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Rant: NPC IV //// NP-Me (in a reality)

Most gamers have led multiple lives and inhabited many number of bodies. This sounds esoteric, but considering the number of characters invented for, or translated into gaming, magic is not required, save for the suspension of belief and its recreation. The key phrase is “role-playing”, the freedom to recreate yourself in someone else’s image, and discover how it aligns with the perception of your self. 

Playing a particular character can be compared to assuming a role in a play, or film- a narrative universe is created and the player is injected into a characters’ narrative at a particular point in time, akin to beginning a short story. Most games use a narrative device- amnesia, imprisonment, birth or a battle- to facilitate this introduction and the symbiotic relationship between character and player. The Witcher games first introduce Geralt, their protagonist, as someone who has lost his memory- a blank slate the player fills in through discovery and gameplay. The Elder Scrolls games have traditionally begun with the player character escaping imprisonment, setting up the plot- though the role you might assume in the game is very different from the Witcher. Horizon Zero Dawn, like the Fables series, begins at birth, showing key moments in the life of the character you play and introducing you to the gameplay. Assassins Creed uses the double blind of an in-game character, whom the player might identify with, “playing” through their ancestors memories to uncover a hidden historical occurrence. The Civilisation games cast you into the role of a known historical figure, or ruler. Other games give you the opportunity to “become” a fictional character known from other media- Batman, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, to name some*- whom a player will be familiar with before entering their world and thought processes. 

 Intro to Ultima 6 (1990). The player reenters Britania

Giving the player this opportunity- to construct and embody their personal version of a character - is one of the key differences between gaming and, for instance, reading. While a book, or film, will allow the viewer to construct their version of a character from the hints presented within the narrative of a book and watch them make their decisions, in a game you are complicit in making and influencing those decisions and actions. It can also be presented as a moral or ethical question to the person in front of the screen through the presentation of in-game choices that question the in-game characters adherence to their established morality, by establishing the character as one of questionable morals or by questioning the societal norms that lead to certain in-game decisions. A simple example for the first might be declaring war as a pacifist Gandhi in Civilisation, playing, or associating with an “evil” character in almost any game- examples might be the characters you play in Tyranny or the GTA series, or by placing the player in a world that is, from our current point of view, systematically skewed or in a state of moral flux due to technology or crisis (off the top of my head, the morally gray worlds of Deus Ex and the Witcher come to mind). 

By presenting choices and showing their impact on the game world, the player explores what-if scenarios for the real world, their responses to these and their ability- or willingness- to adapt to a variety scenarios. “What if I was one of the bad guys?” “What if I had to survive in a post-apocalyptic earth?” “Would I kill an innocent if ordered to do so?” “Can I see beyond my prejudices?” “How far would I push someone else to achieve my goals?” “Why would I kill millions to save one person?” "What if I was a border agent?" - these are a few scenarios that have been presented in games. Even though the player can always blame the vicarious experience* and role-playing within the game world for their decisions, it is you, player (and I, player), making them, no matter how destructive the (virtual) outcome- the burden of control is that you bear the responsibility for the consequences of your decisions. Whether this foments empowerment understanding, empathy or action in real life remains to be explored- outside of this limited context- but knowing yourself and how you might react to certain stimuli is arguably not a bad outcome. 

Most games represent the player- graphically as well as narratively- as being the center of the world. I make the difference between a character-centric game and a world-centric game when I think about the different narrative approaches to establishing the relationship between the protagonist and their world. Note that there is a second player- and world- centric distinction, but that has more to do with gameplay than narrative- more on that later. 

The messianic representation of Shepard in the first three Mass Effect games, or the role of the “Commander” (player) in X-Com 2 (2016) are both ways of making the player feel that they are the only one, the destined one, the chosen one, the last one to be able to change the world and the imminent crisis facing it and do not waste an opportunity to remind the player of the world-changing consequences of their actions. They, through the actions and words of their avatar, become a symbol worthy of sacrifice, a beacon of hope for the masses to follow- they grow into leadership and power over time, evolving from a character learning about the world to one who leads it and teaches others how they think it should be changed. In other words, the protagonist of the game has the prerogative to undertake world-changing actions, which also happen to affect them personally. The central conflict of the world becomes the driving narrative force throughout the game, with all actions fleshing out aspects of that conflict. No matter what decisions the player makes, the desired narrative outcome is the protagonist as the central figure in the resolution of that central conflict, usually by pressing some form of a global reset button that will solve everything in one fell swoop. This is, to me, a player-centric narrative- the player is the centre of the universe. 

A second way to place the player at the center of a world is to reveal, over time, several intertwining narratives within the world, but to maintain that the world exists mostly outside of the narrative presented in the time-span of one game, while it is affected by these events. Although there is something big happening in the background, and you may eventually discover what it is, it is currently of no importance to your character in this game world- it will be once you reach a point in the game at which it becomes personally relevant to them and the NPC’s they interact with, at which point, they may decide to enter into the greater event. While the desired narrative outcome is the same as in the first scenario, the approach to this is very different. While you somehow end up the central figure in the resolution of a conflict, and may even save the world in the process, the end result will vary, depending on decisions you made within the game’s narrative- the world appears to persist, even after your effect on it ends.* This would be the world-centric narrative- the player is a part of the game world, but hardly the only, or most important one.

Aside from the differing approaches towards the protagonists positioning in the world, there is another design choice that affects the players relationship with the character they are playing: Is the character a recognisable one with a set personality, or is it one the player can project their own personality onto without the “interference” of a pre-made character? Am I assuming the role of someone else, or am I playing myself assuming a role within a world? Games with a strong narrative have generally preferred to present the player with a preset character, and the in-world expectations towards this character- these are the Geralts, Shepards, Aloys, Ezios and Batmen of this world. While they “limit” the player to one play style, they simultaneously provide a reason and backstory for why the player is limited in this way, and go some way towards establishing the players motivation in the world- which can make for stronger writing and visual storytelling in general, as there are less variables to take into account. A series that has attempted to create a direct link between the player and the character they play is the Ultima series. Almost every introduction- up to Ultima 9- features a hapless character from the “real world” entering the fantastic realm of Britania to embody the Avatar- a paragon of goodness and virtue in constant opposition to the Guardian. Though this sets up a number of expectations towards how this character might behave in the game world, it does not limit the player in their choices of gender, play styles or personal touches in their gameplay. In other words, the player is given enough knowledge about the role they will (probably) assume in the games narrative, but are given the freedom to recreate (or deconstruct) themselves within the framework of the game. Popular tropes that introduce your character into the game world do not include breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to the person sitting in front of the screen include: being introduced as a prisoner, having everyone you know die long ago while your character has survived, leaving the protected confines of your village (or vault) and buying your first starship. Being cast as an unknown into a strange and new world is very liberating when trying to discover a place for your assumed self in this new setting. 

A question that arises here is whether the player in front of the screen can ever play "themselves" in a game- on a doubly mediated platform, first translating the players actions into a world and then projecting their actions onto a created avatar. Some players adopt a "we" (not a royal one) when referring to themselves while playing a game, including themselves and the character they are controlling in this, reflecting the dual provenance of the decisions they are making in game. That said, play styles vary greatly in approach, personal investment, competitiveness and depth. Even if they are not playing themselves as they would in the real world, they are projecting their personality and curiosity onto the world, simulating two different people given the same choice. 

The Mass Effect 3 Choice Chart reflects the various choices
and preferences that gamers have displayed in that game.
Most games that include achievements allow quantitative analysis.
A parenthesis into power and agency seems appropriate at this point:
One of the central themes of games is that, in the game, you have power you do not have in real life- whether it be physical prowess, magical abilities, weapons, wealth or a social position. Whether this translates into agency- the capacity to apply that power in a self-determined capacity to your surroundings- is the question the next paragraphs explore.

Generally, the narratives presented by games place their character at the centre of events, as the only one able to bring together the pieces that might “solve” the problem at hand with the power bestowed upon your character, whichever flavour it might have. Having power over characters whom we believe to be powerful is intoxicating- though it has its limits. In most games, it precludes player agency by limiting them to a set of choices from the point of view of that character- mostly, you are prompted to react in ways you would expect of that character, with that power. This leads to predictable outcomes and decisions, which, while easier to implement, can counter the players ability to forge a personal narrative through that character and their feeling of agency within the game.* 

Skyrims main quest is an example of this: as the Dragonborn, you will eventually end the threat posed by the return of the ancient dragon Alduin and all your actions within that quest predictably lead towards that outcome, without fail, variation or deviation*. There is no option to join with the dragons, for instance, nor are alternative approaches or plot threads presented- every player will undertake the same steps in the same sequence and reach the same conclusion. While the ending showcases the epic power that the individual player has acquired in the course of that narrative, it also underlines the lack of agency the same player has within the structure of the game, as they don’t really have a choice in how they arrive at that ending, or how that ending unfolds. Compare this with the relative freedom the same player has in creating their place and character outside the main narrative through their choices of interaction in the game world- power does not mean freedom of choice and action in this game. 

In contrast, a game that has a much more low-level approach to agency and power is Endless Sky (spiritual successor to Escape Velocity Nova, not to be confused with No Man’s Sky). Here, everyone starts out as having bought their first spaceship, and aims to pay off their mortgage as a first goal. Eventually, you will end up discovering several plot lines- of which you can choose only one to follow and, surviving those, eventually gain access to very powerful, very customisable ships and choose where in the universe you end up, without any limitations set on those choices except the choices you have made beforehand. You could, in theory, choose never to engage in any of the plot lines, having opted for a path of galactic domination, or the steady life of a humble trader in stead. In this, you have full agency to create the narrative of the character you are playing and will, over time, acquire ample power, and yet every player will end up experiencing a personal journey and “solve” the game according to their own predilections- they are given the freedom to find their own definition of and path to power, although the narrative cornerstones they will encounter are the same. 

Skyrim is a AAA game from 2011 with 3D graphics; Endless Sky is a sprite-and text-based open source collaboration currently at version 0.96. The comparison between these two games may seem unfair at first sight, but under their graphical and gameplay surfaces, they share many ideas- an open world for the player to discover; trade, combat, reputation and factions as primary gameplay mechanics and a world-changing storyline. The main narrative difference is in the personal decisions they allow the player on their journey, the role of the player in the game world, and how the relationship with their avatar in the world unfolds- this does not take into account differences in presentation, gameplay or popularity.***** 

Thinking back to the first part of this series, about my personal addiction, one of the things that drew me back into games is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of a world that was seemingly becoming more uncontrollable by the day, and to allow myself an escape from a perceived loss of control, interest and agency within that world******. Games presented me an opportunity to easily take back a semblance of control, and a goal to work towards, establishing a sense of mission lacking from my life at the time. This made me feel good about myself as the character in the game world, as we were accomplishing meaningful things, but did not add very much in my “real life”- in fact, it subtracted from it without any real addition, save high-scores. While many factors- a need for seclusion, quiet and distance are on the forefront of my mind when I think back over that year- were at play, I find that this is mainly because, in this seclusion, I omitted to share the experiences I was living through with anyone who might understand them. Sure, as outlined above, I learned a few things about myself and the ways I would deal with events, given the chance to do so, and the desire to create stories such as the ones I was living through. I gained many screenshots- holiday snaps, if you will. What did not translate- a feeling of control, understanding of the worlds’ systems and self-empowerment I had gained through hundreds of hours of game-play. Unsurprising, considering that those hundreds of hours were spent playing with the games systems, not the real worlds’. You may, by now, have realised this series is an attempt to write myself back into reality. All worlds are based on the words we use to describe them. For a while, I had no words that adequately described mine, or me. Onwards. We’re getting there.

This part ends here.

The next part delves into how people change worlds when they find them lacking.

The Company of Myself (2009, 2DArray) puts the player in
a position that reflects the duality of playing an avatar in a game.

* literary characters: Whether this is a form of empowerment or marketing is debatable. 
** vicarious decisions: I call these decisions vicarious because, although you are making them yourself, the effects are “felt” by the character you are playing- the term simulated probably works as well, but in keeping with an approach that comes from narrative studies, I’m sticking to literary terms. 
*** You could draw a real-world parallel between a worldview made up mostly out of following global news and acting on that and one that evolves out of many interactions with individuals who are indirectly affected by this news. The player-centric worldview would lead you to want to solve all the- somewhat abstract- problems in the world in one go, which, honourable megalomaniacal undertaking non withstanding, is a very tall order and, unless you have a massive amount of resources at your disposal, uses up a lot of energy. Your interactions with the affected individuals might lead you to conclude that it is more effective to solve several small-scale problems and make life better for those who surround you (and yourself), which might lead you to solving a larger problem eventually. While this also uses up a lot of energy, it requires less resources and does not require organising a large group of people to accomplish. 
**** To be fair: There are reasons in the wider series lore for this outcome, and the game does offer several paths to follow in the world. Nontheless, it is technologically feasible to account for an “evil” path and incorporate its outcome into potential future installments- Mass Effects 1-3 allowed you to carry over your decisions from one part to the next, as did the Witcher series.  
*****: IMHO: And yet, if No Man’s Sky had, from the outset, simply translated Endless Sky’s gameplay depth and narrative into 3D, it would have avoided much of the controversy it encountered upon release due to players frustration, expectations not being met and general boredom at the repetitive nature of the game.
******: What a clichée, right?

- The Mass Effect Choice chart was released by Bioware, the games developers in 2013. It can be viewed in more detail here:
- Andrzej Sapkowski wrote the original short stories and books that inspired the Witcher games. According to himself, he has never played them for more than 15 minutes at a time.


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