Thursday, September 9, 2010

Where is your self in a game?

When you are playing a videogame, an external observer will probably say that you are sitting in a sofa or at the computer desk. But is this really where you are? When immersed in the virtual world of a videogame, do you still feel that you are sitting on a chair or in a sofa, staring at the screen?

An experiment
Before moving on, I would like you to consider a simple experiment. You can easily do it with the help of a friend if you got the right prop: a rubber hand. Put your own hand next to the rubber one on a table, and place a screen between them, shielding your own hand from view. Now ask your friend to stroke the fake and real hand at the same time, at the same place. Something strange will now happen. Your body image will change, and the rubber hand will become part of you. As your friend touch both hands, you will feel as if the feeling arise in the rubber one. All of a sudden, you will have made an external object, become part of your self!

With this experiment in mind. The question of where you are becomes more interesting. When playing a game, where do you transport your self to? Does it depend on what the game is about and from what perspective it is played from?

I think this is not only an interesting curiosity, but a very important part of the experience. Identifying where the player is when playing, can be very useful. And even more crucial, being able to "place" the player correctly is a very useful skill.

Spectator or something else?
Let's start simple and explore movies first. In movies there is no interaction, so surely you must be a spectator to every scene in a movie. A clear example of this, is when you see a horror movie and have one of those "don't go in there!"-moments. This clearly puts you in a spectator seat, treating the actor as a separate entity.

However, things does not get so polarized in other situations. Consider a gruesome torture scene or similar. These can get almost unbearable to watch and blurs the line between yourself and the actor. The reason why this is so is because of something called mirror neurons (here is a good video on the subject). What these do is to make you copy emotions from other people, replicating some of their sensations. One could even argue that they expand yourself, no longer limiting it to your own body.

Interaction added
Let's go back to games now. As we can see there are two forces at work: we can trick our brain into extending the body image and we have specialized neurons that copy other people's emotions. How these will affect us will depend on what type of videogame we are playing.

One of the major differences between games today is the viewpoint, ie first or third person. Does this matter? First person places you inside a character, putting your viewpoint where it usually is. This increases the feeling of being the character. In third person, you are removed from reality, and look upon yourself as if in some kind of OBE. This might make one think first person is superior, however, this only applies to the sense of sight. Another important sense is the proprioceptic one, which keeps track of your different body parts. When in first person, you see at most a hand or two, while in third-person gives you a full body image to copy. Third person can also give your mirror-neurons more to work with, like facial expressions. So depending on the kind of actions you perform, first or third will have a different feeling of being.

Also worth noting is how easily we shift between different states. For example, in Silent Hill 2, I feel very much connected to James when I run around town. Then when entering a cut-scene, I sort of float out of him and become distanced. I am no longer in control of the character and no longer part of him. Then when controls comes back I once more float inside him and the virtual characters becomes an extension of my own body again. This kind of movement happen in just about all games.

The roles we play
Now that we have explored how the self can shift position as we play a videogame, an interesting question arise: What is the player's role in these different positions? As videogames contain interaction; not only do you fee,l to various degrees, part of the on-screen character, you also control her/him/it. What does this make the player? Some kind of puppet master? An devil/angel on the shoulder? And more importantly, can the role assumed, change how the game is played?

In most games, you do not control all actions in a game, but mostly give general commands. You tell your character to jump, but not how much force to use and so on. You command a character to pick up an item, but have no control over any finer movements. This is not that far off from real life though, as most of your day-to-day movements are made without any conscious thought besides the thought of initiating them. This means that making a character jump by pressing a button gives you a very close connection. In these instances, you might feel like you are the character.

However, not all games have this close connection. Consider an adventure game where you just pick a destination for the character or choose between prefabricated lines of dialog. What role does this give the player? Some kind of guardian angle - a guiding voice inside the protagonist's head? Does this change the way that the player think of the character and how to interact with the game? Perhaps this role-assignment distances the player emotionally from the game's protagonist?

It is interesting that some games actually explicitly give the player a role. This is quite common in adventure games, where the protagonist might look at the player and directly address her. Do developers really consider how this can affect the placement of the player's self? I must confess I have not thought about this until very recently and have not heard of many discussing it.

I think it is very important to decide where the player is and what her role is. If this is not coherent than it might have a negative effect on how the player choose to interact with the game's world. If you know your role in the game, it gets easier to be immersed in it and know how to behave. This does not mean that the assigned role and placement of self needs to be the same throughout, but that it must be consistent with what needs to be done. A simple example of when this goes wrong is quick-time-events during cut-scenes. This can be very confusing at first, as you have just gone from being the character (in normal play mode) and gone to spectator mode (when cut-scene is playing). All of sudden you are required to control the character, something that is not coherent with your current role.

This shift in placement also explains why emotional moments can be hard to get right in cut-scenes. As you enter a cut scene you move over to "spectator mode" and all of a sudden you are no longer as connected to the character as before and do not care as much. JPRG:s like Final Fantasy 7 have it easier here, as the normal gameplay is more close to a "spectator mode" and thus the difference is smaller when entering a cut-scene. Same goes for a game like Heavy Rain. An important thing to note here is that contrast in position seem to play a huge role. When there is a violent shift in the location of self, it is very noticeable and the emotional connections are lost.

Finally, I also want to add that the same game, can have players assume very different roles to themselves. A good, although a bit extreme, example of this, is a recent Gamasutra article, where the writer let his mother-in-law play the new Sam and Max. The interesting part is that she did not release she could or should control the characters. She just assumed (probably from lessons learned from experiencing other media) that she should be in spectator mode. One should have this in mind when designing a game and tutorials for it, and not just assume that a player knows what role they play.

Our take on this
Location of self and the role of the player is something that I have not really thought about until we where developing Amnesia. I would therefore like to discuss how Penumbra and Amnesia: The Dark Descent differ in this aspect. As a lot of thought have gone into making the player become the protagonist in Amnesia, it has had a different focus compared to Penumbra.

In Penumbra, Philip narrated all the scenes, yet in normal gameplay the player very much was part of the character. As these narrations are very subtle, it gives a bit of schizophrenic impression. For example, at one point Philip comments that he does not like spiders upon seeing one scuttle by. What happens here is that we are forcing very specific emotions on the player who will either accept or reject them. If rejecting them, it means a large shift in the position of the self and Philip stops becoming a part of you. From being part of the world yourself, you are reduced to being a passenger inside Philip's head. As mentioned before, this contrast can be very bad for the immersion and the emotional connection.

In Amnesia, our goal is for the player to become the protagonist. This is vital for the story and experience as a whole. Because of this, there are never any words spoken, and there are no Daniel-subjective comments. We hope that this will place the player's self inside the body of the protagonist, and to think about what "I am doing" and not what "Daniel is doing". Our hope is that when you encounter facts about Daniel's past, it feels like your own forgotten memories. I know this is not an easy thing, and I am not sure many players feel this way. There is also the issues of adding smaller cues like breathing and heartbeats. Since these are actions that are not totally under our control, it is not incoherent to force them onto the player, but only if the player accepts it. Judging from player comments so far, there are people on both sides and having it in is a bit risky (we are actually thinking of having them optional in the future because of this).

End notes
There is a lot more to explore, but did not want to make an already long post longer. So consider this as just a discussion starter and a brief introduction on the subject.

Now I am really interested in hearing how you feel about this! What role do you feel that you play in different games? Please share your experiences!