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GDC London: Midway's Smith On Game Avatars

Origin and Ion Storm veteran and current Midway designer Harvey Smith gave an intriguing lecture at GDC London on Tuesday discussing "the player to avatar relationship", ...
Origin and Ion Storm veteran and current Midway designer Harvey Smith gave an intriguing lecture at GDC London on Tuesday discussing "the player to avatar relationship", working out how players relate to characters they play in games. Smith, who was recently interviewed in detail on Gamasutra, lowballed his lecture as something that "...could be the least practical talk of the day", but it had plenty of relevant content. The talk's high concepts were on the fact that "players love self-expression", that avatars facilitate self-expression, and the fact that "players engage in identity shifting" in games. The Midway designer cited Cryptic's superhero PC MMO City Of Heroes as a great example of avatar escapism, noting that, with some of his friends: "In the first week they spent more time with the character creation system than they did playing the game". Discussing Lara Croft, Smith noted that her avatar representation has changed a great deal over time, but even so, the Tomb Raider heroine has a number of vital characteristics - 'Adventure, sophistication, British, strength & vulnerability, pop archeology, guns, action, sexual desire.' He cited Lulu Lamer, the producer of the last Tomb Raider game, commenting that players "want to protect her, see her overcome her aggressors", or even "lust after her". He went on to discuss the concepts of avatars as masks, noting that a lot of this 'disguising' was very common to human nature. He referenced in particular Deus Ex, which he worked on with Warren Spector, commenting: "We wanted to mix a role-playing game and a shooter... but we also had very strong story aspirations." The team ended up having some issues: "What do we do about the character JC Denton? Do we provide a name and a well-defined story?" In the end, it was decided for Deus Ex that the player could type in a codename which was referenced in the world. But Smith still set up the major point of the talk: "Which way is stronger - a blank slate that lets the player project onto it, or a very well-defined character?" The answer, of course, is both, and we hope to have full Smith-authored notes from his GDC London lecture available on Gamasutra in the near future.

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