Thoughts on Storytelling – The role of the Player

30 Oct
October 30, 2011

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 :

Cars, Dolls and Video Games

Video Game Writing and the Sense of Story

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.






6 replies
  1. Woe says:

    I tried to write a constructive comment but the best I could do was a dry, long winded re-wording of your post.

    So instead I’ll say nice post and wait for the next one. 🙂

  2. Tadhg Kelly says:

    Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for the response piece, looking forward to reading the follow up. It sounds to me that we are in broad agreement, but I have one question. You say this:

    “I don’t agree with Tadhg that it is agency or lack of agency that kills drama, tragedy or what have you. ”

    I think powerlessness is perhaps the most essential part of strong storytelling. Whether it’s Hamlet, There’s Something About Mary or the Game of Thrones novels, the very fact that you have to sit there and take it is a large part of why it works so well.

    Can you elaborate whether or why you disagree?

  3. gareth says:

    Hey Tahdg, thanks for stopping by. And thanks for the interesting posts.

    The main reason I disagree is because player agency doesn’t mean complete control or the ability to wrench the plot in any direction they feel like.

    You can write a story that is ultimately tragic, but allows the player to influence its course and details. The main thing is not to try to make the tragedy centered on the player himself.

    If anything, I think their participation in the events can make that sense of tragedy or drama stronger, due to personal investment. See my latest post where I go into more detail.

  4. Tadhg Kelly says:

    Hi again Gareth,

    “You can write a story that is ultimately tragic, but allows the player to influence its course and details. The main thing is not to try to make the tragedy centered on the player himself.”

    Can you really?

    The essence of tragedy is in watching the downfall. It’s not just that a film has a sad ending, but watching the hero become embroiled in it, and ultimately undone by himself.

    I’ve never seen such a thing in all the years that I’ve been playing and making games, not even in the much freer live action roleplaying games, because player influence tends to get in the way. What actually results is either the tragedy is lessened (in which case it’s not tragedy) or the tragedy is forced through (in which case the player feels frustrated by a lack of success).


  5. Woe says:

    Hey Tadhg, look up a series of NWN modules called “The Prophet”. It’s about someone who has a vision of a terrible future, and everything they try to do to stop it only furthers the events of the prophecy. Best example of a tragic game I can think of.

    Note that the tragedy is centred on the player, the player does make game altering decisions (minor ones, but many), and note that it’s mostly done through story telling devices, the game mechanics are just an embellishment on top of traditional storytelling techniques. It’s linear but not forced, each scene flows sensibly to the next.

    Maybe it works because the tragic theme, “You Can’t Fight Fate,” is one that everyone can identify with.

    p.s. Gareth, you should totally write that tragedy 🙂

  6. Kimari says:

    “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.”

    Yeah, that’s what most games do, but that doesn’t mean the medium isn’t capable of something better. To make that story work for the player character the game should let the player spend time and interact with said wife. To let the player grow fond of her.
    “Doesn’t work, does it?” Erh, of course it doesn’t, it doesn’t even follow the film rule “Show, don’t tell”, much less the videogame equivalent “Do, don’t show”.

    Apart from that, yeah, I kind of see your overall point. My take from it is that it’s not that there’s no possible player character, instead there’s a dissonance between what the player is experiencing and what the player character is experiencing. Unless said character is just a blank slate for the player to fill, there’s always the possibility of a dissonance. But that doesn’t mean that ressonance is impossible. Like I said, if you let the player grow fond of his videogame wife then it’s possible that the moment where she is killed affects the player much in the same way as it would affect the player character. It CAN achieve the same level of that movies reach. It sure as hell isn’t as “easy” though… and on top of that, that ressonance probably isn’t going to last very long.

    I just realized that the dissonance I’m talking about is pretty much what Krystian Majewski called Meta-ludonarrative dissonance. Here’s the link if ya want to take a peek:

    Anyway, those were my two cents, hope I didn’t sound mean or anything like that 😛


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