Sympathy for the PC
(This section contains mild spoilers for Rameses and Varicella.)
Another consideration in giving a PC a full-fledged identity is the extent to which the player is expected or encouraged to identify with and approve of the PC. Factors include both the PC's moral makeup and the specific goals that the PC appears to be interested in: does the game nudge the player toward sympathy or not? One approach might be to present an initially unsympathetic character but to structure the story so that a context that mitigates the PC's flaws eventually appears; the player might be asked to look past the surface flaws and understand how the PC got that way, or find that the goals in question actually do more good than harm. Conversely, the PC's rationalizations of his or her behavior might be exposed over the course of the game. The case for sympathy might also be split -- the evidence (for whether the PC is a hero or a wretch) need not be conclusive either way.
One notable recent example of an unsympathetic PC came in Stephen Bond's Rameses, an entry in the 2000 competition, in which the protagonist is a teenager in a boarding school, struggling with an unedifying social life and with his own neuroses. He's so inarticulate that he can't work up the nerve to confront an obnoxious peer who's bullying another kid, or to reinitiate communication with a boyhood friend with whom he's lost touch. That particular protagonist isn't evil, exactly, but he's not exactly a shining example of humanity, and since the story revolves around (consists of, even) his inner turmoil, the player is likely to come to some sort of conclusions about him. It bears mentioning that Rameses is entirely puzzleless, and that interactivity is effectively taken away for long stretches -- when the PC is too scared to communicate with anyone, the player can't override that fear (and the PC overrides all of the player's attempts at conversation). It's not easy to develop a PC as fully as this while still maintaining interactivity, and while Rameses works as a story, in my opinion, despite the lack of interactivity, taking away the player's freedom is dangerous. (It helps that Rameses is a short game; a lengthy experience of noninteractivity might be a little much.) In this specific case, at least, it would have been difficult to convey the relevant traits -- withdrawn, inarticulate, frustrated -- while simultaneously letting the player interact freely with other characters; the characterization would have been diluted somewhat.
Another example of a well fleshed out PC came in Adam Cadre's Varicella, in which the PC is a fairly despicable palace minister vying (among rivals who are just as repellent as the PC, and arguably even more so) for a recently vacated throne. The personality of the PC -- fastidious, exacting, seemingly obsessed with interior decoration -- is vividly conveyed through the descriptions of rooms and events. (For example, the player is often treated to ruminations about how the PC will redesign certain rooms when he becomes king.) Though the course of a successful game requires that the PC do a variety of unsavory things, the moral character of the PC isn't as clearly conveyed as his personality; the game doesn't impute to the PC either enjoyment or disgust at the means employed to achieve his ends. That choice, I suspect, was deliberate; forcing the player to supply the impetus for the PC's crimes gives the player a sense of complicity, a sense that wouldn't be as acute if the PC had clearly been bent on evil doings all along. Put another way, it's possible to play the PC in Varicella as an entirely innocent, even praiseworthy character, if you don't mind meeting an untimely demise; the nefariousness of the character only comes out when the player guides the PC past all the game's puzzles. There, the game itself defines the PC's character; you're not given the exact nature of his character in advance, though I suppose it's hinted that he's no saint. The lesson for designers, though, is that the puzzles you ask the player to solve, and the way you ask the player to solve them, can be one way to develop the PC. Solutions you don't permit -- because they're too time-consuming (the PC is impatient), too scary (the PC is risk-averse), or too sordid (the PC is plagued with fits of conscience) -- can be just as instrumental in developing the PC's character as those you do permit, though you should make sure that the player is likely to see the "wrong" solutions (by dropping hints that seem to signal that those solutions might work) if you want the player to get the full story on the PC's character.
The deeper question here, though, is why a designer would want to develop the PC sufficiently that the usual identification between the player and the PC is lost and the "critical distance" discussed above appears. It's a device that serves the purposes of puzzleless much more than puzzleful IF, I think; Rameses, as noted, is puzzleless, and while Varicella has plenty of puzzles, the significance of the PC's character isn't really relevant to the puzzle-solving (though, as noted, the reverse is true -- the puzzle-solving does build the PC's character). It's hard to imagine a situation where the development of the PC in this way could be the basis for a puzzle, unless the solution to the puzzle was >WRITE THOUGHTFUL ESSAY ABOUT PC'S PERSONALITY. Building a real identity for the PC does, however, serve the purposes of storytelling, since a real person interacting with the environment tends to be more interesting than a cipher doing the same thing, and while it's certainly possible to tell a story without the PC getting heavily involved, giving the PC a life of his or her own opens up new possibilities.
Which brings me to my last point.
This article copyright © 2001, Duncan Stevens