in question.
Known Unknowns is a hyperlink-based Twine game. Much of it is presented in script form, with lines of dialogue and stage directions interspersed with different options. Although these options change the tone of the dialogue, result in you learning different information and, sometimes, set flags that influence things later, the plot always muddles on in pretty much the same way.
But that doesn’t mean that this feels like an un-interactive experience – far from it. In between the “script-like” sequences, the game shows us location descriptions, similar to parser-based games, where we can move to different locations, find optional interactions and generally get a feel for the world that the protagonist, Nadia Nazari, inhabits. At times, the right way to progress through these locations even goes beyond atmosphere to provide a degree of challenge.
Known Unknowns also takes advantage of the hypertext format for a very satisfying presentation – the script portions are accompanied by portraits of the main characters; flashbacks and text messages are presented in a completely different style; a menu provides updating character profiles and a summary of the story so far; and (although I guess there would be nothing stopping someone doing this in a dead-tree book) the ghost raccoons that show up speak in a stream of emojis.
Known Unknowns’ interactivity is a vital part of its experience and clearly the result of a lot of effort. It is not, however, too ground-breaking in terms the technical details of character interaction. You get to choose from a lot of winding conversational paths, but they all generally lead to the same place, albeit often with a few small details changed.
And yet, here we are with not one but three characters from Known Unknowns nominated for Best Individual Non-Player Character, and this is not a coincidence. NPCs in interactive fiction are the product of two halves: a technical implementation and a set of written text. The technical implementation of the NPCs in Known Unknowns is perfectly fine. I can’t fault it. It doesn’t provide complex interactions, but it does enough to give the characters a variability that makes them feel alive. The writing however, the characterisation of these characters – well, it snaps and crackles and draws you in and makes you care.
In my strange and – soon to be decidedly off-piste – opinion, no aspect of Known Unknowns better represents the fine craft of its characters than its central antagonist (and, alphabetically, our first nominee):
Wait, what? Okay, bear with me here, or if you can’t do that, at least humour me and then roll your eyes when I’m not looking.
I would never claim any great expertise when it comes to literature or plot mechanics or any of that stuff. Known Unknowns is a game that people have enjoyed, and they’ve clearly really liked the characters. To me, things like “who is the antagonist?”, “what is the turning point?”, “what is the inciting incident?” are questions we ask to understand why a story appeals to us or not, after the fact. Different people will come up with different answers, even if the author was considering these things when structuring their story. Here’s my answer to one of those questions: the antagonist of Known Unknowns is Anja Kaczmarek. (She’s also my favourite character in the game, in case you think this is going to be some kind of diatribe.)
If you’re more literate than me (not at all unlikely) and you happen to think that these things are objective, and that, also, I’m objectively wrong, well: fine. Let’s say I’m wrong. And let’s keep going. Maybe we’ll still find something interesting down this wrong path of incorrectitude.
We first encounter Anja almost right away. Nadia is trying to maintain an unpopular school newspaper with her best friend Kaz, when Kaz’s sister – that’s Anja – pops in for a visit. She gives Nadia a pretty cold shoulder at first, and then when Kaz is out of the room, hits Nadia with this charming line:
ANJA: Hey just so you know? I’m keeping my eye on you this year. So don’t pull any shit.
YOU: Uh… excuse me?
ANJA: You heard me.
Nice! By the end of the game, Nadia and Anja are in a romantic relationship. With one another, I mean.
Let’s talk about love stories. Two people meet, they’re crazy for one another – love at first sight, maybe – some conflict arises between them, it comes to a head, they overcome their conflict at its peak and live happily ever after. Or, as TV Tropes puts it, “One of the oldest and most basic plots goes thus: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl.” Many truly great love stories have been made to this mould.
But what I like even better is a love story between a protagonist and an antagonist. Or, at the very least, a love story between people who are in some way on opposing sides. Although the conflict in a love story can be well done the traditional way, it’s a lot easier to get right when the characters start out as enemies instead of sweethearts. When the love story is the focus of the work – as it arguably is in Known Unknowns, more so than the ghost raccoon stuff – this is even better. Now the resolution of the story’s central conflict is exactly what will allow the characters to be together.
What is the central conflict in Known Unknowns? Well, there are these ghost raccoons you see, and- Nope, that’s not it. The big deal in Known Unknowns is about how Nadia once made a move on a girl called Summer, but Summer seemed to react badly and changed schools immediately after. Nadia wound up with this boy called Allen, who seems like he’s probably not the worst guy in the world. Now Summer has moved back to Nadia’s school and Nadia wants to make up with her old best friend and maybe figure out what happened.
Standing in the way, however, is Anja, who is fiercely protective of Summer and is, as we saw above, concerned that Nadia not “pull any shit” with her.
Nadia naturally assumes that Anja is homophobic and trying to protect Summer from her bisexual cooties.
But although Anja is hostile to Nadia, she’s clearly not a bad person. She helps Nadia avoid the guy who’s creeping on her by partnering with her on a French project; when a party gets a bit violent, she shows concern for Nadia; we see her having fun with Kaz; and her protectiveness of Summer clearly comes from a place of concern.
And then she says something rude or abrupt to Nadia, or scripts their French project to include “Je m’appelle Nadia et je suis beaucoup stupide.”, or gets in between Nadia and Summer:
YOU: God, would it kill you to not be rude for once?
ANJA: I’m rude? I’m rude?!
(Summer tugs on Anja’s sleeve.)
SUMMER: Anja, come on…
ANJA: (getting up in your face) You know what I think is rude? I think it’s rude to kick your best friend out of your life and abandon her when she needs you the most! That’s what I think is rude.
Which is also our first hint that Anja is not driven by homophobia, but rather something more complex and understandable. A crucial element to a love story between two enemies is that we have to be able to accept both the sides they take. At this point in the story – towards the end of the second of four episodes – we don’t know what Anja’s side actually is, but we now realise it may be more reasonable than high school cliquishness or prejudice.
With the central conflict revolving around, in my reading at least, Nadia’s history with Summer, this ultimately comes to a head with Nadia confronting her boyfriend Allen about what really happened back then. Flashbacks have revealed that Nadia used Allen as a go-between to try and discern Summer’s real feelings, and Anja’s outburst has made it clear that something went on that Nadia didn’t know about. It’s unsurprising, but vicariously hurtful, to realise that Allen lied to Summer in order to get Nadia for himself.
So Allen is a bad person! He reacts to Nadia’s probing by outing her to the whole high school, which also happened to be the point when I realised that this game had sold me on its drama – the betrayal really stung. Is Allen the central antagonist though? Of course not! The conflict with Allen is never resolved – and it doesn’t need to be. He turns out to be a toxic person and Nadia cuts him out of her life as best she can. What he’s done can’t be undone.
In reaction to all this, though, Anja initially shows her good side:
ANJA: For what it’s worth I’m sorry this is happening to you.
YOU: No you’re not.
ANJA: I am. You don’t deserve this.
And then, once she realises that the person who hurt Summer was Allen and not Nadia, logically shifts her animosity to the correct party:
ANJA: That scumbag.
YOU: I… yeah.
ANJA: I’m going to kill him.
YOU: Don’t, please.
ANJA: Suggestion noted.
Now we see Anja from the other side. When Anja tries to reassure Nadia that “your life is not over”, saying: “Seriously. I’d tell you if it was.” We know that this is true, having seen Nadia bear the brunt of Anja speaking her mind in less pleasant ways.
As this all happens around the end of Episode Three, and there’s still a whole episode left, perhaps I’m on shakier ground here. Maybe at this point the Anja conflict is wrapped up and the ghost-racoon thing is the real conflict – and the ghost-racoon-related-villain the real antagonist.
Let’s commit though. At this point Anja is not opposing Nadia any more (notably, Nadia and Summer get to finally catch up), but what we’re seeing here is the climax of the story. The conflict is in the process of being resolved – not in the way that I’d resolve a story conflict, say with martial arts or car chases or big battles in the sky – but with the protagonist and antagonist realising that they’re actually both okay; warming to one another; trusting one another. Crucially, Nadia lets Anja in on this ghost-raccoon side story that keeps cropping up. The chemistry that had been underlying their earlier antipathy can now bubble over as love, resulting in a much healthier relationship than Nadia had with Allen – mostly due to the exact same things that made Anja such a formidable antagonist: her loyalty, her righteousness, her courage.
Finally, Anja can team up with Nadia and Kaz to resolve the supernatural mystery, demonstrating that the conflict has been resolved. Anja’s hard headed and forthright attitude contributes the kind of good idea you wish every character in a horror film would think of:
ANJA: Okay, I just texted Summer. I’m going to check in every ten minutes, and if she doesn’t hear from me in fifteen she’s going to call the police.
YOU: That’s… a very smart plan, actually.
And finally, she gets to take out the ghost-racoon-related-villain:
ANJA: (winding up) HEY, FUCKER!
(He whips around. Anja tosses the raccoon at his head.)
Does my idea of Anja as antagonist hold up? Maybe? Who cares? Perhaps there isn’t really an antagonist? Perhaps the antagonist is more thematic, personified by Anja or Allen or the ghost-racoon-related-villain at different times?
Whatever. The fact that Anja starts out at odds with Nadia, and, naturally, logically, because of her character strengths, develops a loving relationship with her instead, makes her the most well developed and written character in Known Unknowns. Fight me.
(Actually, don’t. Fight Anja; she’ll win.)
So you heard something about haunted raccoons and you want to know more. Let me introduce you to Kaz Kaczmarek, our second nominee. Those of you who ascribe to the incorrect thesis that Known Unknowns is a game about a high school haunted by raccoons who speak in emoji will have noticed that there is more Kaz in Known Unknowns than any other character except for Nadia Nazari herself. Kaz is Nadia’s best friend, Nadia’s main motivator in investigating the ghost mystery and the one who’s always there for Nadia whatever bad things happen. Kaz’s profile in the game’s menu describes them as a “loveable goofball pothead genderqueer graphic design genius” – maybe, seen in isolation, that’s a bit showing-and-not-telling, but don’t worry: the game shows us plenty too.
For a game where our main window into events is a screenplay-style script, the character Nadia speaks to the most often is the one who sets the tone of events. Kaz’s positivity, energy and inventive turns of phrase are a distillation of all the light elements in Known Unknowns. The dark elements: the drama, the betrayals, the hurt – they come from other characters: Anja, Allen, evens Nadia’s own self-doubt.
And in a game told primarily through raw dialogue, Kaz’s support is a vital way to depict Nadia’s self-esteem without making her seem conceited. She can express doubts, or ask if she’s bad or a failure – and Kaz contradicts her, supports her, and redirects her away from the high school bullshit and towards the high school raccoon hauntings:
KAZ: Okay, you know what? You need to stop paying attention to this… (They grab your phone out of your hand.) …and START paying attention to THIS.
(They hand over your laptop again. This time there’s a document open that just says “GHOSTS” in bold 72pt text.)
Kaz is always depicted as positive – except for the odd bout of fear of ghosts – but it’s not a one-note positivity. They can be bubbly or surreal or wry or supportive of Nadia over the people who try to bring her down – even straight up critical of Nadia’s own negativity about herself.
That might make it seem like Kaz is a non-character, a prop for the protagonist, but it’s not so. We see that Kaz has friendships with other people – their sister Anja and the bookish Miles to name two – and, to me the crucial difference between a real character and an extra: they have their own motivations. While Nadia worries about Summer and Allen and Anja, Kaz certainly cares about those things and how they affect their friend, but they also care about these haunted raccoons and whatever the Hell that is about.
The closest that negativity and Kaz come to meeting actually happens either implicitly or via other characters. Consider this:
KAZ: The memorial wall. This fucking thing.
YOU: Your arch-nemesis.
KAZ: You ever get sent here for a uniform violation?
YOU: Once, in Grade 9. I was so distracted by the Summer situation that I managed to put on the wrong socks.
KAZ: You rebel.
YOU: Yeah well. I don’t think I could ever beat your record.
KAZ: God, those fuckers made me copy this thing out so many goddamn times. Think I could probably do the First World War kids off by heart still.
Uniform violations? Is this about Kaz’s rebellious attitude, or is it about the uniform being gendered in a way that clashed with Kaz’s identity? It could be either. In the same vein, Anja mentions to Nadia that her mother sometimes has trouble telling her apart from Kaz (they’re identical twins). This segues into a joke, but it implies something a bit dark about how accepting Kaz’s parents might be of their identity.
These hints flesh Kaz out. We see a positive Kaz during this story, but anyone, no matter how cheerful, has some painful shit in their life. But, with one small exception, Kaz’s gender is unimportant to the story (except insofar as representation is important). This story isn’t about that, even a little – it’s about Nadia’s relationship with Anja and a bunch of emoji-spewing raccoons.
I guess I should touch on that one small exception I just mentioned. The one time Kaz’s gender comes up, at least from what I found, is when Allen is simultaneously revealing his lies to Nadia and refusing to accept that he has done anything wrong. This should be enough to turn anyone against him, but at this point he also misgenders Kaz – the first and only time someone does so. For me this was the icing on the crap-cake that is Allen. At this point, Kaz has been nothing but fun and supportive. When someone then disrespects a character like that, well, it makes it easy to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Because, when it gets down to it, Kaz is a likeable character. For all that we can get into the technical details of complex characterisation, sometimes all you need is a character who seems like someone it’d be cool to hang out with; whose dialogue is fun to read; and who has enough slight flaws (smoking too much weed and not taking things seriously) to be mostly believable. Kaz doesn’t have much of a character arc, in my opinion, but that’s kind of the point:
YOU: I was wrong about literally everyone and everything. I didn’t have a single thing right.
KAZ: You weren’t wrong about me.
Kaz is dependable; Kaz is likeable; Kaz is the perfect friend to solve a ghost mystery with. The epilogue of Known Unknowns is just Nadia and Kaz working on their school paper, looking to the future. There’s no Anja, no ghost raccoons, but it feels just right.
Reviewing Known Unknowns for IFDB, Anya Johanna DeNiro writes of the game’s characters: “I’m sure you will find your favorites”. Given that I started here with an essay you could summarise as “Anja is the best character ever”, it seems I’ll have to agree. DeNiro goes on to add, parenthetically: “shout out to my pal Olivia”.
Olivia Kwon was the third and final character from Known Unknowns to be nominated for this award. In examining Olivia, I am going to purse two angles of investigation:
- Olivia Kwon is cool.
- People like Olivia Kwon.
Let’s start, as is customary, with part 1.
Although many of the interactions with Olivia seem to be optional moments during the game’s exploration sequences, you can’t avoid meeting her like this:
(You make your way to your first period history class and sit down. A couple of minutes later, Olivia Kwon slams her books down on the desk next to you and then jumps over them to get in the chair.)
OLIVIA: What’s up, bud?
YOU: Oh, hey Olivia Kwon. How was your summer?
OLIVIA: It was fine, eh! Fuckin’ fine-and-a-half. Took up rollerblading.
With comic redundancy, her profile includes the line:
Nationality: Canadian (Extremely)
Is she cool? Well Olivia must be one of “the cool kids” because she’s good at sport and acts like she doesn’t give a shit. But she’s also “a cool person” in a different way: behind her blunt language, she’s empathetic and supportive of the people around her:
OLIVIA: Can’t have enough mental health dude. Shit’s important. That’s why they’s got hashtags about it.
When troublemakers rock up to a party, it’s Olivia at the forefront, scaring them off and protecting her friends. When Allen outs Nadia, Olivia offers her a hug, some supportive words, and the offer to beat him up (which Nadia declines).
All the optional interactions with Olivia are fun little diversions, if you can find them (I missed some on my first playthrough). You might bump into her at a party, for example, and then get to choose whether or not to say “Whoo” back to her (why wouldn’t you?).
This all adds up to a bunch of completely acceptable reasons to like a character (we have now arrived at part 2). And apparently people liked her enough that she ended up a nominee for this category. That’s fine by me. Maybe you could say that this shouldn’t be a popularity contest – but I’d say that if people like Olivia Kwon won popularity contests more often, the world would be a much nicer place.