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On Player Characters and Self Expression

July 10, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next
 

[In this essay originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer and Gamasutra contributor Tadhg Kelly explains why he believes there's no such thing as a player character, and analyzes what's really going on when most people play games in context.]

"There is no such thing as a player character" is the kind of tagline that gets me into trouble in some places. So is "the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists in fact does not."

Both contain a powerful subtext, questioning everything from a player's sense of identity to the validity of their experiences. Read the wrong way, they can seem to say that all the emotion you feel in playing games is made up.

Of course that's not my intent. When I say "there is no such thing as a player character" I don't mean that there is nothing. When I say play occurs through "dolls," likewise. My intent is to reinterpret the emotional experience of play within a game-native context, and so derive useful insight that could apply to all games. In other words, the emotions are real but our way of talking about them is broken.

This is an essay to fully explain this concept, to set what's really going on when most players play games in context, about the importance of identity and self expression. 

A personal story of emotional experience

When I moved to London I didn't really know why I was moving. I had had a long background in games at a kind of pro-amateur level, creating role playing games, card games and live action role playing games for the Irish convention scene. I had also had some experience in the industries surrounding games, such as working in the retail sector and as a technical writer at Havok. However, I didn't really know where I fit in. So I emigrated.

Luckily I landed my first game design job soon afterward, and the following year was a wild ride. I learned and did so much, from level design to scriptwriting to action design, but -- as happened to many others in the UK at that time -- ultimately the studio collapsed through a lack of funds. I took it hard, became depressed and needed to find a job. I was willing to take the first thing that came along, which happened to be a contract tester position.

Where my first year had been amazing, my second was miserable. My employers seemed to have a culture of shipping software in whatever state it happened to be in to meet release dates. So they produced a lot of churn content, and it was the sort of place where issues like quality were a non-starter. I was paid little, lived in fear of redundancy (testers are often only hired on rolling contracts), and spent my days testing crapware. For a long time I wallowed.

To avoid feeling that funk, we testers played games. Our lab had a local network of PCs, so we might play Call of Duty at lunch. However, the lab also had glass walls, which bred a classroom mentality. Management sat outside and looked in on us. Producers wandered by and stared into see if their game was being tested. Various people came in at the drop of a hat and complained over what they saw being done (or not). It was like a real world version of the office in the movie Brazil. We were the students being made to do our homework and our managers were essentially invigilators.

The truth was that testing was not difficult. We could go through each new build in about an hour to verify fixes, play new content, button-bash the interface, and so on. So we had a lot of free time, but had to appear as good workers being productive. This meant no Call of Duty, but we could get away with smaller and more hideable games such as emulated GBA ROMs. In so doing, I got surprisingly hooked by a soccer game.

I'm not an avid fan of soccer. When national competitions like Euro 2012 roll around I will cheer for my beleaguered Irish team, but I have no interest in leagues or the soap opera of the transfer markets or which player insulted who. However, this soccer game caught me. It had simple controls. It was fun. I would always play as a particular team because I liked their color and knew that they were supposed to be good. At first I played just single matches lasting four minutes, but later realized that the emulator could save game states. So I could play leagues, and I did. Hundreds of them.

I imagined that the different players on my team had identities, and I started playing preferential tactics on the basis that I liked one player over another. I became emotionally connected to these little dudes, and when I developed a winning strategy (which usually meant I won a match by 5-0 or more) I kept playing anyway. It was a wonderful place to go and to feel success, to imagine cheering crowds and trophies and so on. I even imagined a sort of backstory to what was going on behind the game.

At a time when my career felt like it had stalled, that little game became the highlight of my day. In retrospect it also proved to be a personal example of everything that games are, and I often look back on it as an example of modality.


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Comments


Axel Cholewa
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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
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Thanks Axel!

Carlo Delallana
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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
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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
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I probably shouldn't say, as technically it was copyright infringement ;)

E McNeill
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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
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Well Minecraft is a brilliant example of a game that enables self expression, and look. People have built Westeros inside the thing.

Luis Guimaraes
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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
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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
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Thanks for reading it!

Roger Tober
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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
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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
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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
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Thank you. :)

Joshua Darlington
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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
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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
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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
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Spy Party!

James Coote
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Perhaps this might help:

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

JB Vorderkunz
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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.

Joe Cooper
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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]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Epona Schweer
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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
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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
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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
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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
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@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]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

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

Bart Stewart
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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Yep. That just sounds pretty unfair really.

Brent Gulanowski
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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
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Aw, thanks Brent.

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

Joshua Darlington
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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
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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
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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
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Great read!

Ben Taber
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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
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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
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Thanks for the reply Michael. Hmm, let me think on it a bit.

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Joachim Tresoor
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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
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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?


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