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Opinion: The State Of Character Arcs In Games
Opinion: The State Of Character Arcs In Games
January 14, 2008 | By Borut Pfeifer

January 14, 2008 | By Borut Pfeifer
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[In this in-depth opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer takes a look at the state of 'emergent player character arcs', referencing titles from Mass Effect to BioShock in order to analyze how immersion increases when in-game events dynamically affect your character's personality and story arc.]

One topic of interest of late is emergent player character arcs. Most games allow very little expression of the player character's personality. Player-character being the opportune word here - the combination of the existing, predefined main character's personality, as it is interpreted or acted upon by the player.

Meanwhile - a character goes through an arc if they've grown in some capacity, changed, or learned something due to the events that have taken place.

Thankfully, yet sadly (in that it took so long to get to this point), it has become more common for game characters to go through an arc as part of a game's scripted storyline. Kratos, moreso in God of War 1 than God of War 2, is a good example - in the first game, he deals with how he killed his own family.

The Rarity Of Player Agency

It is still somewhat rare for games to allow the player to express their own personality through actions in a game. Even more rare that these actions have some impact on the game itself (going from player expression to player agency).

Games like Deus Ex or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provide many options for a player to solve the problems in front of them but these options are difficult to describe as expressing ”personality” (unless being sneaky and blowing the shit out of things really are personality classes… INTP and ESFJ, maybe?).

Rarer still are games that explore the interaction between the player and the role they have taken on. This is partly due to two forms of long standing industry bullsh*t: one, the kowtowing to existing, scripted media that completely define the extents of a character's personality, and two, the completely reactionary response - that game characters should be blanks to increase player immersion, by allowing them to completely imprint their own personalities on the character.

Mass Effect & The Player Arc

Mass Effect (pictured) explores player character arcs in a few interesting ways. At the beginning of the game, you choose two backstory elements (from two groups of three - your background: Colonist, Earthborn, or Spacer, and your psychological profile: Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero).

There are specific missions for some of the types, but character dialog (both your options and what NPCs say to you) is affected by all. As a Sole Survivor, I came across one more survivor of the same attack, who was killing the scientists who had let the soldiers die to study the thresher (sand) maws (worms). Dealing with him and the scientists brought a new perspective on my character's past.

By adding a layer of hidden information between player dialog choices and actual dialog & action, Mass Effect also reinforces an element of role playing that can lead to such arcs. Often it has no consequences, but occasionally there are very large ones. A friend of mine and I had drastically different playthroughs because of how we dealt with this scene.

We're not entirely sure of the exact differences, but by picking more aggressive conversation options (spoiler alert), the situation escalates until a party member kills Wrex without warning. Since Mass Effect allows a fair amount of non-linearity, in his game Wrex died fairly early, whereas he accompanied me through most of my game and I got to learn more about his character and his race.

However the exploration BioWare does into the player-character is still limited - with accordance to their style, it's very choose-your-own-adventure-y, having clearly defined branch points. So how would you create a player character arc, where the player, in the role of this character, learns something from the events they experience, which emerges from a more complex set of ongoing interactions?

Simple, Larger-Spanning Arcs?

Let's look at the very simplest system (hardly complex, but it's a start). Bioshock presents the player with one choice, over and over again. There's a few variants of how the player can navigate that space - they can always save the little sisters, they can always kill them, they can start killing them and then save them, they can start saving them and then kill them, or they can switch back and forth between both throughout the whole game.

Bioshock only gives the player consequences for their choice if they go the first two routes (all or nothing). The second two paths represent character arcs (killing the little sisters and then coming to the determination that that are redeemable, as you should be for killing them, or saving them only to come to the conclusion that they are an unsaveable product of a corrupt society). This is the simplest possible set of choices one could present the player with, yet there are still possible player character arcs.

(The last path, of swapping back and forth is an interesting case - do you discourage it via story and presentation, via mechanics, or prevent it entirely? We want to encourage the player to tell their own story interwoven with the game's story, but it's our responsibility to help them tell a good story at the same time. Unless they are both motivated & skilled in doing so, you can't safely assume they would.)

The Bioshock example is also an example of a pretty big character arc, which has to span the whole game. Smaller arcs, or smaller realizations, can be just as interesting to construct.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. & Player Arc Opportunities

In S.T.A.L.K.E.R. you often find bottles of vodka which increase your tolerance temporarily for radiation but naturally distort your vision and such (speaking of, a history of the simulated effects of alcohol in games would be an interesting thing to see).

My character turned to drink when faced with some of the unspeakable horrors of the world around him. What if this had other effects? Maybe you're forced to pick up all the bottles of vodka you come across as a means of reinforcing your addiction. Maybe you take larger swigs as you continue to drink, or maybe you develop a tolerance for its effects.

Do people treat you differently if you're drunk? If you increase your alcohol consumption as means of dealing with your problems, maybe some people won't associate with you. Or other people will only associate with you if you're a drunk. Maybe you kick the habit and stumble into a group of stalkers around a fire pit. They have something you need, but you have to sit and drink with them first, otherwise they won't trust you. Do you risk a relapse?

Those are a bunch of random thoughts, the answers depend on what you want the arc to be - learning the evils of alcohol/addiction, or developing coping strategies for stressful situations? Or maybe something about social drinking leading to more serious alcoholism? Anything goes.

Conclusion

The only way for us to really know the player has learned anything is if they've changed their actions. So you start with a continued action or set of actions by the player, and over time you can change either its direct effects, or the value of those effects by changing the context they can be used in.

If their actions change to another set, you can measure progress in the arc and advance to the next set of direct effects or context changes, representing what they player has learned/should be learning.

Direct effects don't just have to be mechanical, they can relate to the story in terms of how characters interact with you, or even be purely presentation/visual in nature. Changing the context doesn't change the what effects the actions have, but makes the exact same effects more or less useful by changing the situation.

One of the problems with the larger arcs is that players want to see all the variants - they don't feel ownership of those arcs. Lacking that feeling means the arc doesn't provide any meaningful closure for them, so for that closure they look to all the endings as a whole - whether resorting to previous saves, viewing endings at a friend's house, or YouTube.

In order for larger arcs to be meaningful, you'd have to combat the player's need for completion by giving them more satisfaction and a feeling of ownership over their own playthrough/arc(s).

Of course a feeling of ownership doesn't simply equate to the complete freedom to do anything, anytime. If only it were that easy.

[This opinion piece originally appeared in edited form on Borut's weblog The Plush Apocalypse.]


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