Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
On Player Characters and Self Expression
View All     RSS
October 23, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 23, 2014
PR Newswire
View All





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


 
On Player Characters and Self Expression

July 10, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next
 

Emotional connections

In response to the piece I wrote about Tomb Raider, many commenters on Gamasutra responded that they have experienced emotional connection to their avatar in a game. My post was perhaps overly blunt when I said:

The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. There is no such thing as a player character.

Perhaps how it should have been phrased was:

The issue is simply this: the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists does not. It is different. There is no such thing as a player character, but rather the player maker.

In childhood, most of us own dolls and we invest a great deal of time in them. Even as we grow up, we often hold onto one or two teddy bears or favored G.I. Joes, and for adults there is a considerable industry in action figures and figurines.

In fact, we develop emotional connections with objects all the time. It's normal, even healthy, to do so. We connect with cars, computer brands, favored cups for coffee, buildings, clothes, and so on. We name things, sometimes even talk to them (remember Wilson from Cast Away?) Sometimes we identify with special items for social reasons, such as treasuring a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Other times it's because of personal significance, like your dead grandfather's pocket watch. Perhaps it is because the object represents an investment of creativity, time or identity.

Taken in combination with projection and expression, object connection is (I believe) the correct way to understand what "player characters" really are. It's also why I call them dolls -- meaning a treasured possession.

The emotional connection to a Shepard or a Link comes from the way that they become us, we manipulate them, we dress them, and grow them, and we invest identity in them. We customize them, make them our own, and interface with a whole world through them. And we grow fond of them. Yet we are always aware they are not actually alive, and we are not them. We are their makers; their parents, in a sense.

Emotional connection becomes even more complicated when story is involved.

There are two Niko Bellics. There is the Niko of the cutscene, the war-weary criminal who feels that he must obtain revenge for a past wrong, help his cousin Roman and get involved in the happenings of Liberty City. This Niko is taciturn, wise beyond his years, and wry about the world around him.

The other Niko is the little psychopath doll that I control, the one I described above. The one who is my conduit to Liberty City and whom I attire as I choose. There are also two Laras, two Marios, two Shepards, two Drakes, and two Clouds.

There are times when they are characters and others when they are dolls, and the disconnect between the two can be quite odd. When a game reveals that the character version of my doll is not who I thought he was, for example, that can either be very clever or totally inappropriate.

When the game over-characterizes my doll (perhaps with ambient audio) to make him or her unlikable, or unlike the self-expression that I project into it, then that can feel strange. Sometimes in a good way, but often not. (Which is where my post on Tomb Raider came from.)

The duality of character and doll is perhaps most starkly illustrated by Heavy Rain. There are two Ethans. Character-Ethan is the grieving father having already lost one son, now tasked to find the other. His marriage is broken down, his life is a mess, everything he says or does is affected by a deep and painful sadness.

Doll-Ethan, on the other hand, is an android. He (you) wanders around his own house opening drawers to find out what's in them and talking to people (such as his wife) to find out who they are. He plays swings with his children, but it's a dislocated experience because he has no idea of his relationship to them. He talks to his remaining son in a playground like a machine, polling him with questions for answers. He even walks like an android, perfectly straight and turning clockwise or counter-clockwise on a dime.

Game makers like David Cage believe that the interplay between dramatic scenes and control strengthens the connection, in a kind of movies-plus-doing model, but my contention is that this is not so. Though lavish, Heavy Rain is modally no different to Jet Set Willy, and the same creative constant of self applies. Interposing duality mostly weakens the parental connection with the self-expressed doll and relegates it to play-time/story-time. "It's okay," says the game. "You just press buttons when you're told. I'll handle the emotional part."

And so you get interminable cut scenes which just don't seem to matter to the literal game. That's why (no matter how well written) a cinematic-story led approach to games always feels oddly cold. It's also why storysense works.

The storysense way

"Storysense" is an approach to narrative which relies on the creation of an interesting world, a discoverable set of threads and bits of story, a minimalist approach to goal direction, but dispenses with dramatic plot and character development. It treats story as a backing track to the play of the game, and so the player can participate or not as he likes. There is no time given over to extrinsically rewarding the player for being in-character, and the only rewards are literal -- just as the game is. There is no elaborate characterization, no attempt to insert unnecessary meaning, and no emoting at the player to try and make him or her feel.

Storysense is at the heart of successful pen and paper roleplaying games, where a good game master understands how to change up if the game is getting boring. Storysense is at the heart of virtual promenades like Dear Esther, where the relatively simple addition of a disconnected monologue elevates the experience of wandering around a desolate island without needing to pay exact attention to its sequence. The objective of storysense is to enhance the sensation of a world in motion. All expression and judgement is left to the player.

So there is only one Gordon Freeman, only one Executor from StarCraft, and only one "you" in Journey (although there are cutscenes, your nameless adventurer simply watches them). They are all just you.

In Half-Life you can lark about while conversations go on around you, or you can pay attention. It's up to you. In StarCraft you can get with the spirit of the mission briefings and elements in the world like the alongside dialogue of the units, or just play it as a sport. Again, it's up to you. In Journey you can participate with a fellow traveller generously, run through the game by yourself, or go about collecting every little power-up you can find. It's your business. In Deus Ex, you can stop and read every book or email and listen to every conversation -- or be an oblivious psychopath. It's your call.

The mistake is to then try and turn that into a movie. Half-Life 2, for example, traps the player in rooms with over-long conversations with key characters that go past the point of dull. StarCraft II employs many meant-to-be-stirring cutscenes and dialogue sections in between missions which add little to the experience other than time. Red Dead Redemption is plenty of fun, but then there are some scenes where it's all about characters reflecting on the hard life of the Old West, and they're all a bit random, really.

Though cutscenes can be informative or visually arresting when used well, using them for character drama is almost never interesting for very long, regardless of the quality of writing (The one significant exception to this is if the scenes are hilarious). Again, it's because of the modality of playing games. That's tough to hear for designers who want games to be like movies, but it's just the reality: create a big saga game with lots of emoting and storytelling, and most players will not bother to finish it.

Here's another tagline that annoys some people, but is true:

In 40 years of making games, there has never been a good "told" story, but thousands of great "sensed" stories.

I believe that the evidence shows that there will never be a great told story in games, because they modally do not work. Ultimately, they are paradoxical. They only ever produce the need to either tolerate the game because you like the story, or vice versa. Either way we will always see actual storytelling arts like books or films streak very far ahead of games because telling stories is what they are all about, modally speaking. No amount of production budget or technology is ever Ever, EVER, EVER going to change that.

Rather than being dramatic, games demand to be something else: thaumatic. Storysense works because it treats your doll as a doll, as an interface or conduit into the world. It works because it allows the players to fully self-express. It works because it keeps the goals literal. Accepting that involves a big sacrifice: It means giving up on formal storytelling, and reducing it to the role of setting objectives.

The short cutscene that says "go here, do this" and nothing more is one example. The quest which is one line on a message board that you accept is another. The inherent goal that arises from the pressures of the game, such as a boss moment. The urge to run away from a scary noise down a dark corridor. The experience of playing a small GBA soccer game and going into that world to feel success. From the smallest to the largest games, this is the approach that works because it is game-native.

Great storysense requires a great doll and a great world, great opportunities for self-expression, and clear literal tasks. Then the game can earn legitimacy to create poignant moments. The moment in Journey when you are walking up the side of the bleak snowy mountain is one example: It's a journey you have made with your robed doll; you see it slowing down and the shrinking of its ribbon. You see the ice, foresee the end, and that thaumatic feeling grows: You are there. You feel cold. It is perhaps the end.

How much worse would it have been if it had transitioned into cutscene mode and started talking at you?


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 6 Next

Related Jobs

DeNA Studios Canada
DeNA Studios Canada — Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
[10.22.14]

Analytical Game Designer
University of Texas at Dallas
University of Texas at Dallas — Richardson, Texas, United States
[10.22.14]

Assistant/Associate Prof of Game Studies
Avalanche Studios
Avalanche Studios — New York, New York, United States
[10.22.14]

UI Artist/Designer
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — ORLANDO, Florida, United States
[10.22.14]

Game Designer






Comments


Axel Cholewa
profile image
Beautiful Piece, Tadgh. This article answers all the questions I carry with me since I got back into video gaming roughly ten years ago, and it put all my vague thoughts about it in conrete words.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Thanks Axel!

Carlo Delallana
profile image
Pretty much why I am so fascinated by DayZ, a game by the standard's of the AAA development world would find lacking. Yet it is one of a small set of games that allow self-expression to varying degrees. From heroism to depravity, its simple systems-based design allows for some very emotional moments of play. There is no need for a morality system, something that I find very artificial in games and in the end tends to be more of a dictated set of rules rather than something more organic.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAXqwewejwU&feature=player_embedde
d

Alex Belzer
profile image
I would argue that the problem in a narrative game is choice. In Ico, you play this boy, right, and the only actions you can take are to save the princess. There's no room for expression, for being an asshole and playing the game without the princess, because your choices are smartly limited, to tell this specific story. Not that all games should limit your choices to tell one specific story, but it solves a lot of problems. You have no choice BUT to role play, because the game forces you to take the princess along to proceed. I find this solution elegant.

We only really run into problems when the specifically characterized player character in the cutscene doesn't match up with the infinite optional actions available to players in something like GTA.

But, to reinforce your whole thesis, the most magical moments in Ico happen while playing--play don't show--like leading the princess by hand through a flock of birds she'd rather be chasing, or holding your breath as she leaps across a chasm to clasp your hand. And then, come the end of the story, you realize you care for these two characters a very great deal, despite the game not "showing" you much anything about them.

And look, I did it just there. I didn't say "his" but "your".

Perhaps it's telling that I used a game with roughly two lines of understandable dialogue and meager cutscenes, to illustrate a point. So I'd have to agree; games are not film. Storysense has always been more convincing (Metroid Prime), though there are the rare games with genuinely well done cutscene storytelling (Vagrant Story), which succeeded because of the quality of writing and cinematography. Now we could get into an argument about games with cutscenes not being a "pure" game, so to speak, but what would be the point in that? I'm just saying, not being bad at storytelling helps.

Overall, great post. I enjoyed it a lot.

And I was wondering: so what was that little soccer game that kept you so enthralled?

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
I probably shouldn't say, as technically it was copyright infringement ;)

E McNeill
profile image
Excellent article. Storysense seems like a valuable idea to me, and it explains why I found Morrowind's world so compelling despite the flat storytelling.

I think you're too quick to give up on adult roleplaying or make-believe, though. I've personally had experiences in D&D and (oddly enough) Civilization II in which I generate narrative and meaning beyond what the mechanics and official story have provided.

You're right that players will almost always privilege mechanical meaning over their story, but I see this as a problem for designers to solve rather than a fundamental feature of our medium's modality. Some games are far more heavy-handed than others, including many of the mechanically-focused or character-driven games that you call out. But a more open design that does less to push players around may be able to support true roleplaying. Minecraft could be a good early example.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Well Minecraft is a brilliant example of a game that enables self expression, and look. People have built Westeros inside the thing.

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Journey is just awesome. Pretty much a clear contender of best designed game in the last 5 years.
Also high in my list I'd put Borderlands, Minecraft, DayZ. And all Survival/Horde modes are way better than the Campaign in every game.

Paul Marzagalli
profile image
This was my biggest problem with Mass Effect 3. For the previous two games, players were given a high level of command over their conversations. Some people scoffed that many of those choices had little impact and were only cosmetic, but they miss the point. What those choices did was empower the player to define their character's attitude issue by issue, point by point. Even if many conversation choices didn't change the plotline, they helped define the character to a significant degree.

Starting with some of the later DLC in ME2 and throughout Mass Effect 3, Bioware elected for that "cinematic style" over player agency. Players, especially vets, had to sit uncomfortably as their Shepards ended off talking in ways and saying things that were not at all reflective of the players' views of their characters or the game plot. This took away from the experience immensely.

Loved the article, thanks for writing it!

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Thanks for reading it!

Roger Tober
profile image
I guess I agree with this. I like games where I discover the back story, not watch a player character evolve or have some dramatic experience. That doesn't mean I don't think story is important, because games without it are so boring I don't play them, aside from simple puzzle games like Free Cell. I'm really tired of jumping to the right spot or killing everything that moves. I suppose someone plays those games over and over like I play Free Cell, but I still think it's a little creepy because there just isn't enough skill involved. I think games that you choose the ending are really pathetic. It's just such an obvious little branch, like throwing someone a straw, but many players really get into it. Same with choosing hair color or whatever. I find it demeaning, but other people really like it. Maybe I am in that 10 percent because I play them for an hour or less and I'm done. It's just over and over the same thing.
I don't think games are evolving because games have become so self centered and immediately rewarding. Stories provide long term goals and added reason for exploring. I want to play a game where I don't loot carcasses and sell the spoils. If I kill, it's because I have to, and there isn't enough ammunition for it to be constant, so I also have to use my wits. There's too much choice in games. When you are forced to do things you don't choose, you learn more. You get more creative.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
And I think that's an important conversation point.

The issue for many players as they get older is that the tone of the gaming medium seems younger and less relevant to them as time goes on, and that matured voice in the medium isn't really there. Partly it's because the play brain gets bored of playing the same frames, and partly it's because of tone.

Maybe this is why we look to story at all, but I think over time we'll increasingly look to storysense and situation. When we're making deep games intended for 50 year olds that aren't historical sims, I think we'll really see a shift in how games are thought of.

Michael Joseph
profile image
A wonderful article. Your article feels like a missing link that connects a lot of our instinct and intuition about good design with reality via it's description and analysis of play and how it's tied to self expression.


somewhat related from 2004...
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/2168/the_state_of_church_do
ug_church_.php

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Thank you. :)

Joshua Darlington
profile image
I enjoy cut scene games as an extension of cinema. There's plenty of room for growth in this area, and that's part of the fun.

Videogame RPGs need a huge leap forward in NPC characterization AI and simulation tech before reaching anything comparable to the tabletop RPG experience of live human interaction modelled reality. AR videochat RPGs and AR HUD Larping might be an easier target than AI characterization in single player games.

One thing that I find lacking in discussions of story games is pure entertainment value. In film you hear about development execs hiring a room full of comedy writers to spitball jokes in a table read. I've never heard of game developers doing anything like this - (having professional comedians or slam poets ad lib context specific dialogue over game play).

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
So my contention is largely that they don't, and that leap is something of an Uncanny Valley anyway. In some respects more complicated NPCs and the like simply become more opaque NPCs in the mind of the player anyway.

It's a modality thing.

James Coote
profile image
Presumably, the way to test this theory would be to make a game where the player is a film actor or doppelganger, and their success depends on being someone else

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Spy Party!

James Coote
profile image
Cool. There's even a guardian article about it: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/video/2010/dec/27/
spyparty-chris-hecker-interview-video

However, it's a multiplayer game, which I think is different from what is discussed in the article. You do get performers in a multiplayer game because there is an audience.

Also the game is about copying mechanical actions rather than trying to be a character other than yourself

Chris Huston
profile image
This sounds a lot like the point I was trying to make commenting on this blog post of Karin Skoog's: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/KarinESkoog/20120628/173302/The_Im
portance_of_EmotionallyDriven_Content_to_the_Future_of_Gaming_Why
_Storytelling_Matters_More_Than_Powerful_Graphics.php.

Play, don't show. Ideally, to me, video games would not have cutscenes. For the most part, the industry doesn't understand this medium's unique need in terms of story. Its similarities with film are so great that it's understandable why the mistake is being made, but I don't understand how die-hard gamers can stand to have cutscenes continue to encroach more and more into the "play"space.

If I want to read a story, I will grab a book. If I want to watch a story, I will get a movie or TV show. When I pick up a game, I want to *play* -- participate in -- a story.

Brent Gulanowski
profile image
Cut scenes can be done in different ways, to good or bad effect, as the article points out. If the cut scene fleshes out the world, or elaborates on some theme that comes naturally with the game play, or is just entertaining, I don't mind it. But I don't like a lot of verbiage meant to drive forward the plot or make the player's actions seem "important". Just set the stage or give me some hints about what strategies I might use in the next chapter.

Brian Tsukerman
profile image
A really engrossing article, and one that cuts to the core of the purpose of video games with relation to the player.

Like many who've commented, there are times when I find myself roleplaying theatrically, whether it be single-player titles like Skyrim or tabletop games like D&D. Even so, I have to agree with you that these are the exception rather than the rule.

Nonetheless, I'm not sure I entirely understand the difference between your use of the word "doll" and the term "player character."

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Perhaps this might help:

http://www.whatgamesare.com/glossary.html

JB Vorderkunz
profile image
You've built up a strong case for, wait for it, your own point of view. When I play Fallout: New Vegas, I'm playing *as* the character i've created. You can be as dismissive of that as you want, but it's true for me and many many other people - no amount of argumentation will invalidate my personal experience.

Saku Erla
profile image
Indeed, and it's not just anecdotal experiences that speak for this.

I really enjoy reading Tadhg's writings, he's a smart guy, but I think he's somehow making an incorrect conclusion in what should be pretty obvious, I think:

"The key difference between these two types of play is that performers do what they do to entertain others, but gamers do what they do to entertain themselves. Games are about mastering for the self, not for other people.
This is basically why the "player character" is a flawed idea."

This is so not true, even aside from the player's supposed goal of "mastering the game" which is hardly the case for every game and gamer. The thing is, you can perform not only for the entertainment of others but for yourself, too. I'd argue that you adopt a suitable performing persona every time you sing or play a song even by yourself, for example – just by adapting to the mood of the piece in question and interpreting it in different ways.

Gaming is no exception. You can, of course, play the game as yourself, projecting your whole personality directly to your avatar and bypassing the game's player character. But it's equally possible to adopt the player character, his or her own story supplied by the game, reflecting your emotions through the context of a character other than yourself. When playing RDR, for a while I *am* John Marsden. It is in no way "unnatural" for the video game medium or contradictory to its "mode". That's all. :)

(Sorry about the necro-post. I just had to say this.)

Joe Cooper
profile image
I agree with all the fundamental theory here but I'm wondering if it isn't a non-sequitar to dismiss cutscenes altogether.

A lot of gaming gems feature story that is "told". One can often look at them and see this delineation between the doll and character and it would be silly to argue that the player ever performs, but he doesn't have to. It's not the case that players universally don't observe depicted stories.

We can all think of horrible examples of overdoing it; a 15 minute opening cutscene about how "9000 years ago the 9 pieces of 8 descended upon yon valley to spread their seed" and etc. etc. but there's just as many horrible Tetristic games where the designer bloviates about the spirit of Design (capital D!) yet it's just flat as a board.

It's just sturgeon's law.

No shortage of people love the hell out of games that feature storytelling. This is not the same as pretending that players -perform- and I don't think what Squaresoft's done with themselves after their mid-90s glory days negates this.

If anything their mid-90s wins exemplifies your theory as they (Chrono Trigger, FF7, Mario RPG, others) did straight cutscenes without trying to engage the player as a performer and offered rich, emergent systems play.

While the "play it out" approach of Journey and whatnot is very cool, I don't think your theory really suggests it's the only way to entertain.

Do I have it all wrong or were you simply more focused on this "the player is an actor" notion?

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Epona Schweer
profile image
Use every tool, technique and trope you need to to create the experience you want to share.

Ever DM a table top game? You use EVERYTHING at your disposal to create a great experience for your palyers - from music to film clips to paintings to wild gesticulating and funny voices. And what you use always depends on the experience you want them to have.

You'll know if you succeeded as a game designer when you hear/read someone talking about the great experience they just had ("...and then I did this, and then I did that and it was awesome when..."). And you think to yourself "yup, that's what I was after".

There's a fine line between an interactive movie and a game. I'll know I've crossed it based on how the story is told. If it's me telling them the story of the experience...it's passive (appropriate as an article/lecture/film). If it's them telling me their story of the experience then it's a game.

((Also, point of note, can make the same distinction between a tech demo and a game. If it's you telling me about all the awesome features, it's a tech demo. If it's me losing myself in the gameplay and telling you about what I did - it's a game. How I work out what's worth caring about when walking around E3 :P)).

I'm a huge fan of player as actor. I come from a theater background and see a lot of parallels between the two.

What I'm not a fan of is any kind of "definition by exclusion". As in this is a Game...because it doesn't use cinematic techniques.

Games, as we all know, are defined by more than what they're made of. They're defined by the experience of the person interacting with it.

"Here, I have this experience I want to share with you" is easily done in a book, film or piece of music.

"Now, tell me about the experience you just had" is unique to games.

Use whatever you need - go nuts. We're digital magicians making magic. Have fun with it :)

Chris Huston
profile image
Wasn't sure whether to respond to you or Joe Cooper, but this seems the better place.

I'm all for using every tool at one's disposal. I'm not advocating a "definition by exclusion," but rather "exclusion by effectiveness", i.e. things should be taken out not because of a definition, but because they aren't creating a *game* or *play* experience. But, indeed, definitions play an important part. One can't make a painting and call it a game, or make a movie and call it a game, etc. I'm not saying you're claiming that, but just that definitions have their place in how we try to create.

My main point is that story is needed, but games, at this point, don't use it to the medium's greatest effect. Whether one wants to use cinematic techniques or literary or whatever, none of that really matters until it starts encroaching on "play", which IS what a game IS. We can USE some of these things in making a game, but the more we diverge from a "play" experience the less of a "game" it is.

There shouldn't be anything off limits so long as it makes a better *game*. I point out cutscenes (more to Joe's comment) because they are the most glaring example of a technique (in this case, cinematic) that seems to be have gotten out of hand while adding practically nothing to the game experience. My main complaint is that too often when games use these "other" techniques or media that it feels tacked on and superfluous, and is irritating because it's stopping the *play* experience.

It may be some time before we learn the unique way video games can "tell" a story and still preserve the "play", but I think it's possible and that we haven't really seen much of it yet. Tadhg may actually be making a materially different point than I am, but the phrase "play, don't show", to me, sounds pretty close to what we should be striving for if we're trying to create a game.

Epona Schweer
profile image
We certainly haven't reached the point in our medium that we have a set of well practiced methods handed down from veteran designer to newbie. We're still in that nebulous period where everyone is trialing and testing different things and trying to get a feel for what a) our medium is capable of and b) how to standardize it (not that we should, but it's such a human thing to turn everything into systems and formula that it will happen!)

Heh, well, not everyone. Folks who aren't testing and trialing are just sticking to the storytelling methods they know - you're right in that we're overemphasizing passive storytelling techniques (cutscenes) in an interactive medium. I don't think the answer is to drop them in favor of something else...but we shouldn't be using them as an excuse to stop iterating and stop testing.

I'm keen to see how Chris Hecker's Spy Party will change the conversation. Focusing on the fluid and flexible aspects of storytelling over rigid and linear things like plot and narrative.

I'm not convinced that story is something the game designer has to provide in every game. Tetris wouldn't be significantly improved with story.

Brent Gulanowski
profile image
You cannot "share" an experience that has already happened. I am so frustrated by this ever-loving idea that has no basis in reality. A book, a movie, a game: these are NOT experiences. They are artifacts. Players have their own private, individual experiences by interacting with the artifact; artists cannot take credit for them. They can only take credit for creating the artifact!

Epona Schweer
profile image
@Brent:

Creating the Conditions for a Shared Experience:

1) Define the feeling/understanding you want your player to grok
2) Brainstorm which conditions will lead to that "ah HAH!" moment
3) With your ideal players*, test the conditions you think will create that moment
4) Query: Did they have that experience? No? Iterate and test again.
5) Have awesome chats with your players when you succeed in creating conditions that lead to the experience you wanted to share with them. This is my favourite part of experience design :)

Definition of "ideal players": folks you understand and want to make games for.

This works live, digital, analog, etc.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Thanks Joshua. Well I'm trying to get my first ebook done this summer, so we'll see how that goes.

Bart Stewart
profile image
A very good refinement of some earlier assertions that probably seemed more provocative than they were meant to be.

What I gather is the big takeaway is that games are best -- the most game-like -- when they maximize self-expression through play. That seems reasonable.

But there are some places where this argument gets warped unnecessarily, and it's in the puzzling repeated put-downs of non-Achiever players. If there are different kinds of gamers -- and even 10% of millions of gamers is not negligible -- and if enabling self-expression is the summum bonum of game design, then why shouldn't there be games made that emphasize their preferred style of self-expression?

I'm thinking of assertions like this: "The dramatic player wants that modality to change, for the conversation to be different, and for the ratio of roleplayers to literal-players to change from 1:9 to 9:1." Where does this come from? Is there evidence that what non-Achievers really want is to take games away from other kinds of gamers, as though they believe in a zero-sum world? Why isn't it possible that what the dramatic-performer and world-understander gamers want is just some games made that are designed to be fun for them to play?

If self-expression is the goal, should collecting status markers from shooting people in the head be the only kind of self-expression permitted by games? If not -- if games respectful of other natural styles of play are equally worth making -- then there's no need to try to marginalize non-Gamist/Achievers. Doing so only weakens the good argument in defense of designing for self-expressive play.

Joe Cooper
profile image
Oh, I feel I should add that this was an excellent write-up and very clearly articulates a lot of what confused people last time around. I enjoyed reading it all even as a long-time reader of yours.

David OConnor
profile image
Thanks Tadhg, I really enjoyed this article, and it has given me a lot of food for thought. I agree that thee application of 'storysense' is very compelling, and makes a lot of sense for certain types of games.... perhaps the kind I really enjoy :)

Petri Lankoski
profile image
While I find self-expression and play relevant I disagree about how player cheaters work in the game. To me this account just neglects that player characters exists also in play and how the game puts players to within the set of limits and possibilities that does not come from the player. For the full argument about this can be found in my character-driven game design
(pdf: https://www.taik.fi/kirjakauppa/product_info.php?cPath=23&products_id=163 )

JoseArias NikanoruS
profile image
I really like your thesis and I almost agree with you in everything.

Just let me share this: I once played Ogre battle 64 when I was in High School and there came a decision about letting my father join my army or telling him to protect my childhood friend...
I choose the latter and I regret it to this day. It was a stupid decision that wasn't acknowledged inside the game in any way (just a 3 second appearance in a cut-scene in which he simply dies)... since then, I've always wanted a game that doesn't punish me for playing "in-character" but haven't had much luck.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Yep. That just sounds pretty unfair really.

Brent Gulanowski
profile image
Wow. Great article.

I think all of my personal favourite games were very low on forced characterization, and high on player agency and emergent meaning. In other words, I decided for myself why I was playing, and what was important.

If you've read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, I would guess that you got some inspiration from his reasoning about why many comic book heroes have faces drawn in a very simple style. They let readers put themselves more easily into the character's place. It's not the same thing, exactly, but there's definitely overlap.

When I first started reading, I had a really powerful urge to argue with you. But it seems you were just trying to get my attention. Well, you did! But more importantly, you didn't waste it once you had it.

This is a fantastic example of serious thinking about games, without being pretentious or obnoxious (despite the threat implicit in the first few lines). Your smashing some idols, but damn, you smash them with class. And they definitely need smashing. Hats off. "Play, don't show" needs to be taken heart.


I learned a lot reading this, and I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Aw, thanks Brent.

I love it when my writing encourages thought (whether I turn out to be right or wrong).

Joshua Darlington
profile image
If a designer wants to encourage role playing, one has to make the roles and events compelling. Thats one disadvantage of the vague or reductive archetypal avatar, the under-articulation creates an unkanny valley. Game events that are supposed to motivate the fictional character to take bold action should be powerful interesting and engaging enough to motivate the real player. It's like directing improv through story. For insight into the directing process an obvious reference would be the classic book "An Actor Prepares."

Looking for new areas to explore: Are there are any co-op games that allow players to act as game master in real time? I also wonder if there is room for live actors in RPGs. High end haunted houses employ actors to enhance key scenes. Another approach that can be explored is breaking the magic circle and basing the game avatar off of the players online footprint. If some games are extention of cinema, what are exciting directions in the use of montage?

Josh Foreman
profile image
Great read, Tadgh. Been following your writing for a couple years now and it's fun to see your arguments develop and sharpen.

I've been working on this issue quite a bit myself. Let me ask you, do you see a useful distinction between linear edited stories as demonstrated in cut scenes, and emergent story, as demonstrated through play? Or do you feel the the word story ought to simply be excised from game theory due to it's inherited baggage?

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Hey Josh,

In the Four Lenses of Game Making I make a strong distinction between games that strive for experience vs emergence, and role vs rule. The idea is less story-plot-tell, but that experience led games tend to be more constrained with the idea of delivering specific emotional payoffs (think single-player CoD for example), whereas emergence by necessity has to lay off such guidance (think multiplayer CoD).

Does that help?

Addison Siemko
profile image
Great read!

Ben Taber
profile image
I don't think it necessarily follows to say that, because most games suffer from this kind of detachment, there's no room for authored story content in games. Simply saying that something hasn't been done well is hardly proof that it can't be done.

In much the same way as we can regard many 'cinematic' games as being basically a movie attached to a game with a nominal connection between them, we can regard role-playing type experiences with branching dialogue trees as being a connected strategy game and dialogue-exploration game. And I think people enjoy those kinds of dialogue-exploration games, and they are an experience very different from movies, so I don't think it's fair to completely discount them as a viable form of game.

I think generally what's important is that we allow the player to explore the narrative space in a way that feels natural for the game they are playing. It's not natural in games like GTA because the narrative components of the action game and the narrative components of the expository film are so often contradictory, but in adventure games (where we do not expect the characters to be player-avatars) the minimal exploration gameplay, the more intricate dialogue-exploratory gameplay, and the occasional cinematics all more-or-less agree with each other.

I love Left 4 Dead, but it's easy to break the fiction of the game by griefing; this was possibly actually a clever move on Valve's part, though, because that makes it feel even more transgressive than it would otherwise. Not that that's helped stop griefers much. However, as long as players play according to the goals the game sets, the fiction holds. I think the real lesson to take from this is one of concordance between the actions the player must take to play the game and the fiction presented in the narrative layer, whatever form those actions and that layer take.

Michael Curtiss
profile image
I loved that you bring up the point of modalities:
"Whether starting with a great tune, a basic three-act-and-two-plot-point script, or move-and jump in a simple game, the fundamentals matter. They teach us a great deal about what an art form is and what tends to function well versus what does not. So in a sense, all media can be interpreted as elaborations of the same forms over and over.
It could be called "modalism," and what it means is: The simplest form defines the rules by which the rest of the form operates because, while the work changes, the mode of use does not."

This is a great point to make, but I see in your following analysis a mistake that has been popping up a little recently: treating games as a medium, or at least, isolating games from a larger medium. Games are not a medium - they are an offshoot of the medium of interactive systems. Even those who understand this (http://gamasutra.com/view/feature/172587/a_way_to_better_games_.p
hp) will still place games at a point of prominence within interactive systems, separate from the rest. Games are different from other interactive systems in the same sense Fauvism is separated from Suprematism in the painting world.
To explain my meaning, let me take up your point on modalities, which is particularly insightful. In the painting world, it is understood that there are 4-5 different ‘modalities’ (to borrow your language) in every painting - color, value, edge, drawing, and lastly, surface. Every single brush stroke you make alters every single one of these modalities at once. Different combinations of these 5 elements are responsible for every single 'style' of painting that exists. In this manner, we have a language for talking about painting. We have a way of comparing two paintings which are wildly different.

The same principle applies to music, where we have tone, harmony, rhythm, and melody. Again, the placement of every single note affects each one of these four elements at once. Differing combinations of these modalities are in large part responsible for the differing styles of music.

Now, because we have a bias towards games, it is easy to attempt the same process with them as our focus. However, because I believe games to be an offshoot of the medium of interactive systems, I assert that this is a flawed approach. We need to be thinking about what the modalities of interactive systems are, and then try to figure out how games are specific manifestations of these. So to be clear, there are no "modalities of games", but instead, there are "modalities of interactive systems" through which we arrive at games.

I think this concept might elucidate why it is been so difficult to come to a definition of what "games" really are. It is like trying to define, in specific terms, what "indie rock" is. This isn't possible because of how manipulation of modalities work - manipulation of specific elements (tone, harmony, rhythm, and melody) to arrive at a certain result. So, just as "indie-rockness" is a gradient that defies compartmentalization, so too is "gameness" a gradient, just as “suprematismness” and “fauvismness” are clear concepts, yet it is still possible to create a painting which exists somewhere in the middle between the two (Kazimir Malevich might disagree, but I am just arguing in terms of visual perception of the principle modalities of painting).

So, with this perspective in mind, I think that statements like, “In the cold light of day they're ham-handed games trying to be something other than their modality allows” are missing the mark by a thin margin, simply because you are trying to apply principles of the modality of games (something which doesn’t exist) to an interactive system. I’m not trying to say that L.A. Noire was a landmark game by any means, or a landmark interactive system for that matter. It just seems to me that you may be blaming tools (e.g. cut scenes) for bad decisions being made with those tools, as well as mistakenly expecting a certain level of “gameness” from something purporting to be a ‘game’. My point here is, there is an obsession with clearly defining boundaries between different types of interactive systems, so much so that the entire spectrum that lies outside of these boundaries is totally ignored, and anything which exists there is declared to be an abomination, or worse, not worthy of study. The fact of the matter is, as an interactive system - not a game – L.A. Noire was thoroughly enjoyed by many, something which no critique can take away from it.

There is a whole lot more I would like to say on this subject, but I don’t think this post is the place for it. I would like to point out however, that I do agree with an awful lot of what you say, and found your post to be very enlightening. I just take a slightly different perspective on it all, I suppose. And despite everything I have written here, I am completely open to the argument that L.A. Noire, in borrowing too heavily from Cinema, is not paying close enough attention to the modalities of interactive systems, and would have been a more engaging system if it had done so. I just think it is a mistake to say that, because it is influenced so heavily by cinema and its storytelling techniques that it fails as an interactive system. What about a painting of a sculpture? What about a painting that uses so much paint that it becomes sculptural in itself? The latter example borrows so heavily from another medium, but do we say it is a failure of painting? Not necessarily. It might however, be a failure if we looked at it through the lens of Suprematism, but why would we do that?

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Thanks for the reply Michael. Hmm, let me think on it a bit.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Joachim Tresoor
profile image
Wow. You defame and invalidate the entire roleplaying gamer demographic for fear of them getting in the way of your ideal game experience, and people praise you for it!?

And the irony is that roleplayers are on your side! Pen and paper roleplaying thrives on story sense. Their player characters are the perfect dolls, moldable and under complete control, an epitome of self-expression. You will never encounter an NPC with a dialog tree. And have you ever had a game master take over the players' characters in order to deliver an exposition? So why the hostility?

Vitor Menezes
profile image
Thanks for the article, Tadgh. This helps to articulate rather formless ideas that've been swimming around in my head for quite some time -- particularly your excellent definition of play and the unique role of players in games compared to other media. I've also for some time had the feeling that game are roughly where early films were, development-wise: enjoyable and solid in their own rights, but still lacking a solid grasp of that which really makes them unique, and hence somehow falling short of their full potential; it's nice to see someone so articulate suspects likewise. :)

I do have one bit of confusion, though: while I agree "dolls" are probably the best term to describe the puppets players possess in most games, my experience is more or less that people appropriate the term "player character" to mean pretty much that. Was it your intent to use the word in the same sense as the persona an actor dons for performance to demonstrate some sort of inaccuracy, or did I more or less miss the point on this?


none
 
Comment: