The Story Mechanics’ creative lead, Simon Meek, was lucky enough to present at the Dare Indie Fest and tackled the subject of The Player VS Player Character and the conflict that can arise when the audience’s role in an experience is not clearly defined. For those of you who weren’t at the event, we’ve condensed the thoughts and considerations into this blog post. Let us know what you think, and hope you enjoy reading it!
The Player VS Player Character: Who am I? What should you say? What would she do?
- The Player VS Player Character Conflict arises when the player questions his/her intended role in a game and the capacity in which they are meant to act.
- Contrary to current design trends in games, making players ‘stop and think’ about a narrative choice is not always a good thing and should ring warning bells. Every narrative choice – often located within dialogue interchanges – has the potential dislocate the experience if the audience role is not clearly established.
- If you are presenting the player with a choice, consider whether you’re asking them to make it as a game-player (ie. thinking about the best outcome), a role-player (ie. acting in character) or as themselves (ie. a personal reflection of their moral self). All are valid approaches, but if there’s any confusion it will act to the detriment of the story and overall experience.
- Defining the audience’s role is a universal requirement across all art forms. Literature uses the narrative voice and point-of-view to place the reader within its story; film relies on cinematography and juxtaposition; theatre and installation arts use physical space; and all have experimented with the audience’s role in their experience. (A few good examples would be Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City; Michael Haneke’s Funny Games; and Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More.)
- Traditional storytelling media will turn to interactivity for experimentation, yet the default in video games (and all gaming, for that matter) is to have an interacting and participating audience (aka players). The default state is that player is of puppeteer or controller. If developers want to change the notion of game-play into role-play – where players take on a new role – this needs to be designed into the game system and communicated directly to the audience, empowered with a toolset by which this transformation can be made and understood
- It is not the instance of interactivity and story combined that causes the player versus character conflict, however. Nintendo’s Mario games have managed to weave the two perfectly for 30 years. This is because Mario is a vessel of game-play, not role-play.
- The Player VS Player Character conflict arises within an interactive story construct where there exists both choice and (player) reflection. This reflection part is key: in order to act in a way that feels natural, the player needs to know what role they are playing in the game, such that when a choice is presented to them they instinctually know how to react to it. For example, in Bioshock Infinite, ask yourself: Are you Booker Dewitt?
The talk went on to explore ‘role-theory’ and the ‘power of speech’ – where we can see online-multiplayer games (of the with-headset variety) as noisy experiences, with plenty of role-play, and the single player – in contrast – as a very silent affair. Perhaps vocal interaction is a powerful tool when asking the player to embody the player character?
Overall, the very existence of the Player VS Player Character conflict is an amazing problem to have – it signals progressive experimentation in interactive storytelling. The take-home is that game designers should consider asking ‘what is the players role?’ at the top of any design document, as the answer may not be as obvious as you first think.
Author: Simon Meek