Sometimes I wonder, was I ever really Gordon Freeman?
I have spent many hours of my life playing Half Life, Valve's brilliant sci-fi shooter series in which this bespectacled physicist is the silent and enigmatic lead character. That is many hours trapped in his body, seeing the techno-distopias of Black Mesa and City 17 through "his" eyes. Except, they weren't really his eyes, they were mine, and the things I did were my actions. At least I think they were.
So, okay, if I wasn't Gordon, well, did I care about him? Did I relate to him?
If I wasn't Gordon, who was I?
Every fictional character exists in a contested zone between author intention and audience interpretation; but in games, the position is much closer to the latter party. Interactivity gives us ownership over the experience in a way that reading words on a page or watching a movie does not. In novels and in film, we have a little wriggle room in terms of how we perceive what is going on, and what we think it means; but in games, perception and meaning are subordinate to the act of taking the controller and actually doing. The gamer's sense of self over-powers and often eradicates the fictional character.
Who is the first-person?
This is especially true in first-person games, which in identification terms, are much closer to the rarer second-person narratives in fiction (see every "choose your own adventure" novel). In books, when we see the "I", we understand that it belongs to the voice on the page – the narrator – and not to us. But the "I" in the game is definitely us, because the first-person camera is designed to simulate our viewpoint.
Portal (by Valve again) plays marvelous tricks with this concept. Our view of the science lab in which the game takes place is first-person, so it feels as though we're there, but if you set the portals up in the right way, you can catch the "real" lead character, Chell, running through. This game, so clever in its take on space and spatial understanding, also provides us with these strange moments of existential unease. Who are we controlling - ourselves or Chell? And when we can't see her one screen, are we still her?
There has been plenty of research into this question. Freud, of course, argued that the process of forming a personality begins through the identification with others – that we learn who we are by role-playing as those near to us. Later researchers, like Jonathan Cohen, have studied how television and movie characters have been adopted into this process of formative self-identification.
"Cohen’s work looks at viewer identification with media characters suggesting that character identification involves an 'increasing loss of self-awareness and its temporary replacement with heightened emotional and cognitive connections to the character'," says cyberpsychologist, Berni Good. "If we relate this to gaming it would suggest that we do put ourselves in the role of the character, suspending our sense of self in these virtual worlds."
Elsewhere, there is the narrative collective-assimilation hypothesis, which suggests we align ourselves with fictional groups that we feel affinity with – like the elves in a fantasy game. Gradually, we identify as elves or vampires or space marines, we subsume them and their struggle. There is plenty of sense in that, especially if you start to think about how we begin to form very intense personal relationships in clans and guilds.
The uncanny valley of assimilation
But I'm still not sure. I'm not sure because of the typically gigantic chasm between a game's narrative intention, its interactive systems and my own actions. Far Cry 3, for example, is one of the greatest mainstream action adventure games ever made in terms of its beautifully modelled sandbox environment and interlocking AI systems. But the plot is riddled with disturbing colonialist subtexts and the lead character is a horrendous dude-bro. I don't want to identify with that shithead. The term ludonarrative dissonance is widely mocked within the industry, but it is a depressingly common phenomenon – and when players see no link between the narrative sequences and their own in-game reality, questions of identification and association become more problematic.
In third-person games, the relationship between player and character is even more complex. We're not the avatar because they are clearly visible on the screen, and we often see and hear them in cinematic sections. But if we are not Nathan Drake or Lara Croft, what are we to them? A friend? A carer? And yet, we're controlling them, so how can that be?
Well OK, perhaps we should be honest with ourselves here. In lots of ways – some pernicious, some compassionate – we do manipulate our friends, or at least we seek to. Every relationship you have ever had has been about control to some degree. So maybe all third-person games are allegories on friendship.
Last year, I met the game designer and author Jesse Schell who has a theory that the relationship between player and character in third-person games will gradually evolve from one of semi-representation to one of co-operation. In short, you won't 'be' Lara Croft, you'll be her companion; her adviser. "I think what's going to happen more and more is that you're going to talk to your avatar, which seems a little weird as we think of our avatar as someone who never talks," he says. "But it's not true, right? Because your avatar talks in cut scenes - and then he's done talking and then you're playing him. But it's like, well, why is that okay? In Mass Effect 3 the Kinect voice control is kind of interesting because you have these onscreen choices and you say the line, but Shepard doesn't repeat it - he just follows up on what you just said. It's like you and Shepard are kind of a team - you say your thing, then he follows up on it. I think we're going to see more relationships like that - where you'll be chatting with your avatar, and then you're controlling him and giving him orders…"
Mirrored on the screen
But then, what really worries me about games, beyond the psychological ambiguity of controlling a virtual human being, is that there are so few characters I identify with, that speak to me in any meaningful way. Music, literature and cinema have all done that. As a teenager hopelessly in love with the wrong girl, I could relate to David Gedge of the Wedding Present singing, "there's a thousand things I wish I'd said or done… but the moment's gone". As a pretentious twenty-something I could relate to the struggling, strung out writer in Jay McInerney's novel Bright Lights, Big City. I'm not sure I've ever had that experience with a game character.
How many people have? This week I did a test on Twitter. On Tuesday, I tweeted the question, "Which game character would you most like to have dinner with". I had dozens of responses and most of them were serious – people wrote about how great it would be to sit in a bar with Solid Snake or Nathan Drake and listen to their stories, how cool to be seen with Nico Collard from the Broken Sword series. On Wednesday, however, I tweeted another question: "with which video game character do you most closely identify?" This time, a majority of the responses were comedic – Pac-Man came up a lot (munching pills, listening to repetitive music), Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, Mario, Cool Spot... True, some gamers had discovered characters that they could relate to - the brilliant games writer Jenn Frank mentioned Laura Bow from Roberta Williams' series of graphic adventures ("she's a wannabe-journalist with a knack for solving mysteries and a nose for news, but she also got mugged an hour ago"). But for most, the question was light-hearted. Because, you know, how can you relate to MasterChief?
Partly, of course, this is down to the kinetic focus of the medium. Most narrative games are about action, they are concerned with events rather than people - and so their heroes are often little more than archetypes put in place to facilitate the machinery of conflict. Even the most emotionally resonant video games usually operate at the extremes of experience, amid war, apocalypse, or fantastical adventure. It is difficult to truly inhabit, say, Joel from The Last of Us because his reality is beyond anything we can imagine – he is an agent of chaos and horror and everything he says and does exists within the parameters of armageddon. The moments of humanity that Ellie injects into the narrative – mostly through her questions about life before the contagion – add depth to her, but they don't necessarily make her more relatable.
The evidence for identification
And yet, there are clearly examples of empathetic video game characters. Gone Home, with its guarded tale of teen sexuality and emotional conflict, spoke to many gamers about the process of coming out to their families – although its interesting that the story is told through the eyes of an observer. Could Gone Home have been delivered through Samantha's experience? Could we have been her?
There is a lot of evidence to suggest we could. "Last year, a team of researchers from Singapore looked at original components of Cohen's work and applied it to video games," says Good. "They particularly looked at sharing the feelings of the characters – for example, feeling sad if things don't go well for the character, and suggesting an emotional connection in that the player would ’know’ exactly what the character was going through.
"There is research to suggest a merging of self and the character too, so this is another phenomenon that's happening. Psychologists have uncovered that we suspend our sense of self in virtual worlds and coupling that with the disinhibition effect – the idea that are inhibitions are lowered in virtual environments – it's completely plausible that people will actually feel as if they are the character they are playing. In this sense the player could see characters as identifiably human beings that they want to aspire to be or to know.
"Research by Schoenau-Fog suggests that that when it comes to people wanting to keep playing a game, experiencing the character ranks higher than destruction or killing enemies in game play, and this research suggests that we want to develop and evolve with the character, experience what happens to the character and if there is not enough of this activity players may not want to continue playing. This suggests the more we can relate to the character the more we want to play a game."
Being v escaping
At the same time, however, there is the argument about escapism – that games aren't about identification, that they are about the obliteration of the self into an immersive fantasy. Well, that's fine, but is that really what they're doing? In the movie Total Recall (loosely based on the Philip K Dick story, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale) a tech company offers customers a break from the one thing that defines every holiday they've ever been on: themselves. In Katherine Bigelow's hugely underrated movie Strange Days, a virtual realty technology allows users to fully experience the memories and sensations of another. It is incredibly erotic and interesting. Games should be doing that, right?
We are all stuck, to some extent, in the bodies we have, in the people we are. Some of us challenge that, of course; some see a vast and terrifying schism between their sense of self and the body that stands before them in the mirror – and they change it. Other people are not that brave, but wish they were. The thing is, any one who is capable of compassion, imagination or identification, wonders what it is to be someone else – to be better looking, uglier, or of a different race or age or gender or species. How can you not wonder about that? And why haven't games helped us to think about it in a more intimate way?
Why don't games turn us into other people?
Because they don't. Seriously. All they ever provide is a digital masquerade, a ghoulish, semitransparent halloween costume – there is little sense of physicality, of immersion, of ownership over a body. Is that asking too much from the medium, or from the technology of the medium? Is the 2D screen too alienating - the compassionate distance too long for us to transmit ourselves into? I'm not really sure that's it. I'm not sure technology ever lets artists off the hook that easily. But perhaps, when virtual reality really takes off, when we can look down and see our digital body in 3D space, when the focus of game design switches from attention to the idea of "presence", maybe then games will explore physicality and identity in more depth.
The ghost in the machine
Beyond all that, there are so many questions to be asked about whether game characters actually are characters or whether they are merely representatives or ambassadors – ciphers of our intentions. Davey Wreden's The Stanley Parable is a brilliant, often mind-bending inquiry into the immersive conventions of video game design, but I think more games should turn that inquiring camera on to the player, or they should seek to really place us in the world, in the body.
Is it possible to identify with a video game character? Is it possible to explore what it means to be someone else, or even to see ourselves through the eyes of another? I spend a lot of my time thinking about who I am and what the hell I'm doing. I worry about the way I've treated others, I worry about the things I've done and the things I'm going to do. Can games ever help us explore that? Or will they only ever confirm what Joseph Conrad told us in Heart of Darkness – that we live as we dream… alone.
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