Friday, March 5, 2010

Self-Directed Play

Jorge and Denis make convincing arguments for conceptualizing game players as actors. In many ways, this is an apt comparison, as a player performs a crucial role within a game, imbuing it with a personal touch. More broadly, it is often useful to view theater and video games as evolutionary cousins; both formats are about exploring a given set of parameters and iteration between performances. Because of this, it is tempting to directly transpose the role of theatrical actors onto players and the role of theatrical directors onto game designers. However, doing so oversimplifies the distinction between the media and the distinct role a player assumes within a game.

Unlike theater, video games collapse directing and acting into a single role. While playing a game, the player continually synthesizes directorial choices and acting interpretations. Even basic decisions, such as how to manipulate the camera or control an avatar, begin as theoretical visions and are subsequently tested within the game's rules.

Just as directors and actors combine their talents to create scenes, the melding of player intention and player execution yield in-game events. The two sides are not always in agreement: no matter much I visualize the perfect route in Mirror's Edge as a player/director, my abilities as a player/actor yield unexpected results. Sometimes this means falling off a roof (thereby ruining the scene) and sometimes this means accomplishing my goal by straying from the original plan (improvisation).

The game developer acts as the scriptwriter and technical crew by designing rules and environments. As the player/director, I produce an interpretation of the "script" by exploring the rules. This leads to individual characterization in even narratively linear games such as God of War. Will Kratos rely on his magic or use only brute force? Will he engage the aerial enemies with long range attacks or by climbing onto a platform? Is Kratos cautious and prone to defensive moves or is he a berserker who wades into the fray regardless of his health? Does he stride triumphantly through the door to Olympus or does he roll like an idiot because it gets him there faster? The answer to these questions hinges on synthesis of my tendencies as a player/director and player/actor.

We are currently seeing some high-profile games that seek to tease apart this internal relationship, which serves to make the distinction more apparent. Games like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age, and Heavy Rain all de-emphasize player/actor agency in favor of a more directorial approach.

When we call Mass Effect a "role-playing game," it is implied that the player is acting in the role of Shepard. However, because of the way the game handles choices and conversations, the player's "role" often resembles that of a director much more so than an actor. Take the following scene as an example:

This sequence puts great emphasis on the player/director dynamic and weakens the player's grasp on the player/actor dynamic. The player has little control over Shepard's actual performance and instead functions as a guiding force in shaping the scene. As often happens in theater, the actor in this scene listens to the director's instructions and then adds his personal touch.

At 2:30, when Jack says: "You eyeing me up? Because if this is just about sex, maybe you should just fucking say so," the player/director instructs Shepard to communicate "No, I want to get to know you." As a director, I read this line to mean that Shepard was interested in Jack in a platonic way. However, the in-game Shepard imbues latent sexual interest into a potentially non-sexual response by saying: "I'm in no hurry. I want to know what makes you tick first." Saying "I'm in no hurry" and qualifying his statement with "first" implies that, while he may not be in a rush, a sexual rendezvous with Jack is his ultimate destination. It is as if Shepard and the player are two different people, each with their own interpretation of the scene.

Similarly, at 3:05, the player/director responds to Jack's offer with the "Yes, I want you" dialogue option. However, Shepard communicates this by saying "I'd be lying if I said no. You're different." The directorial choice available to the player is a bold, lusty statement, but actor's execution is more guarded and coy. While the director's option puts Shepard's wishes at the forefront, Shepard's performance humbly shifts the focus back to Jack's personality.

A dialogue sequence in Mass Effect 2 is not an acting role, but a directing one. Creating a Shepard at the beginning of the game is an exercise in casting more than anything else, as the player has only partial control over how the actor will ultimately perform. During the dialogue sections, the player exerts a loose, thematic control over "actors" whose actual word choices and body language, along with their accompanying ramifications, remain mysteries until they are performed.

Ironically, the closest the player gets to controlling the acting in Mass Effect is when they dispense with words and communicate with their weapons. In combat, the player/director is free to formulate plans of attack, strategy, and thematic vision in the battle and the player/actor gets to engage with these ideas directly. Is Shepard a caring teammate who looks to limit casualties, or is he blinded by rage during battle? Does he seek to destroy enemies in face to face combat, or is he characterized by trickery and subterfuge? Does he kill out of necessity, or does he enjoy hearing the cries of the fallen? These questions and answers are both supplied by the player, and significantly add to the character, albeit in a less readily apparent way than the dialogue sequences.

Depending on their design, games force players to strike different balances between the player/director and player/actor roles. Regardless of the balance, all games share this exceedingly rare trait: they allow the player to both direct and perform a creative work. And unless, you are Clint Eastwood or Llewellyn Sinclair, that is a rare opportunity.

No comments:

Post a Comment