Playing the Protagonist Part, Partly

A blog entry and discussion over at Corvus Elrod’s Man Bytes Blog about character and plot got me thinking about that tricky relationship between the player and protagonist, and the expectations (and allowances) game authors often place on their players.

In some games — typically non-first person games — the player is asked to play the role of a particular character. In Dreamfall, the player starts out playing the role of Zoe; in Tomb Raider, Lara Croft; in Deus Ex, J.C. Denton. In many interactive fiction games, the same applies, such as the Abbot in Vespers. In many instances, the protagonist has a history, and in some cases a personality, but inserting the player into that role can produce a frustrating conflict when player behavior does not necessarily match what might be expected from the established character.

To a certain extent, authors expect players to perform at least a minimal amount of role-playing with the game’s protagonist. In some cases, more than the minimum is expected. As Jimmy Maher once said in a comment on this blog, “I don’t think it’s too much to ask my player to accept the premise and situation of the story she is in, and to behave in a reasonable manner.” Which means that it’s generally okay to discourage unreasonable play that extends beyond the border of acceptable behavior–acceptable in general (no, you can’t eat your sword), or for the context of the story (no, you can’t start punching your friends just for fun).

The problem is that gamers enjoy pushing limits. As Corvus said, “I too often enjoy subverting a game’s intended design.” It’s fun to do, I’ll admit it. I’ve often played games and at times tested the system to see how it would respond to unexpected or inappropriate behavior. It’s something of a reward to see a game respond to a particular action that is otherwise inappropriate.

What’s funny is that game designers invite that sort of behavior by implementing responses to it. For instance, how many interactive fiction games implement a witty response to the XYZZY command, even though there is naturally no place or reason for using it? If no game other than Colossal Cave had a response to that command, nobody would be tempted to give it a try. And if there is a response implemented for that command, how many other interesting goodies like that might there be to discover? How many of us who played the original Warcraft sat there clicking repeatedly on their individual units to see how many different annoyed responses it would elicit? It’s a form of exploration, I suppose.

Granted, this is a bit different than the topic of role-playing, but I think the same principle applies. Still, in the situation of role-playing, accounting for different types of behavior, even bizarre behavior, can actually work to the game’s advantage. Take Façade, for instance. Wasn’t it at least as interesting to play the game while trying inappropriate or unacceptable actions, just to see how the characters would respond? And in many cases, they did respond — by being shocked and surprised. That type of behavior was anticipated, even though it did not fit at all with the protagonist’s character, and it altered the relationship between the protagonist and the other characters in ways that might be expected, providing a sort of internal validity to the game.

This would seem to support what Corvus said in his blog comments the other day:

“The problem, as I see it, is that the story itself is still widely considered to be a separate layer of the game from the game mechanics. The end result is a severe disconnect between what NPCs are saying to you and your behavior. Until such time as player actions, all player actions, are directly interpreted as components of the story…it’s not going to be solved, either.”

In other words, all player actions, not just critical ones, need to be interpreted by the game within the context of the character performing the action (his or her personality and relationships) and the situation within the narrative. So it’s okay if a player, who is playing the part of a character not known for violence, really does want to perform a violent act on another character, as long as the game and its story account for it. As Corvus says:

“How much more exciting will that become when your actions have immediate and direct consequences? When the targets of your inanity say, ‘Well if you’re going to hit me with a bicycle, I’m not going to tell you where the meeting is being held!'”

The difficulty with this approach, at least for the game designer, is that it’s a ridiculous amount of work to try and account for every possible action in every situation of the game, and the effect of those actions on all of the different characters in the game. And it’s also somewhat different for turn-based games with discrete actions, such as interactive fiction, and real-time 3D games that allow players to run around, jump up and down, pick up and throw objects, and so on, all while an NPC is trying to talk to you about something; the options for inane behavior are exponential. The complexity of a system designed to handle and interpret these actions in all different game situations would be staggering.

I’m mostly rambling here, and I’m not entirely certain what the point of all of this is or where it’s going. I guess I’m just interested in hearing what others think about the relationships between designer, player, and protagonist, and the expectations that each brings to the table.

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One Comment

  1. Jimmy Maher
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 6:16 PM | Permalink

    I think many people, myself included, did indeed play Facade as a comedy, trying ever more outrageous actions to see what happens, and, indeed, at some level trying to “break” the system. I would say, though, that when a player begins to do this it’s a sign that the game designer has failed at some level. I began to play Facade for laughs after trying several reasonable approaches and having the game respond either not at all or in a way that was clearly inappropriate to my actions. The mimesis broke down for me then and I began to treat the system as a clever toy rather than an immersive interactive narrative. There’s no shame in Facade’s failure, of course. It’s a revolutionary conception, and bound to need many more iterations before even approaching complete believability.

    This does raise a point, though: I don’t think games can maintain their mimesis by scolding the player, telling her in no uncertain terms that she shalt NOT when she attempts to eat her sword or hit her friends. Rather, we should strive to make our writing so good and our environments so believable and our interactions so smooth that our player is drawn into our story, and it never occurs to her to eat her sword or hit her friends, any more than it would to her avatar. In other words, we must enable her to truly BECOME her avatar for the little while she plays.

    As soon as the game starts to break down, so to speak, for the player… that’s when she remembers it’s just a silly text adventure, and that’s when she starts playing it for laughs and trying to break the system even further. I do it every year with at least a dozen of the Comp games, PURLOINING doors and buildings and generally running amok through the storyworld. Entertainment is where you find it, after all.

    Some players will of course come to every game determined to break it. Some might find IF in general more interesting as a system to be played with than as a story, although I think other genres of gaming would scratch this particular itch much better. To those players, I say, fine, have your fun. However, I think most people who play IF do come to it wanting to be immersed and to experience a storyworld and, yes, a coherent story through someone else’s eyes for a while. The rewards of that must be far greater than those of trying random actions to see where the boundaries of the simulation are (entertaining as that can be).

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    […] let me get a bit pretentious and quote an earlier version of myself. I wrote the following as a comment on Mike Rubin’s blog back in 2008: I think many people, myself included, did indeed play Facade as a comedy, trying ever […]

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