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The Player Character's Role in Game Design, Page 2

by Duncan Stevens


(This section contains major spoilers for Spider and Web, LASH, and Bliss, mild spoilers for Shade, and non-spoiler discussion of Plundered Hearts.)

One of the best-known tropes in static fiction is the device of the unreliable narrator: the individual through whose eyes we see the world distorts our view of the world, either consciously or unconsciously, sometimes by flat-out lying and sometimes by offering highly biased accounts. The first use of this device in IF (to my knowledge) was in Andrew Plotkin's Spider and Web, released in 1998, in which the player, a captured spy, spins a story for the interrogator that, it turns out, is largely false. Throughout the first half of the game, the interrogator (a non-player character, or NPC) and the player are in the same boat -- both are hearing the story for the first time and (effectively) have the same questions about its veracity. (The interrogator is constantly prodding the player to conform the story to what he knows, or thinks he knows, to be true.) The turning point in the game comes when the player chooses to disbelieve what the PC is telling him/her (and thereby solves a puzzle), and intuits the real story before the interrogator does. (There are nonoptimal endings, however, where the interrogator figures it out before the player does, bringing the PC's story to an abrupt end.) The triangle here is between PC, interrogator, and player, but the central insight of Spider and Web is the distinction it draws between the PC's and player's knowledge; the PC deliberately keeps something relevant from the player to serve his own ends.

To some extent, of course, any PC that's more than a cipher does this; the PC in Plundered Hearts presumably has all sorts of information in her mind (about her childhood, say, or about the other characters) that she doesn't share with the player, even though the player might be curious. But generally the objectives served are efficiency and focus; letting the player wander through the PC's mind when virtually nothing there serves the purposes of the story wouldn't do much for the player's experience. In Spider and Web, though, information is held back because disclosing it would be directly counter to the PC's interests. This is accomplished, in the case of Spider and Web, by effectively identifying the player with the interrogator for part of the game; he acts for the player in attempting to ferret out the real truth. Since the PC's and interrogator's interests are obviously opposed, it's no great stretch to make the PC's withholding of information from the player serve the PC's interests. A more interesting (and more difficult) approach, though, would be to eliminate the middleman and make the game a direct struggle between the PC and player: give the PC a motivation or impulse and the player the goal of thwarting the PC's aims. One version of this was written by Michael Graham in transcript form on a few years ago: the PC was trying to quit smoking but lacked willpower, and the player attempted to help out by making all of the PC's cigarettes unavailable.

The unreliability of the narrator need not be deliberate, though. In Cameron Wilkin's Bliss, the PC is mentally unstable and believes that he is inhabiting a fantasy world inhabited by dragons, orcs, and such; in fact, as the player learns at the end, he's in a conventional real world, and the dragons and orcs that the PC thought he was killing were actually real people. There, the PC and player are equally in the dark (presumably; it's not absolutely clear that the PC's delusions aren't willful), but the PC still manages to induce the player to do certain things that he/she probably would have been reluctant to do otherwise. To the extent that the PC manages to do things that the player wouldn't have allowed, the deception serves the PC's ends. Conversely, the PC might withhold information in a way that doesn't serve his interests; the player and PC work at cross purposes simply because the player doesn't realize who the PC is and what he's trying to do. (That would require, of course, that the PC doesn't speak up when the player's actions don't serve the PC's interests, not entirely realistic, but that can be overcome as well -- perhaps the PC doesn't want to draw attention to himself by suddenly reversing course.)

There are other ways that the PC's and player's respective knowledge, or ignorance, might drive the player-PC relationship. Some have commented that the recent movie Memento, in which the main character has no short-term memory and is trying to piece together some past events, has interesting implications for IF: the player might be faced with the task of establishing what has happened to the PC. The player might simply be confused about some relevant information and might thereby unwittingly mislead the player into doing something that harms the PC in some way. The challenge for game designers is working the knowledge problem into the story: in Spider and Web, it was in the form of a particularly elegant puzzle, where the player was asked to realize that the PC had lied and figure out the real story. That was a supreme "aha" moment, well designed -- but writing this sort of puzzle and making it difficult enough to be interesting yet also fair is not easy. It's possible, however, to let the player learn of the deception another way; one particularly effective way is to drop hints that all is not as it seems, to get the player wondering, before dropping the information bomb. Shade, also by Plotkin, does a particularly good job of this.

Another element of the player-PC relationship that bears some more consideration is to the extent to which the PC is willing to go along with the whole thing. In Paul O'Brian's LASH, the PC is a robot, owned by a human, who eventually rebels against the human's control. Since the owner is almost entirely absent from the game, it's easy for the player to insert himself or herself in the owner's role and to see the robot's rebellion as a rejection of the player-PC relationship, which the player can either accept or reject. The PC's experiences lead it to reject the relationship -- it's not so much a war from the beginning as an initially friendly relationship that turns hostile. To my knowledge, this is the only game to try something along these lines, but there's much more that could, in theory, be done with it. The player could, in theory, work to prevent the PC from getting information that might lead it to rise up, or try to thwart (through bribery, trickery, or brute force) a rebellion already in progress. This could make for a pretty frustrating game, though, since the player might end up able to do nothing at all for long periods when struggling with the recalcitrant PC. (The implications of the PC actually freeing himself/herself from the player's control are interesting, though.) Alternatively, the PC might refuse to do something that the player wants to have done, necessitating that the player trick the PC into doing it somehow. The mechanics of giving the player knowledge that the PC doesn't have are complicated, though -- the best way to do it is to have the player draw an inference that the PC hasn't drawn, but the challenge there, as discussed above, is making the inference logical but not too obvious.

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This article copyright © 2001, Duncan Stevens

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