Fretting the Player Character

Fretting the Player Character

2008-02-27

Nick Montfort argues that the contentious notion of the “player character” usefully constrains and makes possible the player’s interaction with the gameworld. He considers the possibility that in interactive fiction one plays the character (like an actor plays a role) rather than playing the game.

In interactive fiction, the “player character” is that character who the interactor (or player, or user) can direct with commands. The first example of interactive fiction, Will Crowther and Don Woods’s Adventure, instructed the interactor: “I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with commands of 1 or 2 words.” In Adventure this I may seem to be the same as the narrator (Buckles 1985, 141-142), but the development of later interactive fiction has made it clear that this entity - the “eyes and hands” that focalize the description of the interactive fiction world and the narration of events in it, and the agent that the interactor can direct or command, through which the interactor can influence the simulated world - is best considered as a separate entity, the player character.

Given this particular name, this basic relationship, and the affinity that interactive fiction has with role-playing games, it may seem reasonable to imagine that the interactor “plays” the player character. However, the interactor actually is not playing a character in any usual way. That is, it is not at all useful to consider that the player character is played by the interactor in any literal, typical sense of play: not in the dramatic sense, not in the gaming sense, and not even exactly in the sense of many other multi-party role-playing contexts, from Dungeons & Dragons to multi-user online environments.

This essay is meant to disturb the role-playing concept of the player character and the assumptions that are often brought to this element of interactive fiction. This fretting of the player character begins by examining the ordinary senses of play and considering how play of these sorts differs from the interactor’s activity. The discussion continues to explain how the player character’s not being played by the interactor has been important to several successful interactive fiction works - specifically, ones with well-defined, memorable player characters. Finally, I describe how this perspective on the player character has influenced me as I wrote and programmed Book and Volume (2005).

I.

The interactor commands the player character and apprehends the world mainly through the player character, but for the following reasons the interactor does not really play the player character, however generic or specific this player character is.

In considering the dramatic sense of play, it is reasonable to consider the basic techniques of such actors, or players, and to see that they have no straightforward relationship to the techniques of interactors. It is easy to find accomplished interactive fiction players who gain great enjoyment from their play, but who have never asked “what’s my motivation?,” who have never imagined childhood traumas in order to portray their player characters more naturally and emotionally, and who certainly do not focus on their own bodies in performing the physical actions that enact a character. To range beyond the tradition of the Actors Studio to the theater of Augusto Boal - whose practice is also grounded in the awareness of one’s physical body and in the use of this body to enact characters - may provide rich ideas for how interactive situations relate to political engagement (Frasca 2001), but it still does not allow us to usefully describe the interactor’s relationship to the player character in terms of dramatic play. Typically, the interactor is simply not working very hard to act in a manner particular to a character, as is done when playing a dramatic role. Instead, the interactor is putting on the character as a pair of eyes and a pair of hands - not as a human being with an emotional and cognitive existence, a physical body enacted by one’s own physical body.

Although particular works of interactive fiction - indeed, the majority of such works - may be games, the interactor is also not “playing” the player character in the sense in which “play” is used in gaming. The interactor is playing the game. Someone who has enjoyed playing Monopoly might express this sentiment by saying “I enjoyed playing Monopoly” but it would be strange to hear someone say, “I enjoyed playing the car” or, “I enjoyed playing the hat.” Similarly, people frequently say how much they like “playing Zork,” but it is unusual to hear them explain how much they got out of “playing the nameless adventurer.” Or, if that seems a straw-adventurer argument, consider that they might say, “I enjoyed playing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” but it would be much more unusual to hear them say, “I enjoyed playing Arthur Dent.” Since we can play The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the gaming sense, we can win it, but it isn’t possible to win Arthur Dent, whatever the love-story subplot of a Disney movie would have us believe.

The play that is undertaken by the players of Dungeons & Dragons, a game that was influential in the genesis of interactive fiction and which was played by authors of both Adventure and Zork, seems closer to the activity of the interactor in many ways. (The term “player character” even made its way to interactive fiction from D&D.) A person who plays D&D in the gaming sense, unless he or she is the Dungeon Master, also plays a character. This character also serves as the “hands and eyes” of the player in the world of the D&D campaign, and is the agent by which puzzles in the world can be solved and mysteries can be unlocked. But there are a few important differences.

While theatrical modes of play are not always part of a D&D session, such play is undertaken at times, and some groups of players value making decisions that are “in character” even more than they do successful progress through a story, environment, or series of puzzles. A single character is typically played over the course of many adventures, and the players typically have some freedom to define their character’s traits, although randomly determined abilities provide a basic idea of what the character is like. Also, a player character’s relationship to other characters in the party is quite important. Similar sorts of play are seen in other fantasy role-playing games and in quest-based multiple-user dungeons (MUDs), the multi-player generalizations of single-player interactive fiction. Within all of these frameworks, though, the individual adventure or quest tends to exist on behalf of the character, which levels up and develops over time, and on behalf of the party and the dynamics of the group of players. These games and environments also offer the opportunity to determine what the character does and says in front of other people in a social setting, virtual or real, and so make the playing of the player character a social and not a purely personal experience.

There are some senses in which the interactor could be said to play the player character, but they are remote from the ordinary ones and fail to characterize the relationship very well. A chess player can play her bishop to b2, and an interactor might play a player character in a similar sense, deploying that character to a particular location for a purpose within a game. (In Suspended, which offers a board game-like map and tokens to keep track of the six robot player characters, this meaning seems particularly suitable.) However, the chess player does not sense the state of the game via the bishop, so one important purpose of the player character is overlooked in this comparison. The problem here is similar to the one we would encounter if we were to call the player character a puppet and imagine the interactor as operating the puppet (Sloane 2000). The limitation in this metaphor is that while it captures the player character as being that anthropomorphic entity that can be commanded and moved about, it fails to capture how the world is presented to the interactor from the perspective of this character.

Janet Murray notes that “[T]he lesson of Zork is that the first step in making an enticing narrative world is to script the interactor” (Murray 1997, 79). It is indeed essential to put the interactor into a situation where there is a reason to act, a reason to type something, but the “script” that is needed for the interactor in interactive fiction is more akin to the classic AI concept of a script (e.g., the basic knowledge of how to act when we enter a restaurant wanting to eat a meal) and not very related to a text meant to be read verbatim by an actor. Creating a good player character within an interactive fiction world involves putting this character in a situation that is motivating for the interactor - but not giving the interactor an actual dramatic script or a role to play.

So what does the interactor do with the player character, in a word? Perhaps it is interesting to say that the interactor steers the player character - “steer” being the English word for the Greek κυβερναν, which by a twisty etymological path gave English the “cyber” prefix. To think of the interactor as steering, rather than playing, suggests that the player character is a sort of vehicle from which a world can be seen and otherwise experienced, and that this character both constrains us (we have to remain in the vehicle) and also opens up possibilities (we can use this vehicle to get around and even to effect changes in the world). This term may suggest too direct of a link between the interactor and the actions of the player character - the player character in many interactive fiction works is reticent and difficult to steer, and sometimes to good effect - but such lack of complete control is not really incompatible with this concept. The main deficiency of seeing the player character as steerable is that it does not highlight this vehicle’s nature as a character - as an anthropomorphic, meaningful actor. The simple “man” or “ship” of early arcade games is also steerable, after all. But for now, why not exchange the flawed idea that the player character is played with the idea, perhaps less or at least differently flawed, that the player character is steered, so as to see where that leads?

II.

This section considers a few exemplary, memorable player characters, and suggests that they succeed more because they are good to steer than because they are good to play.

Ian Finley’s Babel (1997) is set in a desolate research station and begins with the player character in an amnesiac state (“Even your mind is cold and empty. Where are you? Who are you?”), a condition that is sure to bring on déjà vu for many players. Interactive fiction authors have often robbed the player character of memory so that the player’s awareness will initially match that of the player character; Thomas M. Disch’s Amnesia (1986) was not the first to do it, and since then there have been many others, including Suzanne Britton’s Worlds Apart (1999), Adam Cadre’s Shrapnel (2000), and Olvido Mortal (2000) by Andrés Viedma Peláez.

While playing Babel, the player character’s past history is slowly filled in, thanks to a startling “tellurgic” ability that allows events from the past to be replayed and re-experienced. While these revelations are compelling and it is interesting to unlock them by exploring the station, the interactor simply directs the player character to perform rather mechanical actions, inspections, and manipulations.

The player character’s nature as a person is important to the charge of this interactive fiction experience and to the way the interactor reads and interprets the text that is produced, but there is no real role to play, only an existing history that waits to be discovered. The player character can be steered through the station to recover his memory. But the interactor does little more than steer and sense. The author, not the player, is the one who decides when the player character will cry, the one who defines all the details of the player character’s earlier and more expressive actions and reactions.

One of several nice flourishes in Adam Cadre’s Varicella (1999) is that the personality of player character Primo Varicella is constantly being suggested and the image of this character is constantly being reinforced, almost always in amusing ways. Varicella also relates some things about the player character’s past, albeit in more usual and subtle ways, many of the same ways that are often at work in literary narration. Even the most stereotypical adventure-game actions reinforce the player character’s obsession with decorum (“>JUMP You jump on the spot, achieving nothing. How unseemly!”). The player can choose one of three tones of voice (servile, cordial, and hostile) for Primo to use when addressing other characters, but the particular utterances, and how they are delivered, are chosen by Cadre and set in the program. To be sure, the successful interactor has to direct Primo to do evil things, as is this character’s nature, but there is no need to really play the palace minister’s part as an actor would. It is enough to figure out what “flawless plan” Primo has hatched and put that plan, sinister as it may be, into action.

Emily Short’s Savoir-Faire (2002) provides a player character, Pierre, who seems a bit grasping and profligate but is not the purely reprehensible character that Primo Varicella is. Daphne Brinkerhoff (2002), reviewing this game, wrote, “I particularly enjoyed being hungry and eating… . there is evidence (especially if you play it right) that he has a strong sense of humor and self-mockery. Basically, I enjoyed being Pierre.” This report is quite consistent with the idea that in Savoir-Faire, the interactor does not play Pierre. The reviewer states that she enjoyed not playing but “being” Pierre and notes, referring not to Pierre but to the game, that you can “play it right.” The evidence of Pierre’s humor and attitude was placed in the program by Short, not added by the interactor. The player, as in Babel and Varicella, can discover bits of Pierre’s personal history; the REMEMBER command is supplied for this purpose in Savoir-Faire. The game’s environment (an estate where Pierre grew up) is used, directly and indirectly, to supply more information about Pierre, up to the final revelation at the end of the game. Steering Pierre though this space is what reveals his background, along with a full understanding of the current situation, to the interactor.

Michael Gentry’s Anchorhead (1998) differs from Varicella and Savoir-Faire in providing a world that is as strange to the interactor as it is to the player character. The player character has just moved into a small New England town named Anchorhead, and presumably discovers the place’s ordinary and extraordinary attributes at the same time that the interactor does. But the player character’s husband, Michael, comes along with her and is present at many times during the game. He is a history professor whose distant relatives lived for generations in a house that he has just inherited; he has just taken a job on the faculty of the local university. The player character’s job or lack thereof, family history (apart from Michael’s side of the family), and background (apart from being married to Michael) are all unknown, however.

The player character can move through the world, learning horrifying details that reveal things about the past, but these are all about Anchorhead’s past - none are about her own background. The interactor does not even learn the player character’s name in the course of completing the game. Again, the interactor must think of the right questions to ask, the right places to hide, and the right areas to search. The player certainly may feel fear and disquiet in sympathy with the player character, but it is hardly necessary that the interactor take on the role of Michael’s wife in any dramatic sense.

While my focus here is not on graphical adventure games, these have player characters as well and this discussion should apply to the way the interactor and the player character relate in those games. Whether the game provides a player character who is a nameless blank, as in Myst, or a pair of well-defined characters, as in Sam and Max Hit the Road, the interactor is almost always asked less to play the roles of these characters and more to steer them through the world of the game.

An exception can be seen in Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade (2005), which is not billed as a graphical adventure game but as an interactive drama. In Façade, the interactor is invited to take on a role, naming the character one of many available names, and then encountering a situation in which it is possible to be flirtatious or grave, to side with one of the other characters or to try to play them against each other. Perhaps the disappointment of some interactive fiction and graphical adventure game fans with Façade is rooted in their unwillingness to play a role and their discomfort at finding a player character who is well-suited for playing but not amenable to the usual type of steering. While this sort of player character opens up new possibilities for interaction, it’s clear that in this framework, Mateas and Stern have put almost all of their own character-building efforts into Grace and Trip. By leaving the player character in Façade wide open for the interactor, Façade’s player character is made a much less interesting element, per se, than are the player characters of Babel, Varicella, Savoir-Faire, and Anchorhead. There can be benefits to working in both sorts of frameworks, but it always seems to be helpful to know the difference between the two.

III.

My own interactive fiction work includes Winchester’s Nightmare (1999), in which the player character is named after and based on a historical figure, and Ad Verbum (2000), which has a nameless adventurer/day laborer who is a sketchy parody of the typical nameless adventurer. In Book and Volume, I took a different tack and allowed the interactor to name the player character, although this character’s occupation, place of residence, and basic personality remain the same whatever name is provided.

My work on Book and Volume first began when I jotted a short note that sounded like the prologue to some interesting interactive fiction piece, I believe sometime around the summer or fall of 2003. That short text, which begins “Your pager tickles you awake,”

set up a situation that seemed to motivate a character’s rather routine action and yet leave some room for intrigue. I also wrote down the title itself, whatever exactly that was supposed to mean at the time. (I know now. The title comes from Hamlet, Act One, Scene Five; it is quite essential to the piece. I can think of no decent explanation for why this work of interactive fiction has this title, however, that would be shorter than the interactive fiction work itself.) I thought about the project on and off for several months and began seriously working on it near the end of April 2004. The first five words of that note survived through the completion of release one in November 2005 and are the first five diegetic words presented to the interactor at the beginning of Book and Volume.

I relate this creation myth because the player character’s basic role in Book and Volume was the thing I imagined first. Thinking of the player character in complete isolation, or envisioning an IF world by itself, without the player character in it, does not really make for a complete thought. One of the important differences between recent interactive fiction works and early efforts such as Adventure and Zork is that the player character and the surrounding environment in contemporary IF tend to be integral. “A famous cave” or “a wacky Great Underground Empire” are adequate ways to characterize some early IF pieces, but saying that Book and Volume takes place in a factory town run by a giant computer and media company does not really tell the whole story in the same way. The player character’s standing, position, and perspective within this town is also essential. If the player character were a visitor, a prospective employee, an artist, a developer, a manager, a retail worker, or a city official, that character’s perspective would be quite different. So as I developed the first sketch of the city’s map, I also noted events, incidents, and aspects of the player character’s experience.

It is often the case that the player character and the environment fit together in an essential way: in Graham Nelson’s Curses and Andrew Plotkin’s Shade it is important that the IF world involves the player character’s own residence, not just any house or apartment, and that the player character is in a certain situation of searching for a map or of seeming to wait to leave on a trip. In Anchorhead and in Gareth Rees’s Christminster, it is important that the player character is an outsider, a newcomer to a small town in the first case and a visitor to a college in the second. And similarly, in many other games, including Babel, Varicella, Savoir-Faire, and Dan Shiovitz’s Bad Machine, the “rest of the world,” without the player character in it, would not be nearly as interesting or compelling as that world is when encountered by the player character.

The interactor in Book and Volume is allowed to determine something about the player character: The interactor is asked at one point to type in the player character’s name. (In testing, I noticed that interactors often type in their own name or handle, which was not too surprising, since most interactors are probably not ready to make up a name for their player character when this prompt appears.) Book and Volume discerns whether the name seems to be a male or female one, using a simple perceptron classifier whose weight vector has integer-valued components. The weight vector was learned by training, using the pocket perceptron algorithm, on the 500 most popular male and female names in U.S. census data. In the tradition of Infocom’s Moonmist and Leather Goddesses of Phobos, this changes a few things about what is narrated, but the essential workings of the IF world and the important aspects of the player character’s position in it remain the same. While the interactor is invited to imagine the player character as male or female, the interactor is not called upon to perform masculinity or femininity by means of typed commands, as in Façade. Rather, the interactor is to use commands to have the player character perform the asexual, genderless functions of an alienated, introverted, recently arrived system administrator, and simply gets subtly different descriptions of the world and of the events in it - ones that many players may not even realize are “customized.” The game never makes any explicit reference to the gender of the player character.

Book and Volume provides a series of tasks that are meant to offer some initial structure and motivation, but I hope that interactors discover during their efforts at these that such tasks are not the real point of the game. One of the challenges I had in “tuning” Book and Volume, near the end of the game’s development, was in making it known that the player character could, if the interactor chooses, range beyond the job tasks that were assigned - without explicitly saying everything else that is to be done, which would be just another way of assigning tasks. Among other things, an interaction with Book and Volume, much like an interaction with Steven Meretzky’s A Mind Forever Voyaging, can produce the story of a person who discovers how to do things that are not explicitly asked. In Book and Volume, unlike in A Mind Forever Voyaging, this does not save the country. But I believe that the player character - and the interactor - does something very important by making this discovery, whether or not a fictional country is saved as a result.

Book and Volume Transcript

Your pager tickles you awake.

Upstairs in the house of your childhood, in your room, and it must be time for school because - no, it’s the weekend, you remember, but your alarm is going off anyway. You should have been awake already. You’re going to miss the bus. Your mother climbs in the window. You’re dreaming.

You’re a grown-up: It opens to you again, a sluggish window summoned by a mouse click. Waking up now in your own apartment, your new apartment. Your pager is buzzing and vibrating both, serious. It is in fact the weekend, but you’re not in elementary school. No one is crawling in through the window. You’re a system administrator for nWare. Waking up urgently, here in nTopia.

Home
The constellations on the ceiling are as you left them: Pisces, Cetus, Aquarius, and the ones without celestial referent, left by some crazed astronomer in residence here before you. What could you call them? The Cradle, The Way, The Burning Book…

They’re still glowing, too. Must not have napped for long.

>look at the constellations
If your milky memories of astronomy class serve, the glow-in-the-dark stars seem not just slapped on at random but willfully misconfigured. They lend the place some sort of character, though an Escher poster would be hip in comparison.

The pager buzzes and jars you, its motor driven to disrupt and demand attention. This is no Harry Potter broomstick.

>turn off the pager
If it were only so easy. You have to listen to whatever messages are on there to get the thing to stop.

The pager vibrates like it’s repeatedly tapping you to get your attention, and it buzzes gratingly.

>look at the pager
It’s too dark too see, like inside of a dog.

The buzzing of the pager continues. You are tooth to the dental drill of the device.

>turn on the light
You switch the light on.

MUEAAAAAHA THE PAGER THE PAGER THE PAGER MAKE IT STOP

Home
Although almost unfurnished, since you’ve been here only a few days and haven’t had time to settle in, the place is more Fight Club than Shade: young, urbane, professional. It’s yours, though. It’s your residential canister. And it looks like we also have your nLap 500 and a heap of clothes.

>examine the pager
Cell phones are ubiquitous in nTopia, and your pager is a sort of funky, retro sheriff’s badge among them. Press the gray button there, and any voice messages you have will play; hold the button down to erase them. The vibration and buzzing mean that an urgent message, or one the sender thought was urgent, has arrived and has not yet been played.

Your nRich cybercash chip is installed in your pager, along with your nPediment identifier tag for keyless entry, the same one that most of your co-workers have installed in their phones, wallets, or upper arms.

You return to lucidity for what is going to be a very brief moment, unless you make the pager stop buzzing and vibrating.

>press the button

A beep issues from the pager, then a voice:

Net extremely hoseled. Engine team being hideously masticated by this outage. Demo rapidly approaching. Get to the cages. Reboot the servers. Hasten. Do not rest. Please. All five of them. Email me to confirm you’re heading out to do this. Please. Engine boys are going to run off and leap the railing if the network isn’t restored.

The frenetic voice is definitely that of your boss, Wilbur.

>get the nlap 500
You conduct the acquisition.

>open it
You open the nLap 500, which wakes the moment it begins to unfold. A window slams open. Ass. Complete ass. The red stapler appears.

Welcome to nSys! I’m Stan! Oop, I don’t know your name yet! Please tell me your first name!

:Doug

The desktop flashes light blue for a moment.

Good to meet you, Doug! I’m here to help you work different! With nWare’s nSys operating system, you don’t have to think! You can just USE THE COMPUTER! Don’t fret about what to click and what to type, just work better, faster, and more limberly! Just USE THE COMPUTER! I’ll be back if you need help!

“Stan” steadies his metal jaw and winks out of sight.

Your boon companion “Stan” has somehow reset himself like that three times already. Fortunately he - it - only forgets your name in the process.

IV.

My concept is that the player character in interactive fiction is not played at all, but is a constraint and possibility defined by the author, within which the interactor is bound to a particular perspective and a particular set of capabilities, by means of which the interactor can explore everything in the work and figure everything that the interactive fiction holds and offers. The computer program itself, written by the author, carries the burden of defining the player character’s personality, his or her attitudes, and the way in which actions are accomplished. The interactor is left to understand the strange world of the particular interactive fiction work - including the nature of the player character - through exploration and by demonstrating an understanding of the world’s workings.

This perspective on the player character may seem to leave less of a place for the interactor. After all, the interactor, in this formulation, is unable to expressively enact a role, as many might have guessed was possible. But there are still substantial, important abilities and benefits that interactive fiction provides to interactors, who are capable of exploring the world in their own way, figuring out what schemes and principles underlie it and what mysteries it holds, and demonstrating their understanding of it by effecting changes.

By saying that the interactor “directs” the player character, there is the suggestion that some higher-level control, not over the particular manner of physical action but over the general intention of the character, is what is established by the interactor’s input. While the typical dramatic player plays a character and is constrained by a (dramatic) script, the interactor does not get to play but has some ability to write the player character’s script, a script that appears as part of the transcript that the game generates. The interactor is constrained by the interactive fiction world and by the nature and willingness of the player character, but there is considerable freedom in directing and commanding, and considerable engagement in seeing the world from the standpoint of the character that is under the interactor’s control.

I have mentioned a different perspective, inadequate but provocative, that sees the interactor as steering the player character. I believe it is necessary to look beyond this concept and to also consider that the steerable thing being discussed is a character, with an anthropomorphic nature and a character’s place within the interactive fiction world. The player character must be meaningful enough as a character but also be capable of being steered, and must be steerable enough so that everything important within the interactive fiction world can be explored. The interactor must have enough control over the player character to be able to express an understanding of this world though that character.

If we are willing to admit that dramatic role-playing is not done by the player, and that the definition of the player character is the work of the program, and thus the IF author, we can fully acknowledge a powerful, nuanced way in which a character can be represented and simulated within interactive fiction. The author forges the world and the vessel of the player character within it, fixing these in code. The interactor can steer or “be” this character, understanding the world through this character and configuring the world to unlock whatever secrets it may hold. A well-crafted player character in interactive fiction does not need to be the same sort of entity that a dramatic or literary character is; Varicella in the Palazzo may actually be a more suitable player character than Hamlet on the Holodeck would be. But the vessel must be suited to the voyage, to the interactive fiction world as well as the overarching or underlying space of possible stories, the comprehending riddle. For interactive fiction to succeed, the player character must, in some sense, fit within the interactive fiction, and the interactor must fit within the player character.

References

Brinkerhoff, Daphne (2002). Review of Savoir-Faire. SPAG (Society for the Promotion of Adventure Games) 30 (September 20, 2002).

Buckles, Mary Ann (1985). “Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure.” Ph.D. Dissertation. University of California, San Diego.

Frasca, Gonzalo (2001). “Videogames of the Oppressed: Videogames as a Means for Critical Thinking and Debate.” Master’s Thesis. Georgia Institute of Technology.

Murray, Janet (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: Free Press.

Schank, Roger C. and Robert P. Abelson (1977). Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structures. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Sloane, Sarah (2000). Digital Fictions: Storytelling in a Material World. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.