During my podcast conversation hosted by Abbott, the point came up that I see games as a rehearsal. I’ve mentioned it here before. I give the caveat that I have been and still remain a: theater student, theater historian, actor, director, and playwright. So, I hope to explicate what I mean when I say I rehearse games, which is the same as playing them. This method is not indicative of all games, nor is it a method I think everyone should employ. I do believe it speaks to a larger part of how our function as player, or acter, in a game unfolds.
First there is the role. I make it a point to not play myself in games where I can create a character; hence my reliance on a stock of characters for whom I’ve created my own codex of personality quirks and clearly defined markers.
Unlike the stage, I have the opportunity to take on the role of not just a character substantially different from myself, but am given many more options as not merely the actor, but the playwright as well. What separates this from theater is Corvus’s idea of what makes a game:
“Game is a set of rules and/or conditions established by a community and intended as a bounded space for play.”
While I have freedom to interpret and express my own thoughts through the verbs and words I am expressing through play, I am still constrained by the script. This sounds very much like acting on a stage. I can have an idea of what I want to do on stage, but the play as a structure binds me to certain actions, and grants the ability to provide different interpretations of that action as collaborated upon by the playwright, director, actor, and various designers.
If games are the communication between designers and players, theater is the communication between actors and perceived audience, as well as among the production crew. There is no absolute freedom, and there is often compromise and working together to achieve a full production (in an ideal world–not all stages are created equal).
It is within those restrictions that I am currently interested, as they inform my own behavior and how I view my interaction with both my inhabited play space (role) and with my internal dialog.
Take, for example, my current, second playthrough of Mass Effect (from here on forward will be minor spoilers). I am playing my tried and true Aeazel, who is very stand-offish, and not a fan of being touched by people he does not know. My fellow actress Sha’ira, the Asari Consort in the Presidium of the Citadel, did not receive this message. Her blocking runs counterintuitive to Aeazel’s own personality.
When Sha’ira touches Aeazel, he lacks any response I can see. My initial thought was to criticize the game for not allowing me to react to this, but then again, I agreed to help her, so within the confines of this small plot we call a side quest, I was agreeing to interaction with her and had already marked myself as friendly. I could have just said no and walked away to start.
Here’s the key, I can still walk away and never return. While I cannot express in more fine detail how off-put Aeazel was by her touching his face and then hugging him, I have that option. The fact that I do not says as much about me as a player, as it does about the confines of the system on my emotional depth being conveyed physically.
There is yet another option, and the one I claimed, which was thinking within the restriction and examining what it said about Aeazel in this instance. Let us say the director and playwright have firmly insisted that this is how the scene will play out, how it will be blocked, and I cannot flinch or express disapproval in my face. My thinking, my beat (how I carry out this thematic interval in my script), then becomes on concentrating on what power this Asari can grant him.
She has been talked of as a powerful person to know in the Citadel. While I, as the player, know what lies ahead of me, and the prestige and power I will wield, I as Commander Shepard, am only somewhat renowned for my ruthless tactics on Torfan, but have not even become a Specter, and am merely a human in the larger playing field of the galaxy’s politics. Knowing this, knowing her level of fame, Aeazel knows that he must suppress his own natural instincts in order to attain what he wants, which is her favor. She is useful to him. He can accept this touch.
Some may argue, and if the facts were not so easily able to be put together as such for me, I would likely be among them. However, unless the scene is completely immersion breaking (say, making me a female in the end text of a game where I had a male same-sex relationship), there can often be an explanation within the more grand context of the entire game, outside of the immediate, discrete action of the scene at hand.
This is rehearsal, when I figure these things out. This is not performance in front of an audience, a marked distinction. Like with a play, each person who inhabits this role brings his or her own experiences and ways of evoking those experiences and emotions to the role. Some may enjoy the character more than others, some may have a deeper connection, draw more out of the character, or just go by rote through the lines, not really giving a spectacular performance (not because of lack of talent, so to speak, but lack of connection). Here, this, is what excites me about games as we progress to more player interaction.
This is also what appeals to many of us about other media: books, film, et cetera. We are able to view the actions of those in said media, discuss the motivations behind those actions, and extrapolate larger themes and idea from those images, words, et cetera. What games provide is a more direct interface in which to maneuver the plot, and to have those actions provide a deeper level of feeling in control not of the narrative necessarily, but of how we perceive the narrative within the role itself.
There are, of course, different games: games more scripted, games that have a very clearly defined reason behind them. These are interesting games by themselves, but they evoke a different reaction in how I approach them; ones that are informed by my understanding of taking the stage, but ones where I do not necessarily feel the acter, so much as the directer (terms I have deliberately misspelled to bring more focus on the first part of the word, and not the historical roles). I will formulate a different example and discuss that later, however.