I play a cautious adventurer who finds his thrills in exploration of the outside world rather than sparring with the creatures inside the various caves and dungeons of Skyrim. I play a ruthless, cold-hearted Commander Shephard that while in combat, uses precision and unexpectedness to best his foes. I play a valiant paladin who upholds the law with such strong punishment the demons of Azeroth fear the thought of me. This is who I am. This is what I play.
Games toy with a weird dichotomy between actor and avatar. Is Nathan Drake who I’m playing, or is he a representation of me? In some ways his quips and wit correspond with what I’m thinking, but you wouldn’t find that I also have dry undergarments while running away from hundreds of giant spiders. Even Commander Shephard is a little too savage for my tastes, he didn’t need to kick that one guy out of that giant window. Cole Phelps is at times the complete opposite of me, sometimes I hate him so much I want to refuse to help him with his case. Some games are very forthcoming to the question of who you are playing, some are not so obvious and it’s can become a struggle to talk about those games, to criticize them, without knowing.
When you simmer this discussion down to the most delicious of parts, we come to the relationship between you and the game, the form of expression. I don’t mean picking a dialogue choice, or choosing A or B, I mean expression through play. Whether or not expression is rewarded or not depends on the game. LittleBigPlanet 2, Minecraft, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, are a few recent examples of experiences that reward you for thinking and performing to your liking. Each of the games don’t have set motivations for the character you’re playing, the characters don’t even speak.
Many games are limiting when it comes to player expression. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which doesn’t quite fit among the games I mentioned above, is guilty of this primarily during its boss fights. Pacifist and stealthy players were given no attention, the encounters were only solved through loud gunfights. For many this abrupt introduction of rules made them feel cheated; the game promised freedom and lied. All of the sudden they weren’t playing themselves through Adam Jensen, they were playing out the situation and character the developer wanted.
Human Revolution is a sign of a developer reverting a promise, but it’s not always bad. Alan Wake tells a story of a man and how he deals with his own set of problems, problems that you are not asked to react to. Wake is his own creation, he has his own goals, his own process of solving his problems. The interesting parts arrive when I don’t agree with him. It’s the sense of unknown that makes it so exciting to progress further.
Occasionally it gets into multiple blurry shades of grey. She’s absolutely insane, my Saints Row: The Third character, but instead of acting as her, she seems to be lending me a hand. I don’t have the power to participate in dialogue, but she does. I don’t know these characters that I consider friendly and trustworthy enough to be deemed my “homies”, but thankfully she does. She also is extremely gullible and either massively brain-damaged or very kind, which I highly doubt. At some point her and I were drugged, undressed, and undercover trying to save one of these “homies”, and afterwards she thought nothing of it, while I was still aghast. We formed an odd relationship where the only communication we had was through the passing of control back and forth.
Like Saints Row 3, it can be really hard to tell who’s in control. The option is always there to force yourself to agree with the character and tell yourself that those decisions were yours, but it’s nice to craft a personal story as well. The argument against Nathan Drake for his slaughtering of hundreds of men isn’t so strong if you were to claim him as an avatar for the player. Who’s to say, someone with a Kratos-like bloodthirst isn’t playing Drake?
It’s neat that we can even come at it from both sides. The split between expressing yourself as an actor or avatar can be wildly far apart, or it can be weighted heavily towards one. It’s a fun experiment of thought that I get caught up in from time to time. I think about it when I’m writing reviews, I think about it when I read other people’s reviews. For me Nathan Drake and Commander Shepard are characters, Skyrim guy and Minecraft guy are me. I always come to the conclusion that the right answer is whatever I feel is more fitting, and which one is more interesting to talk about.