In games, do players really embody the characters they control?
They move left when you move the left stick to the left. They move right when you tilt it to the right. And they jump if you press A (or B, or X, or Y, or Space). It’s as if keyboards and controllers just melt into our bodies and become a muscle we flex to bend a knee or wave an arm.
Indeed, lots of games have made me feel like the virtual character I’m piloting. In Skyrim, I can almost feel the weight of a sword with each left-click I make. In Harvest Moon, I wrestle with maximizing my farm’s profit as if the gold in my inventory is linked to my real life bank account. My consciousness is somehow tethered to these pixels and polygons, and I end up caring about the virtual avatars I possess, as if taking care of my own body.
Other games aren’t as successful. (To me, at least.) For how immersive games like Fallout 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition purport to be, I’ve never once felt like I was the one trekking through the Commonwealth or slinging spells at giant spiders. Instead, these games make me feel like a floating head behind their real protagonist, manipulating their actions, giving them commands. I hardly feel like the character I’m controlling; instead, the experience feels like it has far more in common with playing The Sims than you’d think.
One reason I think games like Fallout 4 and DA:I fail to deliver this player embodiment is something that’s somewhat of a recent trend: they have voiced protagonists. These are two game series that shifted away from having silent protagonists, to having one with fully-voiced cutscenes. There’s dissonance there: these games let me heavily customize the player character’s physical appearance to whatever I envisioned, but seeing my custom character speak and emote in ways I didn’t agree with or expect really broke any sense of ownership I had over them. Cutscenes in Fallout 4 rip the player out of their first-person view and thrust them behind a third-person camera instead, making them watch someone who, just a few seconds ago, they were.
The shift towards having voiced protagonists also greatly affects player choice. With recorded dialogue now being a major limiting factor on the game’s writing, the number of choices players should be given with what they want their character to say is necessarily reduced. It’s no surprise that Fallout 4 and Dragon Age II (the first Dragon Age game with a voiced protagonist) also overhauled their dialogue systems, opting for a wheel instead of multiple choice. Limited space on a wheel often requires that options be labeled with truncated versions of what the recorded line actually is, and one of two things happen: the nuance of the final response is lost and players get tricked into picking an option they didn’t intend to, or dialogue is written to be intentionally simplistic or vague, to avoid such misunderstandings happening. The predecessors to these games, Fallout: New Vegas and Dragon Age: Origins, while still limiting players with multiple-choice dialogue selections, at least gave me the full sentence, which made it much easier to pick something I would personally say. More recently, Divinity: Original Sin 2 also does the same but with a more classic RPG flair, peppering responses with *actions in asterisks*.
It’s probably common sense (and the above examples illustrate this perfectly) that it’s much easier to project oneself onto a character if they’re more of a “blank slate”, with no voice and no predetermined paths of action or dialogue. I’d even go as far as to say that these two elements are far more important than things like being able to customize the player character’s physical appearance, or having an immersive environment. As a 10-year-old I felt innately invested in my blond farmer girl alter ego in Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town (where the extent of character customization is choosing what color overalls to wear), simply because she could do everything I wanted her to do, exactly the way I wanted, within the (comparatively tiny) scope of the game.
It’s been mentioned that Nintendo characters like Mario and Link have been designed as blank slates–but again, I’ve never once felt as if I was an Italian plumber or a Hylian warrior. Their initial incarnations might very well have been good blank slates, but over time the franchises they’ve sustained have injected so much of their lore into the collective consciousness of gaming culture to the point that I don’t think anyone who’s played their games before would attempt to deceive themselves into thinking they’re embodying Mario or Link. Instead, we’re helping these familiar characters achieve their goals.
Which begs the question: do we always need players to feel like the character they’re playing? Obviously not. Games like The Last of Us or Uncharted don’t try to make the player become Joel or Nathan Drake; instead we sympathize and empathize with them as their pre-scripted, linear character arcs unfold in front of us, while we point them in the right direction like an omniscient god. Super Mario Odyssey and Breath of the Wild do the same. If a game tells us what kind of experience it’s trying to give us from the get-go, it’s easy to accept its confines and play freely within them.
However, games like Fallout 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition send us mixed signals. We get to customize our characters as if their faces are made out of modelling clay, rename them, and in Inquisition, pick their voice. But once the game starts we are immediately plunged into worlds which give you constant little tastes of freedom before grabbing the reins, and then shoving them back in your direction when a cutscene is done. I feel like I’m supposed to be my Inquisitor, but I never really get there.
Ultimately, it’s a question of managing player expectations, and defining what a game’s essential experience is. I think that Dragon Age II did a better job in this area compared to Fallout 4 or Inquisition–we’re told that our protagonist is a member of the Hawke family, they have a canonical physical appearance, and the early scenes establish strong relationships between this character and their family which develop over the course of the game. I found myself seeing Hawke not as myself, but as a character I was trying to help–which made it a much better experience.
Being a protagonist in a novel, or a film, or a game, is a fantasy that’s irresistible and ubiquitous. It’s tempting to force players into a leading role, but it also sets them up for disappointment. Doing this well, however, can create incredibly powerful experiences.