Acting as a Player, or Playing as an Actor?

The Paleogamer

Whenever you read a book or comic you are reading the story as it was created by the writer. You may picture the characters a certain way or hear them speaking in a certain voice but you are still seeing the creator’s story.

Television and movies are the same way. What you see is the story as envisioned by the director and the characters as brought to life by the actors and actresses playing the roles, but again the story is that of the writer or writers of the script.

And ultimately, the story reigns supreme. Luke Skywalker fires off the “million-to-one” shot that blows up the Death Star, Gollum steals the Ring then falls into the fires of Mount Doom and James Bond will always stop the evil mastermind and get the girl. It’s in the script.

Gaming lets us play the hero of a story. Instead of Luke Skywalker, we are the one who is flying down the trench with Darth Vader in hot pursuit, we are the one on the summit of Mount Doom when Gollum makes his attack and when the evil villain announces that he expects us to die, we are the ones strapped into the death machine.

But, if we are the one in the center of the action, what happens if we don’t want to, or are unable to, follow the script? What happens if I, as Luke Skywalker, miss miss my shot at the reactor port? What if as Frodo I decide “to heck with this” after being attacked by Shelob and give Sam the Ring to carry while I go back to the Shire to grow pipeweed? Daniel Craig has no choice but to go after the villain; he’s an actor following a script. But what if I, playing James Bond, decide to take the villain’s offer of a vodka martini filled swimming pool and unlimited access to the Playboy mansion in exchange for letting him complete his evil scheme? As a gamer, am I really in control or am I just an actor following a somewhat less clearly defined script?

Some time ago I was running a (pen and paper) role-playing game scenario for a convention. In the game, the players were to be a covert team that was supposed to secretly infiltrate a facility and retrieve an incriminating document that was hidden within. The players spent the first part of the session gathering information on the security system, guards and defenses they were likely to encounter.

However, about 15 minutes into the session several of the players decided that they weren’t that interested in the “covert” or “secret” parts of the mission and that the best way to approach things was to simply storm the front of the facility, guns blazing. I was caught a bit by surprise but I’ve run enough games that I was able to quickly shift gears, ditch the scenario I had planned and lead the players though their military assault. The scenario ended with half the facility destroyed, several city blocks in flames and the players fleeing the city (without the document they were sent to retrieve) with the local military in hot pursuit.

I could do this as a live gamemaster in a live game but it is very difficult to handle situations like this in a computer game. While many games may boast “alternate endings” in actuality these are only minor variations on a theme; the only difference usually being which cinematic you see at the end.

While we have come a long ways from the days when having any sort of choice was a major advancement most of our actions in almost any game are still quite constrained. We may have a choice of going in the front door or the back door, we may be able to bribe the guard instead of shooting them or we may decide to use the M16 instead of the AK47, but we somehow always end up in the final showdown with the evil wizard Foozle at the top of his Tower of Doom. No matter how much we may think that Gordon Freeman should just run off to a beach somewhere with Alyx he doesn’t have any choice except to pick up his crowbar and head back into the Citadel.

So it seems that the more a game has a story, the less freedom we have in our actions. Perhaps someday our games will advance to the point where our stories can take us anywhere but until then we will just have to paraphrase Shakespeare… “All the game’s a stage and we are merely players…”

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