Sunday, 2 June 2013

Character Used is (un)defined – the Divide between the Player and the Player Character

The player character (PC) of a game is very important; he or she is not only the window through which players see the world, but it also the vessel through which they act. One important variable in the design of PCs is the amount of personality they have. In one extreme, the PC is a blank slate; in the other extreme, he has an independent personality. The former is what happens more in western role-playing games, which are typically non-linear and focus on player choice, and the latter is what happens more in eastern role-playing games, which are typically very linear and focus on telling a story. I call this dimension the divide between the player character and the player.

Heavy Rain: Sometimes it's important to make the player feel that he is the one making the choices. This is what makes for exciting experiences in Heavy Rain. 

If there is a small divide, you run the risk of story discontinuity; there must be some reason why players don't notice the consequences of previous interactions. There are some common reasons that designers use to resolve this issue: the main character has some form of amnesia, has spent their entire life on a small farm in the middle of nowhere, is stuck in a different part of the world, or had to change his identity. Cut loose from the past, and not having an annoying personality from the PC to get in the way, players get the chance to do whatever they want.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - His name is Dovahkiin, but that's about the only thing that's pre-defined about him (or her).

If there is a large divide, you run the risk of alienating the player. The PC has been around for a while, and might have had some experiences that will haunt the players later on: they might be punished because of previous interactions, get into relationships with characters they dislike, or hate the decisions that the PC takes. This is particularly important when it comes to very close relationships, as it is difficult to make players feel for characters they have not gotten used to (“you can tell me that's my wife, but I don't know even know her!”). This is why game designers and writers generally try to avoid established relationships that do not feature prominently in the story. For example, with romantic partners for the PC, either it is someone that he has not met before, and they develop their relationship, or he is already involved with someone, and they go through relationship issues.

Tales of Graces F - Either you hate it or you love it, typical Tales of Graces games come with very pre-defined characters and relationships.

You would expect that each extreme of the dimension could lead to different types of stories: the blank-slate games could focus more on what happens in the present and the choices of the player, and the PC with personality games could focus more on what has happened in the past and the choices of the PC. This couldn't be further from the truth though. The PC with personality games usually feature a PC who has had a very uneventful life, which is very similar to the PC background in the blank slate games. This is something we can find in many different games: usually you play an inexperienced character who, unwillingly, becomes a part of a large conflict due to some act of god, learns many things on the way, makes many friends, falls in love, and saves the day after defeating the bad guy single-handedly. 

Hero's Journey (Campbell 1949) - A very simple story flow, but the basis for many of our modern day epics

Many designers have a fear of trying something new; by making things more different, we might be catering to a smaller group. The result is that we are missing out on many new game experiences. What about playing a character who has already defeated the bad guy? What about a character that already has found their love interest, but still has to go out on an adventure? What about a character that already has a lot of influence and power, and can use that to his advantage? To me it feels we are focusing a little bit too much on the search for new game mechanics and better graphics, while we should start challenging the boundaries of storytelling.

Fire Emblem Awakenings - This game has a great balance between player choice, and pre-defined stories. Particular the choice in character relationships is amazing.