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Gameplay as Storytelling: A look at "Character Inhabitation"

As a storytelling medium, video games have a number of unique properties, including the ability for the player to "be" the playable character. This article will look at various games and how they use character inhabitation to tell their stories.

Recently, there has been much discussion on the role and nature of stories in games.     However, while I have seen much discussion of player generated narratives (which do not fit my definition of a story, though the goal the goal is still a worthy one to pursue) and backstory told through space, I have seen relatively little about how gameplay can be used for storytelling.   One of the unique aspects of games, compared to other media, is that they have a player, who interacts with the game primarily via its mechanics. It only makes sense that designers who wish to tell stories using games should take advantage of this.

Before I continue any further, it may be advisable to describe what I mean when I talk about “stories” and “storytelling”.  My personal definition of a story is “A series of events (a narrative) that are intended to elicit emotional and/or intellectual responses from the audience.”  The nature of those emotional/intellectual responses is the story.  Storytelling then, is the mechanics of the story, the techniques used to convey the narrative and plot in a way that elicits the intended responses.

One of video games’ greatest unique strengths, as a storytelling medium, is their ability for the player to inhabit the playable character.  When something happens to the player character during gameplay, it is being done to the player.  When the player character does something as a result of the player’s input, it is really the player performing that action.  This is true, regardless of whether or not the player character has a life beyond that of player avatar, or whether or not the player’s actions have any bearing on the narrative at anything but the moment-to-moment level.

This “character inhabitation”, as a I call it, is similar to but distinct from the identification for characters found in other media, in that identification is about empathy, whereas inhabitation is about experience.  It is also related to, but distinct from, roleplaying.  In roleplaying, a player consciously acts as somebody other than themselves, although frequently a character that they themselves created.  Character inhabitation does not strictly require the player to consciously act as anybody other than themselves, as the restrictions placed on the player’s actions by the design, and the mood set by the rest of the game, can be used to subtly push them into a particular experience and role.  

There is an aspect of roleplaying inherent to character inhabitation, in that the player must accept the role they are given.  If they rebel, the story collapses, just the story in any medium can be neutralized if the audience disengages from it.  However, the most successful games do not require the player to actively roleplay, but instead guide the player in such a way that, unless they actively disengage, they will play the role they are meant to.

A word of warning:  There will be spoilers, some minor, some less so, for all the games I will be looking at.  All the games are fairly old, but if you have not played and do not want spoilers for Half Life 2, Journey, Escape from the Underworld, Sly 2 Band of Thieves, Last of Us or Bulletstorm, please be advised.

A relatively straightforward but excellent application of character inhabitation as a storytelling technique can be found in Valve’s sci-fi FPS, Half Life 2.  Although Half Life 2 technically has a narrative in the traditional sense, it is nothing special when stripped of the player experience, a basic alien invasion and rebellion plot with a few mild twists. However, Valve also crafted a simple but effective character arc for the player.  The player (not Gordon Freeman, but the player) starts off powerless, thrust into a strange world where all they can do is run.  The one-sided train yard shootout, the sudden introduction of the “manhack” and headcrab enemies, the omnipresence of the seemingly invincible attack chopper, and other events serve to keep the player on edge and feeling vulnerable.  After a particularly grueling trial-by-fire in Ravenholm, however, the player is suddenly no longer running away.  Instead, they are on the offensive, assaulting outposts and taking down monsters like the gunships on a regular basis.   This transformation from fugitive to one-man-army is the true crux of Half Life 2’s story, and works because of character inhabitation.

A similar approach to storytelling, although to a very different purpose, can be found in ThatGameCompany’s Journey.  Unlike Valve’s power fantasy, Journey tells a very abstract but definite story of death and rebirth. The entirety of the game, including its gameplay, is crafted to put the player through a roller coaster of emotions.   There’s mystery in the early game as the player interacts with the ruins and carpet creatures, joy in frolicking with them in the slide section, fear in hiding from the mechanical dragons’ sight as they eat the carpet creatures, melancholy in watching the creatures (and the player character) die in the cold, and ultimately joy in simply flying.  The entire experience is presented in a way that would be impossible in any other medium, and in many ways serves as a distillation of what is unique about storytelling in games.

In both these games, the player character is exactly and solely the player.   However, games can also invoke character inhabitation for characters that are not solely ciphers.  As a transitionary example, Escape from the Underworld, by Banov.  More so than either Half Life 2 or Journey, the narrative in Escape from the Underworld is that of the player’s actions, as the story is entirely told through gameplay, with no cutscenes and few scripted sequences.  However, Escape’s protagonist, though silent, is not entirely a cipher, and in fact is a villain protagonist.  This potentially alienating premise is made to feel natural to the player through a clever if somewhat underhanded tactic.

    The game begins with a wordless tutorial.  The player, controlling a small black angel figure, is presented with several obstacles and button prompts to familiarize them with the basic controls of walking and flying.  After this, the player comes across a village, and as they approach the villagers, a new button prompt appears over their heads.  Is this a way to talk to them?  No, it’s the attack button.  Whether the player feels guilty at what they did, or decides to finish off the rest of the village, smaller angels show up and start attacking them. The player fights back, because they’re being attacked.  Eventually, the player is overwhelmed by a particularly large angel and is cast into the eponymous underworld, stripped of all their power (including the ability to jump!).  In this way, the game sets the player up for the rest of the game’s “power up and get revenge” plot in a way that makes the player want to get revenge, as they were punished for something that was not really their fault.

Although Escape is more forceful in aligning the player to the role its story requires of its protagonist than the previous examples, they all tell very player-centric stories.  However, character inhabitation can also be used in conjunction with other storytelling techniques to tell more traditional narratives in games.  One interesting example is the interplay between gameplay and story pacing in Sly 2: Band of Thieves, by Sucker Punch Productions.   The basic premise of the game is that of a group of professional thieves performing large scale heists against a shadowy conspiracy group, and though much of its charm is in the banter between characters during mission briefings, the overall plot works because of the pacing of its gameplay.   From the first of its eight “episodes”, the game establishes a basic rhythm in its gameplay and storytelling: reconnaissance, setup, and then execution.  This quickly familiar rhythm is maintained for several episodes, where the jobs go more-or-less as planned, but is suddenly broken when one of the heists goes completely pear-shaped, leaving the player only able to play as the game’s most vulnerable character for half of the next world as they try to rescue the rest of the gang. 

This is clever on two levels.  First, the sudden (and forced, as the player cannot swap characters at this point) focus in gameplay on the game’s least used and trickiest to use character serves to make the player extremely uncomfortable, which can only be relieved if they learn how to use the character effectively, just as the character in-universe has to overcome their own fears and become the hero.  And if they don’t? The sequence is still beatable, and will probably be remembered as the most intense part of the game.   Second, by lulling the player into a rhythm in the early levels, the midgame twist becomes all the more shocking.  This effect, though possible elsewhere, is better suited to a game than to a more passive medium, since the routine can be fun to perform, as long as gameplay is kept interesting, but is almost never fun to watch or read, unless condensed or skipped over, which limits the effectiveness of the trick.

As a final example of character inhabitation, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Although it obviously makes use of traditional storytelling, to good effect, Last of Us has a surprising amount of character inhabitation  From the very start, the game attempts to invoke character inhabitation, as the opening (which is barely a tutorial, teaching the player only how to walk and control the camera over almost twenty minutes of gameplay) has the player controlling first the daughter, then the father carrying the daughter, so the player is in a sense trying to rescue themselves.    Later, when Joel falls on a spike and forced to drag himself out through a gun fight, the player remains in nominal control, leaving them to feel, not only scared for Joel, but scared for themselves, as, just as in normal gameplay, if Joel dies, they “die”.    And while I can only speak for myself, when Ellie killed a guy to save Joel in that same sequence, I cheered for her as “my girl”. 

Something to be mindful of mind when using the technique is that player control, or at least the illusion of control, is essential to player inhabitation of a character.  This is well-illustrated by a failure in storytelling from Bulletstorm (People Can Fly).   Bulletstorm tried something interesting, in that, within an FPS (a genre of games particularly well-suited for inhabitation) it entirely rejected the notion of a cipher character.  It almost worked.

The tutorial tasks the player to guide the game’s protagonist, Grayson, as they drunkenly attempt to shoot a bottle off a prisoner’s head and, failing that, kick them out the airlock.  Asking player’s to control such a reprehensible character up front, without tricking the player into establishing themselves as the character first, as Escape from the Underworld did, was a risk on People Can Fly’s part, as it asks for far more roleplaying than is typical, which if the player refused, could lead to immediate disconnect from the story.  However, those who accept the fiction cannot help but feel at least a bit of empathy for the character,  because the player is technically (if not actually) controlling Grayson’s every action.

However, when the villain’s warship suddenly appears, a cutscene begins, and so Grayson’s decision to, in violation of all common sense, attack the better-armed warship, happens completely independently of the player.   For the duration of the cutscene, the character’s mistakes and indiscretions are no longer the player’s, and the story must rely on other methods of generating sympathy for the character, which Bulletstorm sadly fails to accomplish, instead leaving the protagonist to look like an idiot.  The rest of the game was plagued with other storytelling problems (the entire plot rests on the character being duped by a villain who makes the Sicilian dwarf from Princess Bride look subtle), but if the player had maintained the token amount of control given to them earlier, this scene at least might have worked better.   Any time there is a cutscene, the player’s relationship to the playable character becomes one of identification, not inhabitation, and the storytelling must be able to support that.

There seems to be some outright hostility to the concept of games with intentional stories.   “If the player does not have any choice in the story, write a screenplay for a movie” is a sentiment I have sometimes seen.  But games are not movies, just as movies are not novels, or novels plays, or plays comic books.   The mere act of holding the controller, manipulating the actions of at least one character, creates a relationship between audience and medium that is not found in any other media, with both unique limitations and possibilities.  One of those possibilities is for character inhabitation.  Telling stories is not the only goal a game can have, but it is one of them, and it is as valid as any other.  And one of the ways to ensure that the stories told through games are the best they can be is by making use of, or at least being aware of, the aspects unique to the medium.

Please share any feedback, questions, or anecdotes about character inhabitation you might have in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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