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Identity Crisis: The Search for Character and Self in Videogames

Johnny Kilhefner

Modern games seem intent on treating our imaginations as if they were as hostile as the projections in Inception.

There are two types of modern videogames being made: games with dolls and games with characters. The former gives you a blank slate with limited characterization that acts as an extension of yourself. It's a model that's snowballing as more developers embrace the idea of no player-character. Despite this trend, many eager game designers with film aspirations populate their virtual worlds with rich, but rigid, characterization, force feeding players excruciatingly prescriptive moments. This model leaves no room for players use their imaginations, at least not without extreme dissonance between the gameplay and the narrative. Both approaches, while extremes of one another, eschew the notion of a player-character like an immune system rejecting a transplanted organ. Both also display a telling lack of faith in the ability of the audience to imagine, creating a gap between the player and the character.

We're constantly told to think outside the box, but developers insist on either throwing us in a sandbox or boxing us in with rules. Games tell stories through interaction, but the term shouldn't always be taken at face value. Interaction is more than physical player input, it can also be the input the player has within the gaps of the game. It is inevitable that -- because we are interacting with a set of rules -- we project our own interpretations into the game world. Modern games, however, seem intent on treating our imaginations as if they were as hostile as the projections in Inception. A game that tells you who you are supposed to be almost invariably finds itself disconnected from the player's interpretation of the character, but those without characterization are simply sandboxes that have no implicit meaning -- making the game little more than a tool. In order to believe in the art of videogames we have to believe in player interactivity as a form of creative expression. The limited characterization model valiantly attempts ludic storytelling, or storysensing, as Tadhg Kelly puts it, where interaction within the game world is what matters. There is no character, merely a doll that is an extension of you. Once you start adding character to the doll, you turn the player into an actor who has to play a role in order to fulfill the story.

In the real world, people are hardly themselves. We learn to act through observation and context, whether consciously or not. The person we are in a classroom, under the guise of a student, differs from the person we are in a bar. In both settings we are bound by social convention while finding exploits to express our true selves within that context. Playing yourself in character is a fundamental thing we do every day, why shouldn't it exist in videogames? Why do we have to have one or the other -- either complete characterization or none at all? Where is the subtle exchange between the character and the player that floods forth a flavorful burst of revelation?

Final Fantasy VII is arguably the best videogame of all-time, yet so much of it is the schlock we berate as sloppy game design today. Instead of interactive set pieces, FFVII constantly removes the player from the game and forces them to watch lengthy and numerous cut scenes. Battles are far from natural, as they occur in the form of random encounters that are as jarring as they are frustrating. The NPC’s are little more than travel guides and puppeteers of exposition. What’s more, each of the main characters are stubbornly characterized, with back stories so complex and intertwined they’ve spawned countless adaptations into film, anime, novels and spin-offs. So what is it, really, about FFVII that keeps us begging for more of the old and less of the new anti-accessible path taken by the twelfth entry in the series?

When you play a game with fixed elements like say, Uncharted 2, you are playing simply as the character the game establishes for you. The game fills all of the gaps for you – from your name down to every subtle nuance of your character. You are Nathan Drake, and the characters reinforce that directorial decision. This kind of fixed characterization is fit for a movie, and Uncharted spares no expense when it comes to theatrical experiences. It's almost as if it were on rails, whipping you through hoops and fire-pits filled with venomous snakes at breakneck speeds. With so much authored intent over the character, it seems strange that you are allowed to control his actions. The second the set pieces dissipate and gameplay begins, it's as if someone took the tracks right from under your coaster. It's clear this theatrical character-making isn't exactly suited to the interaction of videogames. If you decide to play as the person Nathan is characterized – a good intentioned, albeit womanizing, adventurer – than you would have to avoid the massive amounts of bodies Drake collects as the game progresses in order to justify the lightheartedness of the character. It’s an impossibility made apparent by the waves of bad guys the game throws at you in order to satisfy the gameplay that fills up the empty spaces in narrative. Nathan Drake leaves no room for you to be you, you can only pretend to be him, and this causes an unfortunate dissonance.

Role-playing games have an advantage when it comes to weaving an intricate balance between player and character. Turn-based battles can be controlled in a way free-range combat cannot. More importantly, character can be rationed in a delicate give and take that requires as much effort on the user’s part as it does on the developers. Because RPGs move at a slower, novel-like pace, having vocals is not a necessity. Without speaking characters, there is no inherent need to have fixed character names either. Leaving out certain information is a practice common to other art forms, as it allows the audience more interaction within the story. One of the reasons I almost always prefer book versions to their film counterparts is because the book leaves some of the character-building to me. When everything becomes defined to a point where my imagination no longer has an input, I feel like I am just watching something being built rather than playing the architect.

One word for the effect a player-character model has is "replayability." A more appropriate word is "reincarnation." Done right, the player-character model allows you to step back into the shoes of the character you're playing while bringing a new context from your life into the component. Facilitating this is the lack of voice acting, which allows the character's voice to be colored by your imagination. You are simultaneously creating and taking from the character. Without voice acting, FFVII allows you to name your character anything you wish. The second you jump off the train and start playing for the first time, you are known simple as "Ex-SOLDIER," the newcomer in the group. When someone finally bothers to ask your name, a dialogue box opens where you are prompted to give your name. My Cloud is always named Johnny, after me. He doesn’t look a thing like me. I don’t have blonde, spiky hair and I’m not even the same ethnicity. But whenever he is addressed in the game, I feel as though the conversation is happening to me and not simply in front of me. He is at once part designer creation, part my creation.

The problem with videogames is that, as technology increases, developers feel inclined to use every tool at their disposal. Videogames are still young as an art form, and it’s easy to implement complex technologies that impress as tools, rather than to use the absence of certain technologies as compliments to rhetorical technique. Just because the technology allows for speech doesn’t mean you have to take away the player’s ability to name their characters anymore than the filmmaker has to use 3D. The language of interactivity is found within the gaps of the game. These gaps create conversation – a missing link between the player and the character – that gives the game an active narrative. Audience interpretation is dependent upon, even inspired by, the interactive exchange between the game world and the real world.

Like videogames, Tino Sehgal's art, or "constructed situations," relies on interactivity. Sehgal, dubbed by The New Yorker an "architect of interaction," creates art with collaboration between his rules, actors and spectators. Sehgal's piece is not in the predetermined performance he directs, it is in the conversation taking place between the spectator and the actor. Like Tino Sehgal, FFVII provides a set of rules and allows players to be human within them: Story, plot, characters, and settings...all rules governing a conversation. This conversation is found at the intersection of the character and the player. Every conversation is unique, but there has to be a facilitator to establish this connection. In FFVII, you are a participant and a spectator seeing through the lens of another character, Cloud. His SOLDIER background therefore becomes yours, an outline you fill with the color of your imaginative input made possible by this accessibility to the character. The shared persona between player and character is reinforced further by the game's theme of identity. Cloud is not even Cloud: He is pieces of himself infused with the memories of another character, Zack. Cloud's memories reconstruct the events in Nibelheim -- where Sephiroth slaughtered and set fire to the entire town -- to place him in the boots of Zack. Cloud was not in SOLDIER, but he thinks he was. He was also not as close to Tifa as he believes, but because he became SOLDIER under the guise of Zack, his own personal memories, separate from the ones he took on, are augmented. Not unlike mine whenever I come back to the world of Gaia.

Too few reminders of life's finiteness are as fervent as the constraints of time, and Cloud's love interests reflect my own life's fickleness. The ability to name all the members of my party adds a personal touch to the narrative. I was in 7th grade the first time I played FFVII. I wanted so badly to be as tough as Cloud (though really as tough as Cloud thought he was with Zack and Sephiroth's personality traits). I wanted this so I could impress the girls I liked. Yes, girls. Plural. So when I was prompted to name the female characters, I had to decide who my Tifa was and who was my Aeris. Which one did Cloud really love? Which one did I (think) I love? Playing it years later, and with a very different understanding of love, I knew which characters deserved which real-life designation. This imaginative function is fostered by a gap in an area so important to videogames it typically has a category set aside for it in every review – graphics. Let’s face it, FFVII isn't the kind of girl who doesn't have to pay for drinks. So terrible are the graphics, I’ve had friends refuse to play it, and this was back when Final Fantasy IX had just come out. But because the game had blocky, pixilated graphics, I can visualize the people in my life, which I designated to these characters, as I play. I can imagine their facial expressions, mannerisms, all in place of the games lack of acute visual detail.

Oscar Wilde may very well have the answer to this confused aspect of game design when he said, “Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination.” Acting like someone else is a fundamental part of the human condition. We cannot just be ourselves all of the time. We require vessels to give us free reign in the personality of another person, but we also can’t simply leave our own personalities behind. A little bit of ourselves has to come for the ride. Limited characterization allows you to jump in the sandbox and swish around for a bit. But it's just a tool for your recess, and the only reminders of your growth are the mechanics you've outgrown and personal memories of playing the game long ago. Too much characterization and not enough accessibility, however, take away the conversation from the player, making him merely a spectator controlling a deterministic character. The player-character model, no matter how set the narrative, or how fixed the characterization, allows players enough leeway to act human within its context. Your imaginative input may not have any effect on the game's narrative, but that doesn't make it any less interactive. The game becomes an agent of inquiry; A conversation of sublime imagination.

Now that I'm older, and most of my friends (including myself) are parents, the relationship between Barret and his daughter becomes even more profound. I have a deeper understanding of the father/daughter dynamic, and it pains me that much more to see Barret leave Marlene in the hands of strangers while he answers his life duty to save Gaia. The seemingly fixed characters were actually a revolving door of the people who make up my life. They are still from where the game said they are from, and we are still fighting to save Gaia from the Mako-abusing Shinra, but it's personal. I'm not "protecting" Cloud, we're both the same person. If anything, he was protecting me from the realities of my life.

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