When playing a video game, players are cast in various roles depending on the kind of game that they’re playing, on how they approach the world, and how the developer wants them to interact with the world. The most immersive games cast us in a specific role without us even realizing it, we simply pick up the controller and are transported. Each role has its own limitations and responsibilities for the player. The roles can be solid and unchangeable or fluid to the point where the only distinction between them is our perception of them. When we play, we play in one of these four roles:
We’re Players by default. Whenever we pick up a controller and start playing a game we take on the role of a Player. We can be more than just a Player, but many games stop there and don’t demand anything more from us. This is by far the most common role that we take on because it automatically applies to any game without a narrative, any puzzler, platformer, racer, sim, sports, or fighting game. For games with a heavy narrative, as Players we don’t influence the story or see ourselves as part of the virtual world. Our avatars have defined personalities outside our control. We’re never asked to be the hero. We simply play with the hero; we don’t change the story. It’s simply told to us.
This applies to every third-person action game from Pitfall to Red Dead Redemption. Most first-person games fall into this category as well, from Doom to Halo. Whenever our avatar has a defined personality, we’re immediately relegated to the role of Player. When our avatar doesn’t have a defined personality, like in Doom, our role depends on how much information that the game gives us about the person that we are playing as. In the case of Doom, we can see the character’s face in the HUD, and this is enough to establish him as someone separate from ourselves. I am not the space marine; I simply play as the space marine. Therefore I don’t become a Character (though you could argue that I’m an Actor, but more on that later). As a Player, I’m a puppeteer moving characters into place to progress the story that is told to me.
For a medium defined by interactivity, this role requires very little interaction from us—just move the character from point A to point B and don’t die. However, this role is also often the basis for the more interesting discussions of the player/character relationship. The most common criticism of Uncharted is that affable, lovable Nathan Drake can slaughter hundreds of men without hesitation, but without that slaughter, his game would be boring. In other words, the player’s need for action overrules the character’s personality.
Nathan Drake from Uncharted 2 (SCEA, 2009)
Putting gamers into the role of Player also allows developers to tell a linear story most effectively. Uncharted 2 is an effective adventure because Naughty Dog controls the pace of action, and Silent Hill 2 is an effective mystery because Konami controls the pace of answers. Just because our interaction with the world is limited doesn’t mean that this is a wrong way to make a game, some of the best stories in gaming have been told that treat the gamers as a Player.
However, while developers can more easily tell a linear story when we’re Players, games that make us Players aren’t usually concerned with story as much as they are gameplay. Since our interaction with the world is limited, whatever form of interaction we have must be fun enough to keep us playing until the end. So games that make us Players are usually remembered for their great controls or skill-based gameplay: action games like Resident Evil 4 or Gears of War, any Mario game, sims like Madden or Gran Turismo, and, of course, any puzzler or fighting game. These are games of skill more than they are narratives, so it only makes sense that our role not be defined in narrative terms.
Whenever we affect the story we become Writers. The changes that we cause in a game can be major, like earning one of many endings, or they can be minor, like choosing one of many dialogue options. That’s not to say that every time that a game gives us some kind of choice we become Writers. Many older games gave players the illusion of choice by asking questions whose answer required a single correct answer. If a fantasy kingdom is under attack and the king asks “Will you help?”, you can say no, but then the story stops. The choice doesn’t actually change anything, rather the choice just halts any story progression. This does not make us Writers.
Some games sell themselves by promoting our role as Writer. The idea that we can create our own story is one of the big draws of any BioWare, Bethesda, or Lionhead game.
Many games that are not from those one of these three developers cast us as Writers and Players at the same time because no matter how well defined a character may be, if there are multiple endings to a game, we’re the ones choosing the ending, not the character. In these cases, we not only control where the character goes but also what happens to him when he gets there.
As Writers, our ability to change things doesn’t only relate to plot. When we play as a character with no personality of his own, we invariably create a personality for him through our own play style. Developers often utilize the silent protagonist as a quick and dirty way to immerse the player in a world, thinking that just because our avatar doesn’t speak that will make it easier for us to see ourselves as the hero. Personally, I don’t think this ever worked.
Link from Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006)
Nintendo is famous for its many silent heroes, as is Valve: Link, Mario, Gordon Freeman, Chel. These characters have no personality, but that’s not to say that they’re blank slates. By simply giving them a name and a back story, they become distinct characters separate from myself. I am not Gordon Freeman; I simply play as him. In this regard, we’re still just Players, but the void of personality must be filled and that’s when we become Writers.
If I like to explore, then Link likes to explore. If I can pop a headshot every time that I shoot, then Mr. Freeman can pop a headshot every time that he shoots. I never think that I’m Link, but rather that Link and myself just happen to share a common desire and/or skill. We create a personality for these characters without becoming them, thereby turning them into personal creations.
This is not to say every game with a silent protagonist immediately turns us into Writers. Banjo and Kazooie don’t technically speak, but they express emotion through their garbled voices, faces, and gestures, and react to the world in meaningful ways. They’re not devoid of personality, just a coherent language.