Being Someone Else

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. [1] 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.

  1. If you want to play a game as myself, there’s always DREAMING.
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4 Responses to Being Someone Else

  1. Rikard says:

    Interesting – I’ve recently discovered the Round Table blogs, too. (Through IF blogs leading to The Monk’s Brew.)

    On the actual subject, I don’t think I have much to say except that I agree.

  2. WorldMaker says:

    Hmm… I think there may be something deeper in the connection between characterization and constraints on character actions… It ties tangentially into the article that I’ve been working on, even.

  3. Mory Buckman says:

    Limiting interactivity doesn’t have to be total. In DREAMING it works because not being able to control the world around you is part of the identity of the piece. You’ve got the “No Entry” room making that blatant, as well as the artsy game conversation and the metaphor of falling rather than flying. So when you realize you’re not going to be able to effect anything, it makes you think. But I wouldn’t want to play an entire full-length game without feeling like I had a part in the progression of the game. That would break emotional realism, I think.

    There’s a middle ground to be found between total anarchy and total powerlessness. Just because you don’t have complete control doesn’t mean your control can’t have influence. There are many decisions in life where, even within a certain clearly defined personality, the choice isn’t so clear. Sticking a branching path in those specific places can be just as strong a characterization as not putting any options. It lets you know that the character doesn’t know where he’s going.

    So why is interactivity better than non-interactivity?

    First off, you get to control the pacing. DREAMING’s a good example. When I got sick of a character, I just stopped talking to him. The game, as a whole, becomes more interesting to me because the parts I find interesting are dragged out and the parts I don’t are not. This principle doesn’t just apply to dialogue- it can be used similarly on plot, where there are many digressions to be taken if and only if the player wants to see them. This control the player has (which can’t be replicated in any other medium!) is sadly undermined in most adventure games by the presence of puzzles which absolutely must be done. The developers tend to want for you to see everything they’ve done, so they herd you around with challenges on a straight path. But if you avoid that mentality, you can get an experience tailor-made for the player: A fast-moving plot, or a big world, or a slow drama with many interactions – whatever the player’s in the mood for.

    Secondly, you get to influence the plot in tiny ways all over. I’ll give two examples, and you can imagine many more which still don’t break the character. First, let’s say someone offers the character a cigarette. He’s never smoked before, so you don’t get the option to say yes. (Saying yes so quickly would be out of character for a normal person.) But then the guy offers again, a little later. And now you’ve got only two options in front of you, because the character’s thinking about it: Try it, or stay far away. It doesn’t have any effect until later, when at random points all your options will disappear except the option to go buy a cigarette. So the player has an emotional connection to the decision he made, even though it was something the character himself thought of doing. Here’s another example: The character’s in a bad mood, so the options are more impolite than usual. So when someone comes over saying she has to tell him something important, he can brush her off if the player wishes. But it actually is important. Later on, the player is going to get slowed down by the character not having the information he needs. Also, that character is going to be more hostile and self-righteous to the character in the future. Again, the player has an emotional connection here: guilt. Or pride, in other cases which you can think of yourself.

    Third. The character can feel more real to you than a non-interactive character, once you get to know him. A good actor is going to convince you that he’s making decisions and doesn’t know exactly where he’s going, but deep down you know everything he’s doing is following a rigid plot. Having branching paths gives you the sense that the circumstances are real, that this is a person just like you who has to make decisions and deal with them later.

    So adventure games aren’t just movies with interactivity. Adding that interactivity means you’re dealing with a whole different language of storytelling, with its own inherent strengths.

  4. Mory, I absolutely agree with you. Your point about pacing in particular is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while, actually. :)