Custom Craft: The Death of the Author in Games

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Many games websites list Gordon Freeman as the greatest game character of all time.  As the quintessential geek fantasy, Gordon is “a first class, card-carrying uber nerd, thrust into the breach and forced to fend off an inter-dimensional invasion.” He is atypical of a game hero, lacking in machismo, an anti-hero silently thrust into murdering all manner of creatures without ever uttering a word.

Ironically the article reads, “It would be a disservice to Freeman’s laconic charm to say he’s void of personality due to never uttering a word…. In keeping Freeman mute and unseen, Valve cannily laid the groundwork for a character that players can fully embody, enabling each would-be Freeman to shape Gordon’s persona themselves.” That’s right, the number one character in game history is full of character because “players can fully embody him,” In other words, Freeman has personality only once you create it for him.

Gordon is written about as an icon, but ultimately Gordon is just the shiny car and we’re the enthusiastic drivers and the landscape is the narrative. As games begins to reach a renaissance in the artistic development of the genre we need to start asking ourselves questions not only about how we can craft choices for our players but what choices we can make as writers to deliver a variety of impactful storytelling methods. I do not think that player choice and dynamic storytelling is the holy grail of games writing. Are customisable protagonists defined by player choice diluting the power of the author? Are we focusing too heavily on player choice and customisation?

In many games, particularly RPGs, the player has a choice but it’s the non-playable characters and the environment are often driving the narrative. Your player character is defined by the interactions they have with those around them. We can compare this to literature where what we personally would do in any given situation is not considered, and has no impact on the narrative other than as a point of comparison for the reader. Despite this we are still able to experience a meaningful story through reading.

In games, the player is often able to impact the character and subvert their established archetypes to a certain extent. There may be a story or a greater event that they are participating in, but largely, playable characters are often rather ‘empty’ so as to be embodied by the player.

Playable characters in games are often designed to be as customisable as possible especially in recent RPGs. Players often play one of two ways when engaging with a playable character: either they will design the character as an idealised self, or they will play as a fantasy persona in order to roleplay and experience making decisions and their consequences which they would not normally experience. Unlike in literature, the outcome can be dependent on the predispositions of the player and leaves the author powerless to deliver an experience to everyone uniformly because everyone is playing the character the way they want to. In many cases this is a good thing, we create experiences to be shaped unique to how the player wishes to experience the overall story. But, with an abundance of choices, meaning, motive and significance to the player character can be reduced.

Many writers also create illusory choices that have little impact on the overall arc of the story. Not only does this create high production overheads but it fills the gamescape with options that serve only to increase the content in a way that doesn’t improve the impact of a character or the story. The freedom to choose is important to player satisfaction but it’s not the only way of creating a satisfying story. With too many choices and hours of content players can easily become listless and apathetic about your story, a symptom of many modern RPGs, that you’ve probably experienced at some point in your game playing.

Because of the increasing dependence on player choice and customisation I wonder whether the authorial voice is being diluted or diminished by the need for the narrative direction to rely on the NPCs and environment rather than a cohesive, deliberate protagonist. The question raised is whether we could (or do) create more powerful and impactful game experiences when we take back some of this control from the player? This is not to say that the presence of strong characters is absent in video games; there just a certain amount of structure and technique that is non-transferrable from literature into games.

As games are a multimedia format, there are elements that are represented in other forms than writing on a page. Where we can’t read about the experience of a game character’s death, we can experience it through our own eyes and react to visual storytelling.

Authors and game designers have become complicit to their players. This would be comparable to the concept of Death of the Author in literature, in which Roland Barthes claims that author and creation are unrelated and the interpretation of creative work is up to the consumer. I would compare the two, but video games are unique from literature and haven’t yet undergone centuries of rigorous academic debate. But unlike literature that meanders through history with experiments of form and structure and arrives at the Death of the Author, games have begun with it.


Image credit: Fanpop