Choosing your starting character?

What are your sentiments, as a player and as an author, regarding the choice of your starting character? I can see two sides to this argument when it comes to IF.

On one side, if you present the player with a choice of character, the choice should have meaning. The various characters available should have some definite effect on the game world, opening some part of the game world that is closed to other character choices, giving the player some unique options while taking away others (or at least rendering them more difficult). Choice of characters can enhance replayability; it can give the player an avatar with whom he identifies so he isn’t called upon to portray somebody with a different moral character. Choice of characters means women can have a starting avatar more identifiable to them.

The other side argues that it’s difficult for a player to make a choice unless the choice is informed; at the beginning of a game he can’t yet know the nature of the game, or what effect his choices will have. Choice of characters increases playtesting time; it increases the number of things which might go wrong. It also increases the design requirements, making you come up with unique paths or solutions for each.

My assessment: more work, but worth the effort. What do you think?

Depends a lot on the game and story. “Rameses”, “Violet”, and “Varicella” would none of them have made sense with any protagonist but the one provided. On the other hand, I could imagine, say, “Make It Good” with a different lead character who faced the same basic premise but had different motivations (or, to come at it another way, I could imagine a version of “Make It Good” in which the player could play one of the NPCs, each of whom has his/her own goal).

Of course, adding that option would render the game even more mindboggling huge than it already is, so perhaps it’s just as well.

I don’t know, Emily; I would play the hell out of Rameses and I-0 if I could switch their protagonists.

…actually, isn’t “Violet” an example of what the OP was talking about, since it lets you choose your gender?

I’m having trouble wrapping my head around your question (so pardon me if my post is a bit scattered). I think you’re coming at this from some kind of skill-based game-of-tactics angle? (You said “starting character” rather than “character” or “protagonist”, and mention as a result the variable difficulty of particular tasks.) For example, choosing among characters in a D&D video game actually means the player is choosing different tactical options and play styles. Some players have an easier time with some tactical packages than others, so the player needs to know details about the gameplay before they’ve even played (as you implied). And that’s what confuses me. That isn’t choosing a character: that’s choosing a class. It’s a wholly different animal than choosing a protagonist. One never needs to know gameplay details to choose a protagonist.

I think by choosing different protagonists the player is fundamentally choosing different stories. (Calling that “replayability” seems a bit… off… to me. “Re-readability”, perhaps, or some flavor of unputdownable.) Asking whether or not the player should be granted a choice of two or three stories, chosen at the beginning, is an unusual thing to ask.

You mention gender (by implying that, if choice is not granted, the protag will always be male!) Well, whether or not the reader identifies with the protagonist is yet again a separate question than the can-s/he-or-can’t-s/he tactical issue you’d brought up. How important is reader identification or self-insertion in the work? If it isn’t important, then you don’t need choice of protag. If it is, well, you don’t necessarily need to create completely distinct protags, either. Sometimes a little pre-game player-editing will give you 90% of the benefit for 10% of the work. Blue Lacuna did this, and I believe the option was appreciated. (Even if the characters were a little more bland because of.) So did Violet. While you can’t edit the titular NPC, the PC can be either gender. It worked better there because the PC isn’t characterized hardly at all beyond their roles: as grad student, as a significant other, as a lover of zombie festivals.

So I guess that’s my answer: who’s the story about? The player, or the character?


Hrm. I don’t think so: whichever gender you pick, you still have a strongly defined past that belongs to a specific character, together with certain personality quirks and flaws that pervade the whole game. There are interesting tweaks to the backstory depending on which gender you pick, and a certain puzzle has an extra solution if you’re a man, I believe, but I would say the character is really not essentially changed either way.

(Then again, maybe I’m misinterpreting what Hertz was getting at with his question.)

The general assumption in most interactive fiction that I’ve played seems to be universal competence. That is, if you have the required magic trinkets, you can accomplish the task; without them, you cannot (i.e., lighting the newspaper with the matches will make the balloon rise; the PC is assumed to have the skill to steer, manage the flame, descend, etc). There are some exceptions, usually dead-end verbs that the game wants the player to know are pointless (such as KILL as a solution to NPC interaction problems).

In the “puzzle vs. plot” thread, some interesting points came up about the moral imperative of the character with which the player is saddled, and it got me to thinking that perhaps it might be better to allow the player to choose a persona that fits his particular style. Some players may be sickened by a seemingly sociopathic protagonist; others may be disgusted by the saccharine do-gooder persona. Certainly I would argue that it is easier for a player to see a solution when it aligns with his thinking, and harder to see the solution the further away it deviates. Perhaps to you this is the point: you may sometimes wish to compel the reader to find your solution that tells the story of your character.

And that’s a valid answer for some. It’s not my answer; I don’t see much distinction between enforced characterization with a linear railroad plot, and a novel dispensed one paragraph at a time. IF is by definition interactive; choosing a persona is surely one way to interact. In the “puzzle vs. plot” thread some players indicated that they would prefer to see their choices have some larger effect on the game world.

Of course there is room for a game that is about a specific character, and making the player complicit with that character’s behavior. Just as naturally, you might be limiting your audience if that character is abhorrent to some players; you might find players get frustrated when they don’t “see” a solution themselves that your character would see instantly.

There’s value to that; some players enjoy that. There’s also value to accommodating a wider audience.

I tend to think in world-building, creating situations and universes filled with characters and interactions, and I would generally allow the player to choose how he interacts with that world. My story-brain generally doesn’t start with the personality of the protagonist. Everybody’s a bit different, though, which is why I ask.

It now sounds as though you’re moving towards “I want the game to be accessible for people who come at the puzzles in different ways”. But the thing is, with IF you don’t have to make the player choose one possible puzzle-approach over another; you can just build all the puzzles with multiple solutions and then let the player steer his own course through those puzzles as they arrive. (In fact there are a couple of games that provide the multiple-solution puzzles and then try to derive some information about the player character’s personality based on what solutions he uses. But they don’t start out by defining the PC’s ability system, really. Metamorphoses does this quietly and in a way probably not noticed by most players; The Erudition Chamber does it explicitly.)

I think this is not quite the same problem as balancing a combat system, where combat might simply be broken if you let the player simultaneously equip the Longbow of Ranged Damage-Dealing AND the Melee Bat of Ultimate Headthwacking AND the Stinkbomb of AOE Smackdowns – because combat is about trading off different strengths and weaknesses in the tools you have available and/or your personal stats. Most types of puzzle don’t offer enough granularity to be tuned that way.

Of course, I’d be pretty interested in seeing an example that proved me wrong, so hey.

I agree it’s easier for a player to see solutions in line with their own thinking, but there’s still two issues I have. One Emily just brought up: on a pure mechanics level, why instruct the player to choose a line of thinking (as embodied by a protag) in the opening, and then remove off-thought solutions, than to do as she suggested and leave all solutions open all the time, skipping the character choice. The latter seems more robust in that not everyone really understands their own thinking clearly, and also that they may for whatever reason concoct a solution which isn’t from their normal mode of thinking. Using protag-choice just seems unnecessary here.

The other issue I have is on a narrative level: if the protag can be substituted with a saint or a sinner at will, then the protag is obviously not very important to the core of the story. In which case, why characterize strongly at all? Generally, if a protag has something which offends a player (for any reason, moral or otherwise), it’s usually because the author really needs it for the story. Since the offense is there for a reason, you can’t swap out the characters without also swapping out chunks of the plot, possibly damaging the theme, and goodness knows what else.

Maybe in a D&D game characters are easily interchanged modules, but not in a story. I would rather offend a reader than dilute the work.

I’m trying to program a puzzle right now, and this one puzzle might be as much lines of code as the rest of the game. There are 6 D&D characters, and you need to stop 5 of them from playing. Each has their own special way of quitting.

Now, you have spells, including a summon spell used for a different puzzle, so as an alternate solution, you can summon one of them into a locked room, then teleport out.

Also, you can change gender, so you can become an attractive female and seduce one away.

This puzzle, because of its various solutions, is becoming probably the biggest thing I’ve had to implement yet. What if you summon away the GM? What if you get rid of all 6? What if you cause Mark to get his phone call to quit gaming but you’ve already locked him in the locked room?

I can only imagine if every puzzle had to have multiple solutions based on a choice of protagonist. Imagine even a simple game like Zork if you had to play as a pacifist- no killing the thief or troll. How do you program around that? What other way gets the thief’s treasures back? Or Zork 2 if your character is religious and against summoning demons? Or Suveh Nux when your character hates magic, or is illiterate and can’t learn the spells?

You’re really asking for the same WORLD, but with almost sandbox like gameplay, where the PC can do anything and there isn’t a definate endgame in mind, or if there is, it’s a very basic one. (Get rich). Games like grand theft auto have over 50 programmers to keep the game open. IF usually has 1. And it’s given away for free. The odds that someone is that dedicated and has the time and energy is pretty slim.

The closest thing I can think of is Leather Goddess of Phobos, where you choose gender and that changes the gender of a few NPCs, but little else in the plot or puzzles. Mostly irrelevant changes are one thing, but asking for 10 different stories in one title is a lot. I think Heroes tried to do this, but I haven’t gotten around to playing it through yet.

I believe that we’re first story-tellers and second world model providers. I think one of the greatest and most consuming aspects of IF is immersion into another character, even if the character is the nameless faceless adventurer. Is it possible that I’m attracted to IF because of an empathic streak? Or is it because I want to temporariliy suspend reality? I’ve never been interested in choosing a character scenarios because it’s sort of like writing my own story. I’ve never liked the metaphor of IF being like writing your own story. I’ve always thought of it in the literal sense. That someone has written a story with a world model and I get to live the story.

On the other hand, I do like the idea of playing a game from different perspectives, so clearly I’m confused. There may be significant replayability if a game were developed so that you could pick one of N characters and all unpicked characters become NPC’s. But to me that’s just another “gimmick”. It’s a lot of work that might pay off, but I’m not sure it’s worth it outside of the egocentric prospect of having created it.

In the end, I’d rather play a game where the character was chosen for many reasons and the interactivity was developed so that I could explore who that character is and what motivates them. If there are many choices, it’s unlikely to have any depth.

David C.

That depends on what you call a “protagonist” and what you call a “puzzle.” If the puzzle is LIGHT NEWSPAPER WITH MATCH, then no, there isn’t any granularity to solving that particular puzzle with any personality. If the puzzle is rather more complex and human — for instance, you’re in a Cold War epionage tale and a Russian agent has information you need — some solutions will be more satisfying (and obvious) than others if you know something about who “you” are. Am I a double agent? Am I Russian? Am I male or female, is the agent male or female? Can I just kill him and loot the body, and what happens if I do?

If you allow all solutions, then some pretty wild swings can and will happen, which (to me) isn’t satisfying as an author. The player-character becomes an unpredictable force, a remote-controled psychotic drone, and it’s harder to write forcefully about a character with no innate personality.

Because the game can be about the world, rather than about the protagonist. For better or worse, I tend to imagine first a world where stories can happen, and only then think of people those stories should happen to. My mind just works that way, and I get excited about the world I want to communicate, rather than about the personality I want to impose on the player.

I feel that if you allow the player to choose how he’s going to approach that world, you can make him feel more as if he’s the hero, rather than just a puppeteer for somebody else’s hero.

There are other things that IF can do besides letting the player feel he’s the hero, though. I mean, it’s true that this is a very standard thing for game designers to want to do, and clearly it does appeal to a broad audience, so that’s great.

But it’s not the only thing: I had a lot of fun playing dumb, not-me characters in both Lost Pig and Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, where part of the charm and humor value came from play-acting this silly characterization.

And then there are many interactive stories to tell where no one is a hero in the classic sense (Rameses, say), or where the interaction is about learning to take a particular view on things (Common Ground, Ribbons, Exhibition, and assorted others to a smaller degree). Or about struggling against the constraints of the universe and learning to accept that the world is the way it is. Or… you get the picture.

I get that, but it sounds as though in practice you may be headed towards a solution that is just as constraining/easy to get stuck in as a very linear arc (since only “in character” solutions are supposed to be available to the player at a given time, and I’d bet you will have cases where people can think of valid solutions but not valid in-character ones). But you also have many of the disadvantages of an undercharacterized protagonist as well. If you are forcing yourself to write the story so that it can apply with a few tweaks to any man or woman anywhere on the sinner/rogue/saint scale, you’re likely to wind up with something a bit generic.

I think in this case I might tend to go for a mechanic that doesn’t define the player at the start and isn’t completely constraining, but that tends to reinforce patterns established by the player’s early behavior – something a bit Fable-esque. In RPGs, this is sometimes done by offering the player different types of XP, so if you use ranged weapons a lot, you get better at ranged weapon use and will probably continue to specialize in that direction; it doesn’t mean you can’t switch to melee if you want to.

In IF, I think I would handle that instead by tweaking which options are explicitly hinted to the player and which are left as an exercise in ingenuity. For instance, if you play the first few scenes as a femme fatale luring enemy agents back to your hotel room, your conversation hints might start to be more heavily stacked in that direction, and descriptions of characters might start to shift towards noticing whether they looked susceptible. If you played a different way, the same actual actions would still be available, but maybe instead the prose would hint at the ease with which you could puncture the agent’s jugular with your fork.

Of course, this is still assuming a pretty hefty machinery behind the scenes, tracking what the player is doing and then morphing the text appropriately. But I think it would leave the player with more freedom (and a better chance not to get stuck, always important), while still encouraging people to adopt a consistent persona.

Naturally. If this is the kind of story you wish to tell, then the engine can accommodate it, and some players — certainly not all, but no game accommodates everyone — will enjoy fitting themselves into that persona. I never suggested there can be value in a character-driven IF story; I just don’t find my brain susceptible to writing them that way.

As a player, I may be able to choose characteristics of my character, but rarely the whole character. The narrative structure is such that everything I read about the story is pre-filtered - it’s not exactly like a live role-playing game where I can say “Bos Ogrerampage admires the fine architecture.” I can look at the architecture, but the game will either:

  • not implement the architecture
  • describe the architecture
  • tell me how I feel about the architecture
    None of these are my choice. Sure, maybe these are well-implemented, but the author is always going to be framing the character. Within that frame, I can interpret the results, but that’s much easier in, say, Fallout, where I’m freer to interpret the world than in a pure text format. Thus, I’d much rather have one strongly written character than several outwardly different characters.

Which is great, but as soon as you start the story, the character begins to matter. Harry Potter would look completely different if the Boy Who Lived was actually Hermione or Dudley. Characters may come out of the story, or you may want to explore how a story develops differently with a different protagonist, but they’re not separate from the story itself.

Man, what’s she doing as the wizard’s apprentice? :wink:

Could be a servant rather than apprentice.

Yes, this is what I want (bolding mine). I create a world, but worlds have complexities that are larger than a single protagonist.

I’d like to see more different kind of stuff, so this idea of replaying as different characters is interesting to me. And one thing in particular is that I don’t agree with the judgment that there always ought to be one story with one character (not that anyone said that, exactly). It can be interesting to explore a world with different characters, or see how different characters fulfill a quest with basically the same shape, which is what Heroes seems to do (at least at first). It seems to me that there are a few different things you can do with a choice of PC:

–Use preset characters to change up some of the puzzles because the characters have different physical abilities. One character may be big enough not to need to climb on anything to reach the high shelf, but they also can’t fit through the confined space, or cross the rickety bridge, or something. Or there could be more general techniques available to one character or another, if it’s that kind of game (thinking of a combat-based game as we were talking about earlier). This is more like what Ron said about character classes, but not necessarily invalid for that.

–Use preset characters to change up some of the puzzles or interactions because NPCs react to the characters differently because of who they are. I just played through a little of Heroes – one quest and a bit of another – and one of the guards who was completely faceless to one character was known to another character, and someone he could talk to. I’m assuming that will have a big effect on how the game moves forward. Or, in my I-0/Rameses example, I imagine playing as Tracy Valencia would open up different solutions to the quite difficult “telling these jerks where to stick it” puzzle (actually I never solved that).

–Use preset characters to change some of the available paths, because there are some things the PC just won’t do. This can be tricky – having the PC flat out refuse to do something can be annoying – but if the character and world are well-defined enough it could be motivated. For instance, in Kevin Jackson-Mead’s “Waker” from the IntroComp (spoilered because I give away the solution to the entire intro),

Maybe you could play either as Vel or the high priest. The high priest is so bound by tradition that he would never smash the cryosleep coffin, but he knows the combination so he doesn’t need to. But his code of tradition could become more restrictive later.

And in that case the different codes of conduct would be part of exploring a world. Or imagine solving a mystery as a straight-arrow cop who would never do certain underhanded things, or a seedy private detective who has no such scruples but who also doesn’t have the badge that’ll get him through certain locked doors.

All these seem like they could increase replayability, in that you can wind up doing things over again with a few different challenges, and maybe gain new insight into the world of the IF. Though this isn’t going to make things as replayable as in games where you can go through a new set of random encounters with a completely different skill tree.

–Use a dynamic sense of how the player plays to restrict options. I don’t like the idea of using a predetermined character to lock the player out of solutions they might consider immoral (or the opposite, as Hertz seemed to suggest); if you have multiple paths and they’re well hinted enough, players will try to find the path they want to. But you could try and highlight solutions that are in accord with the way the player’s been playing so far. Another, trickier thing to do would be to have the gameworld evolve so as to close off some solutions – after you shoot someone who’s running away, people react so as to keep you from using the straight-arrow solutions.

–Just change the reactions the PC gets from NPCs, and the way things are described, and the way the PC does things, in a way that doesn’t necessarily change the puzzles but might affect how the player sees them. Imagine a game like Galatea where you have several different PCs that can talk to your NPC, which each of them coming up with more or less tactful ways of framing their quips, or coming up with different information when they tell her things, or just eliciting different reactions because she perceives them differently. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Anyway, I can see a concern that these things would be a lot of effort which might best be put into other areas. But I like the idea of using different characters to explore a world as another way of using IF, in addition to having stories driven by a particular character.