This just in: I’ve gone and joined the Blogs of the Round Table. Okay, so the reason I’m doing this now instead of, say, sometime in the last several months I’ve been reading Man Bytes Blog is becaues this month’s topic, broadly speaking, is on character relationships in games, and as most of you know, it’s a topic I just can’t resist. And of course, it never hurts to get more exposure. So, here we go…
There are obviously many kinds of character relationships in games, and this time around, I’m going to focus solely on the relationship between the player and the player character. I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that I take a slightly unorthodox view on what this relationship must entail, which is that I play games not to be the main character, but rather to be the main character’s conscience. I say “unorthodox” because it seems like a lot of the leading interactive storytelling theory out there seems very concerned with giving the player a lot of freedom to act in whatever manner they choose (i.e. “being oneself”) and being able to respond to said freedom in a dramatically coherent fashion. From a programmer’s perspective — and I work as a programmer, so I should know — the fact that this problem is difficult and complex is a huge part of what makes it so fascinating.
If I can indulge myself by mentioning my own work here, one of the reasons I worked on Chivalry is Not Dead was as an attempt to tackle that problem. It wasn’t perfect, to be sure, but it wound up being far more replayable than most adventure games, with its affinity system and dynamic character interactions. My next two gamelets, Pigeons in the Park and DREAMING, were far less impressive from a technical standpoint. They were interactive, sure, but didn’t offer nearly as much freedom as Chivalry did.
Of course, when it came time for the general public to play these games, I found that the ones people seemed to emotionally resonate with the most — the main goal I strive for as an artist — were in fact the latter two. There are likely many reasons for this, and some of them may have to do with Chivalry being set in a fantasy world and the others in the real world. However, a forum acquaintance of mine called Mory explicitly pointed out that DREAMING was a better game than Chivalry because it offered less rather than more freedom to the player.
“Hmm, that’s odd,” replied the programmer part of me. “All this time, I’ve been taught to learn that more complexity is BETTER, only to find out that I’m getting the best results out of the simplest kind of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style gameplay? What is the world coming to? Ah well, at least it means less work for me!”
Essentially, the idea is that when you limit the number of choices that are given to a player when controlling how the player character behaves, you are in effect doing a better job of revealing to the player who the character is. To give an example, suppose you have a teenage boy trying to muster up the courage to ask his heartthrob out on a date. If you give him two choices, say, of either awkwardly sputtering out phrases that mostly sound like gibberish, or walking away and spending the rest of his life in regret, we get a good idea of what kind of a person he is: shy, insecure, afraid of rejection. But if we gave him the option to speak confidently, or hit the girl in the face, then he could be anyone… which in effect makes him no one.
Which brings me back to my very first point: I generally don’t want to play a game as myself.  It’s the whole escapism thing; I spend the whole rest of my life being me, so there’s no real draw in experiencing more of the same in games as well. And by and large, I find that the best way to escape from my own head is when the author explicitly gives me a character who feels real. Not a puppet I can control to my own whims and desires, but a new friend who’s letting me step into his or her life and show me what it’s like to be them instead of me. I want to inherit a set of quirks and mannerisms that’s different from my own. I want to see the world from a different perspective, and learn something new about it in the process.
“Okay, Deirdra, that’s all well and good, but games are all about interactivity. If you want to limit interactivity, why don’t you just write a novel/movie/comic instead?”
Easy. Because internal dialogue is more fun than internal monologue.