The writer behind one of this year's biggest games wants players to do more than just go through the motions of a "being" a video game character: He wants players to perform as the character.
Heavily inspired by the rules of method acting, Ubisoft Montreal's Jeffrey Yohalem -- lead writer on the upcoming Far Cry 3 -- delivered a striking and likely controversial polemic at the Montreal International Game Summit this week, asking designers to "treat players like performers," and to throw out claims such as "simulation is not art."
In Yohalem's opinion, "Authorship in games is not antithetical to play. In fact, [authorship and play] can build on each other and this will forward the medium."
He described his vision of Far Cry 3's hero, Jason Brody: "Jason Brody is 25 years old, he lives in L.A., he's jobless, likes to have fun and party; he doesn't want to commit to his girlfriend, his father's dead and his older brother's the responsible one," he said.
Yohalem then turned to the bullet points that are being used by Ubisoft's marketing and the internet to describe the game, with quotes on the Amazon website pitching the player's ability to "Use an arsenal of weapons and explosives ... take down nearby adversaries with your blade."
"So who does the game say Jason Brody is?" Yohalem asked.
He answered, "Rambo."
"Cliche represents a diminishing stimulus," Yohalem continued. "Is it possible to generate fresh emotion if you keep visiting the same thing over and over?"
Players as method actors
To avoid the "Rambo" problem, Yohalem said the Far Cry 3 team's solution was Jason Brody, a character that would "allow [players] to explore meaning."
"Copying something that already exists is not art. Life is too short to waste player's time. Everything we should do should have a purpose, as developers it's important we create things that don't waste player's time on earth," he argued.
To avoid wasting the player's time, Yohalem said designers must "treat the player as an actor" and themselves as "strong directors, working within the tools of expression."
From this point he began to reference heavily the works of the "gurus of method acting" Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.
"The key requirements of method acting are understanding your character's psychological motives, having a personal identification with your character, and to see the character's emotions as your own," posited Yohalem. "If you imagine this in games, then method acting becomes much, much easier."
The highest aim of method acting, Yohalem claimed, was the same as games: to leave the actor/player completely carried away with their performance. As a result, the "direction" must work towards this meaning: to guide the player to make choices.
"This is the opposite of simulation," Yohalem said. "Simulation leads only to brief moments of contradictory understanding in a sea of mundanity. That isn't art. That is life. The purpose of art is to give the viewer a distilled, purposeful experience."
That purpose, he said, must be rooted in the game's play.
"The player can't be forced towards meaning," he said, quoting Stanislavski's expression that an actor cannot be "fattened like a cow" by being forcibly fed an experience.
Bridging the gap with empathy
So, in the case of Far Cry 3, the player must 'buy in' to the protagonist. It's here that the Far Cry 3 team used some metrics -- because while a director can encourage a single actor to understand a character by directly relating experiences, every player is "unknown."
"But they're not completely unknown," Yohalem said. "For Far Cry, our audience is 25-35, primarily male FPS fans who like guns and see games as an escape.
"You are allowed to look at your audience," he continued. "That's what genres are: that people agree to follow a particular set of rules or that they are going to like a particular thing."
While portraying an jobless party-animal commitment-phobe as a 'relatable protagonist' for Far Cry's gamer audience might seem harsh, Yohalem said the decisions do not have to be so specific.
"In [Tale of Tales'] The Graveyard you play an old lady. But you buy into her because her animations are so good, so real, that you feel it. She's relatable.
"All you have to do is bridge the gap with empathy once," he continued, referencing key moments from games such as Assassin's Creed II featuring Ezio's relationship with his family.
"The player will live the ritual started by the creators," Yohalem said, arguing that in general this is motivated -- within the tools of expression available to game developers --via external objectives such as 'save the princess' or even in a game as lauded as Journey which asks the player 'get to the mountain.'
"I propose that we can also have an internal objective, where the journey takes the player to who they really are," he said. "In Far Cry 3 we are experimenting with this. We give the player an external objective, but they are also given an unspoken internal objective: to become the ultimate warrior, which is naturally what the player wishes to do."
He continued, "This will turn out to be what Jason really wants too. We're taking it in kind of a meta direction... this is actually complicating what I just said."
Play is subtext
However, the reason for Jason's internal objective being mastery of weapons is that the "grammar of games is play," Yohalem said.
"In Sands of Time, the story and the play is about the manipulation of time. In Journey it's about co-operating to 'journey' to the top of a mountain. Far Cry is about guns," he said, to a smattering of laughter.
"Play is subtext," Yohalem said in one of the most compelling moments in his session. "Adler said, 'The play is not in the words, it's in you,' because the words don't matter. Subtext is how the actor is compelling. You can be watching a scene where a guy is trying to show a girl how to fix her car, but really what's going on is he wants to have sex with her. He's explaining how to change a wheel, but really he's saying 'I want to have sex with you.' Acting is what happens between the lines."
As a result Yohalem argued that it was hugely important that key moments in the story be replicated in play, with particular disdain for Bioshock's "famous moment" taking away the player's control.
"It didn't need to be a cut scene. All it needed was for me to be required to press a button, any button, to kill Ryan. I had done everything he had asked to that point, and there would be nothing else I could do."
He was also particularly disdainful to current dialogue systems.
"Choosing what to say is not acting. When I choose 'pass me the eggs,' I don't know if I'm trying to say 'pass me the eggs, I love you' or 'pass me the eggs, I'm going to shoot you.' Because if the actor delivers the line the wrong way, I haven't got what I want."
He did, however, praise LA Noire's attempt to offer a more "analogue" way to interact with in game characters.
"Trying to read people's faces and guessing... there were lots of options that allowed me to express myself through that mechanic. We need new ways to talk to players that don't involve guns."
"The acting experience is a journey," he closed. "Healthy, meaningful; art."