[UK writer Lewis Denby mulls the nature of player characters in games, and the extent to which we really become these characters while we're immersed in their worlds.
To what extent do we embody the characters we play in games?
That question was on my mind at the GameCamp in London event, at which 150 attendees spent the day discussing, debating and theorizing video games. With sessions run by a variety of games industry veterans and interested outsiders alike, the event sparked a series of enlightening conversations between a group of people fiercely passionate about the medium.
This question in particular emerged from a session on video game narrative, chaired by Rock, Paper, Shotgun
editor Kieron Gillen. During the discussion, Kieron invited me to speak about "context as narrative", and the ways in which I attempted to utilise this method while creating my Half-Life 2
mods, Post Script
, which I've written about
on these pages before.
The idea: to experiment with the nature of video game storytelling by removing as much as possible of what is traditionally considered to be a "game", leaving just basic movement interaction and a meaningful world to explore. In both mods, I attempted to construct a vivid and detailed world in which to exist, and played with ideas of character and event ambiguity -- in much the same way as University of Portsmouth researcher Dan Pinchbeck did with his revered creation Dear Esther
The initial response to my few minutes in the hotseat, then, was this: "So, like a gallery?"
And this got me thinking. Is that all these games are? Are they really nothing more than a digital realisation of yourself, walking through an art exhibit? I cannot believe that's true, and I cannot believe that the only thing that separates a virtual world from a digital representation of a real one is the incorporation of complex interactive mechanics.
I understand the argument. You remove the game, and what are you left with? At its most absolutely basic level, a series of sounds and images to process and interpret, to which meaning can be assigned and an understanding developed. That seems to make sense. So why do I feel compelled to rally against the idea?
Okay. Let's talk about films. When creating a film, you are effectively accepting that there will be a disconnect between audience and action. When you go to the cinema, that screen is a barrier between reality and fiction. We can become completely absorbed in what's unfolding, of course, and -- perhaps, if only for a moment -- forget that we are in fact sitting in a room with dozens of other people, all following the same emotional road through the story. But do we ever really imagine we're there? Do we ever really position ourselves beyond that screen, as an imaginary additional character, some omniscient being silently observing within the realms of a fictional universe?
I'm almost certain we don't.
In a game, though, there's a bridge by which we can easily cross over. By being given control of a character in a game, we are by definition a part of the world that's being realized in front of our very eyes. We're a part of the action, and a part of the story as it unfolds.
Even so, this would still appear to somewhat support the theory that games are galleries with action sequences. If it's us walking from A to B in a given area, then how is that any different from the enthusiast strolling thoughtfully through the rooms of an exhibition in the real world?
I think the answer is roleplay. Because, ultimately, that's what a vast majority of modern games are.
Forget stats. We're not talking about the traditional notion of roleplaying games
here. It's true that those are typically defined by the method of play: the slow climb to higher levels, the numbers clunking away either on a pair of dice or in the background of a string of code. But roleplaying, in its most literal sense, is surely about stepping away from one's own existence, and into that of another character.
Even if you attempt to stay rigidly within the confines of -- say -- your own moral and ethical belief system, you're always going to struggle to genuinely act as yourself in a video game. Face it: your life is boring, and you're a coward. You might choose to save Megaton in Fallout 3
rather than destroy it; you might travel into Dragon Age
's Fade to spare that child's life. But that you're on this enormous quest in the first place, that you're communicating with others' by the rules of the game, means you are no longer yourself. You've imprinted yourself on another person, one that exists within the fiction of the game. You're playing a role.
I'm not myself when I play Fallout
. If I were playing absolutely as myself, the first thing I'd do upon escaping the vault is go and cower in the foetal position in a corner, fingers crossed and eyes shut, waiting desperately for the apocalypse to finish (incidentally, basically what I'm planning on doing given the political unfoldings that have just occurred as I write). But I don't do that when I play Fallout
, nor do I do that in any other game.
And yet, in this GameCamp session, there were those who disagree. Some felt that they never really commit to their character when playing a game. They are always themselves, and their protagonist is simply a vehicle through which the action can play out on-screen. When they play a game, they said, they don't engage with it on the same level as they would a work of cinema. Games are galleries. It's just that some have more going on in them than others.
That makes me a little sad. Is that not demonstrative of a real lack of imagination? So many people are capable of submitting entirely to a different persona, whether that roleplay is in the real world or in a virtual one. I subscribe to that entirely. Perhaps some people just play games for a different reason to me. That's probably fine.
But to me, games aren't galleries. They're vast, extraordinary planes of existence, inhabited by characters whom I can become, with whom I can pass my time in the most delightfully diverse ways. And sure, I'm never under any illusion that the person I'm playing as is actually me
. It's not me that's saving the world; it's not me fighting through the zombie infestation. But that I can suspend that disbelief for just a few hours, even a few minutes, is what makes this medium so remarkable.
[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. Except right now, when he's about to become Rico Rodriguez for a while, if that's alright with you.]