Thursday, June 5, 2008

"I": Videogame's Greatest Character

I have always felt that the best videogame stories/narrative experiences are the ones that the player contributes to in a meaningful way. In this case, meaningful means through the primary mechanic of the game. What the player does between the beginning and the end of a level (or even between cutscenes) isn't filler set aside from the story. What the player plays is the story, or at least a very important part of it.

I've come up with little test you can give to anyone to determine if the game controlled the story or if the player contributed to it. Ask someone to tell you what happened in any game they recently played. As they describe the events to you, be mindful of the language they use. If their retelling is composed of sentences that begin with "I" then they are relating the events of a journey they had control over. If the sentences between with names like "Snake," "Cloud," or "Charizard" then the teller is acknowledging that there are parts of the game they felt that they had no control over.

Because videogames are an interactive medium, I greatly favor the story of "I" over the story of "insert main character here." I want to know how the player interacted with the world, characters, and story. I'm interested in how the player changes the game and how the game changes the player. When the player is merely a static liaison between cut scenes, or a silent chauffeur obediently carting the characters along until their next esoteric conversation, how can we continue to hold these games up as the best examples of videogame storytelling?

When I recount play sessions with Super Mario Brothers, I use "I" to describe all of Mario's actions. I do this because in this game, Mario does very little on his own. I grabbed the powerup. I squashed the goomba. I saved the princess. When such a close connection between myself and the story/ actions in the game exists, personal feelings and thoughts are that much easier to interject. When I tell stories about playing Super Mario Brothers, I talk about how I had to size-up the Hammer Bros by walking right up in their face. I talk about staring down Bowser tense with anticipation as he stands in between me and victory. I talk about how comboing jumps off the backs of Koopas and Goombas while moving as quickly as possible through a level feels like flying. I talk about how the level tried to trick me by putting a hidden item box right where I was trying to make a tricky jump. The conversation between me and the game that makes up my play experience is really a conversation with myself.

If videogames are to continue to be mediums of self expression, then we must acknowledge the self. With Drebin#1#2 I attempted to design a space where the player can have themselves reflected back to them. There's something about the doing, the action, the mechanic that holds a truth inside the present moments. Don't just take my word for it. Here's are some quotes from Musashi's Book of Five Rings. I believe these words resonate with Drebin#1#2.



The "spirit of the thing" is what will guide a man to his own greatness.

...only when the "spirit of the thing itself" feels comfortable with the warrior as a vehicle for its own expression.

It is very hard to explain these ideas in detail because of their intuitive nature. Once you have understood the depth of the thing you are studying, the "spirit" of all things will reveal itself to you.

When you understand yourself and you understand the enemy you cannot be defeated.

Whether on or off the battlefield, there is no difference in spirit. The warrior sees all of life as the battlefield.

Think about being seen only by yourself and not through the eyes of others.

2 comments:

wale said...

This brings to light an interesting thing I noticed once about a friend of mine.

He insists on saying 'he' when talking about videogame characters. He NEVER says 'i completed the last level'. He says 'I was playing, and kratos got to the last level'. He actually gets offended sometimes when I say things like 'dude, you just died!'. He would rather I said 'Watch it! He's going to die!'

This guy also hates first person games of all kinds. He LOVES gears of war.

This suggests to me that the issues of identity and point of view have a much deeper psychological significance as regards the way certain videogames are recieved.

Most of the best character action games are shown from a third person perspective and have great, lovable characters such as Kratos, Dante, Lara. An unlikeable character in such a game could spell its doom, despite a good play mechanic- witness MGS2. Would we all like Masterchief so much in HALO if not for the cutscenes showing a nondescript guy in a spacesuit, that could easily be you or me? I love masterchief because I *am* masterchief. I love soap in COD4 because I *am* soap. It could be my codename...and we never see soap's face. Even samus aran wears a mask... although she can't be me, the mask anonymizes her and her gender ceases to matter. I find it impossible to believe I am a female superspy in perfect dark, however...and I couldnt care less about Joanna.

Perhaps it isn't so much that it is important to fuse the player and the character, than it is to recognize whether this fusion will take place or not, and design accordingly. Will players assume the role of the protagonist? Then make him as much of a blank template as possible. Will players assume the role of an invisible force controlling the character? Then try to make the character as likeable and interesting as possible, if possible, using non-interactive cutscenes.

I doubt masterchief mania would be as great as it is without the cutscenes.

- Darkmanzero (google ID wale)

KirbyKid said...

@wale

Neat story and good points.

A few things that came to mind...

Some people say that the first person perspective is more immersive than 3rd person. Though this may seem easily true at first, there are are few subtle issues. Perhaps seeing out the eyes of the character is like you are there in place of the character, however most first person games don't render the characters full body correct.

First person games have a very hard time creating a strong sense of space in close quarters with other characters/objects. In most FPSs, if you walk flat up against a wall, the proportions of the gun will grow because the floating gun isn't actually rendered in 3D space as an extension of the characters arm.

From what I can tell, Mirror's Edge looks like it's addressing such issues.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2N1TJP1cxmo

3rd person is much more flexible than 1st. It was a smart move for Halo3 to add small moment where the camera pans back for a 3rd person view. Also, driving the vehicles in 3rd person just makes sense. I didn't like Half Life 2's 1st person vehicle driving.

"design accordingly"... That's exactly what I want to hear. All games can't have a fusion main character. All games can't be first person, or pushing the limits of realism. However, I do believe that all games (one some level) can be well designed. No excuses.