When asking whether games are an art capable of greatness, the question is often conflated with stories. Games are played on a screen, where films and TV also exist, and have epic moments of tension that seem dramatic (but are actually thaumatic). The language becomes confusing, and some theories take this too far.
They posit that players becomes heroes in their own game stories, just as actors play heroes in movies. This is not really the case. In believing that games are special, the theory tries to borrow from other art forms’ specialness rather than define games on their own terms. It doesn’t work. Games are an art, period. But we can’t really own that statement properly until we deconstruct many of the tropes that have seeped in from other arts. So let’s start right here, right now:
There is no such thing as a player character.
What Narrativism Wants to Believe
Unlike tetrists, narrativists aspire to games on a higher plane. Taking their cue from the literary and cinematic arts in particular, they create game worlds that are interactive, but with a strong sense of story and direction. The exact quantity of choice versus direction varies from player-driven progression as seen in Grand Theft Auto, to much more restricted games like Indigo Prophecy.
Central to the entire narrativist philosophy is the idea that in playing a game, a player takes on some aspect of character. She is like the lead in a movie, and the designer’s desire is to convey that relationship. When we see Patrick Stewart exude gravitas on stage, or watch Nicholas Cage fall apart in Leaving Las Vegas, it seems possible to bring some measure of that kind of emotion to gameplay. The narrativist wants to induce complex emotions in the player by making them the Nick Cage of their own personal, self-created experience.
In roleplaying games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect, for example, considerable emphasis is placed at the start of the game on character creation. This is not simply nuts-and-bolts classes and skills, it’s also features like gender selection, facial features, early conversational sections to establish relationships with non-player characters and other elements. In other games, back story features prominently, whether in the opening sequence or told progressively through flashbacks. Some of these feature interactive moments, others are related purely as long cinematic segments.
It doesn’t really work though.
The basic problem is that the narrativist relationship between the player and the on-screen character is wishful thinking. When watching Nicholas Cage act on screen, we feel empathy for his character caught in a dramatic arc that we cannot influence. The inevitability and success of struggle in drama is built on the powerlessness of the audience, and the complete captivation of their attention. Comedy, tragedy and other kinds of drama flow from the empathy of watching things unfold without agency.
The experience of playing a game, on other hand, draws attention away from watching and focuses it on doing. Unlike watching Cage’s descent into alcoholism and having empathy for his situation, the player in control has no empathy for themselves. They interpret actions, reactions and feelings through what they do and see with their own eyes. They certainly can feel antipathy or sympathy for what they see and hear in the game world, but their psychological state is actually much the same as that of a driver in a car.
Something very interesting happens to people when they take control of a vehicle. With practise, they start to act, sense and react as though they had extended their own self around the vehicle. It takes some concentration, but a seasoned driver is able to interpret information and instinctively control the outcome without having to rationally think about what they should do next.
This happens when driving cars, flying planes, piloting remote control robots or quadrocopters. The human brain is capable of placing its awareness away from its own body, at least temporarily, and in effect take on a new shape. The same thing happens when playing videogames or using computers, sometimes to the point that sensory input such as hunger is temporarily ignored. It seems that when we are engaged in playing a game, we are partially in another world, psychologically speaking.
The best word to describe this projection. When you sit in a car seat and start to drive, you project yourself into the skin of the car and sense its movements, position and sounds. Your awareness becomes an awareness of cars, you start to see how other drivers behave in terms of how their cars behave in relation to yours, and if you are of the wrong disposition that might even bring out flares of road rage.
Projection is the interpretation of action and reaction through a conduit such as a steering wheel or a game controller. Players interpret the information coming through from the game world in its own context, just as drivers interpret the world of roads and motorways. And they act within the constraints of that world through what the controller permits them to do.
The world that is perceived and acted within through the projection is sometimes overwhelming, but always remains an ideality rather than an actuality. The player remains aware of his physical self, retains his psychological self, and is simply acting and reacting to pressure. He always knows that what he is watching, playing or listening to is actually a fantasy.
Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent him from also experiencing transference. Transference is where the psychological or emotional component of a world come back down into the mind, and are experienced as base emotions. The animal part of the brain is more susceptible to getting caught up in what it sees and hears, so when we see dark corridors and hear nervy music, we are instinctively frightened.
When playing racing games, it is common to observe that players bob, tilt and weave their heads and arms, even though this action has nothing at all to do with the game. When watching younger players playing FIFA fill in commentary or shouting when they score, this is also nothing to do with the game. They are forms of transference.
The act of controlling a vehicle, a remote control robot or playing a game are all thus closely related. It is not a complex relationship of acting and deep emotion, it is actually simple. Projection, transference, and the mind’s ability to extend its senses mean that when playing a videogame, you are not playing a character as Nicholas Cage does.
You are remote-controlling a doll.
A doll is any presence in a game world over which a player exercises direct control. Sometimes the doll is represented by a human figure, sometimes it is a ship, a car, a hand of God, a simple block or dot. It can even be an invisible presence such as the hand that twists blocks in Tetris. Dolls respond to player commands with predictable behaviour, and are his agent in the game world.
Characters, on the other hand, are all the entities that the player does not control. Gordon Freeman is a doll, but Alyx Vance is a character. The Master Chief is a doll, but Cortana is a character. Ico is a doll, but Yorda is a character. Niko Bellic is a doll, but his cousin Roman is a character. The god hand in Black and White is a doll, but the creature is a character.
Sometimes characters and dolls temporarily switch places. A long cut scene sequence in one of the Metal Gear Solid games turns Snake into a character for a while, and the player has no control over him. Mona Sax in Max Payne 2 is controlled by the player for a couple of levels, making the leap from character to doll before reverting back again. In the Total War strategy games, all of your units will obey your commands without question unless their morale breaks. Then you lose control of them and they become characters briefly (they run away) before returning to their doll state.
Some dolls are used to issue orders. In Starcraft 2, the player's doll is a mouse pointer. It directs units, who will do whatever the player tells them to at once and without question. However they also have some autopilot behaviours that engage if they have no orders.
Some dolls also have their own autopilot behaviours. If the player stops playing Sonic the Hedgehog for a few minutes, Sonic will soon starting yawning, looking at the player, waving and other behaviours. When the player picks up the pad and starts controlling Sonic again, he cuts out all of that auto-pilot behaviour immediately.
You might find the word doll threatening, preferring action figure, figurine or avatar. I like to keep it simple and stupid however. If we are to define games as an art and claim them on their own terms, then the best way to do that is to keep terms as simple and unpretentious as possible.
Dolls are what they are. Own it.
Where the Art Lies
When a player controls a doll, they are themselves. What they see, feel, and do are actions that extend from their own personalities. Even in games that feature enforced moral choices, the most typical response from a player is to treat those choices as reward scenarios. If I act good in Fable, I will see the game conclude in a particular way, whereas if I act evil, I will see other endings. These are simply rewards. Fable does not actually make me more or less good or evil by presenting these choices.
The essential mistake of narrativism is that it assumes that players can be made to feel complex emotions if they telegraphed hard enough. This is not true. The relationship of art to the viewer is always one that is in the control of the viewer, so only the viewer really gets to decide what they think or feel about that art. Plenty of people who watch Schindler’s List think it’s a beautiful story, but equally many others think that it’s bombastic nonsense.
Likewise, while some people see something amazing in modern art, many people think it’s a waste of time. The most that the artist can hope for is to present a vision that the viewer does not control, and then invite them to step into it. It’s entirely up to the viewer how they interpret that for themselves. The artist does not actually make them feel.
Applied to games, what this means is that the game gives you agency to step into a world. You have control of your agency, which functions as an extension of you and nothing more, but the world is not in your control. Like a Dali painting, the world is the artistic canvass that the player can take or leave. Whether it’s entirely simple (like Tetris) or as convoluted as City 17 in Half Life 2, there is where the art lies.
The art of games is in the visual style, music, language, numina, and the extension of actions dynamically into thaumatic moments. Visual style and music engage the irrational mind and allow us to suspend disbelief. Language and numina paint out the canvass and create the impression of depth. Extensible actions, loops and game dynamics prevent the game from being boring. And so the stage is set for magic to happen.
The art of games is the art of place. It’s architecture which moves, or portraiture that invites action. It has always been so, but we have long struggled to accept it because we do not have the terminology to convey those ideas on their own terms.
But I think we’re getting there.