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Player Character Concepts

Drawing on the idea of the player-character, Harvey Smith discusses issues related to character design, including kinds of characters, prescribed identities, player self-expression, and the difference between traditional fiction and interactive gaming.

harvey smith, Blogger

November 8, 1999

15 Min Read

The term "character" is a summation of the attributes that make one person different from another. As much as this is a list of traits included in an identity, it is also a list of traits that are excluded from an identity. A character is a fictional identity, a mock entity. More specifically, a game character is a vehicle for playing the game; the means through which the game shows the player the game-world's responses to his presence.

This article explores the concept of character as it relates to a computer game, focusing on characters that represent the player (player-characters), rather than characters driven by AI or scripts (non-player-characters). As a result of this focus, much of what is written here comes from a game-centric, rather than dramatic, standpoint.

Mechanical Vs. Fictional Character Differentiation

In a computer role-playing game (CRPG), player-characters are often composed of elements external to the game and its systems. For instance, my character may "hail from the snowy mountain villages of Kerbash" while yours might have "journeyed up from the depths of the under-mountain caves of Gnil." Often, these types of characteristics are not expressed mechanically within the game; they exist solely as extra fictional material for the player's imagination - back story. Elements like these are useful in that they help the player suspend disbelief and facilitate immersion into the game - they can further advance the design goals of a given game. It could be argued that these types of details are more relevant for specific types of games, but in many cases, having some fictional context for what the player represents in a game and what he is trying to accomplish will help him understand and enjoy the game (which is an alien, abstract thing to begin with). Back story can enhance the player's experience by engaging his imagination. These fictional elements provide motivational context and often an imperative that drive the player's actions.

For instance, the game Lunar Lander was all about firing thrusters for just long enough, allowing for drift and gravity, to land a spacecraft. Except that Lunar Lander wasn't really about landing a spacecraft - it was actually all about pushing a couple of buttons and watching a glowing spot. But the latter doesn't sound like much fun, especially when compared to the former - the "I'm a spaceman!" version. The player - staring into a monitor, pushing buttons with two fingers - is of course not really a spaceman, but where would we be, as human beings, without our artful illusions? (Trapped in a dull world, I think.) The context helps the player immerse himself in the game more fully, to make the game a more personal, subjective experience.

Other games rely on character traits that are weighted more toward game mechanics. For instance, a character may have a speed of 15, which allows him to move at a particular rate. In many cases, of course, a game allows the player to make decisions about the character's speed-the player can decide how heavily to invest in this mechanical trait. This too is characterization, in the context of the computer game medium, and in some ways it has a stronger impact on the player than fiction (the back story). Establishing fictionally that a character is an orphan has less impact on game play than establishing that the character has a high speed. (Though making the character an orphan might have more impact ultimately on the player's experience, depending upon how compelling the player finds the game's fiction.)

In Doom, the game's fictional background is merely a thin skeleton of a structure, meant to do essentially two things. First, Doom's back story enhances the game's horror elements, thus increasing the player's sense fear and peril, making the experience more gripping. Second, the game's background gives the player some starting context for his location, his identity, and the relationship between the two. The fact that the player was a space marine and that someone had opened a portal to hell was in many ways less relevant than the game's excellent game-play elements. For instance:

  • The speed at which the player could move was directly tied to how much time he had to note an imp's incoming fireball and dodge it.

  • The player could take a specific amount of damage before being kicked from the game, and his weapons refired at a particular rate.

  • Finding certain game power-up objects altered these mechanical traits.

These mechanics are in-game character traits, and they are probably more relevant to the Doom experience than the fictional identity of the player-character. This is not to say that mechanics are always more relevant than fictional context-in Myst, the opposite is true. (Though I believe that the more relevant the game mechanics and rules are to an entertainment software application, the more purely it can be categorized as a "game" in the true sense of the word.)

Most games, once you look at them, use character traits related to both fictional context and game play, since that gives the game developer two powerful sets of tools with which to (hopefully) achieve fun. These two tool sets are game interactivity and suspension of disbelief. In many cases, the seams between the two tools are faint.

In the computer version of the game Bureau 13, the player had to choose two agents from a set of eight or so. Each of these had different "game powers." One character could assume an ethereal form and thus enter otherwise inaccessible spots and elude enemies. But this character was also defined by his history: He was a vampire with a personal back story. The character's mechanical abilities and his fictional background were both relevant to the player's enjoyment of the game - the former to game play and puzzles, the latter to imagination and story immersion. The line between the two might seem gray here-that is, you might think that the mechanics were implied by the fictional context - but the character could have just as easily been a genie with the power to become ethereal, or an alien or whatever. The ethereal game power is directly tied to game-play, while the vampiric history is a decision tied to fiction context. While using the vampire identity might have made the character's mechanical powers more accessible - assuming the player knows what "vampires" are traditionally capable of doing - it also sets up player expectations. If, for instance, the player is someone who also thinks vampires should take triple damage from silver, yet the game's silver weapons do not take this into account, the player might be disappointed, since his expectations have been thwarted.

Prescripted Identity vs. Player Self-Expression

Players often ask for more "story". Some players, especially in the CRPG field, claim to be tired of the simple sort of encompassing one-line story. ("You're the last living person on a space station filled with hostile robots and mutants; you must fight your way to the exit!") One thing players who make this request often seem to miss is that the more story the game "tells" the player, the less freedom the player actually has to dictate his own story, his own course of events.

I believe that computer games, as a medium, should play to their strengths rather than attempting to simply bring the elements of more traditional media to the computer screen. In other words, computer games should provide the player with an interesting environment over which he has some measure of control, and that environment should react to him. This, rather than traditional story telling, is the unique power of the computer game as an art form.

So if computer games are a vehicle for user self-expression, the lightweight, one-liner story used by so many games is in many ways a brilliant convention. It is just significant enough to allow the player to immerse himself in the context of the game, to suspend his disbelief, and it is free-form enough to allow the player to dictate his own story through his actions. ("Your father has been murdered. You must find the killer.")

Some story is helpful, but too much is restrictive. There is a similar trade-off related to character. If the designer provides lots of back story for the player-character, the game's fictional world is made richer and the player-character fits into that world in an integral manner. On the other hand, this level of back story can hamper the player's ability to immerse himself in the game, since a strongly defined player-character identity is probably at odds with the identity of the player himself. If the goal of the game is immersion-that is, if it's the sort of game where the experience is most powerful when the player forgets he is playing a game and instead feels as if he is actually in the environment-then too much back story can act to constantly remind the player that it's not him exploring the world, but instead it's "Gordon Freeman, MIT graduate."

Game player-characters come in many forms-many levels of complexity and completeness. In some games, the concept of character is only vaguely present. For instance, the player may be represented in the game world by a helicopter and the (assumed but never seen) pilot. In games like these, the "character" is just a class of unit. Again, Doom comes to mind: "space marine."
In tactical games or CRPGs, the character is often a collection of numbers. Often, this form of identity is generic enough to allow the player to project his own sense of self onto the character. Further, the variable nature of the numbers can even allow the player to "create" a particular type of character by shifting values around to different attributes. (A strong character versus a fast character, for instance.)

Whereas this is somewhat weak fictionally speaking (a character whose personality is a collection of numbers is generally less well defined than a classical literary character, for instance), it would be a mistake to dismiss this style of character creation, it would be a mistake to dismiss this style of character creation. Again, the power of the computer game is that it puts the user in control, allowing him to express himself. The user generates the character, which imbues the game with some of the player's own essence, adding meaning to the experience.

In other games the character is a fictional individual, but is still vague-simple in nature like Mario, from Nintendo's well-known series. He's short, wears overalls, has a mustache and is Italian. Barring a few family ties and rivalries, that's essentially all we know. Who Mario's parents were, where he was educated and what sort of drink he orders at the bar are meaningless details for the scope of the games that feature this character.

Sometimes, as with Gabriel Knight, the character is very highly defined and fits perfectly into his fictional world-New Orleans is his home and he is an archetypal Southerner. Lara Croft, perhaps to a lesser extent, represents this sort of approach to character. She is a wealthy English woman. These characters have obvious marketing benefits-the identity of the character is strong enough to build a fan base. In the case of such well-defined characters, it is easier for the public to come to "know" who the character actually is, to get a feel for the identity of the persona, as with a movie star or popular musician.

But marketing bonuses aside, there are some trade-offs for using such well-defined characters.

In a game, when you "play a character," you are either adopting a role, taking on the predetermined characteristics of a mock person developed by someone else, or you are expressing your individual selfhood, acting by the compass of your own identity.
Some people prefer the former, usually for one of three reasons. These players enjoy being a more integrated part of a story, they enjoy stepping outside themselves and being someone else for a while, or they simply do not want to deal with the extra "burden" of making game choices in accordance with their owns selves. (From an intellectual standpoint, I believe that making choices based on the motives of a simplistic fictional character is easier than making choices in accordance with one's own, more complex self. The predetermined persona is, of course, usually simpler than the real person playing the game.)

However, there is something to be said for vaguely defined player-characters specifically within a game. The less well-defined the player-character is, the more easily the player himself can "be" the character, can immerse himself in the game world. And this is powerful - this is what games, at their finest, are all about. Games are not the poor cousin to movies and books. Movies and books are stories already told by someone else about someone else. Games allow the player to act - they can provide a dynamic setting in which the player can express himself and create his own experience.

If, in a movie, a character spray-paints a racial slur on the wall, the viewer will react to it in some way. The individual response of the viewer is complex, filtered through the mind of each person in the audience. This internal reaction and interpretation process is great - it's a huge part of what makes traditional media so perpetually enthralling and illuminating. However, in the computer game analog, the designer can create a walled-in environment, add a can of spray paint, and provide tools that allow a player to spray-paint something of his own on the wall. This is the player acting, rather than reacting. The game could then, if sophisticated enough, feature secondary characters that react to the player's spray-painted message. This is a level of interactivity that does not exist in traditional media.

The Difference Between Fiction, Games

Years ago, as a writer who loved videogames, I thought of games as an offshoot of fiction -- that the two were closely tied. I no longer consider this the case. The more I work as a game designer (and the more I play and analyze games), the more I conclude that this perceived connection between fiction and games is an illusion. They are superficially similar because people, being storytellers, wrap the game experiences in a story-based context. At the root level, the experience of taking in a story of some sort is very different from the more active nature of playing a game.

Playing a predefined part in a game can be enormous fun-the character you play is more likely to tightly fit into the world. There is often a powerful form of escapism inherent in playing a spectacular character-if you are poor, frightened and plain for instance, playing Lara Croft (wealthy, courageous and beautiful) can be a great thrill. Suddenly you are not the kid who bought the game, but instead you're some kind of powerful hero. So predefined roles in games have great merit.

However, predefined characters can also violate the player's sense of "self". If the player is a middle-aged New Englander, then he may find it jarring if his character within the game has a thick Louisiana accent. (Each time I was called Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, I was reminded that it was not me who was exploring the Black Mesa facility.)

Leaving a player-character loosely defined or allowing the player to define the character are both ways to heighten the player's self-expression within the game. If it is never pointed out to the player that his alter-ego within the game is an entity completely at odds with who the player actually is, then perhaps the player is more likely to find the game immersive. That is, the player in these situations can forget that he is merely playing a role in a game, and can instead imagine himself exploring an environment. All this requires is some imagination and suspension of disbelief on the part of the player-the "head space" to carry the parts of the game that are in the player's mind.

During his hellish early years on the Texas Gulf Coast (surrounded by evil shrimpers and gloomy chemical plants), Harvey Smith's sanity was (narrowly) preserved through years of non-stop gaming and subcultural pursuits. Only through this massive assimilation of SF/Fantasy books, computer/vid games, paper RPG's and mope rock did he manage to evolve into the fey being he is today. He makes his home in Austin, Texas because he has a lick of sense. He eats nothing but Tex-Mex and fried seafood, and he is a 6th generation Texan.

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