In his 2011 GDC presentation, The Identity Bubble – A Design Approach To Character and Story Creation, designer Matthias Worch builds on the work of Gary Fine (From his book Shared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds), using the conceptual model of frames to examine how players have multiple, often conflicting, internal voices. During play they are at once, people, players and characters, with different motivations operating within each frame.
Games allow us to participate in defining the behaviour of a character, our actions become theirs, our choices influence their behaviour. The player frame takes the lead in defining motivation and performing action. One common occurrence is the imposition of our desires upon the character, as Worch describes it: “This is the reason we play games: the ability to drive the action, to express ourselves, to lead.” As players our desires often lean towards efficiency, we may even strive for optimality when characters in fiction rarely do. When the player and character frames begin to drift apart, when our motivations as players no longer match those of the characters we are playing, we complain about dissonance. Our chosen approach determined within the player frame does not match that supplied by the fictional context within the character frame.
Frequently there is no choice, the game can’t be played in a way that doesn’t foster such dissonance. Even if you try the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed don’t allow for the efficiency it tries to fictionalise as being part of Altair’s character. In such instances, where the only options available are those that contradict the established narrative context, criticisms are justified. Worch’s method for avoiding this drift is to find ways that encourage the alignment of the character and player frames.
A commonality of each of the presented methods is that the character frame should be adjusted to align with the player frame. What of “self-correction”, of playing in a manner that is appropriate to the character; in so far as the abstracted nature of game mechanics allow? What if instead of determining the behaviour of characters based on the our motivations within the player frame we modify our behaviour to better fit the context of the character we are playing?
Early in my time with Tomb Raider it became clear what the game wasn’t going to do. The narrative is a tale of survival and growth, of overcoming extreme hostility. The mechanics you interact with to progress that narrative are high level abstractions of those concepts rather than attempts at simulation. Tomb Raider is, not a game about survival from a mechanical perspective, there are survival elements though they are heavily abstracted. Tomb Raider is a game about hostility and overcoming that hostility as a means of character growth. This basic conceit is presented and reinforced within the first ten minutes, as a Lara scrambles out of the cave she finds herself in though a variety of Quick Time Events and context sensitive actions.
The manner in which Lara obtains a handgun, and in the process kills for the first time is messy, violent and problematic in several ways. Shortly after that she is confronted by others of the Solarii, the cult like inhabitants of the island. It’s possible to kill them quickly and relatively cleanly, it’s also possible to keep shooting them until they stop moving. Without intending to I made the choice that being highly efficient wasn’t appropriate or necessary. When time slowed down in that first encounter instead of using it to line up precise shots, I fired as soon as the gun was pointed at the Solarii and didn’t stop until he collapsed, then I did the same with his companion; I did what I felt Lara would do.
This is a pattern I repeated throughout, it stopped being a conscious decision almost immediately. I was not directly punished for being inefficient and messy, and the narrative and characterisation did nothing to contradict my behaviour. Initially it had been an experiment to see if I could get away without turning Lara into the “alpha predator of ‘headshot island'” and it was possible, furthermore it felt emotionally resonant in a way I believe being efficiency wouldn’t have.
Throughout the next few hours when confronted with armed hostility I played in an improvisational way, explosive barrels, fire arrows, horrific melee kills; every tool at my disposal combined into a mess of violence. I was mad at the Solarii for what they were doing to my friends and to me, and I took that out on them. Why use one bullet when I can use five? Why use a normal arrow when I can use a flaming one? I scrambled around, dodging attacks, stabbing people in the legs, smashing rocks into faces, screaming, swearing. It was a nightmare of brutality and violence. Once it was all over there was no Nathan Drake like quip just an exhausted sign of regret tinged relief, both from myself and Lara. Neither of us wanted to be doing this much fighting but if we wanted to survive we had little choice.
I had not modified my overriding motivation, I wanted to be entertained, to have a memorable experience, and I was, I did. What I had done was slightly modify my behaviour. To keep the “identity bubble” intact it is necessary to make adjustments to at least one of the three often conflicting frames, to correct for drift. Which frame needs correcting and who performs that correcting does not always need to be the same for every game.
Games are participatory, a shared construct of designer and player. It’s not uncommon to talk of how games should react to player behaviour, taken to an extreme this can become the arrogance of agency, the notion that it is the responsibility of all games to acknowledging and response to our behaviour no matter how unpredictable or contextually inappropriate. If games are about shared authorship don’t we, as players, have a responsibility to ourselves to move beyond “willing suspension of disbelief” into actively maintaining that “suspension of disbelief”?
Tomb Raider is one of the best games I’ve played. The verb is important, as much for what it means for a game as what it means in the context of “acting”, of “role playing”. I implicitly entered into a contract with the game, if it would provide me a consistent structure by which to contextualise my actions I would play within that structure. My behaviour when I was in control of Lara, and her behaviour outside of my control reinforced each other, strengthening both aspects. It required no more effort that playing “cops and robber”, I had a role and I played to that role, the result was an alignment of player and character frames unlike any I’ve experienced.
Sequels focused on continuing a story started in the original can be uniquely challenging. Freed of the need to introduce world and characters the focus shifts to expanding the world, and a deeper exploration of the central themes. Providing a bigger context, a broader canvas, on which to explore the escalating consequences of the actions of the characters.
In The Godfather Part II we see Michael Corleone attempting to expand the operations of the family, while dealing with the choices made previously by himself and his father Vito. The continuing themes of family and respect are weaved throughout along with several references both direct and metaphorical to events from the first film; the final scenes strongly echoing the ending of the original in both tone and content.
The goal of such a sequel is one of expansion and escalation, the problems are larger, the stakes higher; to put it another way everything is “Bigger, Better, More Badass”.
This is seen in numerous game sequels, players are provided with larger locations to visit, more powerful tools to wield, and tougher challenges to face. The problems are bigger and so are the solutions.
In Half-Life the initial goal is to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, there are detours, and the eventual goal becomes something greater but the story is essentially confined to Black Mesa. Escape from the facility comes only at the conclusion. From the very first moments of Half-Life 2 it’s explicitly clear that you will no longer be restricted to the confines of Black Mesa, the world has expanded and you are no longer solely concerned with self-preservation.
The Half-Life series also serves to highlight an inherent character development problem with game sequels. By the conclusion of the original game the player character will have faced and surmounted numerous challenges, often learning new skills and acquired tools and weapons along the way. They end the game a more competent more powerful character than they began it. In order to repeat this sense of character development and progression in the sequel players will be stripped of their acquired skills and abilities. Just how many times does Gordon Freeman have to lose his weapons, just so that they can be carefully portioned back out?
What purpose is served by developing a character when they are fated to lose all progression the next time they appear? Would audiences have accepted The Godfather Part 2 if Michael Corleone was no longer the Don but had to earn that position all over again?
One way to mitigate this is to treat sequels in an episodic fashion with only the most basic of story elements carried forward into each subsequent title. The Tomb Raider games use this approach, until their recent revival, each title was a self contained story with only the barest links to the previous games. Such an approach allows for recurring characters and themes to provide a sense of continuity, while not requiring an extensive knowledge of the back story that might be off putting to new players.
Some sequels sidestep the issue by developing the story around a different protagonist. While avoiding the previous problems such games still need to spent time reestablishing the rules and underlying context for the world. Attempts are often made to tie the actions of the new protagonist to those of their predecessor, such as in Fallout 2. In these cases the overarching storyline is not so much that of either protagonist but the world itself.
An interesting twist on this is the approach taken by System Shock 2, and more recently F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, that of a new protagonist but a returning antagonist. Set some forty two years after the events on Citadel Station System Shock 2 features a new blank slate avatar who once again has to deal with the machinations of SHODAN. The story of System Shock is not really the story of the player at all, it is her story. This bring us back to a variation on the original problem; does SHODAN’s reappearance in System Shock 2 serve to invalidate the actions of the mysterious hacker, the player character of the original System Shock? The SHODAN found on Tau Ceti V only exists because of your actions in the original game but doesn’t her very survival call into question the value of your original success?
The beginning of Alien 3 changes the entire tenor of the final sequences of Aliens, as going back and watching it again we know that some of those characters are destined to die. Is the assumption that players are unlikely to revisit the original game so anything is fair, even turning what was once a success into a failure?
The structure of games based on progression from a state of powerlessness to a state of empowerment seems at odds with the desire to continue a story arc; any progression in the first game is immediately negated for the start of the sequel in order for the cycle to begin anew.