Playing You vs Playing Me

This is a question for both players and authors, and one that mostly applies to choice-based games (I think. If I’m wrong, would be curious to know).

The games I’m interested in making involve playing a pre-made character. They have their own hopes, dreams, feelings, etc. that are not really decided by the player. This is in contrast to games where you get to pick things like “What kind of person am I?” and are played with the player either acting as themselves (what would I do here?) or as some character they invented (what would my renegade Shepard who hates the Krogan do?).

The choices presented in the game I’m interested in do not reflect the full range of possibilities of what “someone” would do, but what the character might do. Through prose you’re given an understanding of how she feels and asked to make choices within that mindset. Doesn’t mean it’s on rails, it’s just a different axis.

I saw at least one reviewer comment that despite kind of knowing there was an existing character they were meant to roleplay, they were still mostly just playing themselves. So I’m really curious to know from both writers and players what their experience with all this is. For writers, have you written games like this? What techniques have you used to “seat” the player in the character? What have you learned about framing and choices?

For players, how do you feel about these kinds of games? Do they “work”? What determines whether or not they work?

And how can this discussion pivot to an argument about whether choice or parser games are better?

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:smirk:

Players will always play themselves, I think. It sounds great to have someone to roleplay a character completely different from their personality, going out of their way to make choices they don’t like in order to have the story suit the character and not themselves… but let’s be realistic: that isn’t going to happen for most people. Given the choice between three different options, the player is going to choose the choice that leads to the story that they want to see, not what is more in-character. A lot of times the player will play nice and choose helpful options, so it tends to align with predefined character, but that doesn’t mean that they’re role playing. They’re still doing what they want.

That being said, I’m by no means advocating for undefined characters. I really like when characters are defined with their own backstory and preexisting relationships between other characters. I feel it doesn’t happen enough.

This is how it should be done, I think. Give me a range of choices, but not ones that break the character mold.

One way to do it, if you decide to go to character extremes, is how I’ve seen it done in a few games (mostly CoG games and also the Growlanser JRPG series), which is you keep tally of your previous choices of whether you’re a jerk or not. If you’re a nice guy, you can’t select the option that lets you kick the puppy for no reason. If you’re a bad boy, you won’t suddenly write a sonnet for your love interest. This has the advantage of letting the player have more control over the character and progressively overwriting the predefined character with their own, while safe guarding them against doing any random thing that suits them.

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There are games of all types. Some feature AFGNCAAP (Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally-Ambiguous Adventure Person) as the PC, others will define the character specifically (“You are Arthur Dent…”) or may let the player co-create a character and their backstory (CoG is big on this), and in others, the discovery of these character traits might be part of the plot/mystery/story.

People like different levels of co-creation, and it really varies based on what you’re trying to do with the story.

I don’t think the co-creation level is strictly even dependent on the narrative type. It really just depends on what type of role-playing is expected of the player, and whether the story can bend to accomodate input by the player. It’s much easier to write AFGNCAAP which is why that’s common, along with amnesia storylines so the PC doesn’t arrive with baggage that has to be explained to the player effectively.

This is a really complex topic that, as others have stated, I think works very differently for different players with different expectations. But I will say that one technique that I think can work for this is to have shifting viewpoint characters – this means the player identifies less with any specific character, and for those beyond the initial one at least, you’ve got the opportunity to externally define the characters so that by the time the player inhabits them, they’ve got some assumptions about what that person is like, so they might be more inclined to play the hand you’ve dealt them.

A separate, but sometimes related piece, has to do with how the character’s agency interacts with the player’s goals. By default, players I think are usually trying to “win”, so if playing the character “correctly” feels like it leads to suboptimal results, they’ll bristle at the limits on what they’re allowed to do. But if you’re getting positive feedback for doing so, again I think that makes players more willing to go along with things. The reason I say this can be related to the previous point is that one way to thread the needle is to get the player invested in the story rather than in any specific character or characters; if they feel more like a director trying to get the most interesting story, choosing options that seem self-defeating or even self-destructive can feel OK because you’re getting more drama out of it. Of course, if the point of limiting the player’s choices is to foster greater identification with a character, this way of doing things cuts pretty strongly against that!

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I also think it depends on the type of story telling, as @DeusIrahas said.

There are two types of story telling that I’m familiar with, and that is the western (US/UK) and eastern (Japan/Korea) methods.

In eastern story telling, the characters are created first and they’re the focus of the story. The plot development happens as a result of character interaction. The plots tend to not be incredibly deep as the focus is on growing to love the characters.

In western story telling, world building is everything and it’s all plot focused. The characters are invented after the fact and used solely to move the plot forward. They rarely have any depth or a back story. The AFGNCAAP character format follows this to a T.

I think video games (of all genres) of old used to follow the western format almost exclusively, but there’s been a pretty hard shift towards the eastern format even from western devs, which is probably why this conversation is even happening.

For me I think consistency is vital. If I’m told I’m a rampaging barbarian, I’d like to roleplay that the whole time and not have scenes where I’m ‘punished’ for playing as told.

The worst is when you have options part of the time and are told what to do the rest of the time. So, for instance, you can pick between bravery and cowardice early on, but automatically run away in a later fight. I think it’s better if anything you let the player choose once you let them choose forever (either by saving their earlier choice or providing an option each time).

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I wonder about this, and maybe wonder if the distinction between “the player” and “the character” begins to break down in a well-made piece. If the writing of a game is so good that my own feelings begin to attune to the character, who am I making choices as now? Has the polarities of “what the player would do” vs “what the character would do” collapsed?

I’m thinking about Firewatch. By the end of the game I really felt like I was that guy, out in that forest, scared both for my life but also what I would go back to if I left this forest. I felt like I was him, so I was making choices “as him” but not because I was, as the disassociated and dispassionate player, deciding to roleplay as him versus myself as a matter of rational choice. And part of setting that up is obviously, as you said, giving choices that make sense for the character (he can’t, for instance, not be afraid of returning to his life. He can only pretend).

But I think the latter, the choice restriction, only works if the player has been successfully inducted into the character’s life. Otherwise it just feels like I can’t make the choices I want.

I guess maybe this topic is me wondering how to actually do that effectively. Not saying I’m bad at it (maybe I am!) but I would like to deliberately improve. Hence asking people for their experiences both as writers and players.

Probably! I haven’t played enough parser games yet but so far I don’t usually feel like I’m roleplaying when I do. Either the character is empty and I’m self inserting or they’re predefined and I’m simply controlling their problem solving faculty. Would love some good examples otherwise.

Lol yeah that’s really frustrating. I generally assume the story’s introduction or first chapter is telling me “what is important about this story” and then assume that that’s how it wants me to read it going forward. Nothing more frustrating than a story telling you “this is a meditation on the meaning of life” and then have the piece almost tell you off for caring too much about that theme.

Funny semi-related anecdote. My girlfriend and I played Disco Elysium recently and she was neither playing as “what she thought the character should do” nor “what she would do in his place.” Instead she played almost like his therapist, forcing him to do the things he needed to do to get better (he has issues with addiction, avoids all his problems, sabotages his relationships, etc.) because she felt he deserved a better life and needed to be pushed into getting there.

(Disclaimer: I do not claim to be a writer, so take all suggestions with a grain of salt.)

This may sound funny, but I think the key to creating good character choices is to build good supporting characters. If your character lives in a vacuum, what they choose to do doesn’t matter because it only affects them, so who cares? A conscience is the fear of how others may feel about you. If you don’t care what others think, then you can easily choose any option without feeling bad about it, which is how the player breaks character.

The key is to craft strong supporting characters that you don’t want to disappoint. Or inversely, purposely create supporting characters that you’re supposed to hate. This is how you guide the player’s actions to what you feel is the optimal story route. You trick the player into thinking they’re choosing what they want, when really it’s what the author wants.

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The more you can engage the player’s imagination, the better. For some, that means they want to specify everything about the character. For me personally, too much co-creation in a non RPG makes me feel like I’m doing the work of the author for them (even though it’s actually harder to write a story that changes based on what the player decides!)

It basically comes down to the kind of story you want to write and the agency you want to provide and how much characterization you want to impose on the PC. There are audiences in every camp.

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I don’t have a unified perspective on the issue, but some specifics that I’ve seen that I think worked:
-In your game, Sense of Harmony, I thought the flashback where protagonist said she loved someone when she didn’t because she was overwhelmed by empathy was a good way to illustrate a specific facet of her character that then came up in choices. Probably that could be generalized to flashing back to moments that give a strong, focussed perspective on how a character views the types of choices that will come up in the game.
-Also in Sense of Harmony I thought having three choices that were the same, and a lone dissenting choice illustrated the character’s leanings well. That mechanic might not be super reusable, but, for an important choice early, it helps to give a sense of the character’s mental state.
-Turandot, from last year’s IFcomp, had some scenes in the beginning where the player was prompted to give their rationale on things they had done in the past. If each choice illustrates a different aspect of the character, this can be useful to give the player a crash course on the sort of ways the character sees the world, and the sort of choices they are likely to make.
-Season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead took a similar approach by having the character explain the motivation behind their crime in the first moments of the game, but also used the setting to create a schism in the character’s past and present life. The player could then play as a Lee after the apocalypse, with relationships and choices in a domain that the player and the character had the same amount of knowledge about.
-I talked about Doppeljobs approach in my review of it. It’s blunt force approach, but works well in a shorter game, especially one with a more comic focus.
-Catalan Summer gives the player a canonical description of how the character feels, but also gives them a cosmetic choice that describes how they act on that feeling. This helps on-ramp the player to the character’s mental state while still giving the player agency. Catalan Summer also does the thing that Mike Russo describes in this thread, where you jump between different characters in a way that breaks the link between player and character, and puts the player in the role of manipulating the dramatic action of the story.

If the story is a longer work (as Sense of Harmony seems designed to eventually be) I think the main tension in this area is the early game, where the player doesn’t know the character very well. A focus on writing that teaches the player about the protagonist’s character in the early game is probably especially important. Restricting the player’s choices to things that the character would do helps this process. As mathbrush noted in this thread, as long as the choices remain consistent throughout the story, it’s probably fine if the player is exploring the aspect of the character they’re most interesting in expressing.

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Thanks @dugg_funny those are all really useful examples. I did quite like Catalan Summer, and I think in part for those reasons. I felt like I knew each of the four character’s “objectives” almost (though that’s a very game-y term for it) and I was trying to get the best outcome for each given who they were. I think Mike’s right about multiple POVs making this process far easier. Too bad that’s not part of the plan :stuck_out_tongue: (at least for this project).

But thinking of the Dopplejobs example, giving the character/player an objective up front may do it. Example: character is going to a party, really does not want to be embarrassed like last time. Now the player has this in mind during every choice. Is this going to lead to the bad thing? Am I going to put my protagonist in emotional peril?

Disco Elysium does this very well by creating a sense of fright and terror concerning the past you’ve forgotten (you have amnesia in that game). So every time you have an opportunity to face your past, you’re kind of motivated to look away, in the same way the character himself really wants to look away. In a very abstract sense, that fits into an “objective” almost. The objective being the character does not want to face his past.

Lots to chew on.

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I like all kinds of IF, but the type you describe are my favourite to play, and basically also the only type I make. Probably the only type I want to make, given my interest in this area and how long it takes to make each game.

In my first Inform-written game you play one sister, and her personality endorses a lot of actions and blocks others. Then you can play the other sister and see how her different personality endorses different actions, blocks different others.

To me, any time the player tries something and the character inner-explains why they won’t do it, that reinforce the character’s personality and shines light on their psychology. So actually, I do a ton of work on the blocking/rejecting messages. Doesn’t guarantee the player won’t keep trying character-atypical actions as desired, especially if they’re butting against a puzzle, but I’m not super-policing that part of the experience, which is in all that exciting IF grey area. What I am super-policing is the integrity of the character of the PC.

There was another big topic on this topic or similar not that long ago, I think, but I’m going out the door now so don’t have time to find+link. I’ll do that later if someone else doesn’t beat me to it.

-Wade

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Interesting. In choice games, options considered “out of bounds” are just never presented and thus not considered at all (with the exception of some games that give choices only to tell you you can’t do that, which is usually frowned upon unless done for a really interesting reason). I’ll have to try some of your work as part of my research.

I think perhaps there is an interesting dynamic to be had where the player represents a particular urge or drive among the rest of the character’s personality and internal/external constraints: pushing them in some direction they might fight against. Everyone experiences internal conflict and friction within themselves, why not make that part of the dialogue between game and player. The protagonist I’m writing is somewhat fractured already, so maybe I should keep that in mind.

I’d be interested in reading through. Let me know when you find it!

Were you by chance referring to the thread I started a while back?

Heh, thanks for adding another relevant thread Tayruh, but the thread I was thinking of was this one:

Dealing with a moral dilemma in my game

-Wade

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Definitely! There’s all sorts of ways you can go with this kind of thing. From out and out blocking actions with ‘I’d never do X’ at one end, to letting an action through with prose qualification, to just letting it through transparently, even if it’s potentially a stretch for the character. But is it a stretch in context? You can track this kind of thing just by the movements of your own story, or with actual mechanics based on previous player input (the kind of counters people have mentioned tracking your past actions.) I’ve never gotten into counters, probably because I enjoy writing characters into situations, and just the kind of stories I want to write aren’t about letting the player try to do anything. Again, this comes down to ‘Your interests as an author / needs of the story / what do you actually want to do with your game?’ kinds of questions.

Btw I linked the other topic I was thinking of in a post above, and Tayruh mentioned another one.

PPS Unfortunately my best other example of my own game with this kind of approach to character happening is in Cragne Manor, where it probably takes hours of gameplay just to reach the Music Room in the first place :slight_smile:

-Wade

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I’m so on board with this - revealing character via interaction. I think I learned a whole lot about the protagonist in Sense of Harmony by being permitted to sort through her thoughts.

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