It’s Not Us, Its Them: we never play us in games, only characters. we don’t have a choice, Which is good.
By Robert Bayley
We are actors. A game, as it stands, isn’t capable of letting us do things exactly the way we would want to. And really, would we want them to? (I’ll answer this for you now.)
The joy of games, in many ways, comes from taking the role of someone else. This might sound contentious, or unfashionable, but a lot of the joy from mainstream gaming (that you pay £40 for and not just play for an hour on Newgrounds) comes from the medium, in many ways, being an extension of movies.
Yeah, I said that.
But that’s the thing, they aren’t just movies as games, they are games first, not movies. That’s why movie licensed games are usually total bobbins. Gaming, at its best, should be as fluid and easy to play as a movie is to watch. You know how fluid and easy the Citizen Kane of all movies, Back to the Future is to watch? Well games should feel like watching that yet in gaming – does this make any sense? (again, probably no.)
Basically, just like fiction films and literature, games are narrative. They tell a story and let us experience it in its own particular way. Just as reading a book is totally different to watching a film, they still serve the same function. That, like games, is to tell some kind of story and allow us to thoroughly immerse ourselves in it. Be this through sheer enjoyment with no other meaning but to provide a jolt of adrenaline or to act as an analogy to some philosophical matter/argument.
When a game has a great story it can get away with some slightly shoddy game-play. Look at Brutal Legend or if you throw a few hours at the thing to begin with Alpha Protocol, which actually got really clever and intriguing past a certain point. But that clearly doesn’t sell which is a shame, because a lot of gaming is focused on what will sell; hence things like War for Cybertron selling bucket loads compared to the far superior Enslaved having a bit of a rough ride.
One of the reasons why games are so brilliant is you get to be the hero(ine). It is like watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day and having that feeling where you wish you were the T-800 on the roof with a mini-gun blasting police cars. But in games, you can actually do that! You can become a totally different character and take part in the script! You can do the running and the jumping and the injecting plasmids to gain the ability of pyro-kinesis allowing you to defeat a demented plastic surgeon-ing! When you play a game, you play a character, you don’t play you. You are an actor performing in the manner of the character you have been assigned in the game. If you played you, you wouldn’t do anything; you’d probably just run and hide in a corner as the alien pigs invaded rather than chewing bubble gum and kicking ass, only to find that you’re all out of bubble gum. Also tipping strippers and chewing cigars while commanding them to “shake it, baby.” That’s why when discussing games one refers to Max Payne doing something, not yourself. Even if one does say ‘I’ did this, they’re either wrong (because they are not Max Payne) or are using it, consciously or not, in the way an actor might say ‘I cut my own hand off with a chainsaw’. Bruce Campbell didn’t do that, but he did do it as Ash Williams. I didn’t drive back the combine with a super-powered gravity gun, but I did do it in the role of Gordon Freeman. Even in RPGs you don’t play you. An element of you might be in there, in the same way an element of an actor is in a role, but it’s still not you. That’s why one names themselves ‘Xizor Razael, Destroyer of the Hate Beast’, not ‘Robert Bayley’. Even if one did take their real name, they won’t behave in that way. There are no repercussions, no prison, no death, no social stigma, no guilt, you are free to allow yourself to be unrestrained and let the ego take over where in real life you wouldn’t due to those factors. In short, when playing an RPG, you’re still not playing you, you’re playing what I term the ‘arsehole-you’. Admittedly, you’d still follow the main quest, so you wouldn’t have much choice in affecting the story. You couldn’t choose to sit this one out and just let Oblivion consume the world; it just wouldn’t progress until you jumped back into the main quest again. So, whether, you like it or not, in whatever game, you’re playing a character that to some extent has been imposed on you (nominally ‘the chosen one’ if it’s an RPG). And that’s what makes games fun. You’re not you anymore, you’re a pissed off cop whose family has been murdered, you’re a cowardly pirate pursued by a demonic ghost searching for a mythical island or you’re Duke Nukem, baddest of all the asses in the Galaxy.
I believe that games are becoming more and more advanced in their story telling technique. Bioshock gets a great deal of praise, but I believe a lot of credit should go to its spiritual predecessor and officially Scariest Game Ever System Shock 2. While it doesn’t have the moral decision-making aspect of BioShock it did employ very similar story telling techniques a good nine years beforehand. In deed I actually think some of the story telling elements in System Shock 2 are better than in BioShock, with the benign super-computer, Xerxes, trying to assist you in restarting the ship. This is until it is revealed Xerxes is actually Shodan, villainous A.I. from the first game duping you, taunting you and mocking your progress through the tannoy for the entire game. And it is terrifying.
However, many games approach this in what I believe to be the wrong way. New and innovative game mechanics are built and the story bolted on to suit these, leading to an unsatisfying narrative. Sure, it was great shooting strange gribblys in F.E.A.R. but the story was highly generic, tacked on to suit the mechanics. One can see this from the fact it is set almost entirely in one, uniform building to the dull staple of concrete warehouses filled with crates, to the lack of any characters whatsoever. There’s a couple of nice tricks towards the end with the oddly stationary soldiers that just stop working, but it’s too little too late.
So as we’ve seen above, plenty of great games are great because of their stories and characters, rather than boasting that you can now shoot people in slow motion. Gone are the days where games are sold on eye-scorching graphics and not much else. That’s a given now, that’s akin to the way cinema hadn’t really matured when it was exclusively selling itself on the spectacle. But what would happen if the writing really took over? What would happen when the writer started telling the programmers to work a certain feature into the game rather than vice versa or being told ‘no’? What on earth could be created when narrative solely, within reason, dictated game-play? I would imagine a game a great many people would be intrigued to play.