February 25, 2008

Who Is The Player?

Some meandering speculation:

I've written before about the conflict between "role-playing" and "powergaming", and I cast this tension as one between the demands of the game mechanics (do whatever it takes to win most effectively) and the story (do what is appropriate for the fictional context of the game).

A question raised in Andrew Glassner's Interactive Storytelling, however, makes me think that the dilemma about what actions are appropriate in a game is even more complicated than I thought. Even if we just look within role-playing, it's not at all clear what role is supposed to be played. (I should note here that when I use words like "appropriate" and "supposed", I'm not so much talking about a player's duty as a designer's concerns about what works best to achieve her creative vision.)

Glassner examined this purely in the context of storytelling, and presented the problem as one of identity. Should the player try to act as he thinks the character would act, try to act as he would act in the character's situation, or try to act in whatever way maximized fun?

In practice, it seems obvious that players will try to have fun. In a lot of games, this manifests as the games-based equivalent to making a blooper reel; the player sometimes gives nonsensical dialogue, picks the craziest conversation choices, or runs around throwing bottles at people. As long as games offer a safe experimentation space (read: infinite replays), we can expect this to continue, and it's not much of a problem. Still, the designer surely wants to make the "real" story fun as well, and so it deserves to be looked at too.

So in these "serious" story spaces, who is the player? Himself or the character?

Very few games try to impose a developed character upon the player to match up with, and those that do (see Indigo Prophecy) tend to suffer for it. Carefully architected gaming situations are fine with me, but architected main characters are for movies. At least give the character an ambiguous backstory or one that's player-chosen (see Mass Effect).

Most games encourage the player to "create" a character that may or may not match up to his real self (here I'm thinking of KOTOR, in which I and other gamers played once as pure light side and once as pure dark). Even games that allow total freedom permit players to create characters outside of the self. Again, we can expect this to continue as long as games are a free experimentation space.

But this freedom to create an outside character to play seems like a problem to me. Or, if not a bona fide problem, a loss of potential. Interactivity's contribution to art is that it can allow firsthand experiences of choice. In no other medium can you make someone feel guilt or responsibility or the pain of a difficult choice in a fictional context. But eliciting such emotions require that the player identify with his character. Rather than "playing" an imaginary character, the player would have to inhabit the mind of the character.

Is that even possible in a fictional space? Should the goal of some games, then, be to immerse the player utterly?

Or perhaps there's an easier alternative: just make the player care. If they player enjoys the presence of a character, the death of that character is a negative event, even if the player doesn't actually grieve. Maybe by making the goals of the player's character align with the goals of the player we can achieve the same results.

More on this later...

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