The Project Gets Direction: Player-Character Relationships

by ~hellfire~

The Prof and I have narrowed down the focus of the project. I’ll be taking a look at the relationship between player and the player’s avatar/character. More specifically (things will be getting more specific a lot), I’ll ask the questions “What perspective does a game put the player in? What is the point of view? In what ways does the game distinguish the player from the avatar?”

I hit on this in one of my earlier posts about Planescape: Torment. In other kinds of texts, like literature, perspective is pretty distinct.  Anna Karenina is third person. Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death is second-person .The Left Hand of Darkness is first person. When perspective shifts in a work, we can tell. (Obviously there’s a little more depth to these points of views, i.e. the different modes of third person storytelling. The point is that we can still see these distinctions.)

 My intuition is that perspective works differently in some games. A game like PST seems to smudge second and third-person storytelling together.  I am not the Nameless One. But within the context of the story, I am the Nameless One. I read “You do this, you do that, you feel this”—but these second-person statements apply to the Nameless One. I act, but I’m not the one doing things. It’s blurry.

The natural response to this is that we are also the characters in stories we read. We project ourselves into the context of the characters’ world. I’m not Levin in Anna Karenina but I am projected into his world while reading his part of the story. This projection is part of what makes narrative compelling. It draws us into a work.  It prompts self-reflection, among other things.  Except I think a character like The Nameless One works differently. Because I don’t just identify with him; within the constraints of the game world I actively form what I’m identifying with. I direct and control him. I don’t just put myself in the context of his world. I act in it. It’s a different sort of relationship.

I’m reluctant to attribute too much to performance and agency in games. After all, as The Prof pointed out to me, we can act and perform in other media—it’s just harder. But there seems to be something in the player-avatar relationship worthy of pinning down.

Maybe games just exaggerate the element of self in a text. Maybe this is a function of player agency, or mechanics. Maybe games don’t do anything interesting regarding the player-character relationship. Or maybe there’s something totally new to discover while studying it. Whatever. There are some unanswered questions, and that’s what’s important.


So, I mentioned I’d be getting “more specific” a lot. This is where that happens. I want to avoid the pitfall of expecting to pin down what the player-character relationship is in all games. It’s overambitious (at least for me). So I’ll be looking at a few different games that are similar, but all seem to fall in different places on the spectrum of perspective. They will definitely all be roleplaying games. The Prof and I have a list started; each of these pieces of the list has its own different characteristic that might be good from a critical perspective. I hope to narrow it down to three games.

  1. Planescape: Torment
    1. This is going to be on the list. It’s too interesting not to be. Isometric camera.
  2. Fable
    1. This one is interesting because it offers a lot of player customization, with the ability to form a real sense of self as the avatar. But it also has a clear character background and fairly linear story. Third-person camera.
  3. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
    1. This game sort of epitomizes the ability to “be” the avatar. Any quest or path can be totally disregarded. The game doesn’t overtly exclaim whether the player is good or evil. The world is huge and open-ended.  First-person(optional third-person) camera.
  4. The Temple of Elemental Evil
    1. Haven’t played this yet. I’m told it offers a static storyline to follow, which doesn’t really matter so much in the play experience. Isometric camera.
  5. Fallout
    1. Pretty good degree of character customization. Like Morrowind, facilitates thinking of the avatar as the self. (I think. Have only played a little in the past.) Isometric camera.

So there are three games here that are—at least superficially—really similar. Fallout, The Temple of Elemental Evil, and Planescape: Torment are all party-based isometric RPG’s. The draw with these three is that I don’t have to be distracted by different conventions, like camera view or player isolation. I can get a more microscopic view of what’s going on in these specific games that affects the player/avatar relationship, because it does seem to differ across all three. (For example, they are different in goal-direction and choice making).

The downside is that I wouldn’t be looking at how those different conventions (like camera view or player isolation) affect the player-character relationship. Camera is probably not incidental when we talk about how a player relates to her avatar, or what perspective a game is in. Same goes for games that have party members the player controls during the game. So I have to decide how far I want this analysis to stretch. How much do I want to account for? Any advice here would be good.

Again, my goal isn’t really to answer for the player-avatar relationship in all games. Just three (for now). And then maybe that will be useful when looking at other games.