(Hear me out on this one)
There is one phrase that is sure to litter every gaming session that has ever existed… ever. “I died” has been both screamed or quietly whispered as a single tear rolls down the face of every self-respecting gamer. However this one phrase opens a whole world of discussion surrounding the control of video game characterisation. Such self-identification with a character is inherent to gaming – without it, dangers wouldn’t be taken seriously, and storylines would be shallow.
Therefore, in this post I am taking a look at just who controls a character’s characterisation; that is what makes them them – why they act in the way they do, and what their background motivations are. And whether this is the work of the developer or writer, or the player.
I found an article by Altug Isigan that posits that video game controls define the character because they ‘are the means for both action and expression of intention’. This essentially lays out the argument that it is the assignment of the option to say, ‘punch’ with the circle button etc. that is the defining feature of a character’s design. Because the character has the ability to act violently through the game’s controls, the possibility for this action creates a sense that the character is violent. While this is a convincing argument in so far as ability to act is concerned, I argue that it is more the manner in which these actions are carried out that contribute more to the inherent characterisation. Taking a look at the cute, loveable rogue that is Crash Bandicoot, we can see that his movements and actions are mapped onto a controller in a similar way to a character in Street Fighter for example. The option to kick is available for both characters and yet we identify Crash with the notion of a goofy but ultimately endearing fluffy rodent while characters on Street Fighter are masculinised and heavily violent in their actions. This is because when we press that circle button, Crash’s spin to ward off enemies or open boxes is comical and cartoon-ified for want of a better word. However a Street Fighter character would respond to the same command in a much more serious manner, with more devastating, powerful movement. Therefore it is not the ability of action that defines character, but rather the manner in which this action is carried out. It is the work of the designer and programmer who organise the aesthetic of what the player sees when they complete these actions.
However, in alignment with Isigan’s assertions. The mapping of the game controller does indicate a certain degree of character motivation. The very possibility for a character to complete these actions reveals developer intentions behind the presentation of that character. If a female elderly character has the option to perform a KO move, the player is going to view her in a different way regardless of whether they use the move or not.
This is where we get into another piece i came across by Richard Murphy that argues for the roles of morality and motivation in character design. His discussion of the characterisation of Rockstar games promotes the player’s consideration of a deeper level of their character’s psyche. This takes more of a psychological standpoint which I definitely identify with more. He cites early Grand Theft Auto games in which the protagonist’s silence required players to ‘fill in the gaps’ with their own assumptions about the character’s thoughts and motivations. This feeds into an idea I will discuss later concerning the developer’s encoding of messages into their character’s behaviour, appearance, and motivations ready for the player’s own personal interpretation. From this we can assert that characterisation is built in the appearance of the character, how they hold themselves and act, and how the developer has labelled them physically. It is worth then turning to Murphy’s discussion of the protagonist in Rockstar’s Bully game. The game that took Grand Theft Auto mechanics to the playground with a squat ‘pug-nosed’ character that externally portrayed the idea of a bad kid, not helped by the surprisingly-not-so-eponymous title of the game. However, players who engaged with the character on a psychological level, as the game encouraged, discovered that the characters motivations considerably contrasted his external appearance. His intentions were to protect the weak from the bigger kids, all the time maintaining a high level of internal morality.
This character had the abilities to punch and kick, however it was his internal motivations and high level of morality that defined his character as being so disparate from immediate observation. It therefore seems to be a psychological interpretation of the messages encoded into a character in the mind of the player that determines how the character is received. This player understanding of the psychology behind the character’s motivations and actions provides a greater, richer depth of knowledge into the character’s motivations and actions.
Smith asserts that backstory and experience define a character, an assumption that sits in line with Murphy’s ideas of motivation and morality as motivation is often an extension of this backstory. A hardened criminal is going to be received in a different way to a fantastical creature because the player has filled in the events leading to the character’s arrival in the game before they have even seen them. They build up an understanding of the character from character traits already present in their understanding of other similar characters and circumstances, taking different components of this ‘database’ of traits and applying them as the game’s character develops. In this sense, we can begin to see how the player may take more of an active role in characterisation.
We have discussed how characters are defined through in-game mechanics; the actions they are able to undertake, the manner in which these actions occur, motivation, morality, backstory, and experience. However I argue that the character is defined just as much by the player as it is by the producer. The artist, writer, and developer encode messages into the character’s appearance, motivations, backstory, and movements so that they may then be interpreted or decoded by the player. This is where the player gains control, as they interpret these messages in various different ways based on how they want to play the game, and in ways which do not necessarily reflect the developer’s intentions.
The player’s creation of their own in-game character in games such as Dragon Age and Skyrim is therefore a significant area of gameplay to explore in this discussion. Herein lies the conflict between the player’s freedom to create what they want, and the developer’s control over what materials are available to the player with which to create these characters. It can be argued that the player is not creating their own character, they are merely assembling a character pre-determined by the developer. They choose physical attributes that have already been designed by the developer. They choose from a preset range of abilities and character traits. The player is essentially given a choice of which pre-made character they would like to see advance through the game and in what way. This is, however, a development of the physical notion of the character – what they can do, how they do it, and what they look like doing it. (Mods are a whole new discussion)
I assert that the player has already developed a deeper, psychological understanding of the character before they have even entered the creation stage. In this situation, the player has a pre-existing notion that their character will be, for example, noble and strong but a bit of an underdog. This is based either on preconceptions of the game’s material, the marketing of the game (including pre-release samples of gameplay or non-gameplay footage), or simply on the character that the player wants to play as. The player will therefore select the traits that the developer has put forward in a way that adheres to the character they already have a conception of. These pre-developed options act as a substitute for the pre-existing idea of a character that the player holds in their mind. This psychological creation of the character is maintained during gameplay, reinforced by the fact it is a product of the player’s own creation, and the fact that for the player it pre-exists the game.
It is interesting to take this argument of a pre-existing notion of characterisation in the mind of the player into games that offer the opportunity to define the character through dialogue and action decisions such as those of Telltale. In this instance, the character’s backstory and appearance aren’t decided by the player, however the player is given the opportunity to direct the motivations and actions of the character. The fact that the player is typically given 4 choices to select from in any given situation, however, limits this creativity afforded to the player. Hundreds upon hundreds of studies have looked into the ways players approach these moral choices in video games. It has been recorded in many of these studies that the player on the first play through will select moral choices that match their own closest. In this sense, the player is not initially approaching this game as an exploration of a different character but rather an exploration of their own character (or an exploration of the player’s idealised version of themselves).
Here, the player has control over the base actions and motivations of the character they take through the story, however the control of the developer is also prevalent. This conflict is perhaps what causes the vast dichotomy in reactions to Telltale games. The player is adhering to one of four paths that the developer has pre-set for them, and sometimes these paths blur so that there is only really one outcome of any decision. However, the developer’s control extends further than this common frustration with decision-based games. Assuming that each option available to the player does indeed offer a separate path of action, once the player has selected an option, the delivery of that option is up to the developer. For example, if a player chooses the save an innocent man from execution, they are choosing the ‘good’ character option. However the manner in which they save this man, and any hidden consequences of saving this man, is completely decided by the developer. Herein lies the conflict – the player chooses the ‘good’ option, but the developer decides if that option really is ‘good’.
In traditional video game characterisation there is therefore an ongoing dialogue between the developer and the character (they have preset what the character is capable of, their backstory, and their motivations), the player and the character (they form a psychological understanding of who their character is and alter what they see in the game to fit this character), and a less obvious dialogue between the player and the developer through the encoding and decoding of messages. Overall, I argue that both in games that offer a traditional protagonist character designed by the developer, and games that allow for player customisation, the player takes a psychological control of the characterisation. They define each character in reference to their own interpretation of the many different messages encoded into the many different areas of characterisation (the game controls, the motivations, the appearance, the possibility for action, the manner of action). They have a pre-existing understanding of what their character will be like which extends to games that don’t offer in-game characterisation. It is this pre-existing psychological understanding of the character that leads to such self-identification with the character that is obviously expressed throughout every gaming session that has ever occurred, even from the dawn of video-game time – the expression “I died”.