I’ve been reading a couple of interesting posts up on Tadhg Kelly’s thoughtful ‘What Games Are‘ blog, and I found myself agreeing with many of his points while disagreeing with the conclusions he reaches. So I decided it would be worth writing up some of my own thoughts. Since I’m unlikely to cover everything in one post, I thought I’d start a series called ‘Thoughts on Storytelling’. I’m no expert on the matter, but hopefully I can spark some interesting trains of thought or start a discussion, at least.
Tadhg’s posts that sparked this off can be found here :
It’s the second post that I have the most disagreement with, but let’s save that discussion for next time. For now, let’s talk about the subject raised in Tahdg’s first post, the role of the Player Character.
Tahdg’s assertion is summed up by this line : There is no such thing as a player character.
By which he means not that the player doesn’t exist, but that they aren’t really much of a character, in the narrative sense. And honestly, I pretty much agree with him.
Your instinct may be to disagree, but let’s go a bit deeper into what a character is, exactly. At first glance, a character seems like, well, a person. And they are, mostly. ( I say mostly because the setting or situation can be considered one of the ‘characters’ in your narrative, too ) But they’re more than that. They’re a plot device. In fact, they’re the most foundational plot device. Your story is told through your characters, conveyed through their actions and experiences. These actions are not incidental, the storyteller carefully constructs them to form a narrative. This is why, if you watch a movie or read a book, the characters only go to the toilet if it serves somepurpose, if there is some scene that takes place while the character is in the urinal.
Now, so far I’ve described nothing that would justify any statements excluding the player as a valid character within the narrative. The player performs actions and experience events, same as the non-player characters. The problem is what is called ‘character development’, not in the RPG sense but in the story sense. A story is achieved through the mechanism of this character development, the stringing together of events and actions that result in changes to the characters themselves. The emotional involvement in a story comes through observing and identifying with the changes that the characters go through, the pain and joy, the struggles, triumphs and loses. But the key part to understand here is that this requires meaningful changes in the characters themselves, ie ‘character ‘development’.
And that is near impossible to achieve when it comes to the player character.
The reason is simple. The player doesn’t exist in the setting itself, only the robotic limb extension that is the player avatar (what Tadhg calls a ‘doll’) does. With good writing, we can create the illusion of relationships between other characters. We can suspend disbelief at a convincing depiction of a mother grieving for a child killed by bandits say, forgetting for a moment that they are a collection of words or bytes and experiencing some level of empathy for their relationship and experience, but it is near impossible to make the player personally feel that kind of emotion. This is why ‘you must save your kidnapped sister/girlfriend/avenge you family!’ plots don’t work at the most fundamental level. No matter how much backstory you build around the character, no matter how well written the dialogue, the avatar is still fundamentally a robotic arm controlled by the player. And the player isn’t actually in the world, their sister hasn’t actually been kidnapped by bandits. We don’t experience the emotion, and if the player avatar appears to then it feels incongruent. Adam Jenson’s girlfriend was killed in the attack and he’s all guilt-ridden about her death and horrified at the mechanical monstrosity he’s become? Sure, if you say so. Me, I’ve got robot arms! Look at me punch through this wall, woohoo! Alright, alright, I’ll go get revenge on the people who killed her, blah blah whatever.
There isn’t any way to make the player really experience the feeling of attachment that is needed to experience loss, grief or any other meaningful emotion for their own character. Without these hooks, character development is nigh impossible. This doesn’t stop game writers from trying though.
This problem is fairly unique to video games, it’s a challenge that writers of books and movies don’t face. For those mediums, the viewer is an invisible observer, they do not have a place within the narrative. The concern of the writer isn’t in trying to make the observer experience these feelings personally, it’s in creating characters that the observer can empathize with. For that we have well understood tools, the basic steps of introducing and developing the scene/characters, then introducing conflict, and finally resolution. But it falls apart with the player character because step 2, conflict, falls flat. The narrative tells us we’re supposed to be conflicted but we really aren’t. No conflict, no struggle, no resolution.
I’ll give an example from Baldur’s Gate 2. Warning, spoilers incoming. 🙂
In BG2, the Character of Keldorn the paladin is one I remember quite well. Keldorn is the usual paladin archetype, bound to duty and honour and fighting injustice and all that, but written well enough that it wasn’t annoying as paladins usually are. But his personal story takes a twist when he returns home and finds the wife he thought was waiting dutifully for him to return home has been cheating on him to alleviate her loneliness. Enraged, he goes to confront her lover. You can basically talk him down or let him betray his paladin code and stand aside as he kills the lover.
The reason it worked well was because it followed the character development path outlined above. You were given time to get to know Keldorn, you weren’t just expected to care about his problems 30 seconds after meeting him. His personality wasn’t the player’s, but you could understand it. By giving you time to engage with the character and his views, you could empathize with the conflict he later faced. Then, when you were given the chance to influence the resolution, it felt meaningful. In some ways, more meaningful than in a passive story, because you were directly involved in the outcome.
Now consider the same plot, but with the player character at the center. First the game tells you that you have a wife that you care very deeply for. Yeah, sure. Then the game tells you that you spend years on the road fighting injustice because of your tremendous sense of duty. Right. Now it tells you that she’s cheating on you and you get to see a cutscene where your control is wrenched away and you see how torn up your avatar is over this betrayal. Uh-huh. Finally, you participate in the resolution phase and afterward get to watch a custcene where your character says something introspective, something that you had no idea ‘you’ were about to say. Great!
Doesn’t work, does it? When it’s an external character telling you how they feel about the situation and giving you a chance to influence them, you can empathize. It’s not that different from real life where you can’t read other people’s minds so all that you have got to go on are the external signs of emotion and the ability to ‘put yourself in their shoes’. When the it’s the player character though, your awareness of your own emotional state and how it’s in conflict with what the narrative says it should be renders it all a bit farcical.
I don’t agree with Tadhg that it is agency or lack of agency that kills drama, tragedy or what have you. Rather, I think it’s this expectation that the player will empathize with their avatar sock puppet that fails.
In the next post I’ll examine what I think this means for storytelling in games, but I’ll end for now with some caveats. The first thing I want to bring up is that some might be about to say ‘but Gareth, not all the characters go through character arcs where they develop and face conflict, what about the bit players?’. Well yes, true. Those characters are secondary though, they are more part of the backdrop, the scenery. Their role is to be interacted with by the primary characters. They’re essentially props for the actions of the main characters. Funnily enough, the player character is more like these secondary characters than the primary ones!
The second point is that there are a certain class of conflict that does work for the player character. Intellectual conflict works where emotional conflict fails. While you cannot easily make a player feel, you can make them think. You can pose a challenge to their world view or interpretation of events. And you can, as a storyteller, get emotional payoff indirectly through this technique. What can change the nature of a man, asks Planescape : Torment? Can you ever really go back home, asked Fallout 1?
These concepts get a player to experience emotion by relying on the fact that while the player may not have any real relationships with the fictional characters in the world, they do bring with them emotional attachment to ideas, and those ideas can themselves can be brought into conflict. Certain experienced writers, like Chris Avellone, understand this, whether consciously or unconsciously, and build their stories around the player engaging in a conflict of ideas or ideals, rather than emotional ties that you’re expected to have to characters but don’t actually. Age of Decadence does the same thing.