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As Characters

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I said before that most developers other than BioWare, Bethesda, and Lionhead cast us as Players and Writers at the same time. I singled out those three developers as exceptions because they always cast us as Writers and Characters at the same time.


We take on the role of a Character when we play as ourselves or as someone that we create. The three previously mentioned developers allow us to insert ourselves into the game through character creation systems of varying complexity. We choose our gender and facial features, hair color and body type, stats like strength and intelligence, and even our own back story. Sometimes we literally choose our own back story from a list, like in Mass Effect, and other times the back story is part of our introduction to the world, like growing up in the Vault in Fallout 3 or the death of our sister in Fable 2. Regardless of how the game goes about it, the point is that I’ve created this character from scratch to serve as my avatar. He’s a shell with no personality other than what I give him, so as I play with him, he naturally takes on my behavior—or at least what traits I want him to have.


Commander Shepard from Mass Effect (Microsoft Game Studios, 2007)

Commander Shepard from Mass Effect (Microsoft Game Studios, 2007)


A created character and a silent protagonist are very similar in this way. In fact, I think the latter is an early attempt at the former. The problem with silent protagonists is that they don’t allow for enough customization to make me think that I am this character. I don’t choose the name, the gender, the body type, the back story, etc. Whereas a character that’s been created by the gamer comes to represent an idealized version of himself in the game world. I’m not simply playing as this character, he is me, his choices are my choices, and his adventure is my adventure.


When cast as a Character, we must also be cast as a Writer because, if a game wants us to feel like a genuine character in the story, it must allow us to manipulate the world in some way so that we feel like a genuine part of the world and not just a passive observer in it, like a Player might. The game must also give me moral dilemmas to overcome so that I can establish my own ethical and moral standards and, thus, a sense of myself.


Personally, when I choose the “good” moral choice in a game, I’m playing as myself because I’m applying my own ethical and moral code to these fictional problems, literally inserting myself into the game world. However, I still like choosing the “evil” option when playing a game a second time. In these cases, I’m not guided by any real moral or ethical code, I’m creating a new code for my avatar. He is no longer a representation of myself but rather a distinct character who I inhabit, which makes me more of an Actor than a Character.


As Actors
We become Actors when we’re given a large degree of control over a character, whether through customization or moral choices, but we don’t imbue the character with our own personality or traits. Instead our avatar has a defined personality separate from ourselves.  We’re essentially role-playing; we’re meant to think like someone else and make decisions based on what they would do. We aren’t characters ourselves; we’re actors inhabiting a character.


The Actor is a combination of all three previous roles. We’re meant to think like a Character without becoming one, so there’s a distance between myself and my avatar just as when I’m in the role of a Player, and I’m still given enough control over the world to make me a Writer.


A clear example of a game that makes the gamer into an Actor is Heavy Rain. The game has a predetermined story, though it’s filled with so many branching paths that you’d have to play through it dozens of times to see every scene. You play as four fully developed characters, and throughout the game you have to make certain choices that change the path of the plot. One of the biggest criticisms of Heavy Rain is that the limited number of choices given to us by the UI detracts from its otherwise immersive atmosphere.


Ethan Mars from Heavy Rain (SCEA, 2010)

Ethan Mars from Heavy Rain (SCEA, 2010)


The plot revolves around Ethan Mars, whose son has been kidnapped, and who is forced to endure a series of brutal tests to prove his love so that the kidnapper will release his son. At one point relatively early in the game, the gamer is instructed to drive against traffic down a highway, and he can’t say no. Even if I feel that saving Ethan’s son isn’t worth it, I’m never given a choice in the matter because it’s not really my choice to make. I’m not a Character, making decisions based on what I would actually do. Instead, I’m an Actor, making decisions based on what my character would do. Ethan wouldn’t back out, so I can’t back out. Whenever I’m given a choice that will change the direction of the plot, I’m limited to choosing between actions that Ethan would realistically perform. I’m not free to make my own decisions; I can only make his decisions for him.


The line between Actor and the other roles is blurry at best. The only real difference between them is our own perceptions of them. How much of ourselves do we see in our avatar? In the case of Doom, our actions are limited to shooting and fighting, but one can easily argue that that’s exactly what a space marine would naturally do in that situation. So while he exists apart from myself, preventing me ever becoming a Character, I might still be an Actor playing the role of space marine. We can even switch roles over the course of a single game. I can make myself a Character by creating a virtual representation of me, but if the game doesn’t allow me to satisfactorily express myself, I can revert to being an Actor, role-playing as someone whose ethics and morals are better represented in the game.


As an interactive medium, the roles that we play in video games are just as dependent on how we approach a game as they are up to the developer. Neither side has total control over the experience, so there’s a constant tug of war between authority and autonomy. Problems arise when the two sides don’t see eye to eye, such as when the developer wants us to be something that we don’t want to be. For instance, many gamers wanted to be Characters in Heavy Rain, not Actors, so the disconnect ruined the experience for them. To prevent this frustration, developers have to more effectively introduce us to our roles (perhaps a better tutorial was needed for Heavy Rain), but gamers also have to be willing to play their given roles.  Regardless, the first step is figuring out what that role should be.

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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