Game Narrative Feed

Is Gordon Freeman a Character?

Gordon Freeman Every poll asking gamers to rate the best videogame character is topped by Half-Life's Gordon Freeman. But is Gordon even a character, let alone the best that games have produced?

This question hinges upon what we mean by 'character', of course. The argument that Gordon qualifies – despite his lack of a clearly recognisable personality or identity – rests on the assumption that a player-character should be an empty shell for the player to inject themselves into. This is perhaps an expression of the agency aesthetic that valorises choice in games. Trouble is, player-as-Gordon has precious little choice because his world consists solely of puzzles to solve, things to crowbar, or things to kill. So if this is the relevant criterion, it doesn't seem like Gordon has the substance to back up his claim to supremacy with any kind of legitimacy beyond popular mandate.

Under this particular criterion, a playable GTA 'character' would seem to have an edge, unless the argument supposes that explicit character traits undermine player agency somehow. But again, this seems to be an argument that player-characters should be blank slates – and on this basis it would seem that a poll of 'best game characters' would be forced to consider supporting cast over lead characters (at least in an idealised perspective on the issue). Either way, Gordon's claim to be a character is weak, and his claim to be 'the best' game character is extremely tenuous. In a 2002 paper, James Newman suggests precisely this kind of 'vacancy' understanding of the player-character in videogames. He suggests that while in active control "the appearance of the player's character is of little or no consequence." Talking of Lara Croft in Tomb Raider games, Newman argues that "in playable game sequences... we don't have to think about her in terms of representational traits and appearance – we don't even have to think about 'her' at all." We've seen this argument before: it's precisely what I have lambasted as fiction denial.

I agree with Newman that player-characters under direct player control can be "conceived as capacity - as a set of characteristics", but this is not an admission that these capabilities do not constitute a character. No-one could seriously argue that Indiana Jones whip was not part of his character's identity, nor that Luke's lightsabre is not a part of his. Similarly, as the picture above emphasises, Gordon’s crowbar is a part of his ‘character’, such as it is. Action stories have always allowed the tools and capabilities of their heroes and villains to be conceived under the broad umbrella of 'character', as superhero stories make abundantly clear. As an example to underline this point consider that it would be decidedly out of character for James Bond to escape a jail cell using a paperclip and a piece of cheese, but entirely in-character for MacGyver to do so.

Newman suggests that we need to recognise the segmentation of videogames – they comprise of movies, menu screens, maps and so forth just as much as controlled play of a character model. Indeed, Newman is at his most brilliant in his suggestion that we recognise play need not be understood in terms of control. As he specifically observes, players can be engaged with a videogame even when they aren't in control, stating: "The pleasure of videogame play does not simply flow through the lead of a joystick." The trouble is, he then tries to suggest this segmentation can be used to compartmentalise character into sections absent of control, and reduce controlled play to one sensory mode, asserting that "the pleasures of videogame play are not principally visual, but rather kinaesthetic." Graeme Kirkpatrick argues the same – but it's an odd argument upon inspection since it only applies to some types of play and some types of game. The enjoyment of turn-based strategy is not kinaesthetic, and players of Res or Proteus must surely balk at the suggestion that the pleasures they are enjoying are not principally visual – unless, of course, it was to acknowledge how important sound is to these games.

The idea that segmentation of content eliminates character from control-based play faces serious issues when it is compared to other media. In an action movie, shall we say the hero only has character in dialogue scenes? That when a stunt person stands in for the actress that her character ceases to be in effect? That in a car chase we are not supposed to imagine the characters are within the car? The urge to reduce videogames to kinaesthetics is a strange kind or reductionism in that it is oblivious to the variety of player experiences, and particularly to imaginative experience. Just as we imagine the character in a film is present throughout the movie, many players imagine the character is present throughout the game – and they are not crazy to do so. This is a perfectly normal way to play a game, and for some players the imaginative experience is far more crucial than the kinaesthetics. That said, the kinaesthetics of play are all too often overlooked, and Newman and Kirkpatrick are an antidote to this blindness – indeed, the latter's aesthetic theory is perfectly suited to fill a gap in our appreciation of videogames as artworks. But only this one particular gap. The imaginative gap of fiction denial needs a different aesthetic theory, something closer to what I present in Imaginary Games.

Returning to the question of character, Newman's suggestion that Lara is not a character during controlled play seems implausible if imaginative experience is allowed to constitute play (as surely it must, or else diceless tabletop role-playing games become hard to explain). But his criticism lands squarely on Gordon's geeky shoulders, because Gordon – quite unlike Lara, as it happens – is never really a character in the conventional sense and is only ever his capabilities and a general impression supplied by the box art. (Gainful parallels can be made here with the covers of contemporary fantasy novels). Newman's argument is not as general as he suggests – it applies far less, for instance, to Shenmue's Ryo, whom the player is expected to embody in a far more personal, role-oriented fashion. Even outside of the formal advancement of the story or Ryo's fighting skills, his child-like love of capsule dispensers frequently bleeds into the player's own motives during play. His cry of "I love those!" often becomes mirrored in the player – there is more of a character in this trivial example than at any point in Half-Life!

'Characters' like Gordon Freeman can be understood as cyphers (trivial characters) for the player to imagine themselves inhabiting. This approach to game narrative fits an implied contract of play which favours letting the player act out in the game world however they wish (while practically constrained by the design of the game). But a different contract between game and player – such as that which Yu Suzuki attempted in Shenmue – implies very different notions of character in games. My colleague Ernest Adams recently completed a doctoral thesis, part of which argued for the benefits of an implicit contract between player and game that effectively acknowledges the idea of playing 'in-character'. Concepts such as these could lead to games with much richer player-characters who were far from mere cyphers. They might not knock Gordon off his pedestal, but they'd be far more effective at elevating the artistic status of videogames than any cypher.

Implicit Contracts and Game Narrative

Contract Could we discover new forms of game narrative if we considered different terms for the relationship between the player and the game?

When players sit down to play a tabletop role-playing game, one of the ways of understanding the situation is that there is an implicit contract between the players that sets out their relationship e.g. that the Games Master is in charge, that the players will try to minimize their use of player knowledge etc. Indeed, this was the premise behind the shortest tabletop RPG design ever published, Contract, which I designed with Rob Briggs – the complete game rules fit on the back of the character sheet! Each character sheet is explicitly a contract between the player and the Games Master.

The same concept of an implicit contract of play can be applied to videogames. Here the tacit agreement is between the players and the developer or designer - but it has different terms. Often, this contract is assumed to say 'you the player can do whatever you want in our world, but we set the challenges you must complete' or something similar. However, it is plausible that a game could specify a different implicit contract – indeed, there is already considerable variation in the tacit terms. Consider what players are presumed to accept from an MMO, a Free-to-play game, or kart racer as just three simple examples. The implicit contract of Animal Crossing is radically different from that of Grand Theft Auto, even though both are putatively sandboxes.

It is possible that by inviting the player to accept a different kind of contract, a game could invite the player to role-play, that is, to play in character (like an actor) instead of acting out (i.e. rampaging across the game world). Imagine how game narrative could be mounted if the player is invited to play as the character they have assumed the role of, rather than expecting to ‘be themselves’ (i.e. be mindlessly destructive because they are casually isolated from the consequences of their fictional actions). This could even be underscored by a scoring or reward mechanism based upon co-operation with the game’s intent, although this would risk overjustification.

Assuming the introduction of the new ‘terms and conditions’ could be done elegantly, might this kind of uniquely defined implicit contract of play offer a radically different kind of game narrative?

The Interactivity of Non-Interactive Media

The Purple Rose of Cairo It has long been a commonplace that we can draw a clear line between games as ‘interactive’ media on the one hand, and 'non-interactive' narrative media such as books, television, and movies on the other. Indeed, this distinction is supposedly the reason that ‘videogame’ works as a category. I have long found this segregation misleading because it underestimates the interactivity of supposedly ‘static’ media and it overestimates the agency in most digital games.

The assumption behind this division is that the reader of the book or the watcher of a film has nothing to do but receive the content that has been constructed for them. This is not an adequate description of the phenomenology of these media. In fact, both the reader of the book and the watcher of the film are constantly throwing their mind around to interpret the content of the work in question, anticipating what might be about to happen, or reading between the lines and trying to establish details that are not specified by the artwork in question. We seem to view this as ‘non-interactive’ solely because the interaction in question does not have a measurable impact on the fictional world of the story. Yet it does have just such an impact within the head of the reader or viewer, and isn’t this actually the interesting part of our response to any artwork?

This creates a problem for the segregation since the vast majority of videogames equally provide interaction that does not have an impact on the fictional world of the game, except from the limited perspective of the player or anyone watching their specific play of that game. Take Halo: Combat Evolved as a simple example. There is one choice that the player can make that affects the story: you can open fire in the starship at the start of the game, bringing the entire story to a premature close. Alternatively, you can co-operate with the story and see it through to its entirely inevitable and pre-scripted conclusion. To take this ability to trigger a ‘false ending’ of the story of Halo as a decisive distinction between different kinds of media would be strange when we can trigger the same kind of false ending in, say Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness, by selecting an option in the DVD to see deleted scenes and alternative endings. Yet the film is not interactive, the dogma states. I beg to differ. If this film’s DVD isn’t interactive, then neither is Halo, and I am willing to extend this claim as far as a screening of the film itself.

What makes Halo the game seem so interactive is that the player has a lot of immediate and shallow agency to affect how they kill lots of alien beings and negotiate a strictly linear sequence of locations. But this is all smoke and mirrors as far as the story is concerned – the player may feel that they are in control, but this is not much different from the way the rider of a ghost train is supposed to feel that they are in danger, even though they clearly are not. I am not against this experience – it is akin, in some ways, to the greater immediacy that rendering a novel as a movie produces. The interactivity of the novel’s ambiguities that originate in the verbal narrative are reduced in the conversion to film because the makers of the movie necessarily instantiate specific interpretative choices that reduce the level of interactivity with the fictional world in question, they make it more static and less dynamic. They make it less interactive, but they cannot render it non-interactive because no artwork could possibly be incapable of interaction and still be worth our attention!

I’d like to suggest that it is even possible to add the same kind of shallow agency to a novel or a film as we find in something like Halo. Suppose, for instance, that after each chapter or scene you draw an image that depicts the fictional content in question. You have tremendous apparent agency in how you draw these contents, but you cannot actually change the story by doing so (if you did, you would be playing a different game, something closer to fan fiction). The shallow agency of the reading-and-drawing game played with a novel is just like the shallow agency of Halo – it changes nothing, but gives you a greater sense of engagement with the fictional world in question.

To emphasise the idea that the segregation is misleadingly couched as all-or-nothing, consider many early adventure games that were structured as a series of linear puzzles. In these games you have the same shallow agency represented primarily by your ability to type ‘examine’, or your capacity to (seem to) move about the fictional world by typing ‘n’, ‘s’, ‘e’, and ‘w’. Indeed, Matti Karhulahti expressly argues that ‘examine’ can be used to detect a boundary of interactivity, a claim I argue against in “What are we playing with? Role-taking, role-play, and story-play with Tolkien’s Legendarium” (currently under review for the International Journal of Play). But is this enough to mark a segregation as vast as is being attempted? In a novel, we may not be able to shift our purported location by typing a cardinal direction or asking to ‘examine’, but nothing stops us flipping through pages to re-read the description of locations, objects, and characters when we desire the extra information. Why is this not considered interactive, yet the shallow agency of the adventure game is?

The point of this invective is simple: segregating videogames from other narrative media forms on the basis of a black-and-white interactive/non-interactive distinction obfuscates the interactive dimensions of supposedly ‘passive’ media and simultaneously valorises the importance of the agency in digital media, which is often incredibly shallow and trivial. The danger lies not only in misjudging the extent that narrative media engages our cognitive faculties but in mistakenly thinking that all kinds of digital game deserve to be treated collectively as a single well-defined category. They do not and cannot. A great many digital game genres are as different from each other as books, TV documentaries, and rock operas are from one another. Could we please stop pretending that the use of computers in play is a more important feature than the range of experiences that the play of media produces? It would be a more honest way to approach the gradations of interactivity that apply to every form of artwork.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames Published by Charles River Media, July 2006

International Hobo Ltd is proud to announce the publication of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, the first reader on the topic of game writing, written by the IGDA Game Writers' Special Interest Group, and edited by ihobo Managing Director, Chris Bateman.

A dozen professional game writers each contributed chapters, including Richard Dansky, Mary DeMarle, Matt Entin, Stephen Jacobs, Ed Kuehnel, Tim Langdell, Rhianna Pratchett, Coray Seifert, James Swallow and Andrew S. Walsh, with four chapters contributed by members of International Hobo - Ernest Adams, Richard Boon and Chris Bateman. The book also recieved additional editing from Sande Chen, Wendy Despain, Beth A. Dillon, Ahmad Saad, and indefatigable ihobo troubleshooter Neil Bundy.

Game Writing takes a skill focus, and looks at the skills and techniques used by professional game writers in the context of real videogame projects, such as Myst 3, Far Cry, Discworld Noir and Madden NFL Football. Less speculative than most books on the subject of game narrative, this is a book about how the industry currently get stories into games. Anyone interested in learning these skills would do well to pick up a copy.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is available from Amazon and all good bookstores.

Published by Charles River Media, ISBN 1584504900.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames