More than once before, I’ve said something like this:

In The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), you are Guybrush Threepwood, a mighty pirate; in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), you are but a humble spaceship person (or are you?); in Sprung (2004), you are Brett, a wannabe jock dickhead. You are, you are, you are — you are those characters, and we routinely talk in that way about our relationship with the characters we are playing because of the agency we have through them.

Me, in Two Problems for Interactive Stories

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that it’s common to consider yourself to be the main character of a game.

The first two words of Zork: “You are”

The first two words of Zork: “You are”

Player-character identity

In games, you identify with the player character. It’s fun to feel cool playing Viewtiful Joe; it’s fun to be silly and clumsy in Octodad; it’s fun — sort of — to shit yourself playing DayZ.

But the extent to which you can identify with a character isn’t always up to you: it can be limited by the game, and it can be exploited by the game. Some games present a strong player-character identity, some use a weaker identity, and some disrupt the identity altogether.

Varying the strength of player-character identity is a means of artistic expression particular to games. So how do games present a strong or weak player-character identity, and what are the effects of these techniques?


A few examples

Let’s start with what I see as a clear case of extremely strong identity: Gordon Freeman. In Half-Life 2 (2004), there’s never a cutscene from anything but Freeman’s (usually player-controlled) perspective. What you know about the game world, Gordon knows. What you see, Gordon sees. What you can do, Gordon can do. There are no exceptions.

To show how we can weaken that identity very subtly, consider Goldeneye 007 (1997) — another FPS, but here the cutscenes aren’t tied to Bond’s perspective. In fact, you see a short fly-through of each level before you play it, giving you knowledge that Bond doesn’t have. Unlike Freeman, Bond is not identical with the player in this respect. Of course this is highly practical, facilitating navigation of the level and clarifying objectives. So defusing player-character identity — just slightly — affords some benefits to the experience of playing without rendering the protagonist at all unsympathetic.

Flying over the first level of Goldeneye 007 (1997) Source

Flying over the first level of Goldeneye 007 (1997) Source

Getting further removed, let’s go third-person. In Alone in the Dark (1992) (or Resident Evil (1996) if you’re not that old), you see the game from fixed camera angles. You specifically lack sight around the next creepy corner so that you’re scared for the player-character. In a technical sense, we’re getting more removed from the character, sharing neither knowledge nor line of sight exactly, but this does still allow us to “identify” with the character in the sense that we sympathise with them — we fear for them, but I am less certain that we fear as them.

I suppose it’s worth noting here that I’m of course talking about this technical sense of identity (that I’ve just made up) and not any of the other wishy-washy stuff that the word actually means. Such is my wont.

But just changing camera doesn’t dismantle player-character identity all on its own. It’s a much more fine-grained idea of how the game is presented to the player. Go back to old games like Chuckie Egg (1983), when almost nothing was first-person. While I must still confess that the identity is less thoroughgoing in Chuckie Egg than in Half-Life, the actions of the player, and all the potential of the player to act, are completely wrapped up in the little guy on the screen. Furthermore, the rather abstract scenario that’s presented doesn’t prevent us from assuming that our knowledge of the world is also shared with the protagonist: what we can see on the screen, he can perhaps also deduce from his perspective.

Chuckie Egg (1983) Source

Chuckie Egg (1983) Source

To get to the subtlety of the idea, move forward to a modern game in a (very broadly) similar style: Gunpoint (2013). Side-on perspective, levels visible in a single screen (some of them, just about), and a little guy running around collecting eggs. (Or were they laptops?) The same principle applies: the player’s abilities are still wrapped up in the player-character, but in Gunpoint the player’s knowledge is out of line with the character’s, because he’s raiding buildings into which he can’t see while you can. Superficially very similar, but just due to the way the story’s told — due to the fact that it’s a building and you know he can’t see through that wall — player-character identity is reduced.

Gunpoint (2012) Source

Gunpoint (2012) Source

But what does this do for games?

Reduced player-character identity is not a bad thing! It’s not a scoring criterion; you don’t need as much as possible to make a good game. It’s a spectrum — a dimension for variation. What’s more, varying in this dimension produces different effects, and so player-character identity is an artistic tool at game designers’ disposal.

Gunpoint makes that clear: a big part of the fun in that game is your omniscience: because you can see into all the rooms, you’re able to plan out your moves precisely before you act. As a result, when you do act, it feels totally cool. Your guy is doing cool stuff, like a superhero, as if he has some sort of transcendental knowledge or a sixth sense. There’s a layer of sophistication added by untying the player from the character.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the captivation, the immersion, and sense of purity of presentation that comes across in Half-Life. That total identity is also a powerful effect, just a different one.

What a game does about player-character identity makes a huge difference, and it’s one reason you can feel immersed or empowered — or I guess a whole bunch of other stuff. There are tons of ways that games leverage player-character identity — strong, weak, or even fluctuating within one game. Case studies are on the list for a later post.

[Edit: Here’s that later post.] [Another edit: And another later post.]