(This article is subject to modification through exchanges, we're all here to learn.)
From the vertical lines of pixels in Pong to Detroit: Become Human's characters, avatars in games have undergone a long way to represent the players. If the mere existence of both characters and games precedes by far video games, why not stop and think about them for a while ?
Diving into tabletop roleplaying games, for example, we can find a French game named Sens Hexalogie (Romaric Briand, last book in 2016) inspired by Wittgenstein's philosophy. In it, the players are called Cellulis and their characters Bugs, due to the fact a computer cannot take their existence into account. These Bugs are wearing armors that they can transform as they wish.
Bugs are the vectors of their Celluli's will - their avatars - while the armors are the way Bugs protect themselves from their environment.
It's pretty easy to transfer this structure (Celluli/Bug/Armor) to Anthem (Player/Freelancer/Javelin.) However, in Sens Hexalogie, Cellulis are taken into account by the game, even if the Bugs are not (at first) aware of their existence.
When starting the game, the player has to record 20 facts about themselves on a Celluli sheet and 20 about their Bug on a Vector sheet. There we see how the character, even before being played, is reduced to their function: a tool for the Celluli to interact with the world.
Freelancer and Javelin
Most of Anthem's gameplay consists of sticking bullet/daggers/fireballs into the body of foes and exploring Bastion. Saying we are playing Javelins rather than Freelancers is not much of a bold move.
In the meantime, the people of BioWare gave us a Freelancer to play, as a human intermediary between the player and the killer exoskeleton that spreads mayhem in Bastion. A human vector we mostly catches glimpses of, when going on expeditions or during cutscenes.
Our Freelancers are determined through two choices : Feminine / Masculine voice and their face. On the other hand, our Javelins come with a wide range of choices, from materials to colors.
This emphasis on Javelin identity sets a clear line: Anthem is about the explorers, not the leftovers of humanity.
The only thing Freelancers have is choices when talking to people. Those have little impact as far as story is concerned, but they allow the player to express theirself, when the Javelins are completely deprived of such agency.
Using two different cameras (subjective and over the shoulder,) the game mechanically insists the distinction between those two entities, as a metaphor of the relationship existing between a player and their avatar.
Player and character
The bond between a player and its avatar is pretty hard to predict, even though as designers we are used to make them interact with each other. A player is not a character, reciprocally. Drawing a line between the two has its purpose when it comes to blurring them during gameplay.
Sens Hexalogie knows that. And it plays with it: if you invest yourself into the game, by properly playing your Bug but also by learning about its lore and theory outside game sessions, you are rewarded. However, disrupting the narration gets you punished to the point where you can't play the game anymore (instead of picking a new Bug when the previous died, with your consent.)
I can count 3 main kinds of avatars:
- Abstract: It is a player vector, but not a character. In computer and console games, however, it has a graphical existence, mostly under the form of a cursor (e.g. Bad North.) In these cases, the player often plays as himself or a higher authority in the game world.
- Projective (player=character): This kind of avatar exists in the game world but are little-to-nothing on their own. They are the perfect vector for players willing to immerse themselves into the game world, as they provide high-customization and little personality (e.g. Undertale.) You can easily recognize them because they rarely have a name on their own.
- Proactive (player+character): The character precedes the player in the diegesis, meaning they has a story before the game started. Depending on game design, however seize their existence (e.g. Horizon Zero Dawn.)
Abstract and Projective avatars are relatively close to each other, the main difference being in the latter directly acting on the game world. They are easy to pick up and the risk of player-character dissonance is low, due to the fact most of their personality is the player's. They can, however, feel like empty shells to players in search of something else than playing themselves in another universe.
The Proactive avatar, on the other hand, can have a lot to bring to the table. For example in Bioshock Infinite, Booker is not en empty shell the player has to fit theirself into: he gambles, drinks too much, smokes the same and gave his daughter to strangers. Players don't really want to relate to such a loser. He's a perfect anti-hero and the first reactions of some people might've been "I don't want to play him."
Such an avatar can create resistance for the player to get into. Sometimes for the best. Be it Booker or Cloud in Final Fantasy VII, things can change through gameplay, both of them becoming more relatable thanks to their relation to the game world (and more specifically to women.)
Bleed, the holy grail
The way we grow to love Elisabeth in Bioshock Infinite both as a player and as Booker is an excellent example of bleed and shows the strength that lies in our medium.
Bleed, in LARP theory, describes the pervasiveness between player and character. It affects “emotions, thoughts, relationship dynamics, and physical states” of both the player and the avatar. (Sarah Lynne Bowman, Nordic LARP, 2015)
In Bioshock Infinite, it is rather hard telling who loves Elisabeth first: Booker or the player ? The game gives its everything so that both of them grow to like her, making her very expressive, outgoing and, the most important, mechanically useful.
This love for Elisabeth is precisely were Booker and the player meet and align, preparing for the ending to come.
Returning angry from work and putting yourself in the boots of the Dragonborn, a player might want to eviscerate everything coming to the reach of their sword. This would be bleeding in, as the player would be putting their own state of mind into the game.
Bleeding out, on the other hand, would be grieving the loss of Aerith on a personal level rather than just staring at Cloud crying and shouting at Sephiroth.
Bleeding can take many forms, and it's pretty easy to bleed in in video games: checking an online guide, playing more aggressively out of real-life anger... Those tend to happen without much effort, from a developer side. However, moral bleed is tricking to produce effectively because even in a flow state, the player is still very aware he is playing.
LARP theory says it's easier to bleed when you're playing close to home, and while video games seem to have understood that, it seems the projective avatar isn't the right tool to create emotions.
The distinction between the player and their character becomes important when they have contradictory desires. For example, my character might want to date another, but as a player, I might want this relationship to end badly before it even starts.
More pragmatically, Quarantine Circular let us play through a cast of character, from a PhD student to an alien. While we go through the first chapters, we are getting to know Teng Lei, an unfriendly, xenophobic security officer. At some point during the game, we are coerced into playing her. Depending on previous choices, you can either chose to let het die or let some other character take a hit in her place. If you grew to like the other character you might want to let her die, when she probably wants to survive. It's up to you to chose.
Depending on your choice, the bleed goes one way or the other.
By splitting apart Freelancer (a mostly proactive avatar) and Javelin (a projective avatar) gameplays, Anthem offers a narrative about powerlessness: while the latter can fly, the former can't even jump and the frustration we get is palpable. BioWare's work may show us thoughts concerning why we dive ourselves into power-fantasy video games.
When it comes to narrative design, everything can become a tool. Considering the time we spent going through games, properly choosing which vehicle will drive your player through the game may not be an easy decision.