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6 min read
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Playing an Actor

The player is not a member of the audience. The player is an actor.

This is just a thought that I've been having. It may not be new, but it's a certain mentality that I've found to help as I've been designing games of my own.

Coming from a film background, there was a general rule when you're trying to put together a scene. You start the scene at the last possible moment that you can, and you end it as soon as you can. Powerful scenes go on as long as they need to, they have something important to say/do, and then they move on. There's no need to pad a good scene with more "stuff" just for the sake of padding. (Take a look at some of the scenes in an Aaron Sorkin piece sometime. He's a master of this kind of stuff.)

With games, especially those that take their cues from film structures, I find that the most powerful scenes follow the same ideas. You get in, immerse the player in a powerful moment, and you move on, not dawdling over the scene for no reason. Of course, there are many different interpretations of how to handle this, and not every scene is going to hit home with every player, but there are many things that do work, that give the player an experience unlike that which can be found in other medias.

But is the goal in a game simply to have the player observe an interesting scene? Is it simply to allow them to passively enjoy it? I don't think so.

When making games, especially those with any type of narrative behind them, we sometimes forget that our audience is not simply viewing our creations. Instead, they are an active participant. They are part of the creative process, and their experience with a game is shaped just as much by their own skill, their own interpretations, their own understandings, and their own gaming history as it is by anything that the developers have done to put the game in front of them.

The player is not a member of the audience. The player is an actor.

And not only some background player - The player is the main character. He's the main protagonist, he's the millionaire movie star. He's the one that the crew panders to in order to make sure that he's satisfied, he understands his motivation for a particular scene, and that his lines, pacing, and blocking is good.

While that does seem a little dramatic, this thinking can often inform much about the design process in any particular game. When someone asks "Who is the audience?" for a game, what they're really asking is "Who is going to be playing this role?"

In some games, the role is much more fluid than others, but yet the interpretation of the role can change drastically based on who's playing. Take something as simple as Angry Birds. A more "serious" actor may take her role as that of a general, conserving resources while still achieving the goal. With this role in mind, she's not going to waste troops, but instead will look to deliver the crucial blow as quickly as possible. She takes her craft seriously, and looks to do it "right."

A more casual player, instead, may simply want to throw the birds about, regardless of how many it takes. Perhaps he'll just launch one to see how far it will go. He's playing a comedic role, looking to launch the birds as high as he can, to watch them crash down, and this will influence his acting decisions.

Which is right?

It depends on who you ask. If you ask the designer, the first is doing it "right" because he's playing the game in the manner in which it was designed to be played. He's the director shouting "cut!" and telling the player to start back at one and to take it from the top.

Therein, I think, lies the frustration that some designers feel when they see their game being played "wrong."

While watching the film "Indie Game: The Movie" last year at Sundance, I was struck by the portrayal of Jonathan Blow in regards to his game, Braid. Personally, I love Braid. It not only has an excellent story with a powerful, and interesting interpretation, but also an engaging, interesting set of mechanics utilizing the flow of time which blends well with the narrative itself.

I found it so interesting the comments that Blow made regarding his disappointment that some people didn't understand what he was trying to convey, especially when overlayed with videos such as the one by Soulja Boy just messing with the time mechanics.

While I can relate with watching something that you've put your heart and soul into being disregarded, or even being (in your eyes) disrespected, that's kind of the crux of interactive media. When you create something that is meant to be experienced by allowing another person to act within your creation, you run the risk of them either not understanding, or just not caring about the "message" that you're attempting to convey.

How many actors seem like they're just going through the motions on certain films, just "showing up for a paycheck?"

I doubt many filmmakers set out to make a film with a terrible, unmotivated, or unconvincing actor, but sometimes it happens, and that affects the entire impact of the production.

A game can sometimes fall into the same kind of rut, especially when you have a player who doesn't match the skill, mindset, or maturity that the designer intended the game for. 

I realize that I've wandered a little, but let me reiterate my main point one more time:

The player is an actor. He is a participant in creating the experience alongside the developer, and he's even paying to do so. By keeping that role of the player in mind, perhaps that can better influence our design decisions. Will that mean he's the best actor ever? Sometimes, but not always. Is that suddenly going to make the player understand that that is his/her role? No, probably not. Can it help us to better design the experiences that we're creating?

I think so, but we'll see.

Now, back to one, let's run it again.

- K 

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