The player generally controls a “player character” within a game. I’ve heard designers discuss whether or not the player is becoming the player character, playing their role as a fictional character, or replacing them as their real selves within the fictional world. When you play Mario, are you playing as Mario as he saves the Mushroom Kingdom or are you saving the Mushroom Kingdom yourself? A lot of people say both are happening. You are yourself and the player character at the same time. How can that be possible?
I believe the blur comes from two issues. One, I’ll call an “illusion of individuality,” and the second “empathy.”
Illusion of Individuality
Going back to Mario, the guy has a head, arms, legs and clothes. He lives in a wacky mushroom world, has inhuman abilities and even an accent. All of these things create an illusion that Mario is his own man, defining his own destiny and players often seem to respect that. If Mario ever sat down and said “I want to climb a tree,” the player would be likely to manipulate the game’s controls so that Mario can do that. The player makes Mario’s mission their own. But that’s just it, in order for Mario to succeed, the player must take on the mission at hand. The player must use Mario as an extension of their own body, the end of a nervous system stemming from the player’s own brain, through the spine, arms, and fingertips, through the controller and into the game console, stimulating a virtual muscle that is only expressed on a television screen. In this respect, Mario ceases to exist and there is only the player.
When you move your character about, what’s really going on is a bunch of lights are turning on and off, but you interpret those lights together as an image and can analyze that image as though it represents something real. When the image of a player character is on screen, the player can empathetically “feel” what that character feels. Generally, the term empathy is applied to emotional experience, however I would like to discuss empathy in reference to all experience, all forms of perception. I’m distinguising this use of the word by calling it “absolute empathy.”
Mime is a great example of the kind of empathy I’m talking about. A good mime will generate the sense of a physical world as well as an emotional response within the audience, only because of the audience’s ability to empathize with him/her. That might sound crazy, so I’ll explain a bit.
If the mime acts out crying, you may watch and empathetically feel sad. All that’s really going on is that the mime is faking a facial expression that leads you to believe that mime is sad and therefore you feel sad. Well, the mime might also fake a gesture that suggests the mime is pulling on a rope. You may watch and empathetically feel that a rope actually exists and is being pulled on. The physical sensation works in the same way as the emotional. In fact, a good mime might also claim to feel the emotions and objects he/she is miming. The stimulus for those sensations may not exist, but the sensations are real and the audience’s empathy is completely genuine.
The application of absolute empathy to video games is based on the same princples, but goes beyond that illusion. For example, in the game Shadow of the Colossus, while I would sit on a couch holding down my controller’s D-pad, the player character would bounce around, stumbling across the back of a monster. At other times in the game, the character would be walking or running, but at this time he’s stumbling and maybe coughing or yelling “whoa!” The animations and sound don’t actually change the game itself, but they have a dramatic effect on my experience. Instead of just viewing the character as an extension of myself that does what I command, I see a boy struggling. I empathize and then I am struggling. I am struggling with the character as one would while reading a novel or watching a film.
I’ve heard players and designers say a game shouldn’t “tell the player how to feel.” There are blunt ways of doing that which I have disliked, but Shadow of the Colossus gives the player the feelings of its main character purely by way of empathy. We aren’t “told” what to feel, we see it and we see it in a believable form. For me, it worked perfectly.
I’m stopping there because this crap has just gone far enough. Hope I made sense.
-Christopher J. Rock