How Can I Be Me?: The Gamer's Role in Interactive Fiction

Image of a Solid Snake cosplayer from Slobs of Gaming

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.

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:

As Players

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.

As Writers

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.

Next Page





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.