All men and women are merely players

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.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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5 Responses to All men and women are merely players

  1. Roger Travis says:

    Lovely post, Denis. I think I would seek to deconstruct the distinction between rehearsal and performance–I think every performance is in fact also a rehearsal, and vice versa–but you’ve done a wonderful job of exposing the rehearsal side, when people tend so often to ignore it.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    @Roger: Thank you. I know there is a correlary for the performance aspect, but I’m still trying to determine how I feel it relates and how it differs. Because the rehearsal process is the most fun for most actors, it’s why I’m leaning toward it to explain these moments of discovery. Discovery during a performance can be a dangerous thing, depending on how it comes to you. If it’s something basic, something was never covered in the rehearsal process.

    It may be that I need look at audience and how that informs audience and how we play; which could mean MMOs, multiplayer, or instances where we play together in general. Or perhaps I’m missing other audience; it could be that I am both audience and actor and need to parse out those thoughts.

    Thank you for the feedback.

  3. Seth says:

    Audience, Actor, and Director perhaps?

    I’ve never played myself in any rpg, particularly not a Bioware one. I do, however, tend to cast my character in a particular role or set of roles. My favorite Bware title is Neverwinter Nights, which is significant for my previous statement. If it had been, say, KotOR, then I’d either be playing a good guy, a bad guy, or a gimped guy. But in NWN my first successful character was a half-orc druid/monk, LN- which presented an exceptional rp challenge. I had to remain Neutral in regards to good and evil in order to advance as a druid, which empowered my spellcasting, shapechanging, and precious animal companion–so for every few noble acts I committed I had to play the cad.. Similarly, I had to remain Lawful in order to advance as a monk and keep my unarmed skills/defenses high, so the unpredictability I committed in pursuit of my twisted moral compass had to be balanced with regard to my political one. And that’s all without considering the metagame concerns (I had to pretend interest in the stories of all 6 henchmen in order to obtain the maximal stat-boosting items from each).

    So there’s an element of preparation, which I think needs to be considered as well. You’re not just discovering how your character (which is to say your actor portraying your character, which is to say you controlling the actor portraying the character) reacts to a particular scenario. You’re creating the scenarios, and to an extent the characters, through the decisions you make regarding the overarching plot.

    I haven’t played Dragon Age yet- and I won’t, until I find the scratch for an entirely new computer, since both of my laptops have integrated video cards. However, what excites me so much about that game is the potential to really delve into that mess, in a way which previous Bioware games (outside of Mass Effect, which I haven’t played and understand to be blazing the trail I describe) failed to provide due to their binary distinctions.

  4. J. says:

    What strikes me here are the problems created by your stock character. It is as if Johnny Depp were to attempt to meld Cpt Jack Sparrow onto his Mad Hatter role. I do not say this to bash you in any way; because you are obviously using this as an example of something else and also because it is something that other people tend to do as well.

    That being said, what I love is the way in which you describe your method of adapting. At first your response is that of an actor saying to the director, “My character wouldn’t say that,” to which the director (as game designer) informs you it is not the line that is incorrect, but rather the conception of what the character is.

    I am interested in this idea because I come at it in a very different, more postmodern literary way. In which the same revelation happens (an unexpected reaction), but rather than handle it in the way of redefining character, or explaining how it fits into character, I imagine it as a more fractured sense of the self. That is, the character is one that hates being touched, but is okay with being touched by this particular person for a variety of reasons. It is incompatible with the idea of a person a whole, solid being, but completely compatible with the idea that we can never be whole, but rather are a conglomeration of parts.

    It was certainly a very interesting read.

  5. Pingback: Half-Life 2: Gordon Freeman | Vorpal Bunny Ranch

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