On Sunday I described player-character identity as a dimension for artistic expression in videogames. When a game makes player and character share abilities, perspective, and knowledge, they are strongly identified. When player and character are separated in those respects, the identity is weakened.
If you play games for escapism then you might imagine strong identity with your character will immerse you more, and so drag you further out of your drab reality. However, weakening player-character identity opens up some much more exciting scenarios: you can have superpowers.
Viewtiful Joe (2003) is exciting. You play a kid who’s sucked into a cinema screen, and you side-scroll through B-movie scenarios as a red-spandexed superhero. It’s stupidly hard, has tons of style, and looks and sounds amazing even now.
As you progress, Joe gets new film-related superpowers: zooming in for more damage (and amazing mega-sprited screenshots), fast-forwarding for greater speed, and slow-mo for er… something else. I forget. Anyway, it’s exciting.
The point is that you gain these abilities as a player just as Joe gains the same abilities as a character. As amazingly fun as it all is, there’s no mystery about what Joe’s doing. You know exactly what he’s doing because you’re doing it, too. To put it another way, his superpowers are completely explained in the story — I mean, he’s a superhero, and his powers are specifically taught to you, and they even all have names. It’s a fact of this superhero’s universe that some individuals may possess outstanding special powers.
So what? Bear with me. Keep all that in mind as we look at the next example: Gunpoint (2013). (I mentioned this one last time, too.) Gunpoint and Viewtiful Joe have some similarities in terms of how player powers are presented, but the player-character identity is weakened in an important way. This completely changes how we interpret the protagonist’s actions.
Gunpoint is not a superhero story, but the detective’s Hypertrouser upgrades and Crosslink device are like Joe’s powers in that they’re bestowed upon the character in the game, you learn how to use them as the player, and they add abilities for player and character together. Like in Viewtiful Joe, these special abilities of the protagonist are explicitly accounted for in the universe of the game.
Where Gunpoint really differs, though, is in a very basic assumption about how the game works — an assumption so basic that it’s almost invisible.
As the player, you can see inside all the buildings, but clearly Conway, the detective character, can’t. Your perspective is removed from his, and as a result your knowledge is removed from his. Your identity with him is weakened. This produces the most thrilling of the detective’s special abilities: intuition.
When Conway jumps high, it’s because of his trousers; when he manipulates electrical circuitry, it’s because of his Crosslink. But when he smashes through a glass ceiling in the dark at just the right moment to tackle an approaching guard, that’s… well, that’s because of you. It’s because he benefits from knowledge which the player has but he couldn’t possibly have. In the terms of the narrative, it has to be because of intuition, instincts, gut-feelings, or just remarkable luck — all of which make for a good story.
He’s like Columbo latching onto the right suspect from the start, like Holmes knowing which of a thousand minute distractions is pertinent, like Bond or Indy Jones beating the odds on every single reckless leap. On a certain level, it would be preposterous to suppose that these geniuses are enabled by anything other than supernatural power — the power of the author, who transcends the world of the narrative, supernatural to it.
But we can suppress that, or if we’re the players of a game, we can doublethink it, along with the the contradictory premise that the character just is really, really cool. Characters like that are impossibly capable, irresistibly charismatic. No wonder it’s so fun to be one in Gunpoint.
Less exciting scenarios, too
Those are my kind of “superpowers”: the ones not explained within the narrative, but depending on some kind of influence from a different plane. They needn’t all be obviously special abilities — and they needn’t even be as special as knowing what’s behind a wall.
In Everybody’s Golf (yes, I’m still playing it), you have all this information on the screen which tells you exactly how far you’re going to hit the ball, the specific topography of the area it will land, the speed and direction of the wind, the precise slopes of the green, and more — everything. That’s not a superpower, that’s just the game mechanic — it’s just golf, right? Do you share your knowledge of that information with your character? Yeah, maybe… I always assumed so — it’s just a shorthand for having a good caddy and lots of golfing experience. But, then, to confound you, one game mode puts all that in a very interesting light.
“Real Golf” mode removes all the HUD prompts completely, along with your ability to zoom the camera long the course and inspect your ball’s landing zone. You can have your character drop some grass and see how much it blows around to judge the wind, and you can refer to a map of the course to get the layout of the hole, but that’s about it. Now you really are strongly identified with the character. You share a perspective, which is the eye-line from the tee, and knowledge, which it limited to what you can judge from your standpoint, as well as sharing abilities (choosing clubs, hitting the ball a particular way, etc.). The game’s a lot harder like this.
Once you see the changes of Real Golf mode, you realise your golfer actually had “superpowers” all along. They were choosing shots with incredible judgment and foresight, and you were chalking it up to their natural golfing prowess, their instinct for the sport. In fact, you were papering over their supernatural aptitude, imagining that rolling the ball 200 yards along the towering ruin of an aqueduct and getting a hole-in-one on a par 4 was just a matter of being great at golf. In fact you’re playing a golfing Columbo, privy to the guidance of a transcendental power, in the form of you, the player. But all this enables the fantasy of the gifted golfer, and that gives the game its magic.
Doing more with the concept of player-character identity
“Superpowers” aren’t the end of it. This concept’s still definitely on the list for another visit.
One avenue I’d like to explore in future is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony depends on a discrepancy in knowledge between a character and the audience. What bearing does the notion of player-character identity have on this? Even though I’ve suggested that the player sometimes knows things their character can’t, the character still sort of knows those things by proxy, since they’ll always act on the knowledge they supposedly don’t have. For that reason, maybe it's impossible to have a playable protagonist be the subject of dramatic irony. I’m not sure.
Another route for exploration is the notion of detachment from the player-character. I wrote about feeling detached in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and how that transformed the experience in a surprisingly positive way. There are at least one or two other games that have a similar effect by varying the strength of player-character identity during their stories. Something to investigate…
[EDIT: Here’s a later exploration of player-character identity.]
So until next time…
In a few ways, then, player-character identity can set the framework for how we interpret a game and what we imagine we’re doing when we play it. It explains how Gunpoint adds a magical allure to Conway’s apparently material skill and flair, and how Viewtiful Joe grounds Joe’s ostensibly supernatural powers in the laws of nature of the game world.
It’s one of videogames’ unique tools for expression, and, I think, a handy concept for videogame criticism.