This is the second of two case studies about the Freeman problem. Last time it was Monkey Island, this time it’s South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014).
The Monkey Island one includes a definition of the problem, so I suggest starting with that if you haven’t read it.
(And since I tend to complain on this blog, I’m sticking with the good mood that ended the last post and keeping it all positive today, too. Enjoy!)
Case 2: South Park: the Stick of Truth
The scene: Butters leads us through Cartman’s house and Cartman’s mother is there, completing the scenery we expect from the series. Naturally, we click on everything we can — it’s an RPG and we’re at the start: nothing will go unclicked.
The tension: Cartman’s mother doesn’t really have a part to play — she’s just scenery. There is no profitable interaction to be had with her, and if she goes on talking about stuff then we’re going to click through it all for completeness, and just get bored because she’s not really involved in progressing the story. So she needs to be there (because she’s expected to be there) and the player is free to interact with her, but she can’t really offer anything.
In other words, the player is free to do something that is not accounted for in the story of the game — which is the essence of the Freeman problem. Since the designers haven’t worked Mrs Cartman into the story, they need to convince the player not to interact with her.
Cue some good old repeating dialogue, then? That age-old nudge-and-a-wink that tells us she’s not part of the game?
The solution: Nudges and winks like that are the tacit conventions of gaming. South Park goes a bit meta and pulls them right out into the open: when you click on Mrs Cartman, Butters tells the player-character flatly, “Don’t talk to her; she’s not part of the game.”
It’s having fun with the Freeman problem: it briefly shines the limelight on the tension we’ve learnt to keep in the shadows. The clever-clever icing on the metafictional cake, though, is that the kids in the game are playing a game themselves (they’re larping), making complete sense, within the terms of the narrative, of the “not part of the game” remark.
The gag cashes in on a fourth-wall transgression while retaining deniability of the breach. It’s neat, and, like Monkey Island, that neatness is so satisfying; it feels good to play; it’s fun.
In both of these games, at the moments I’ve discussed (and plenty more in Monkey Island), I feel a happiness as a player, like a burden has been lifted. Maybe that’s just me, but it makes me feel like the Freeman problem is a real thing — a point for attention in story-led games, which, when it is addressed, makes for exciting gaming.
A commenter over on the brilliant Electric Phantasms told me that he thought the hero problem was more of an opportunity than a problem. I think that’s a good way to look at both of my “problems” (hero and Freeman). They’re not reasons games are broken; they don’t have to be fixed. In my mind they’re open questions, and when we get a response it feels good and the story works more neatly. When we get a working answer, we can take a break from our gamers’ doublethink for a moment.
It just seems odd that Ron Gilbert and Co. nailed this repeatedly more than 20 years ago and yet the questions are still quite rarely addressed. Anyway, I said wouldn’t complain today, so here’s hoping, as usual, that we keep seeing more, smarter story game moments like these two.