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Adding a Little Performance to Everyday Play

An approach to designing the circumstances and expectations that turn normal play into performance through moments of "dramatic realization" (an idea borrowed from Irving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life").

In Postscript to “The Name of the Rose” Umberto Eco writes:

I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, would become my prey—or, rather, the prey of the text—and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him.

The designer of a game with any kind of character-based narrative similarly wants the player to become the “prey” of the game. In less antagonistic terms, this means provoking a performance in the player that does not contradict (and ideally supports) the story. Hardcore roleplaying—whether in Mass Effect 2 or an MMORPG—is wonderful when it occurs, but what interests me is the ubiquitous, unavoidable performance of plain play.
I found Erving Goffman’s 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life useful in thinking about play because it frames performance as natural behaviour, not acting. The vast majority of players of narrative games are not fully inhabiting a character and roleplaying, but playing in a way not that different from how they might in many other games—playing as they do in “everyday life”. Yet, as Goffman shows, there are a number of external influences and contexts that shape a person’s behaviour in everyday life. Perhaps some of these influences, once identified in a game context, could be used by a game designer to intentionally shape a player’s behaviour without explicitly demanding roleplay. This is what I understand as a player becoming “the prey of the text”.

Goffman’s presentation of self requires a performer and an audience. In singleplayer games (which I’m going to limit myself to in this post) the audience and the performer are aspects of the same person. One of the most important roles of Goffman's audience is to have an idealized view of a given situation informed by setting, past experience, etc. that the performer can work off of and affirm. The game designer has the powerful ability not found in the real world to construct player/audience expectations almost from scratch, and in this way influence the performance of play. Moments of “dramatic realization”, to borrow another term from Goffman, are one way this is achieved in games. Dramatic realization is basically the performance of specific actions that reveal aspects of the performer that match or refine the audience’s expectations of that character.

How to design an effective moment of dramatic realization for the player to encounter and enact is a difficult problem that probably has many solutions. But I believe moments of dramatic realization should be specific and opportunistic (for my thoughts on opportunistic play see this post). As Matthew Frederick writes in 101 Things I Learned in Architecture school, “Design a flight of stairs for the day a nervous bride descends them.” The philosophy behind designing for specific moments is not to squash any possibility of “emergent play”, but to actually create an environment that fosters powerful and unique experiences. Ambiguous and generic possibility spaces will often only provide ambiguous and generic experiences.

I’ll try to ground some of this theory in reality before it gets away from us. In the first level of Half-Life 2 the player has no weapons but is nonetheless taught (and given the opportunity) to rebel against the Combine in various ways that I think of as successful moments of dramatic realization.

A Combine soldier knocks a can to the floor and instructs the player to put it in the trash bin. The tutorial prompt gives us an explicit—but conflicting—instruction directly from the designers: Don’t obey, throw the can at the guard in defiance. This breaks the fourth wall and could be viewed as clumsy, but it is the tutorial and, as such, helps ease us in to what will soon be a more self-directed performance. The expectation of the audience/player (as suggested by Valve’s direct statement) is that in this situation, Gordon Freeman would throw the can at the soldier. Players who obey the soldier and place the can in the trash are following a different—but no less valid—set of expectations they have built up about the current situation. In either case, this is a moment of dramatic realization for a performance that fleshes out an interpretation of Gordon Freeman’s character.

Far more interesting than explicit performance instructions such as on-screen prompts and QTEs are the implicit ones that players follow reflexively, without seeing the designer’s guiding hand (see also: My post How Designers Turn Heads and Matthew Gallant’s Guiding the Player’s Eye). The above screenshot is the player’s first view of a television broadcasting propaganda, and demonstrates the power of mis-en-scène and exploitation of the player’s past experiences in creating effective implicit moments of dramatic realization. Some factors that contribute to provoking a specific performance from the player:

  • The TV broadcast loops indefinitely, same as those on the huge monitors that have been omnipresent since stepping off the train. The player may recognize in this small TV an opportunity to finally (temporarily) silence Dr. Breen.
  • The TV alludes to the infamous televisions of Orwell's 1984 which cannot be turned off and constantly monitor/indoctrinate the population in their own homes.
  • Pressing the interact button ‘E’ to turn off the TV does not work, and if attempted it will, in fact, cause the player to pick up the TV.
  • The visual framing and position of the television in the doorway the player must walk through makes it hard to ignore and clearly shows a taut power cord connecting it to the wall. Players will remember that physics objects can be picked up and infer that picking it up and “yanking” will detach the cord from the wall and turn it off.

The combined result is an immediate and almost irresistible urge to violently yank the TV from the power socket. The NPCs did not complain about the TV and its unplugging was not required to progress. This action is a “self-directed” moment of rebellion and dramatic realization that allows the player/Gordon Freeman to say through actions not words “Enough of this”. But as self-directed and apparently improvisational as the action was, the moment was intentionally designed for (if not, what a weird coincidence and odd prop placement—the point is moments like this could easily be designed).

The first time the player smashes a city scanner (flying camera) with the crowbar is also an important, character defining moment of dramatic realization. The camera is not a physical threat that must be destroyed in a kill or be killed situation like combine soldiers, but smashing it to pieces is undeniably satisfying while being ultimately pointless from a pure game progression point of view. It is a designed moment, slowly built towards during the preceding chapters. I previously took a more in-depth look at video game security cameras and had this to say about HL2’s scanners:

When you step off that train, without any weapons, unfamiliar with the world you've entered, a camera flies in front of your face and blinds you with a flash. The screen turns white, your vision is obscured for a few moments. Surveillance, invasion of privacy and space, helplessness...these are the very first things experienced by the player.

Destroying the city scanner, like yanking a TV out of the wall, is an emotional reaction somewhere between release and revenge. At this point players are the prey of the text, eagerly performing the roles expected of them.

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