[7 November 2010]
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.