Afterthoughts: Hostage Negotiator Career

WARNING: This article contains MASSIVE spoilers for the entire Campaign and Finale included in Hostage Negotiator Career. Proceed with caution.

Last year, Van Ryder Games had a Kickstarter for Hostage Negotiator Career, a campaign mode expansion for their popular solo-only game, and it shipped to backers earlier this summer. HN has never backed down from the horrors/seriousness of crime and the real world: hostages are killed in most every game and one way to win is to eliminate the abductor. Some abductors even have mechanics such as paranoia or a migraine affecting their ability to think/act. However, in my recent playthrough of Career mode, I wasn’t expecting them to take it where they did in the Finale included in the Career box.

For some backstory, Crime Wave was a stand-alone expansion for HN that brought with it a large box storage solution for the game and its many cards and components. It also held a secret: underneath the insert was an envelope containing a hidden abductor and special scenario. Your spouse has been kidnapped by a clown-painted madman named SiCKo, and you must race across the city to several locations in order to save them. If you run out of time, your spouse is killed.

I found the envelope immediately upon receiving the expansion, as I always check under the inserts of new games (exactly for reasons such as this) and I had opened it to see the contents, but I had not yet played the scenario. Career specifies that Crime Wave is required in order to play, I just figured it was because they used some of the components. This is true; however, I didn’t know yet what other things Career needed from Crime Wave.

Fast forward to this year: Career arrives, I’m incredibly excited. I get everything setup for a Career, and start playing through. The first 4 years are pretty straightforward, most of the time you have a negotiation, but sometimes not, and you record your results and your stats and some story elements are affected by whether you win or lose each negotiation. Year 5 rolls around and instead of drawing a random abductor, you are told you must get that envelope from under Crime Wave’s insert (I guess some people may not have found it yet? that boggles my mind, lol) and specifically face SiCKo. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that as his scenario has a lot of special rules so I checked the other Year 5 cards but they all require this so I had to go that route.

At this point, I realized that SiCKo was apparently going to be an important figure of the story from here on out, especially since it tells you that he will escape whether or not you win the scenario (and now it clicks as to why he’s the cover image for the Career box). I play through the scenario, and thanks to some lucky rolls (and an upgrade I’d gotten previously in the Career) I was able to successfully save my spouse (though we ended up getting divorced in Year 9). SiCKo escaped per the plot necessity, and I carried on with the Career waiting for him to show up again.

It wasn’t until Year 10 that he reared his head once more. Year 10 has a final choice, followed by you proceeding to the Finale of the game, which is a separate packet of cards. Opening the Finale, I see there are 3 Ending cards and set them aside as I’m told. The instructions are to shuffle the 10 Finale cards, gather dice according to your rank (I was the highest rank so I started with 5 dice), and then draw and resolve a Finale card. SiCKo led you on a wild goose chase, and when you returned home you found him sitting there with a gun on the table. You sit down for a final battle of wits against this wicked villain.

The format of the Finale cards is roughly the same. You get a bit of story about the back and forth between you and SiCKo, then you’re offered a choice of what to say/do. You roll whatever dice you have remaining, reveal your choice, and have a test that you either pass or fail. If you fail the test, you have to remove one of your dice from the game. If you run out of dice, the card you’re currently on directs you to proceed to either Ending A or B, but if you have dice left you proceed to the next Finale card. If you manage to make it through all 10 Finale cards, you are directed to Ending C.

Thanks to lucky rolls, and some upgrades/traits I had acquired along the way, I managed to get through all 10 Finale cards with 1 die remaining. At this point I’m feeling great. I’ve survived everything SiCKo threw at me, I kept my wits intact, and so I’m thinking Ending C must be the good one because you only get it if you make it all the way through the gauntlet. I’m ready to wrap things up, mete out justice to SiCKo, accept the praise and accolades from my department, and retire to enjoy the rest of my days. Alas, that was not meant to be.

The Ending cards have the same basic format: little bit of story, 2 choices, and then a culmination tidbit afterwards. Ending C tells you that, thanks to your expertise and years of practice, your negotiation skills have allowed you to gain the upper hand and complete control over SiCKo as he picks up the gun. You are then given 2 choices:

  1. “Do it SiCKo. It’s the only way out.”
  2. “Put it down. I’m bringing you in.”

Thus far, I had been trying to play “good cop” and make as many good and trustworthy choices as possible, so naturally I wasn’t going to choose murder. I pick option 2 and confidently reveal the result, thinking that this has to be the best possible ending because I did everything right, I saved as many people as I could, and I made choices as honestly and positively as I could. Granted, the game had already proved that making the honest choice doesn’t always have the best outcome (it forced me to kiss someone that wasn’t my spouse, which led to the divorce I mentioned earlier when I was honest to my spouse about it), but surely the endings would follow what I’d been doing the entire game.

The answer revealed, I read it in silence. I take SiCKo to the police department, where everyone looks at me in shock. The chief asks me where the negotiator is, I reply that I’m the negotiator and I point at SiCKo who I’ve brought in, though the card tells me I’m waving at nothing. The chief is aghast, saying she can’t believe it was me this whole time, and orders the officers behind me to take “this monster” into custody. The only remaining story is at the bottom of the card, and it says simply “THE END.”

I sat there for several minutes, letting it all sink in. All that work, all that story, all that effort; and in the end, the twist was that I was SiCKo. The horrible man that had abducted my spouse, drove me to emotional episodes because of what he has done, dogged my career for 5 years, was me.

I felt upset, angry, betrayed. This was the “good” ending? I had successfully captured every abductor, saved as many hostages as I could (only losing 11 total across 10 years), and this is the “reward” waiting for me at the end? Hey guess what: YOU are the bad guy, enjoy life in prison!

I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t accept it. This can’t be it, there had to be a mistake! I checked the other Ending cards, thinking there must be something better, but what I found was just as unnerving.

Of the 6 possible endings, resulting from 2 choices on each of the 3 Ending cards:

  • 3 of them have you killing yourself with the gun. One is due to you allowing SiCKo to convince you that you don’t deserve to live anymore, one is due to you convincing SiCKo he should kill himself which is actually killing you because you’re the same person, and the other is that you try to kill yourself but fail and SiCKo is like “here’s how you do it” and pulls the trigger for you resulting in your death.
  • 1 of them has you losing control to SiCKo and he gets up and leaves your home, presumably to continue sowing chaos and being a heinous criminal, and the negotiator you’ve played as for the entire campaign is just gone.
  • 1 is the ending I got where you take him in and it turns out he’s you and you are arrested.

The 6th and final ending, the other choice on the card I got, has you mentally overpowering SiCKo and he vanishes, leaving you successfully as your “true self.” This is the actual “good” ending, as it’s the only one that doesn’t end with you dead, arrested, or fully given in to SiCKo. Remember, though, that this is the ending that stems from the choice of forcing SiCKo to kill himself. You think that he’s too dangerous and you’ll “sleep better knowing he’s no longer around” and tell him to do it, he’s like “whoa, who are you, when did you get here” and as you dissolve him away, in what is likely supposed to be a badass “I’m more powerful than you” epic moment, you say “I’ve always been here.”

That’s it. That’s the “good” ending. And it’s on one card, that you only ever see if you’re able to make it through all 10 Finale cards, and you only see this ending if you make a choice that’s worded such that it seems like you’re going to force him to commit suicide, which basically means you’re choosing to murder him.

This doesn’t sit well with me for a couple reasons. First, even the “good” ending doesn’t really leave you feeling all that good about the resolution of the story. All that time and effort spent, all that building up of the characters and the world, all the accomplishments you made as a negotiator, it all feels wasted when the twist is “hey, the bad guy is actually you.” Getting the far more likely other endings where you don’t get to keep both your sanity and your freedom (or potentially even your life) feels even worse after everything you just did and went through. It doesn’t feel satisfying like a well written story should. It feels like a slap in the face to me, to be honest. Like, “thanks for playing our game, now you’re dead/captured/insane, sorry, try again!” It doesn’t make me want to try again, it makes me want to never play this Finale ever again, especially having seen the other options that aren’t any better.

Second, and more importantly, it treats mental illness as a plot twist which I find incredibly disconcerting. Mental illness is real and serious, and people die regularly because they don’t or can’t get proper treatment. It’s not something you should be using to add “shock value” or as a “twist” in a story, because that detracts from the seriousness and importance of proper mental health responses and treatments. What makes this even worse for me is that, during my career, I resolved a card that had me breaking down in tears after what happened with SiCKo in Year 5, and the choices were to talk to the nice lady officer that helped walk me to the department psychologist, or talk to the psychologist herself. I chose the psychologist option, but instead of being able to confess everything to her, that choice plays out that you use your negotiation expertise to basically spout something you know she wants to hear so she can psychoanalyze you for that and then you can go, instead of talking and getting help with your actual problems.

And ANOTHER card that I got has you going in to the psychologist for your yearly psych evaluation. You can either use your negotiation skills again to steer the evaluation such that you get done in under an hour (which is played off as the “better” option) or answer everything truthfully, spend 5 hours in there, and come out exhausted and more stressed. All of this leads to the player getting a picture of psychologists as bumbling and/or ineffective, and just a waste of time, which further worsens the game’s portrayal of mental illness. The player character isn’t seeking help from the channel they should, and the channel itself is played off as unimportant and just an obstacle to overcome. This could cause real harm for people struggling with mental illness who see this and think that they don’t need a psychologist/therapist or that they need to hide how they feel, or that it’s just “all in their head.”

This story, especially the Finale, feels like an RPG where you did everything right but in the end it still gives you a big middle finger and the game just ends, because that’s how they wrote it. It doesn’t feel like my career had much impact on the ending, it didn’t feel like I had any real choice (especially when the choices presented led to things that didn’t always make sense based on the wording given), and it felt disappointing to say the least.

I still like HN as a game system. The abductors for the most part play uniquely and there’s a wealth of strategy that makes every game feel different, especially if you have the base game and Crime Wave and can mix the cards they provide when building your pools of cards for each game. But I’m definitely soured on the Career version of it after this Finale. I have been taking a break from the game since finishing my first career, but eventually I will try again with another Finale (there are 2 additional ones unlocked via stretch goals). I know that life isn’t always fair or “good,” and especially not for people that deal with criminal behavior. But I also feel like players should have more character-consistent options, and ones that don’t use mental illness as a plot twist.

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