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Creation => Notgames design => Topic started by: Michaël Samyn on February 28, 2010, 10:45:32 am



Title: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on February 28, 2010, 10:45:32 am
There's two types of avatar designs:
  • the avatar as empty shell that the player uses to express what they would do in the game
  • the avatar as character in the story whose role the player plays

The first is obviously problematic because a game creates a fictional universe that may be improbably to find yourself in. And expects the player to do things which they may never do voluntarily.

But the second is problematic as well. Because the character that you are asked to play has already lived a life. And you, as a player, do not know anything about this life! As a result, the character may display inappropriate symptoms of amnesia. And the player may not understand the environment and the characters they meet as well as they should, if they were the character.

I imagine actors would solve this problem in one of two ways. Either they simply follow directions, say the lines in the script and follow their intuition in terms of tone of voice (or they experiment over multiple takes in the case of a recording, and let the editor decide). Or they really try to get to know the character that they are playing and try to imagine being this person and try to live how this person lives (perhaps not always restricted to the stage or set...).

Players of games can't do either. They can't do the first because they are not just the player, they are also the audience. And as audience, they want to understand the story. And they can't do the latter because, well, they just want to play and not read a story before they start playing or spend weeks of study and experimentation trying to "get into" the character.

As a result, many games contain an element of learning about the world and characters that your avatar knows so well. Even of learning about the very avatar whose role you are playing. As such, in a way, playing a game is as much writing the story, as it is telling or experiencing it. Within a game structure, this doesn't pose a lot of problems because games are often about learning things too, and about discovery. But in a purely narrative interactive experience, the amnesia of the protagonist poses a serious problem.
How do we solve it?


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Víctor Marín on February 28, 2010, 04:31:53 pm
Scratch it. Treat the player as a player, like in dice or card games. Or make him get into the character telling his history before. More or less what you said, I don't see a good solution.

Maybe just don't make the player interact with the piece through a character, that could be interesting. Or through a simple character, we could be the character's pet, or his subconscious (someone was working ond this, right? :D).

I find impossible to get completely identified by a character with own life, so I wouldn't try to do so.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Thomas on February 28, 2010, 09:39:19 pm
I believe it is also possible to mix these. When reading a book I sometimes see the events taking place as if I was a certain character and this happens when I feel closely connect to this character somehow. Other times I just watch the events take place as an outside observer. This can happen in the same book and it can slide between these two modes throughout depending on how I cannot to what is taking place.

I believe the same can be true for games and we can not assume that the player will always feels as if she IS the avatar at all times. I think it is possible to switch between to two, as I said above, in games too and that people do this without realizing it. While the problem remains I think that one does not have to assume that has to be either A or B, but that it can be a little bit of both and that there is a gray area between the out most limits.

The first step is to immerse the player and once immersed the player will accept more of she is told and even be able to handle inconsistencies without think about it. In Penumbra the protagonist, Philip, spoke and had feelings. There where comments like "oh my what a horrible spider!" (emotion beloning to character) and "This looks like volcanic rock." (knowledge belonging to the character). Yet, when player describe events taking place they do not say that "Philip" did this and that. They say "I" did this and that. Even though the protagonist expresses things that are clearly not their own, they can feel as if other stuff is happening directly do themselves. This is just speculation though and I am working on blog post where I will ask player's about how they experienced stuff, so funny you brought it up! :)

Also, this relates a lot to this thread:
http://notgames.org/forum/index.php?topic=47.0


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on February 28, 2010, 10:16:38 pm
I agree that it's best to design for the unavoidable ambiguity when interacting with a virtual world. But this does not remove the problem. Even if the player only half-thinks of the character as a role they're playing, there's always a discrepancy between what the character knows and what the player knows. Emotions are rather easy because they are spontaneous. But knowledge is not something that the player can acquire quickly.

Many games have solved this by giving the avatar character a medical condition at the start of the story (like amnesia). But that seriously limits the variation in stories you can tell.

The biggest problem for me is that a lot of the time playing is spend reconstructing a story based on knowledge that you gather in that game. Sometimes this is interesting, for sure, but it does keep us from fully experiencing the story as it unfolds.

The narrative in many games is like a mystery story: you're thrown into an unfamiliar world and you need to figure out why things are the way they are. But my favourite stories are not like that at all. In my favourite stories things happen, right then and there.

Maybe "second person" navigation is a solution. Meaning the player plays themselves, from a first person perspective, but they can tell the main character what to do (pseudo-third person). So the player becomes the reader and teller of the story. I guess a lot of so-called third person games are actually second person games. The main character is not really an avatar but more like a pawn on the board.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Thomas on March 01, 2010, 07:41:34 am
In role playing games players usually have to come up with somewhat detailed history about their characters before playing and then use this information when acting. This is pretty much the same way an actor works or the way a writer decides what the charaters in a novel should do. So if the player is supposed to have some fictional background, could one just not spill it all out at the start and explicitly tell the player in what ways it is proper to act (and then also have mechanics in play that helps with this). I guess the problem is that the player does not want to start the game by reading a novel, but perhaps one could begin the game very linear and un-interactive and then at a certain points let the player be free. Like a tutorial, but not on key configurations or gameplay rules, but on how to act.

Another interesting way to go about is that the player truly is herself. Meaning that sitting at the computer playing is the character, meaning that there is no avatar. Uplink (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uplink_(video_game))is an example of such a game and it is probably a very limited number of games that work with this, but still thought it would be interesting to mention.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on March 01, 2010, 09:10:58 am
We shouldn't need to start our work with a text or a non-linear sequence. Much like a novel doesn't need to start with pictures or a film with music (though some older films do... ;) ). But it could be interesting, nonetheless.

I'm more inclined to figure out a new position for the player and to work that into the story. Because it's not like our medium is at its best when it starts from a pre-written story anyway. The player as writer of the story is probably a nice role to play. The example of playing yourself in Uplink is indeed interesting. This is expanded upon in the god game genre (Black & White) where you are a presence in the virtual world without an avatar (one could imagine God ruling our world through a computer interface -he probably recently upgraded to Windows 7, which explains all the wars, hurricanes and earth quakes ;) ).

Rather than chasing after this Holodeck dream, maybe it's smarter to just admit the artificial situation and leave the immersion up to the player.
(I doubt if novel authors focus on immersion. They just want to tell their story and move their players. Yet novels can be very immersive.)


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Erik Svedäng on March 01, 2010, 09:35:45 am
What if you give the player a real chance to prepare for playing the roll of the character. Maybe freely investigate the environment you are supposed to know about, go through some scenes with defining moments in the life of the character (don't you do that in Fallout 3?) and learn about who the character is (talk to his/her friends?). Maybe even rehearse? (in a playful way that makes use of the fact that it's all in a computer)

I think people could really buy into being an actor if you tell them to (doesn't everyone want to be one at some point?)
And if you give them this responsibility in a well-defined and special way maybe they will take on the job seriously and really try to get into the role.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Thomas on March 01, 2010, 10:49:13 am
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EXperience112

is worth mentioning too. Kind of a Uplink /god-game but with an adventure game like gameplay. The implementation is kinda broken and I had a hard time playing it. But the concept is really fascinating!


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on March 01, 2010, 04:53:50 pm
I remember playing the demo of EXperience112. Indeed a clever narrative package for second person navigation.

The idea of really being an actor is very appealing, Erik. The narrative frame of Pathologic (http://www.pathologic-game.com/) sets you up for this. But it doesn't do much with it in the game.

Though, strictly speaking, wouldn't it be more appropriate to think of the player as a puppet master than an actor?


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Thomas on March 01, 2010, 06:59:42 pm
Though, strictly speaking, wouldn't it be more appropriate to think of the player as a puppet master than an actor?
"Puppet masters" sounds so "The Sims" to me, but I guess it works for some times of games. In the end the "actor" -> "puppet master" scale should perhaps depend on the what can of experience should be intended. Will the player influence the game from within or from outside?

I think the question of what role a player has is quite interesting and might be good springboard for new ideas. In a normal point-and-click adventure game, is the player a puppet master or an actor, is the player both perhaps? How do players react when they see the protagonist on screen. Do they think "That is me" or "That is my puppet"? For my part I would say the first one and not until a game plays like the sims do I think of a protagonist as a puppet. Perhaps others think differently? And if so, does that affect how they experience and play the game?

Btw, an interesting idea would perhaps be to write the character as the game is played. For example when confronting a steak the player could choose "Yuck! I do not like meat!" or "Yummy! I love meat", thus shaping the character through choices and this could have consequences later on. Do not think that solves anything though.

And finally, it might be fruitful to try and specify what would be the goal with this. What kinda of experience do you aim to achieve? Is there something you currently feel like you are unable to create without finding some sort of solution?


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Erik Svedäng on March 01, 2010, 09:58:59 pm
Btw, an interesting idea would perhaps be to write the character as the game is played. For example when confronting a steak the player could choose "Yuck! I do not like meat!" or "Yummy! I love meat", thus shaping the character through choices and this could have consequences later on. Do not think that solves anything though.

Oh, that sounds really cool to me! It might not solve the big problem but it surely helps you to keep track of how your character is developing... I wanna try a game built around that principle :)


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Jeroen D. Stout on March 02, 2010, 12:34:45 am
This is a wonderful topic and it is a shame I am so busy - so I will just enjoy reading it. I have a prototype model-paper that is nearly finished very close to this subject and the concept of the character declaring he likes steak or not.

In short, on the steak, my reasoning is that a character telling you (even if speaking in self-referential 1st person) establishes a relationship with you that is not the same as acting as the character. Because the character would never literary say such a thing to himself - the comment 'I do not like steak' is a thought that you would not find in a well-written book, even. You may have a narrator telling you you do not like steak, but that establishes a relationship with the narrator. A more objective response that you would also have if you are confronted with this yourself is what I reason would establish 'symbiosis' with the character; in real life, I do not consciously go 'ugh' when seeing a McDonalds hamburger, but I hear myself saying it. A comment like that plays out as-if you are yourself. Generally, I think you need to mimic effects, rather than establish a dialogue of any kind.

On puppetry, I reason the player has an extension of himself in the world; virtual agency. This can be anything or even part of a character. If you intrude on this the player can feel his agency is taken away. So telling a player 'you do not like steak' in an RPG where the player has just himself decided that he is a person who likes steak is an intrusion. It is more about establishing a set of rules which areas he and the character are 'dominant' on and which not.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on March 02, 2010, 12:51:39 am
What kinda of experience do you aim to achieve? Is there something you currently feel like you are unable to create without finding some sort of solution?

Actually, I'm quite happy with where this discussion is going: that there is no simple answer and that ambiguity is at the core of the player-avatar relationship. I prefer that complexity a lot more than having some clear formula of how to make narrative immersion in an avatar work. I dislike the perfection of the Holodeck. That seems so dull. Things get a lot more interesting when we struggle to make them work. And perhaps the player can share the burden and struggle a bit too. Let's make complicated things, things that confuse us, that may be a bit broken but filled with character and beauty that surprises us.
(Tonight I saw a movie about Serge Gainsbourg and played Heavy Rain -guess which was the more inspiring experience ;) ).


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: God at play on March 05, 2010, 07:56:41 pm
Btw, an interesting idea would perhaps be to write the character as the game is played. For example when confronting a steak the player could choose "Yuck! I do not like meat!" or "Yummy! I love meat", thus shaping the character through choices and this could have consequences later on. Do not think that solves anything though.

One of my favorite videogames - Majesty of Colors (http://www.kongregate.com/games/GregoryWeir/the-majesty-of-colors) - does this.  I think it totally works.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: axcho on March 07, 2010, 12:11:06 am
Because the character would never literary say such a thing to himself - the comment 'I do not like steak' is a thought that you would not find in a well-written book, even. You may have a narrator telling you you do not like steak, but that establishes a relationship with the narrator.

Actually you will see a lot of this sort of character-acting-as-narrator-while-thinking-out-loud in animation. I noticed it particularly in the Miyazaki adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle_%28film%29) where it seemed kind of weird, but I think it's a pretty common technique. No reason that it couldn't work with interactive characters...


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Jeroen D. Stout on March 07, 2010, 03:23:57 am
Because the character would never literary say such a thing to himself - the comment 'I do not like steak' is a thought that you would not find in a well-written book, even. You may have a narrator telling you you do not like steak, but that establishes a relationship with the narrator.

Actually you will see a lot of this sort of character-acting-as-narrator-while-thinking-out-loud in animation. I noticed it particularly in the Miyazaki adaptation of Howl's Moving Castle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howl%27s_Moving_Castle_%28film%29) where it seemed kind of weird, but I think it's a pretty common technique. No reason that it couldn't work with interactive characters...

When I see the character in Howl's Moving Castle I never assume the character 'is me'; I have sympathy with the character rather than seeing the character as my embodiment. I think my point is more that this type of writing emphasises a relation between player and character that is more 'solo' on the side of the character.

So if the player controls locomotion and is at the brink of entering a dark room and the character pipes up: "I am afraid of the dark;" the character is more asking for sympathy as-if external to the player. If the vision becomes blurred and the breathing heavier the player is afraid as-if he himself (his embodiment) is afraid, affecting his agency in the world.

I realize what you said about the character in Howl's Moving Castle and I should not have been so negative about it, although I rarely like it as a cinematic form. It may cover up for the lack of delicate motions of real actors (like in the excellent Deadwood) but it can also be cheap exposition relying on me being told what goes on whilst watching a medium (film) that to me is more about interpretation. In the same sense that a game is to me more about embodiment than about interpretation, let alone being told what is going on.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: vorvox on May 13, 2012, 01:31:17 am
Hi everybody, I'm new here. I have a deep respect for all of you pioneers in the new medium. Hopefully my thoughts make sense. I've been comparing and contrasting 'The Graveyard' and Jordan Magnuson's 'Grandmother' in terms of interaction and the degree to which characterization is used for the avatar. 'Grandmother' gives the player a shell-avatar and makes the action very interactive - after walking to your grandmother's grave, you clean it with a sponge in an intuitive fashion. In 'The Graveyard' the avatar is the core of the experience, particularly her slowness, and the end action is non-interactive. 'Grandmother' was more affecting for me, and I think this is because the interaction method was more direct and I wasn't being forced into a character. I felt more present, because the shell-avatar allowed me to exist in that space as myself. On the other hand, the way 'The Graveyard' uses the avatar is quite interesting, conveying a certain feeling of being that person. It was frustrating, because all I could do was walk her to the place, but it made me think about the character, whereas in 'Grandmother' the avatar-character isn't very important. These two different motives: action/character, doing/being, are interesting. The first two Ice Pick Lodge games, Pathologic and The Void, are different in this respect, with Pathologic's avatar more concrete and characterized (of course, not to the degree of 'The Graveyard') and The Void's avatar nameless and faceless. I like Pathologic better, maybe because there's more for me to relate to - it isn't set in a world of existential metaphors like the latter. I think that having a shell-avatar with more direct player interaction (in The Void there is much more direct manipulation of the world via mathematical rules and relations that have to do with a physics engine; in Pathologic it is mostly about pre-written dialogue trees) means that the world has to be more easily represented by a computer - it has to be abstract, mathematical. I couldn't relate to a world too much like that, but I also couldn't relate to a game with a very highly-characterized avatar that doesn't represent me at all. I think a balance needs to be maintained between the two. 


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: ghostwheel on May 13, 2012, 05:05:53 pm
I wrote a recent blog post:

Quote
It is tempting to force a player to follow a strict, linear path. I know. It's something I've caught myself doing on the game I'm curently working on. Even with more or less freedom movement, I've found myself attempting to direct the player. This is not the way to do things in an open environment. How can one expect players to be intelligent if one treats them like an idiot? Developers have to trust the player. Otherwise, we are simply pandering to the lowest common denominator.

I think this goes for the matter being discussed here. It's time to trust the player. Tell the narrative you want. The player will either be carried along or they won't. It's not a player problem, it's a writing/presentation problem. If you're not confident in your narrative, how can you expect the player to be?

That is the problem with the mainstream game developers and even indie games. They treat the players like idiots. Of course, there will always be those who don't "get it". So what; you can't please everyone.

It's all stylization of one sort or another. We rarely think about the structure of prose, 1st person, 3rd person, etc. As readers, we are exposed to it from a very early age. But like any art, it's an artificial structure that evolved to help make it easier to follow writing. The (not)games form needs developed more when it comes to narrative and character. Prose isn't obvious. Neither is WASD or d-pad and buttons A, B. Or unusual amnesia. These are conventions to make things easier, not just on the author but the player/reader as well.

These "problems" are the same faced in any artform. Especially in scifi and fantasy. Because the settings and situations are unusual, you have two options as a writer: amnesia or extensive exposition early on. There is a third option but it is much more difficult but is much more elegant; ease the reader into the world as you tell the story.

I don't have any concrete answers but I don't think this matter is as problematic as you think. Don't be afraid to lean on cliched conventions if necessary. Trust yourself and the player.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on May 15, 2012, 02:29:11 pm
I don't have any problem with narrative in my own work because I'm not interested in telling a story. I am not a writer. I have no stories in me. I want to create an atmosphere, a situation. All interaction follows logically from that situation. I don't need to guide the player. There is nowhere to go. There is only the situation. I try to convey it as well as I can, but I have no concrete expectations of how players will feel or what they will think. In fact, I am curious as to their reactions.

The fact that there is a third person avatar in The Graveyard is a logical outcome of the desire to create a situation of "old woman in cemetery". The old woman was not optional. She was part of the basic idea. She is not a tool. The lack of actions that you can do with her is also a logical result of the idea: she is old. I wasn't trying to "make you feel like you are old" per se. It was just logical that she wouldn't be able to do much.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Michaël Samyn on May 15, 2012, 02:36:56 pm
"Grandmother" is equally logical: it presumes that the player is somebody like the author (a young man) -the footsteps do not sound like those of an old person. I assume that you, vorvox, are a young man too. That in and of itself would make it easier for you to feel like it is you in the game.

It's an interesting option: to create narratives that feature controllable lead characters of the same age, gender and background as the player. That is definitely a good way to strike a chord with the player. You do exclude everyody else from as deep an experience. But maybe that's acceptable.

It's not something we have done ourselves. Our work is much more about the imagination, and about empathy (that may well be our only real "message"). But it's something to think about.


Title: Re: The contradition of the narrative avatar
Post by: Mick P. on July 19, 2015, 09:05:15 pm
Controlling an avatar with preexisting knowledge is no different from characters in a book or a film (you don't know anything about them other than the events that transpire within.) Basically you just get to control the main protagonist unless the game moves you around or is party based. They are the audience surrogate.

Framing devices are fine. Exposition dumps and characters talking to themselves are unforgivable. Talking to yourself is less offensive if its internalized and can possibly be a useful tool, but will probably come off as unrealistically prescriptive if so. Asking the player to answer questions I find highly problematic and antithetical to storytelling. Missing foreknowledge is only really a problem if asked a question that doesn't seem to be breaking the fourth wall (eg. is this boring you? Shall we do something else?)

Knowing/communicating where to go/what to do is the only real problem with no simple answer.