As part of running the XYZZY Awards (announcement on that soon, I swear), for the past few years I’ve organised focused reviews of the finalists in each category, drawing on the rich pool of critics and reviewers in the IF world. Not every category always gets covered, but last year we came pretty close; I assigned myself to cover the gap, Best NPCs, got the write-ups mostly done, then overextended myself and whiffed on the deadline. It seems like cheating to put them on the main XYZZY site, given that I imposed Actual Deadlines on everybody else; but it seems they should see the light of day, so here – considerably belated, with apologies – they are. (Inevitably, I am still not happy with all of them, but it’s a Get Shit Out Of The Door kind of day.)
The format here assumes that you’ve already played the finalists (Bell Park, Youth Detective; Choice of the Deathless; Ollie Ollie Oxen Free; ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III; Witch’s Girl).
Bell Park, Youth Detective (Brendan Patrick Hennessy)
Weird NPCs are at the heart of Bell Park. The game runs on character-driven comedy, with Bell playing flustered straight man to a series of outlandish (but only slightly exaggerated) funny guys. The game makes jokes about the inappropriateness of even a pretty bright kid conducting a murder investigation, but to some degree that’s just an overdrive version of the weird displacement of being a kid bright enough that adults make up most of the people who are really interesting to you, while still being a kid and therefore finding adults inaccessibly confusing on a number of levels.
For a game that’s almost entirely about conversations, and that converges quickly towards the same ending, Bell Park isn’t much of a lawnmower. It’s fairly possible to miss more revealing things about certain characters. The softer moment with -bitmap zer0-, which adds a less-obvious layer to the character, is easily missed without realising that you’ve missed anything at all. Rather than this sympathetic and oft-referenced “being weird weirdly” node, you could have her major character note be the following, which reframes her apparently hard-pragmatic, data-driven mindset as a kind of willful nerd myopia:
“I don’t see race,” she says as she leans into the monitor, “I only see the ones and zeros.”
So the game’s basic attitude to its NPCs, even though they’re comic caricatures, is that they’re people with layers, good and bad, not all of which you will necessarily get to see.
Despite the suspect-line-up structure, there’s not an even standard of attention to the NPCs; the money guy and the surfer guy feel less developed both as characters and as the concepts they represent. If this is a story about theory versus practice, though, they represent opposite ends of the spectrum: the money guy, Argent Sunflower, is so ruthlessly practical that he’s a jerk (even though his pragmatism makes him the one who insists on breaking out of the game’s dodgy premise and doing the right thing). Chet, the surfer, is so wedded to his specialist field that, given a context where it’s totally irrelevant, he becomes completely hopeless.
Ultimately, Bell Park feels like a sort of critique of a certain kind of intellectual culture, particularly conference culture, of how it promotes wacky specialist-advocates rather than balanced thinkers, of the tendency of movements to become dominated by their outspoken, hypertrophied loony fringes, and of how this makes it difficult for them to actually talk to one another. But it’s aiming, I think, for a Bee-like balance between snarking at the silly parts of something and taking points of view seriously; it’s also a story about how growing up is in large part a process of confronting unfamiliar points of view, and learning how to sort the insightful from the ridiculous. It’s all very Aristotelean.
It’s also a story about what happens when theory is forced to confront its subject. Just because it’s your job to think about the future doesn’t mean that you’ll actually be very good at dealing with the future when it shows up. Bell gets the final laugh, with a moral that kind of frames her as the Daoist against the court philosophers: it’s useful to spend some time in blue-sky hypothesis land, but if you take it too seriously, the joke’s on you.
Choice of the Deathless (Max Gladstone)
It’s always a little odd writing about a piece that was nominated in Category A when its core concerns are more to do with different aspects. Ollie, Bell Park, absolutely, those are NPC-centred games. Deathless is, on its surface, a piece with highly assured writing and a distinctive fantasy setting; underneath, its attention is mostly dedicated to the player-character and their story. Its non-player characters are good, true, but they’re not what I would have picked out as the work’s standout feature.
However: play in Choice of the Deathless is largely about negotiating relationships. Yes, you have some choices about how nice an apartment to rent, and so on, but for me these were less interesting, less firmly grasped, with consequences less directly-felt. The immediately interesting choices it presents are about how to treat people; the immediate challenge it proposes is the possibility that other people are out to screw you. To a great extent, more so than I’ve seen in most Choice of Games pieces, your NPC connections are your character stats in Deathless. Sure, there are other choices, but with the possible exception of Craft I didn’t find myself worrying so much about the Gunner/Socialite spectrum or Sleep, or, wow, there’s a Determination stat and a Cunning stat? Hunh. (Partly this is because, at this point, I’m familiar enough with the basic CoG tactic – pick an area or two of expertise and always rely on them – that it’s become sublimated. Once you know that pattern, it takes little thought to stick to it.)
Relationship management has always been a central part of the Choice of Games house style, generally following the venerable squabbling-NPCs model familiar from CRPGs. Under this model, the player character’s commitment to a relationship is phrased in terms of whom they support when NPCs clash with one another. While this isn’t always a zero-sum game, the idea that relationships are focused around whose side you take is a kind of natural fit for games focused on Big Character Choices. (See, inevitably, The Walking Dead.)
In another medium, the cut-throat tone would be the signal for an ending in which few characters got out without paying hard prices. In Deathless, the protagonist grows and changes; other characters are, for the most part, only revealed. But choices do have obvious orientation around characters. And like most games with a largely player-defined PC, the NPCs are a good deal more formed as characters than the PC – more memorable, even.
They have good names, too. These skew somewhat towards the Dickensian style of strong personality-evoking name without going into full-on comic mode, which is just about the right tone. It’s a pretty safe bet that Ainsley Wakefield is not going to be as chummy a character as Cass Chen. As a group, they give you the right impression – this is an environment that’s somewhat multicultural, not out of any higher motives but just because it’s highly competitive and outright bigotry is super-inconvenient for brain-drain. There are also some outlandish elements, letting you know that the world’s warped at the edges: Varkath is a down-the-line lich-king kind of name.
This kind of attention to characteris consistent even with incidental characters – if you run into a demon doorman whom you’ll never see again, he’s going to get a brief, suggestive and probably disturbing detail. This is absolutely a Creative Writing 101 kind of technique, but you see it ignored or mishandled so bloody often that it’s worth noting when it’s well-used. These flavourful extras, all crazy teeth and bleeding eyes, are part of a general effect of contrast between the lurid elements of demons and magic and the mundane elements that live side-by-side with them. Someone might be ritually sacrificing a goat to bind a demon, but under the robes they’re wearing sweatpants. The fantastic-mundane juxtaposition is a venerable approach, and to make it feel this fresh takes both observation and imagination.
Like most CoG works, some of the NPCs can be romanced; unlike most, the curtain isn’t tightly drawn across the sex. My half-assed theory on sex scenes in literature is that the main effects available to an author are Porny, Disturbing or Funny. (There’s also Boring, but that’s a possibility with anything.) Sometimes you get two at once, and there’s a big distinction between being intentionally disturbing or funny and accidentally so, but 99% of the time, those are the options: eliminate any two, and you’re stuck with the third. One of the standard ways that an author wanders into unintentionally hilarious territory is to describe the sex-scene in a manner I’m going to call Abstract Intensity, a prolix, flowery style that goes out of its way to avoid describing anything that might arouse or disturb anyone. And here Gladstone does something pretty impressive: he renders a scene in what is recognisably a species of Abstract Intensity Sex, but doesn’t leave me snickering and chasing down friends in order to read choice extracts. (In line with the rest of the writing, it doesn’t lack some restrained humour, but that doesn’t become its defining mood.)
Abstract Intensity is, on the face of it, a useful approach to employ within the Choice of Games house style: since it avoids the messy matter of bodies, it can very easily elide the matters of gender, sexuality and personality that depend on player choice. And it meshes well with Gladstone’s style in the rest of the work, which is, again, unafraid to go lurid and breathless. But having done that, you’re very, very close to making the people involved completely interchangeable. Which, in fact, is what Deathless does: the same writing is used for different partners. At that point my feeling was a bit, wow, you didn’t even change the sheets. Doesn’t matter in the slightest if you only play once, of course.
But this felt, if not like a direct consequence – no reason why the format means you have to do this – then an emblem of the way that the CRPG character-creation approach makes NPCs extensions of the player-character, satellites reflecting the light of a self-projection. The fact that this matters, that it’s a problem, is because this story is more concerned with non-player characters. Chen and Wakefield aren’t Spouse #2: The Brunette Helpmeet, as in Choice of Broadsides. They have voices, relationship dynamics. But we don’t see much of them outside their interactions with the PC, because this is not that kind of story.
Although Deathless sells itself as being about a cutthroat, dog-eat-dog kind of world, it’s really not all that interpersonally nasty. It is by no means difficult to get a heartwarming ending about the redemptive power of friendship. By the conclusion, the player-character is likely to find themselves surrounded by allies and friends, and with no seriously vicious rivals. You can get through the game without someone who you thought was your friend ever dealing you a devastating emotional wound; sure, your bosses undercut and use you, but you didn’t expect anything better. The demon with whom you establish a working relationship turns out to be a loyal ally, less alien than it initially appears.
The real nastiness isn’t to do with the people you hang out with. The scary thing about the demons is not that eldritch horrors from another dimension could tear apart the fabric of reality, it’s that the job of protecting the world from aforementioned eldritch horrors is in the hands of people who have a gigantic conflict of interest. It’s not that your soul is going to get stolen, it’s that it’ll be bundled up and passed around as generic currency by people who don’t give the tiniest shit. Every character in Deathless is an oilman, a slave-trade lobbyist; the game is about how well a bunch of oilmen get along with one another.
The moral angle of Deathless is more directly about demons-as-immigrants rather than demons-as-energy, though. A central theme is about, if not precisely understanding the Other, then recognising the possibility of it. Rehabilitation of the Pure Evil Other is, by this point, a pretty standard move, but usually a good sign. The thing here is that demons are presented, for at least a while, as radically other, brain-breakingly unlike us – not Solaris, exactly, but about as close a thing can be to Solaris while actually being talkable-to. Which I think is the point, really – that if it’s possible to talk to something clearly enough to negotiate with it, you need to extend it some consideration. The trick here is that, in the process of doing this, the demons become suspiciously like humans with crazy special effects. They have art, parent-child rebellion drama, ritual feasting. By the end of the story, the principal demon is beginning to feel like just another member of the PC’s circle of buddies. I was a little disappointed by this – the ‘aliens are really just like us if you get to know them!’ narrative is an important one, sure, but it feels like a deflation here.
The one character who does change, rather dramatically, is the antagonist, John Smith. In such a carefully-named piece we shouldn’t expect a moniker like that to be an accident; and indeed, Smith is not a character who sticks in the mind, despite cropping up at a lot of key moments. The bad guy, in this story, is not a Donald Trump, a larger-than-life jerkwad as interested in display as in actual wickedness; it’s a boringly clever guy, who doesn’t need his power witnessed as long as he gets more of it. Like the protagonist, his deal is finding loopholes.
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free (Carolyn VanEseltine)
All of the NPCs in Ollie are children, and writing about children is difficult. It’s very easy to wander into flat tropes in the general region of candy-box schmaltz. In particular, when children are depicted in situations where they’re victims or vulnerable, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards a sweet, rose-tinted, flavourless default, a projection of our own ideas about comforted, carefree childhood, innocence, and nonspecific potential, rather than observations of (and concerns about) actual children.
Ollie would have utterly failed if it had treated its children this way; it would have been unbearably bad. It succeeds because it views childhood as an inherently difficult and conflicted state. All the children have their own set of Issues, often making it harder for them to deal with the crisis – this isn’t because some sort of selection process has lumped Mark Ginsberg with all the Problem Kids, but because everyone is fighting a hard battle, and childhood is not a time when anybody is equipped to cope with their own issues. (There seems to have been some selection nonetheless: nobody here is a golden child, nobody’s a vicious little monster. And it’s not as though the vicious little monsters don’t exist, cf. Dylan Rierson.)
As characterisation tools go, object descriptions are the stock in trade of IF. Ollie takes a somewhat non-standard track, one that reduces your tendency to think of the kids as objects:
Tyrone realizes immediately that he’s the focus of your attention and stares back challengingly. He doesn’t even come up to your armpit, but he hardly seems to notice.
This is looking as a social act. That’s not entirely the norm, though; more often EXAMINE is used to talk about the present status of the children. The standard form for an IF description is to start by talking about physical qualities, them expand into more general significance – things the player knows or infers. Here, EXAMINE means ‘check the condition of’. Looking isn’t, for the most part, the way we’re learning who the characters are. The general-significance function is shifted over to THINK ABOUT:
Tyrone isn’t one of your students. You know him because he’s been giving Emily a headache and a half, not to mention the recess monitors. He’s bright enough to get pissed off and destructive in a classroom geared to the lowest common denominator, and he pounds back on the kids who try to pound him, which doesn’t help anything much. He’s pretty well-behaved in detention, though.
This is not a super-complicated or outré issue for a kid to be struggling with, but it’s one that suggests an attention to real-world kid problems. A lot of this is reflection on Ginsberg: this is a hero story, and a teacher who wasn’t conscious of the individual problems of his students would not dispose us to think of him in a heroic light. And Ginsberg is just their teacher; he knows them well enough to identify what’s going on with their problems in class, but he doesn’t know them thoroughly. The kids know as much about one another as he does, though they don’t always articulate it as smoothly. Small interactions here and there reveal more about the kids – so there’s a quiet, inobtrusive layer of the game that’s character-revelation as item-hunt. It’s deployed with a very light hand – these are not the big navel-gazey expostulation-dumps of Robin & Orchid – and this gives a lot of things a weighty simplicity. Things don’t have to be complicated to be serious and inextricable. George’s mother died. A huge strength of the game is its brief, devastating lines:
Despite your best efforts, school is a poor place for self-discovery.
Simple, immediately recognisable, yet kind of the quiet acknowledgement of hopes and dreams doomed. Ouch.
As you’d expect on a US military base, they’re a racially diverse lot: and the game does a pretty deft job of flagging this up without being all HIS EBONY SKIN or HER EXOTIC ALMOND EYES about it. A lot of it’s naming. It mostly doesn’t matter, except as an unspoken underlier. We can’t see whether Tyrone’s defensive anger is shaped by cultural expectations, but we can be pretty sure it’ll be dangerous for him.
NPC implementation is crazy difficult, and hard, hard work; most games deal with it by elision and sleight-of-hand, with the need to avoid direct character interaction often shaping a game’s core premise. Ollie doesn’t dodge; it aims unwaveringly at the problem of making functional NPCs, NPCs that are not merely collections of carefully-deployed writing snippets but reactive game entities. The game is mostly about acting through them and for them, employing their abilities and overcoming their weaknesses. Their range of action and conversation is limited somewhat, because they’re scared, shocky and young; but in the context of the usual kinds of limits drawn around NPCs – up to and including keeping everyone important to the story off-stage – this is a very minor cop-out.
It’s also a good demonstration of why so many games prefer to dodge wide around this problem. There are so many ways to interact with characters, and so many situations that characters can potentially be in, that buggy responses are routine. Scoping problems, in particular, are a huge issue. Because Ollie‘s problems mostly involve physical objects, it makes a certain kind of sense that you can potentially ask children about any object in the game – but a lack of contextual disambiguation combined with open scope leads to some crazy messes. This is a problem not just because it makes the game harder, but because it discourages precisely the kind of poking around in NPC conversation that the game really wants to reward.
Ollie is not really a game about war: even though he works on a military base, Mr. Ginsberg doesn’t seem to understand much about the war, nor is he very interested in it. It’s very tempting, therefore, to view the war in a more metaphorical sense: there are schools, there are communities, where kids grow up fighting a war every day, where the main day-to-day concern of a student is how they are going to avoid being subject to violence. Teachers have their hands bound by pitiful budgets and all-consuming testing, and their ability to actually help kids is limited. Ollie‘s answer – from the perspective of a teacher completely unable to change the structural problem – is to relate to the kids as individuals, guide them to save themselves… and, ultimately, sacrifice everything.
ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III (Porpentine)
There are two levels to ULTRA BUSINESSS TYCOON; the ostensible game, and the frame-story about the person playing it.
The characters of the inner game are, for the most part, barely characters, conceptually at the same level as a blobby-pixeled videogame sprite. To a great degree, they’re a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress level of allegory, with capitalism standing in for sin; over-the-top, garish, totally not intended for anyone not already a card-carrying member of the faithful. You’re not going to get any critique or explanation of the military-industrial complex out of Weapon Chef that wouldn’t be better-summarised by the phrase ‘military-industrial complex’.
Probably more telling than any examination of individual characters, then, is to think of them in categories. Business World is divided pretty sharply into two areas, an overworld and a dungeon: the dungeon, the Subterranean Trash Zone, is a toxic and hazardous place into which you must venture for the usual remorseless looting. Its inhabitants are animals and monsters, somewhere between weakly-conceived pixel sprite and Giger creation. Porpentine’s self-presentation is so routinely concerned with monstrousness that it’s straightforward to read this as a tag for otherness, a signal that what we’re really talking about here is the capitalist protagonist’s perception of the underclass, the trash. (Which is not entirely metaphorical, really, since as a society we’ve basically decided that it’s OK for poor people to take the brunt of environmental damage, but I doubt that’s the central point here.) We don’t know what the fuck is up with the Trash Fish, and frankly we don’t give a shit, because Business Guy has no profit incentive to give a shit.
The only in-game NPC with whom you have to deal for any real length of time is the Cop. The Cop, a sinister, ultraviolent and nebulous entity, shows up when you’ve been hitting the Embezzlertron a bit too hard; and here it seems as though the game is mixing its metaphors somewhat, because a police-brutality narrative doesn’t jive too well if the brutality is principally directed at predatory capitalists, unless you’re a hardcore Rand afficionado and believe that billionaires are the most oppressed people on Earth, which would require a rather more tortuous interpretation of ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON than I am prepared to endeavour. But the protagonist ultimately has an bank-like invulnerability to prosecution thanks to the wonders of reloading – player-characters are by nature aristos, inherently superior to the people around them, invulnerable. Corporate. The cop is no more than a temporary annoyance; he can’t touch your money, which is what counts.
Porpentine herself appears twice as NPCs and once as the rival corporation Porpco. They are radically different presentations: one a faceless, ominous force of capitalism, a powerful Big Bad into whose corporate fortress you must venture, in a sort of Frodo-into-Mordor shorthand, to destroy the crystal that stores her power. In the other – sketched extremely briefly – she’s an awkward, abused child, powerless and wholly good, with shades of Dickensian sainted orphan. The division of the self-insert character into two unreconciled personas – a sinister public figure and a vulnerable, sympathetic private one – is a trope with deep roots, but usually – in, say, The Wall – the focus is on the causal connections between the two. That’s not the idea here; the personas are separate modes. (The player-character is also intended as Porpentine.) It’s tempting to read Porpco as a side-eye at the tendency, over the past couple of years, for the lines between Porpentine as a convenient banner or brand and Porpentine as a person to become rather blurred. If you wanted to sum up the niche of Porpentine-the-product then crystals, estrogen, tears would be a pretty cutting version of it.
I suspect that a good chunk of the nomination was down to a character who appears not in the inner or outer narrative but in a small vignette, and according to the endnotes isn’t Porpentine’s creation. The bird-woman is very much not of the world of the inner Business Tycoon game, having nothing to do with either capitalism or trash. She’s rendered in organic, soft pencil rather than the garish pixels of the game. Unlike Trash Fish or Porpco or the Skelegroans, the allusions to her inner life are transparent: self-harm, identity struggle, flight-as-freedom. Porpentine’s worlds often have an atmosphere of inevitability, claustrophobia, trappedness: closing the game on something so strongly exterior is a breath of air.
The main character of the inner game, really, is its grotesquely hypercapitalist perspective, the voice-of-the-author of a hundred different rules-of-acquisition games. If games are a conversation between player and author, it’s normally an ‘Indeed it would seem that way, Socrates’ kind of conversation. The viewpoint character of TYCOON doesn’t particularly want to be playing a game about ruthless capitalism – her points of interest are quite unlike the game author’s – but that’s what she’s getting. The creator sets up all the assumptions inside which you must play. So I suspect that Porpco is a sort of acknowledgement of this: that if you’re the one making the world, you’re not Frodo any more. You’re the faceless overlord, the defining power, encountered only through your sinister and remote authority.
And yet this power is not absolute. One of the most important things anyone’s ever said to me about interpretation was: art is the bathhouse where we fuck in the dark. As an artist you think you know the kind of effect you want to have on people, you think you have an idea of who’s likely to be on the receiving end, but really you don’t have a clue. Your hurriedly-implemented statue feet might end up forming the ground for someone’s first fumbling sense of sexuality, or you might trigger the shit out of someone who has some really horrible associations with paisley wallpaper; the part that you thought was the heart of the whole thing could be utterly unintelligible to someone. You’re lucky if you get to consciously determine part of what your significance is.
Witch’s Girl (Geoff Moore)
Being the protagonist of a single-player narrative game is usually kind of lonely. Most stories, from parser IF to paper CYOA to triple-A FPS, are mostly solo journeys. Even if you have followers, you’re usually aloof from them, marked out as separate by your player-characterness.
But Witch’s Girl is, from start to finish, a partnership. Oblivia and Esme are best friends from the outset and continue thus throughout. It’s not a relationship that develops, or is ever seriously imperiled to inject drama into proceedings: at times, Esme seems more like a co-PC than an NPC, as you make choices which could only come from her viewpoint. She works as counterpoint, but mostly she undercuts the seriousness of the You Alone vs. the World dynamic that IF so often defaults to. Witch’s Girl is not entirely, overwhelmingly, a story about the player confronting a world: it’s about you and a friend getting along well, and one of the things you do together happens to be dealing with the world. That has a huge impact on the overall tone of the game; to a great extent, that’s the central thing that makes it more interesting than a generic Kingdom of Loathing-y gonzo-fantasy quest. The presence of Esme makes the discovery of the world a dialogue rather than an inner monologue. There is a strong sense throughout Witch’s Girl of play, that the whole fantastical adventure is perhaps a story that Esme and Oblivia are concocting between them. Their reaction to the world is the complete opposite of the Spielbergian child reaction shot: they take everything in stride, because they are one another’s point of reference. It’s the dynamic of Adventure Time, only more British and less bro-ish.
Once again, there’s good strong kid-lit naming. Mistress Honeywell is clearly the Nice Teacher, and Madam Scrimshaw the withered disciplinarian. Obviously Ethel Frogbottle is a witch. A sequence like the following is basically held up on the power of naming and rapid character sketches:
‘Don’t be ridiculous, child,’ scolds Madam Crabsticks. ‘You are well aware that there are no more witches in Carn. It is precisely such scurrilous rumours that tarnish the reputation of the young.’
‘But it’s true, Ma’am,’ pipes up an alarmingly small girl who might be called Florence. ‘She’s got a big pot, an’ everything!’
‘She turned Daisy’s cat into a dog,’ murmurs Sophie Bramblethimble, but no-one seems to notice.
‘Sophie Bramblethimble’ is pushing it a little bit, and there’s much here that’s, ah, paying homage rather: Esme is the first name of Granny Weatherwax, for instance, a character hard to claim innocence of if you’re writing irreverent British fantasy, particularly when you’re using lines like ‘she’s got a big pot, an’ everything’. And there’s a certain Monty Python scene that forms an unavoidable underlier. But the alarmingly small girl who might be called Florence – ah, there we go.
For a carefree romp with a childhood best friend through a world of fantasy, though, there’s a current of nastier matters running through Girl, a Roald Dahl-ish appreciation of the brutal and horrible. When you meet the king of the spiders, you get to stomp on him. In fact, quite a lot of the characters you meet are jerks whom you deal with by punching, or dumbasses whom you deal with by outsmarting them. This has less to do with the amazingly unique personality of the Bat King or Treezelbub – again, they’re largely gag characters in the Kingdom of Loathing idiom – and more to do with this being a story about little girls defeating enemies by being tough and smart.
They’re good gag characters, mostly – a standard approach it takes is that even throwaway characters whose sole function is to briefly obstruct the player should always be, if not precisely developed, then at least divertingly distinct. Often their purpose is to kind of cock a snook at the what-kind-of-story-we-are-in guesswork that often characterises CYOA plots, by pulling a head-fake. Here for instance, you’ve replied in the negative to a creepy marsh spirit who asks if you think she’s beautiful:
‘I see,’ says the scary lady. ‘You possess an honest heart, child. A rare quality, but one that will win you no favours with me. Good luck in your quest.’
This sort of expectation-reversal is the key to a lot of good comedy, but it’s also a common element in the more adversarial kind of fantasy CYOA – you thought the villagers needed help, but actually they’re secret cannibals! Sucker. But in Witch’s Girl the antagonists never come across as avatars of an arbitrary and cruel games-master: the sense is always preserved that the game, like Esme, is on your side, there to help you deal with the jerks.