Virtual Reality and the Player / Character Relationship

The notion of the player / character relationship in video games has been the centre of much critical debate as the scope and depth of video game narrative has developed with the maturation of its technology. However, as we enter a new era of virtual reality gaming, it is important to consider the role that this highly immersive medium will play in redefining this relationship in the coming years. With the extent to which characters and players interact being widely contested among academics, and the very existence of ‘character’ itself being questioned in recent criticism, this discussion will emphasise the importance of developing key areas of the notion of ‘character’ so that it can accommodate the vast potential of new virtual worlds. Through exploring criticism both concerning existing player / character relationships, and speculative pieces questioning its future, I will outline both the characteristics of character / role required for a fully immersive experience, and how the game world will have to react to these characteristics in order to maintain player immersion.

The Characterless Role

Her Story
  • We view characters as sets of abilities, not through their external representation
  • However these external representations become expected by the player and prescribe a certain manner of gameplay
  • ‘Interface games’ use the idea of a faceless role for the player to assume, creating the strongest link between player and role
  • Virtual reality will use this faceless ‘blank slate’ character structure to immerse the player in the game world as personally as possible

The question of what the character means to the player is perhaps our best starting point. In James Newman’s critical take on “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame”, he mentions the research of Kinder in which she notes that young boys would rather play as a female princess character because she had the best attributes and abilities. From this, Newman concludes that “the character-selection process described by Kinder reveals a relationship with these characters that disregards representational traits in favour of the constitution of character as sets of capabilities, potentials and techniques offered to the player”. From this, we can assert that the aesthetics and personal characteristics of the character themselves are second to their ability – as Newman puts it, the character becomes a “vehicle” “equipped to be utilised in the game world by the player”.

In Keith Stuart’s article for The Guardian titled “The Identity Paradox: Why Game Characters Are Not Us, But Should Be”, he aligns himself with this opinion. “Heroes”, he states, “are often little more than archetypes put in place to facilitate the machinery of conflict”. The use of the word “archetypes” here is particularly telling of the way we have come to treat the protagonists of these stories. We have come to expect what kind of individual we will be controlling – assuming a set of stereotypical attributes and characteristics before we even load up the game. Our play is then automatically predicted by this set of “archetypal” features – we play protagonists in third person action shooters in aggressive ways. Essentially, any individually defining characteristic that may be present in an “archetype” is quickly bulldozed by our own stereotypes and assumptions. It is easy then, to see how the player is distanced from the immersion that virtual reality is attempting to achieve here, as they have already formed an idea of an ‘other’ being before even starting the tutorials.

So, to understand how virtual reality will tackle this problem, we need to look to the games that bring us closest to full integration with the game world – the games that bring the player into the role of the character the most. I argue that, pre-virtual reality, the genre that most succinctly fills this criteria is what I will term here the ‘interface game’. These are games that provide the player with no characterisation of their role but simply a duty to perform in a setting that reflects their own reality and using abilities native to them. Her Story tasks the player with filling the role of detective by filing through a series of videos and searching for keywords within a police database. Five Nights At Freddys concerns only the switching between security cameras and the closing of a door. Many texts list these ‘interface games’ as the closest the player can come to fulfilling the notion of ‘character’, and I assert that this is because they are not fulfilling the notion of ‘character’ at all, but rather a specific and often mundane role.

Newman suggests that “a silent protagonist with an unexpressed or undeveloped personality functions less as a companion and more as a blank slate for the player to project an identity onto”. These are the roles most effectively employed in these ‘interface games’. There are no constant reminders that the player’s actions are being mediated through the filter of another character e.g. cut scenes and dialogue, something that will be later explored. Though not all “silent protagonists” are the product of these types of games, their functions are relatively similar – they allow the player to project their identity onto the role as freely as possible.

It is highly likely that this will be the realm of character design taken forward in virtual reality – the faceless, characterless role in first person view. While by no means am I limiting this character design to the ‘interface’ mechanic of game development, it is the notion of a nonexistent character that must be taken forward from this particular discussion. A player who is able to approach a situation in virtual reality without the lens of another person’s set of attributes will be able to act more truthfully to themselves in that situation – rather than acting how their perceived ‘archetype’ would act. When we play as Nathan Drake, we know we are not him however we act with the part of our projected identity that wants to be him, or do the things he is capable of doing. Characters in the conventional sense provide frameworks for our reimagining of ourselves in the game situation, so imagine the possible level of immersion when this framework is removed and replaced by our own mental frameworks under our own control and personal identification.

Because the player is defining their own character in their fulfilment of the role presented to them in virtual reality, having specific features attributed to the protagonist will create fundamental cracks in the immersive nature of the medium. The virtual reality role needs to be as vague as the narrative allows.

Abilities Within Human Reason

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
  • Conventional action games employ characters with abilities beyond those of a natural human
  • Virtual reality brings players into the situation on a deeper level than these conventional games
  • Players in a virtual reality experience are so immersed that they’re not going to assume that their role has super-human abilities and so won’t explore them
  • Therefore the abilities afforded to the virtual reality role have to match that of the player

Now that we have laid the foundations for the structure of character development in virtual reality gaming, we can turn to the abilities of such a ‘role’ that will have to be incorporated into the design in order to maintain the level of immersion. Another way these ‘interface games’ achieve a higher level of immersion and a closer bond between the player and role is through the abilities afforded to the player. The mechanics of gameplay are, more often than not, within feasible, natural human ability. Whereas Nathan Drake can jump inhuman distances and land certain falls with only minor health repercussions, we know as humans that this is not realistic. Games like Her Story and Five Nights At Freddys, no matter how surreal their contexts, involve controls and abilities that are within the natural human realm, at times being even mundane.

Virtual reality offers to further this level of immersion, and players have felt it, as evidenced by the extreme reactions to Solfar Studios’ EverestVR experience at GDC this year. Those who tried this virtual ascent through the perilous terrain of Mt Everest came out of it early – shaking and sweating. They were obviously aware of their limitations as humans – of the fall if they stepped wrong, and their inability to leap from chasm to chasm. From this, we can see that when humans are immersed in an experience in this way, they are not going to think to move in ways that they would instinctively know would kill them in real life. In a truly immersive environment, consequences matter in a way that doesn’t even exist when whimsically scaling buildings in Uncharted. The virtual reality role therefore has to match human abilities in order for the player to progress and maintain immersion, otherwise nobody would move.

Equip the Player, Not the Role

Red Dead Redemption
  • Conventional games see abilities and weaponry being equipped in character specific ways
  • Virtual reality uses the player as ‘character’ so there is no stereotype to equip

We have seen how characters are, in the words of Newman, “embodied as sets of available capabilities and capacities”, and that these capabilities are prioritised over the aesthetic of the character. The fact that characters “embody” these abilities however, leads us into another aspect of character design that will be able to develop with the advent of virtual reality. In gaming as we know it at the moment, the external appearance of a character is indicative of their abilities within the game world. For example, a cowboy in Red Dead Redemption would be expected to be able to ride a horse and fire a pistol, whereas a character from Halo is expected to have a highly sophisticated, powerful, and futuristic arsenal of weaponry.

If virtual reality, then, takes the form of the “blank slate” character, there will be no preset notion of ability. Without an external appearance to create these stereotypical abilities, developers are not bound by the role they have created. Essentially, they will be able to provide players with weapons and capabilities that reach new levels of creativity and without narrative limitation.

Direct Relation and Interaction with Surroundings

Telltale’s The Walking Dead
  • The player has to have ‘agency’ in their surroundings to feel important and active in the situation
  • This amount of control needs to be heightened in virtual reality to keep up with the standard of immersion available in order areas of development

For Newman, a game exists as a “continuous feedback loop where the player must be seen as both implied by, and implicated in, the construction and composition of the experience”. Therefore, even in conventional gaming, the surroundings must respond to the character in an appropriate manner and give way to player manipulation. However, in virtual reality this interaction needs to operate at a much more three dimensional level to keep up with the standard of immersion being offered in other areas. For example, whereas a door needs to be opened in a conventional game, for full immersion a virtual reality world needs this door to maybe be left slightly ajar, or further inspected, or moved back and forth by the player. In “Blurred Lines: Virtual Reality and the Future of Player-Character Relationships”, an article by Kim Berkley, it is asserted that “the more agency and influence a player has, the more deeply connected they are to in-game events”. Branching these twinned concepts of “agency and influence” to the very fabric of the environment within the game world, virtual reality must allow the player to be as effective in play as they are in reality. The environment needs to be aware of the player at a much more sophisticated level.

Reality to Match that of the Player

Farming Simulator
  • The realities of the characters within a conventional game are wildly different to that of the player, which distances them from identification with the character
  • The character acts as a mediator between the reality of the game and the reality of the player, serving to bridge this gap and ensure that the new situation and narrative make sense
  • For full immersion, virtual reality needs to be rooted in the reality of the player

In a post on the Exploring Believability blog, titled “The Player / Character Relationship”, it is stated that “the player… cannot be as invested [as the character] due to the combination of lacking sensory detail and ‘real life’ consequences”. This echoes the common understanding that players can never fully identify and empathise with who they are controlling because they are not in that situation themselves. They will accordingly take more risks, and play in ways that defy the motivations of the character as the consequences are dramatically deferred.

When considering the “blank slate” nature of the virtual reality player role, the situations that will be explored in these games pose problems for immersion. If the player is playing as themselves, there will automatically be a barrier to immersion if they are placed in a situation that they would never find themselves in as, as they cannot relate to this environment of narrative. This is where, in conventional gaming, narrative supersedes character. It would be incredibly difficult for the player to become fully immersed in a conventional game that, say, deals with a futuristic space war when they’ve just finished work. Therefore there needs to be a figure in place to connect the world of the player and the world of the game – the character. The character acts as a mediator between these two realities, providing an alter-ego that justifies this sudden change in situation – you are not suddenly entering another time period and galaxy, you are just controlling someone who is.

How virtual reality will work itself around this problem will be interesting to watch. However, for full organic immersion in a virtual world, the environment needs to reflect the reality of the player. Ironically, for full immersion, virtual reality needs to concern itself with our reality. This is not to say that all games can do this – that was be disastrous to the creativity and innovation that has been fuelling the developments of narrative for years. There is also a line to be drawn between immersion and replication – obviously a game can’t be fit to your own living room – but rather the essence of true immersion is rooted in our own reality. We’ve seen several titles run with this concept with success – Farming Simulator and The Sims – and Job Simulator takes this structure further into virtual reality.

Cannot be Mediated Sequences

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
  • Cut scenes and dialogue remind the player that the character they are playing is autonomous
  • However if virtual reality uses a faceless role rather than ‘character’, cut-scenes and dialogue will present significant problems for immersion

Newman writes that “the pleasures of video game play are not principal visual, but rather kinaesthetic”. This provides us with adequate explanation for the skipping of cut scenes and the ignoring of intro sequences. When the character becomes autonomous once more in a cut scene, the player is reminded of the distance between themselves and the game world in a jarring lifting of the veil of ultimate control. You see that your character  moves independently, has their own agenda and motivations, and acts with their own personality regardless of your actions during gameplay. If virtual reality is to utilise the model of ‘character’ that we have outlined here, then cut-scenes and dialogue will completely rip this veil off. Creating this level of detailed immersion only to undercut it by showing the player another figure that has supposedly been acting as them, will shatter the experience entirely.

Through this discussion of the way virtual reality will alter the way character is designed and implemented in its games, we have created the model of the faceless mannequin ready for player projection. We have also explored the way this role – not character – will have to be able to act, what can be attributed to it, how its surroundings should relate to it, and how the reality itself should be constructed. Virtual reality presents unprecedented potential for creating game worlds that act just as much as realities as they do playgrounds. In doing so, however, it has presented one of the biggest challenges to character design since the advent to three dimensional gaming. Kim Berkley concludes her piece by optimistically presenting the hope that with virtual reality, “the line between player and character could diminish to the point of disappearing almost entirely”, and I believe that with the technology and creativity of the gaming industry standing as it does today, her optimism is not unwarranted.

James Newman – “The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame”

J. Shea – “The Player / Character Relationship”

Keith Stuart – “The Identity Paradox: Why Game Characters Are Not Us But Should Be”

Kim Berkley – “Blurred Lines: Virtual Reality and the Future of Player – Character Relationships”

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