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Player Character Identity in Interactive Fiction

by John Wood

Warning: this article discusses the background and plots of several games, particularly TRINITY. There are, however, no spoilers for puzzles.

I. Introduction

Doug Atkinson's article about "Character Gender in Interactive Fiction" in XYZZYnews #3 led me to thinking about the wider subject of Character Identity. This article is shamelessly modeled after Doug's original. Reading between the lines, the article identified about four or five basic methods of identifying the Player Character's gender:
  1. Indeterminate (JIGSAW);
  2. Not stated, but "feels" male (BUSTED);
  3. Fixed gender (PLUNDERED HEARTS);
  4. Determined by asking the player directly (BEYOND ZORK); and
  5. Determined by player actions (LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS).

A similar division applies to the handling of Player Character (or PC) identity.

II. The Amorphous Hero

The original -- and still most common -- way of handling Player Character identity is to ignore it. The PC is, as Russ Bryan puts it, Everyman -- sometimes with a heavy emphasis on the "man" -- and you are free to project whatever motives and emotions you like onto your character. This accessibility can be comforting; you can pick up the game and instantly know who you are. It is also easier to program interactions with the non-player characters (or NPCs) when the only thing they need to react to is the PC's actions.

There is, however, a disadvantage to this. When PCs have no defined character they do not feel like part of the setting. Their interactions with NPCs tend to be bland, and they become onlookers and outsiders.

The best games try to use this impression to their advantage. In TRINITY, for instance, you start out as an American tourist in London -- you are an outsider, and as a tourist it is perfectly natural that you will go around examining things and collecting curios. As the game progresses, it forces you into the role of onlooker as the episodic history of the atomic bomb unfolds, until there eventually comes a point when you might just be able to do something about it.

Few games manage to handle the amorphous PC with the panache of TRINITY, however. The more usual approach is to drop the PC into a situation far from home, thus justifying the lack of a sense of belonging, but to ignore other consequences (the magpie syndrome, the lack of interaction). Examples from Infocom include WISHBRINGER, HOLLYWOOD HIJINX (which avoids most interaction problems by having few other characters to interact with) and MOONMIST. This last is interesting because it gives you the illusion of choice, when it asks you for your name and title. These details actually make little difference to the game -- you are just "the detective", an outsider tolerated because of your reputation and friendship with Tamara (a relationship that is less well developed than it could have been with a defined player character).

III. Part of the Genre

In the earliest games and their imitators the PC is simply the "adventurer," the eyes and ears of a player at the keyboard. However, almost every game since then has given you some context for your character, no matter how vague -- in TRINITY you are a tourist, in MOONMIST a detective. Then there are games where the context goes a lot further towards defining your character. These are the genre games.

Genre games share some of the advantages of the amorphous hero. So long as you are familiar with the genre in question you can still quickly spot the kind of person your PC represents, and because the authors know how the PC should react NPCs can still have (relatively) straightforward reactions. Furthermore, these reactions can now appear less generic because of the framework provided by the conventions of the genre. For example, LEATHER GODDESSES OF PHOBOS is a genre game where there is little overt PC characterization. Despite this, the PC still has more personality than an amorphous hero, and engages in much more (ahem) personal interaction with the NPCs.

Genre games also offer the opportunity to go further, however. Doug Atkinson discussed PLUNDERED HEARTS at some length in his article (another game I have yet to play). The PC in the game is defined by the conventions of the romance/adventure genre, and Doug observed that this is one game where puzzles take a back seat to story -- characterization, character interaction, and plot. This is something that is hard to accomplish with an amorphous hero.

Another example of a genre game is GUMSHOE. I have only played a little of this, but it succeeds in conjuring up the right images for a hard-boiled detective story. You know how to behave because you are playing a private eye in the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade tradition.

IV. I Yam What I Yam

Whereas the characters of a genre piece are stereotypes, the PC in an adaptation game such as SHERLOCK or the HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE are recognizable because they are known entities. In a way, these ARE genre games. The adventures of Holmes & Watson or King Arthur and his knights are so well ingrained in English-speaking culture that the images they conjure up provide us with just as complete a set of expectations as do the broader genres such as hard-boiled. I am less sure about the global nature of HHGTTG, but I do not know of anyone who has played the game without previously encountering the radio series, TV series, or books.

V. You Don't Know Me, But...

Although superficially similar, fixed-character PCs created purely for a piece of Interactive Fiction are very different from their more famous adaptation counterparts. When the authors cannot rely on players having background knowledge and expectations built up from exposure to other media, they have to do a lot more work. On the other hand, there are also much greater opportunities for developing the story when the authors have this much control. Without genre-defined preconceptions the instant recognition is lost, but so are the constraints that so often result in cardboard characters going through the motions.

A MIND FOREVER VOYAGING is the only Infocom game I have played that falls firmly in this category. Parry Sim is supposed to be an artificial personality, but that personality is to my mind more richly developed than any other Infocom PC. As a commercial product AMFV has the benefit of packaging, and Infocom used this to good effect with the episodes from Parry's earlier "life," but most of his character is expressed through the simulation sequences during the game.

Notice that I refer to Parry as "he" throughout. Whereas it is easy for players to identify directly with an amorphous hero and it is natural to say things like "you are a tourist," the fact that Parry is so well defined forces players to take a step back. You can still identify with the PC, but it is more like empathizing with the lead character in a film or novel -- you do not "become" Elizabeth Bennett when reading Pride & Prejudice or Han Solo when watching Star Wars.

A more recent game with a well-defined fixed-character PC is CHRISTMINSTER. Roger Giner-Sorolla includes a detailed analysis of Christabel's character in his Usenet article, "Crimes Against Mimesis," so I won't go into too much detail here. Suffice to say that CHRISTMINSTER is another good example of what can be accomplished with this style of game.

VI. Multiple Personalities

In THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, you swap characters for parts of the game. In BORDER ZONE, you play a different character in each installment. In SUSPENDED, you control one character but effectively have multiple viewpoints via the robots.

If handling one character is tricky, why would authors want to introduce more? One reason is to explore a variety of viewpoints on the same situation. The "party" is also an established feature of roleplaying games, both tabletop and computer, and once we move into the realm of graphic adventures these features become much more common. In DAY OF THE TENTACLE, for example, you control three characters in three different time zones.

So why are there so few multi-PC text games? It is easy to see why few allow you to choose your character. Text adventures depend heavily on description and interaction for their atmosphere. There would be little benefit in having multiple PCs unless those characters were well defined, and their interactions with NPCs suitably varied. This requires enormous effort on the part of a game's authors if the different characters are interacting with the same people and places, since NPCs need different responses for each, and ideally location and object descriptions would vary slightly too.

This argument would not apply to a text version of DOTT, however. There the characters are in distinct settings, interacting with different NPCs, so it would merely mean writing the three sections of the game in differing styles. A partial answer is, I think, that care needs to be taken to ensure that players can identify with their PC. when the viewpoint keeps switching, the task becomes that much harder.

I still think there is scope for further experiments with multiple PCs. For example, in the Arabian Nights genre destiny governs all and stories are nested within stories, so I am going to experiment with playing out these "inner" stories from a PC's perspective. If the playtesters like it... well, we'll just have to wait and see.

VII. Character Building

In all the games discussed so far, the PCs are defined (except perhaps for name and gender) by the game's authors, but there are ways to offer players some part in this decision process. The previous section gave reasons why it would be difficult to provide a choice of distinctly characterized PCs, but there are aspects of a PC apart from personality that could cause less trouble: the attributes and abilities commonly given numerical values in roleplaying games. Very little has been done with this. BEYOND ZORK is the only text-based game I have played that takes up the idea, and (so far as I could tell) the attribute scores made little difference to how the game played.

Perhaps the random nature of a percentage-based ability is not best suited for text games, but it is not the only method. One alternative is to offer traits that are either on or off: PCs have the trait, or they don't. For example, a PC may be Strong and Clumsy, or Weak but Nimble. The former could bypass a locked door puzzle by breaking it down, the latter by picking the lock. This method has the advantage that it is clear-cut -- there is no chance that a strong PC will fail to break down the door, nor that a weak one will succeed.

Authors can restrict the area of effect for these abilities to the purely physical world, or they can be more ambitious and allow NPC reactions to change as well. For example, NPCs may feel intimidated by the strong PC, but would perhaps place more trust in the weak one. This is edging towards the problems presented by a choice of distinct personalities; the advantage is that the authors have complete control over how far they wish to take it. The artificiality of NPCs treating all PCs the same during the game is replaced by the artificiality of a "character creation" process for one PC at the start.

Interestingly enough, this scheme also offers a means of helping beginning players. In WISHBRINGER, they could use the magic stone to bypass difficult puzzles while seasoned players carried on without it. Similarly, beginners could take a Strong, Nimble character while diehards could attempt the game with someone who was Weak and Clumsy.

VIII. Conclusion

Although I have presented fixed categories for the handling of PC identity in this article, the descriptions I give are flagpoles with games positioned around and between them, rather than pigeonholes. For instance, I have "categorized" MOONMIST as an amorphous hero game even though it is part of the mystery genre. I felt the game made little use of the genre's conventions, in effect saying "You are the detective -- now detect." Other mystery games such as WITNESS use the trappings of the genre to influence the player.

JIGSAW is another game that by all reports defies simple classification (again, I have not played it for long). It looks like an amorphous hero game, but (from what others have said) the characterization is such that it could also be described as a fixed-character, though undetermined gender, game.

I am not ranking the categories, with the amorphous hero at the bottom. Althouh I do agree with Doug (and others) that fixed characters offer more scope to expand the story side of IF, my favorite game to date remains TRINITY (with LEATHER GODDESSES supplying my favorite ending). In evolutionary terms, there has been an "adaptive radiation" rather than a "ladder of success."

In some ways, the more you understand the motivations and limitations of a PC, the more satisfying the game. This can be achieved using any of the game styles described above, so long as the authors use methods appropriate to the style.

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