Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Responsibility of the Player

Over at Experience Points, Scott Juster has two very interesting articles that work with the analogy of the player's role in a game as sharing properties with those of both the actor and director of a theatre. The first article, "Self-directed Play" sets up this analogy, and the second article, "Walk, Don't Run" discusses how a game's rules can be seen as the stage directions and how contradictions within these directions undermine the player's trust. Juster uses Uncharted 2's Tibetan Village scene and its mandatory walking as an example of this contradiction.

A sentence in the opening paragraph of this later article caught my attention as it concerned something I have often mused over, but have had trouble finding words for: the player's responsibility:
"[...] game players are responsible for both a performance's original vision and its subsequent reinterpretations."
The discussion in the comments focuses on when it is suitable for a game designer to force the player into a certain situation or to force the player to conform to unique rules in a certain scene. Without intending to simplify the entire arguments of the commenters (all of whom are totally worth reading, except for mine!): people seemed to agree it is acceptable for the game designer to intervene when the logic and coherency of the narrative is at stake. These comments (again I stress, generally) generally supported game designer decisions such as forcing Drake to walk in the Tibetan Village because if the player decided to run around in circles, the narrative would be rendered nonsensical. However, I think this overlooks the issue of player responsibility

With choice comes responsibility, as some movie character once said (well, I think they actually said 'power', but you get the idea). Just as the actor on stage has a responsibility to the play's overall performance, If a player has an active role in the performance of a game's narrative, he or she has a responsibility to act out the narrative in a coherent way.
Thus, as it is the player's responsibility, it is not something the game designer should force, but something the play should choose. Consequently, if the narrative jars in an inconsistent, illogical way in reaction to how the player acts, the player has only his or herself to blame. For example, it is the player's responsibility to the narrative of Uncharted 2 to walk Drake through the Tibetan Village; it is not the game designer's place to constrain the player by contradicting previous game rules (however, as Juster suggests, forcing Drake to limp as he is recently wounded would allow the game designer to alter the rules without contradicting pre-existing rules).

A disclaimer is now required! I do not mean to imply that the player should ensure the narrative is coherent. Even the most story-driven games are entirely capable of being experienced and (arguably) enjoyed independent of the plot. Rather, if the player wishes to enjoy the game's plot as a coherent narrative, they shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that their own role is acted out in a logical way. If a player wishes to run around the Tibetan Village like a lunatic, they should be able to within the same rules that define the rest of the game; however, that same player can not complain two minutes later that the story makes no sense because of Drake's frivolity. The actor in a theatre cannot complain that the role they just performed was unconvincing without accepting a fair amount of the blame.

A comment on "Walk, Don't Run" brought up Half Life 2:

"Gordon, if he were a character at all and not just a floating gun, would be a complete psychopath and nobody notices. He's busy trying to break the teleporter prototype while Alyx is pouring her heart out. He never looks the actual characters in the eye, he's too busy hopping around impatiently at the exit he knows they're eventually going to lead him to. Valve, in their stubborn but admirable devotion to a particular mode of gamemaking ignore the importance of social rules and it destroys the illusion of believability for both Gordon and the characters in the game."
Valve, I think, do not ignore the importance of social rules; the player does. The player, as an actor in the role of Gordon Freeman, also has the option to stand with the other scientists and listen to the discussion. If the player wishes to enjoy the narrative of Half Life 2, it is his or her responsibility to act in a way that maintains its coherence.

As an aside, years ago, without considering it at all in these terms, I played through Half Life in a way where I pretended I 'was' Gordon Freeman. I acted out my role as a scientist who had no idea what was going to happen. I walked from the train to the test lab (forgetting my HEV suit and being turned around by the security guard on the way); I made eye-contact with people who spoke to me; I ran down the stairs utterly convinced the army was here to help. It was a really interesting way to re-experience the story of a game I had already completed many times before. In hignsight, I was performing as Gordon Freeman.

Back to player responsibility. Another example of player responsibility being ignored that bus me is Clint Hocking's attack on story-driven games in Edge's "Death of the Author" article:
"I'm supposed to feel sad about the death of this character and yet I ran over 17 old ladies to get there. It's really jarring."
It wouldn't be jarring if Hocking, as the player, didn't run over 17 old ladies in the first place. It is not Rockstar's responsibility to make it impossible to hit the old ladies (which, I should note, is not what Hocking was arguing); it is the player's responsibility, if they wish for the narrative to not jar, to not run over 17 old ladies. That said, the player certainly should feel free to drive however they desire if they have no concern for the narrative and only wish to experience the mechanics of the game.

Although I have made clear arguments in this piece, I acknowledge what a tricky thing it is to pin down. Just how much responsibility does the player have? The game designer must surely still have some responsibility towards the narrative, but how much? If not being allowed to run jars in Uncharted 2, is it still acceptable in Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" mission?

Before these questions can be answered, it must be acknowledge that the play does have responsibilities that a passive audience has never needed to be concerned with. The actor in the theatre cannot sit before the stage to watch the show; neither can they blame the script they refuse to read. Similarly, the player cannot sit back and watch the game unfold without acting in it; neither can they feel mistreated when their own actions shatter the narrative's immersion.

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