Friday, March 26, 2010

Propping Myself Up

I have a role-playing problem. It's not the kind of problem that creates photos that earn me weird looks at work; it's actually the exact opposite. In a world that seems to be moving towards increasingly character-driven games, I rarely feel compelled to role-play.

This probably became apparent to folks who read my article criticizing Uncharted 2 for haphazardly modifying its rules in service to its plot. The Drake I played as clashed with the character the story wanted him to be. As many folks pointed out in comments, sometimes freedom and improvisation must be curtailed if the game's goal is to create a single narrative experience. It is not an actor's place to challenge every word in a script, so perhaps I should make more of an effort to work within a prescribed in-game role?

Over the past few months, I played a series of games in which I found myself role-playing more than usual. These games have almost no thematic or gameplay similarities, and my personal connection to them was not inspired by any particularly deep characters or interesting plots. However, they all shared a much more tangible aspect that helped me think of myself as an actor, rather than a director: props.

While there have always been alternatives to the game controller and mouse/keyboard setup, the past five years have seen a proliferation of plastic gadgets baubles clutter up homes. While many of these peripherals are written of as gimmicks, I have found that they help me connect with certain games in a way that makes me feel like I am performing a role rather than exploring a system.

I named Wii Fit Plus as one of my favorite games of 2009 and I stand by that choice because it was one of the few games that succeeded in shutting down my analytical mind. It's hard to carefully dissect a system when I am desperately flapping my arms in order to fly my chicken-avatar over a blimp. While the game is basically a Pilotwings clone, its use of props facilitates my suspension of disbelief and my willingness to take part in its absurdity. Intellectually, I know that flapping my arms does nothing except create the illusion of flight. The real input comes from the way my arms force my feet to rock back and forth on the Balance Board. Theoretically, I could just simply manipulate my heels and probably get a better score than when I do my best chicken impression, and the game would certainly control more precisely with an analog stick. However, maximizing the system is not the point: the chicken game, and the Wii in general, is a social role-playing experience.I have written before that Beatles: Rock Band is as much a "Beatles simulator" as it is a rhythm game. Playing the game allows me to temporarily assume the role of cultural legends. With a little help from prop instruments, I am able transcend what is essentially a game of "Simon Says" and briefly conceive of myself as a rock star playing in front sold out audiences. While it might be cheesy, the plastic guitar forces the players to physically approximate the actions they see on the screen. Even the most relaxed session of Rock Band necessitates a prop that gives the player a more clearly defined role than a controller could ever give them. Players have no choice: they must role-play as The Beatles at a basic level.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories did offer some choice as to whether to use props to facilitate a performance. The in-game mobile phone is used as an interface to receive audio messages, puzzle hints, and plot details, and much of its sound and functionality is controlled via the Wii Remote. By default phone calls and voice mail is played somewhat quietly through the controller's built-in speaker. Although I had the option of increasing the speaker's volume or transferring it to my larger TV speakers, I chose to keep it in the controller. Soon, I found myself holding the controller up to my ear like a real phone, aping the movements of Harry Mason, the game's protagonist. When I was not using the Wii Remote as a phone, it became my flashlight and my only steadfast companion in that haunted town. The prop's physicality helped me empathize with Harry's situation: like him, I only had a few tools with which to fight through the nightmare.

If the success of games like Uncharted 2 is indication, the trend towards cinematic, character-driven, single-experience games will continue. The capacity for a player to accept structural inconsistency and gameplay limitations will stem largely from their ability to see themselves as performing a strictly defined role as opposed to fashioning a completely unique experience. Flagging Wii and rhythm game sales make the future of prop-driven games less certain, but the impending release of Microsoft's Project Natal and Sony's PlayStation Move suggest that they will be around for some time.

Plot and character-driven games are the perfect venues for unique peripherals. Without a physical tool to facilitate role-playing, cinematic games easily become dull versions of good movies. Without a meaningful context in which to use them, peripheral-based games become the ludic equivalent to a Carrot Top routine. Together, the two styles create a role worth playing.


  1. I think you are making some good points. The new peripheral craze has definitely evolved the level of immersion and roleplaying that players can feel when playing games. I do however think that roleplaying, as such, might not be the goal of all games. A game like Uncharted 2 is aimed at telling a linear narrative, and not as much at letting the player evolve their own. So I'm not sure i agree that roleplaying is something that is, or should be, evident in all types of games, which is also why i would think that some games are good for it, and some aren't.

  2. I can't help but think that an interesting puzzle prop, like the puzzle map in Treasure Planet, might be a good variant. Rubik's RPG?

    Of course, then we wander into the Sierra days, when their PC adventure games had props to serve as copy protection... sure, their genesis wasn't a desire for immersion, but they kind of worked in a similar way.

  3. Hi Rasmus, thanks for stopping by.

    I agree that roleplaying has its limits. I actually think the example you cited, Uncharted 2, is an interesting example. I feel the game rewards you for trying to play the role of Drake (forcing you into environments where the illusion of player agency far outweighs the reality of player agency). The moment you stop trying to be like Nathan Drake, the game starts feeling very restrictive.

    I think its part of a larger trend in which "role playing" is being thought of as inhabiting a specific role (like an actor does in a play) rather than a player created persona (like Dungeons and Dragons player does).

    Hey Tesh,

    I think it would be pretty neat if copy protection took the form of cloth maps rather than rootkits. Unfortunately, what with that pesky Internet and all, that form of copy protection is pretty easily circumvented...

    This whole thing reminds me of Project Wii Waa. In all seriousness, that thing looks awesome.