Character impersonation

When you play a game that involves a main character – a protagonist, you are often faced with one of two different approaches. The first and most common one is that you will take the role of a pre-defined hero with a set of special traits, abilities and a personality. There are tons of games that do just that and they prove the model to work fairly well (“Jak and Daxter”, “Max Payne” and “Beyond Good and Evil” are good examples).

The other type of game character is constructed by the player. The game does not provide you with a back-story, nor does it tell you how the character reacts in situations, all that is up to you as a player. On the extreme end, even the visual look of the character is governed by the player. Everything that defines the on-screen character is decided upon by the player. The range of possible actions (“verbs”) that is available to the player is, however, given by the game.

So, what about these two types of characters? Is any one way to go better than the other?…

If you have ever attended a writing class, one of the first rules you learn about storytelling is “show, don’t tell”. This first rule originates from Aristotle and is basically the implication of an assumption that most people believe is true for drama, namely that a character is defined by his/her actions – and nothing else. In a dramatic work, there is a huge difference between simply stating (by a narrating function, voiceover for example) that “Charlie is furious”, as opposed to showing what it looks and sounds like when “Charlie is furious”. This is quite obvious, but is still somehow easily forgotten. So how does the “show, don’t tell” rule apply to videogames then? Well, as we know, the rule is about the character’s traits and personality and that these should be defined by action. Now, the question we need to ask ourselves is: whose actions?

In traditional drama as we see it on stage and on screen the question is easy to answer. We look at a character that lives her life and the action she takes defines her. Simple. How about a typical videogame then? In many games we have a character that we control for most of the time. We perform lots and lots of action impersonating that character. It could be defeating enemies, collecting gems or smashing pots. So, the action of the player defines the character? Well, almost. There is still a layer of character traits that is handled by game code and content. The layer consists of the visual model of the character, the animations, the voice and sound of the character and other things that together with player input makes the full “performance” of the character. It should be noted that there are many games that remove most of the game-generated performance, with interesting effects (many 1st person shooters do this). But for the sake of the argument, we might simplify things and just say that it is the player who defines the character while running around in-game.

Then there is narrative. Typically, the narrative parts of a game are prerecorded movie sequences that tells you the next chapter in the story. Here, there is suddenly a total change in the level of control and the question about whose actions defines the character becomes crystal clear: it is the character’s actions that defines her, as depicted by the pre-scripted sequence. Of course, there are games that provides exceptions. “Resident Evil 4” has interactive cinematics that gives the player some minor control over the action. In “Riddick”, we avoided cinematics where we could (without hurting the game) and moved many elements of the story into the in-game experience. “Halflife” goes even further and uses virtually no cinematics. But as games move away from cinematics, the story of the game tends to shift focus. It becomes increasingly hard to create compelling drama and the narrative tools available feels unfamiliar, which is probably because we are moving in quite uncharted territories.

So we clearly have problems. On one hand, we want to be able to tell stories and good stories are about people, or characters, right? On the other hand, we are using a medium where there is a player involved. Of course, we can move along as we do today, but the fact remains. We are getting two different answers to the question “whose actions defines the character?” One answer in-game and another when it comes to narrative. To me, that does not feel right at all as I strongly believe that it hurts the experiences of videogames, or at least unnecessarily weakens them.

In effect one should probably argue that the “show, don’t tell” rule applied to videogames is different than in other media. One way of looking at it would be that “telling” is whenever a game takes control over the on-screen character. Avoiding that possibility seriously limits the means of expression, at least if you are thinking in terms of movie-narrative, but there is a set of simple rules that could be applied to traditional cut-scene storytelling that tries to remedy the problem somewhat. These rules basically state that the character should never be proactive when the player is not in control. This was the design we tried to follow when making Riddick and I believe it did make the game better in terms of narrative. But the main problem still remains. We are still trying to cope with two different questions. We just try to hide that.

So what can we really do about it? First of all, we need to ask ourselves what stories we want to tell. Is it really crucial that a good story has to be about character? If the answer to that question is “yes”, then the followup question would be who the character is that the story is about? Is it better to tell a story about a cool character like “Ratchet” in “Ratchet & Clank” than to tell a story about whomever the player manages to become during the game, or imagines him/herself to be? And is it possible to find means of telling a gripping dramatic story with strong character development without sacrificing the “show, don’t tell” rule as we apply it to videogames?

One way of looking at the problem is to try focusing on the player experience. What is the goal of the gaming experience and what should the game do for the player to accomplish that goal? Is the goal to allow the player to impersonate a pre-fabricated hero and take the player out on a stunning rollercoaster ride? That is certainly a position that has proven to work and there are many many games that delivers high entertainment value following that goal. We still have the problems of joining narrative and gameplay, but since we are aware that the character on the screen is not “you” we can pretend that the problem does not exist. But as soon as we point out the difference between narrative and gameplay, the illusion falls. What we should do if we choose this approach is to try minimizing that damage by applying rules similar to the ones we used in “Riddick” (or any other means that accomplishes the same or better results). One should know that there are some other benefits of this character model. Marketing such a game is probably easier since it is quite clear what should be on the box – namely the hero.

Now, if we look for a different kind of impersonation experience? If it is more appealing to “be oneself” in an adventure of a lifetime rather than a hero someone else dreamt up? How is that accomplished? If we try to create a game where the player is truly “there”, we immediately have to formulate a set of design rules. First of all, we need to establish if the playable character is fully in the hands of the player or not. It is possible to make the character a predefined hero where few, many or most of the traits are up to the player to define or imagine. For the sake of the argument, I assume that we are talking about a game where as little as possible is given away by the game. In that case, we might end up with a ruleset like the following:

  • The character should be visually anonymous and carry a name given by the player. That name should be used as much as possible by the game. (An interesting sidenote. Look at Façade and how they use the selected given name in the game.)
  • The player should never see the character, and if he/she does, it should be clear that the player is in control of the visual appearance.
  • The game should not provide any backstory to the character that is not wished for by the player. This means that the game’s story probably should be oriented around “here and now”.
  • The game should never take the control away from the player and never force behavior or actions onto the playable character. To play a fun idle animation (for exampe, the character yawning after a minute of idle time) is also forbidden.
  • Since we have no proactive choices for the character in a narrative sequence, a simple solution to the narrative is to have the events of the story happen to the character. Instead of having the main character deciding to go on a mission, make the premises of the game change in the story so it becomes inevitable.
  • The character should not speak in the game.
  • Let character progression happen in gameplay only. Story progression should be about the game world and its inhabitants. You, as a player, are in the world and acts upon it. If the main character grows, it is only because the player grows.

We can now see that there actually are ways to come clear of the problem with the twofold “whose actions?” question. But we also see that the rules that we have created severly limits our means of expression, which many probably see as a very bad thing. But when you think about it, isn’t all artistic expression about creating within some set of boundaries? And what makes these boundaries less interesting than others? To me, this surely sounds like a great storytelling challenge.

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