Most games give their player an avatar. The avatar is the player’s body inside the fiction. Obviously, games move because of their audience: players don’t follow a protagonist, the story progresses only in response to the actions of the player’s virtual body. In essence the player’s body, the avatar, becomes the fiction’s narrator in that it dictates the flow of the narrative as much as it is the main character within it.
At first this is fairly straightforward, especially with silent or otherwise personality neutral protagonists: other characters offer plot exposition and audiovisual information provides tone and setting while players walk around and take in details from within their in-game body. The player’s body inside the fiction can be assumed to know nothing more than then the player outside it: both avatar and player see a neat-lookin’ shark and experience the same inward sensations on either side of the screen while a sidekick exposits, “behold! a neat-lookin’ shark!” Occasionally the avatar themselves will evince autonomy from the player by providing exposition, supplying history and context to explain why the shark is so neat-lookin’. Such instances indicate that the avatar and the player are distinct entities; there also exists the play-breaking cutscene to further separate player from avatar. But even in these cases the avatar is nonetheless the vehicle for communicating the game’s story to the player living outside of the game’s world.
The avatar creates an interesting space for interpreting the game’s world (Filipowich, Mark. “Connectivity Issues: Abstraction, Subjectivity and the ‘Close Playing’.” PopMatters. Feb 11 2014.). Abstraction plays a major role of understanding any art form and most often this abstraction is just accepted intuitively. When watching a play, the audience is meant to simply accept that the scene takes place in a garden because birds can be heard chirping off-stage or because the set is decorated with plant life or because a green filter is put over the overhead lights or because one of the characters says, “behold! we are in a garden!” The audience knows that the people on stage are not in a garden—they’re on a stage—but they accept that abstraction of a garden for the sake of the fiction. Abstraction suspends disbelief.
Similarly, in a game, we know that a player does not have a GPS map hanging overhead and to the right of them at all times, we accept radar and maps as an abstraction of the character’s knowledge of the area and as a convenient tool for the player’s navigation, just as we accept a player-character’s health bar as a metric of injury and illustration of their toughness and their enemy’s power. It doesn’t always make sense if thought literally, but abstraction allows audiences to accept something nonsensical either as a representation of something else or a mistruth on behalf of the fiction. It’s accepted because all fiction is nonsense.
Unlike other modes of fiction, games have a degree of physicality to them: player’s must use their physical bodies to move their virtual ones (Williams, G. Christopher. “We’re Not Computers, We’re Physical.” PopMatters. Jan 7 2014.). The abstractions between the player’s two bodies create much of the subtext of videogames. Yes audiences of other fiction must physically hold up a book and flip pages or physically plant themselves in a theatre seat or physically twerk to the hot beats of this summer’s soundtrack to experience those art forms but games require an ongoing feedback loop between virtual and physical bodies. That’s their thing. Movement of the player’s physical body is somehow tied to the fiction’s movement. Abstractions like health and mana bars, radar, vision cones and stat counters communicate circumstances for the player’s virtual body to be dealt with by the player’s physical body. And while many of these abstractions don’t necessarily convey the kind of physicality for their avatars that they ought to (Filipowich, Mark. “The Gamer’s Dressing Room.” Game Church. Jan 14 2014.), this abstract information highlights the often interesting bridge between the player’s two bodies. Alternatively, many games aim to immerse their players by removing the abstract steps between player and avatar.
Many first-person shooters, for example, aim to shorten the gap between the player’s body outside of the fiction and their avatar within it. In other words, they aim to immerse. However, many game-isms are necessary to communicate important information to the player: both practical information and abstract subtext. Radar, health bars and money counters break immersion, but they represent abstract knowledge that facilitates the player’s navigation of the fiction (Williams, G. Christopher. “Danger, Romance Adventure and the Health Bar, or How I Learned to Love the HUD.” PopMatters. Jun 20 2013.). However, where Call of Duty just accepts that radar is there to benefit the player’s out-of-game body as an abstraction of their avatar’s knowledge, Halo treats the radar and even the control scheme as existing within the fiction. Halo‘s Master Chief is looking at the same radar as his player. When the player sets the looking controls, another character asks them to augment their control scheme by having them physically look about the space; other characters aren’t talking to the player about how their controller works, they’re talking to Master Chief about his body. The HUD on the player’s screen is the same HUD on the inside of Chief’s helmet. It is understood that the player literally looks through Chief’s eyes and experiences the same world as their virtual body.
Deus Ex: Human Revolutions splits the difference when it breaks into the third-person. Like Chief, the player’s field of vision is the same as protagonist Adam Jensen’s: the radar, health/mana counter, weapon and ammo tracker are all information that’s documented to him through his cyber-goggles and the information they represent is communicated to Jensen as it is to the player. However, to manoeuvre gunfights or stealth segments, the player must lean against a wall to jump into the third person and get a much wider field of view. Obviously, with the camera in the third person the player’s vision is no longer the same as Jensen’s, but in being able to see so much more the third person view is an abstract representation of Jensen’s extra-sensory awareness of his surroundings.
This kind of abstraction subtly alters the tone of the avatar’s narration. At a given moment there’s far more information flowing to the player than just words. The way the player’s virtual body, their avatar, is able or limited in navigating the world colours the narrative flow and communication between the player’s bodies. However, the direction of narration is bilateral: Batman might be communicating the story of Arkham Asylum to me by exploring the world and uncovering it bit-by-bit, but in a sense I’m narrating the tone of his exploration to him.
Arkham Asylum features several “silent predator” challenges, where Batman is outnumbered by gunmen in a large open room. During these challenges, Batman must dispose of all the gunmen in the room stealthily while avoiding contact with bullets. One player can meticulously plan every action, moving cautiously and refusing to take any risks; another player can dive into the fray and rush through quickly, exploiting the chaos they’ve created among enemies; and yet another player can set up traps and use their gadgets to disarm and disorganize until enemies have lost enough of their advantage that Batman can treat encounter as just another unarmed brawl.
Functionally, it doesn’t matter how the player solves the objective, the objective is still solved and the story still progresses the same way regardless. But these different methods change the way that Batman approaches his surroundings, how his environment can be understood and so on. The point is that these different approaches each say different things about Batman as a character, they each suggest different but equally applicable readings of the characters, settings and actions. They change the tone of Batman’s approach to the fiction as much as different wording can change the tone of a sentence:
- Batman eliminated his prey inside the botanical garden.
- Batman beat down the goons inside the botanical garden.
- Batman neutralized the threat inside the botanical garden.
Batman can do all of these things and he is all of these things. But when a player chooses one of these paths, they’re solidifying a version of Batman that holds certain narrative qualities in the fiction. The avatar might be the conduit for communicating a game’s fiction to the player, but each player dictates the tone of the fiction. The avatar is not just a window into the world, avatars are participants and therefore they can be said to be affected by the fiction’s goings on. Those affectations in turn influence their actions. Avatars can be read not just by what they’re able to do, but also by what the player actually has them do.
Where it becomes interesting, however, is in how the player’s interpretation of the avatar negotiates narration. The use of certain mechanics alters the reading of characters and their place in a world, “The attributes associated with [Lenna from Final Fantasy V’s] class development from knight to samurai to monk can be retroactively applied to understand her as a person while I’m playing. I can construct Lenna’s character based on the job classes I choose for her.” (Filipowich. Mark. “Meta-Game Fan Fiction.” bigtallwords. Jan 31 2014.). Just as the different possible means Batman has for overcoming a challenge say something about his character, so to do the class choices of the cast of Final Fantasy V. Every interaction speaks something and there is no such thing as a neutral avatar (Dickinson, Kevin. “Does Silence Speak in the Loudest Voice?: Misconceptions about Silent Protagonists in Video Games.” PopMatters. Feb 7 2012.)
Two players can effectively create differing texts out of the same game (Filipowich, Mark. “Oracle and the Non-Playing Character.” bigtallwords. 2013.). There is a unique diegesis between player and avatar; the avatar allows them to occupy the world and the player’s actions characterize the avatar. The more players become invested in the narratives of their virtual bodies, the more reciprocal the relationship becomes (Conley, Evan. “Brothers: A Tale of Two Player.” Elite Review. Feb 7 2014.). That isn’t to say immersion is the holy grail of design:
Immersion is a terrible word, it’s mostly a marketing term and for the most part it’s insufficient in describing how games focalize and what it means to embody oneself in a virtual space…What immersion does is it presupposes as certain kind of ideal—a purist ideal, a formalist ideal—of how games embody. It erases the very, very complicated and very, very diverse ways that games communicate embodiment and setting and tone and basically everything. (Stewart, Zolani. “Let’s Crit: Perfect Dark pt. 3-2.” 31:55-32:48.)
The goal of immersion is to streamline play to such an extent that the boundary between player and avatar disappears. Players erase themselves and become so engrossed in the game they forget the world outside it. Now, that level of immersion is not only currently impossible but a totally unhealthy thing to wish for. To wit, individuals are subjects coloured by their experiences; they then bring that colouration into new experiences: individuality—as I’ve been trying to discuss—has physical influence on the narration of a videogame. Even so, as Zolani Stewart adds in his own take on Perfect Dark, immersion eradicates different forms of communication that games are capable of, specifically those that communicate through the break between player and avatar.
Behold, I am transitioning between two selves!
In his Let’s Critique of Perfect Dark, Stewart notes a number of times when the game ends a cutscene by zooming into the back of protagonist Joanna Dark’s head and entering the first-person view. As Stewart explains, it’s like the game is handing the controller to the player. This also communicates a bridge from Joanna acting independently as a character in the fiction to Joanna as the player’s avatar, the vehicle for exploring and moving the fiction; it simultaneously signifies the break between Joanna as an agent receiving orders and as an agent executing them, it illustrates the different behavioural mechanisms that she approaches different aspects of her job: one is consistent, ordered and unchanging (the cutscene) where the other is fluid, chaotic and messy (the player’s navigation of the game). Joanna is capable of both roles and the bridging her actions independent of the player with her action as the player’s body in the fiction with the zoom-to-the-back-of-the head communicates her changing roles as much as a sharp scene transition illustrates a change in James Bond the debonair spy and James Bond the ruthless gunfighter in a 007 film.
Quirks like these have subtle but monumental influence on understanding what a game does. The slight wobbling of the camera in Perfect Dark communicates Joanna’s sharp breathing or the slight movements of her head as she looks around. As Stewart points out, this gives a sense of her humanity, it highlights the separation between Joanna preparing for and carrying out her actions. Stewart details how the angular and misshapen geometry suggest otherworldliness while the casual, comfortable and pedestrian locales like office buildings and streets communicate depth and scope beyond the actual levels. Stewart explains how atmosphere of Perfect Dark’s level design has impact because the player is drawn from space to space in the first-person, while cutscene camera-work hints at a larger, unexplored world. These things speak to the break between player and avatar and Stewart points to this break as a strength of Perfect Dark‘s design.
These breaks subtly colour game fiction in the same way that artwork makes Monopoly what it is (Wilson, Mark. “Monopoly Redesigned, And Stripped To Its Very Core.” Fast Company. Dec 12 2012.). People don’t play Monopoly because it’s fun, they play it because of the narrative context the game provides. The narrative is fun because victory is fun and defeat is frustrating. And while each player’s token doesn’t really make much of a difference to the flow of the game, their in-game body does. Specifically, their body within the fiction is carried out by the strategic negotiations with other players’ physical bodies. Players naturally adopt a fictional self to act within the fictional space of the game.
A similar thing happens in Magic: the Gathering. Player’s aren’t operating as the cards they activate, they’re operating as a removed spellcaster summoning magic. The cards and the effects detailed on them are an abstraction for what’s happening in the game’s duel. The player’s fictional body provides feedback to interpret the narrative operations of play, the main difference Magic has with a videogame is that feedback consists more of imagined and cooperatively narrated content. The player’s play of a card functions almost identically as the spell they cast as the summoner within the fiction. They don’t play as the card they’ve laid, they play as a removed wizard summoning a creature and giving that creature instructions. The arithmetic of attacking and defending are an abstraction of the imagined drama of the duel. Both of the player’s bodies, real and avatar, behave the same way, but drama still emerges and the competing avatars construct a fiction.
Likewise, a multiplayer match of Pokemon or League of Legends treats the player’s physical body the same as it treats the avatar. These games create tension and drama outside of the background lore divorced from a given match (especially League of Legends). But in both, the avatar in the fiction and the player outside it are giving orders from a distance. There is an avatar, but functionally they behave and are treated identically as the player outside of the game, they’re role is to instruct and influence from outside the interactions happening inside the fiction. The player reads the abstract results through HP and stamina levels to provide an interpretation for what’s going on, but behaviourally, the player’s physical and virtual bodies are the same. Their actions are the same and take place from the same perspective. Yet the player’s virtual presence still constructs a narrative.
In fact, operating fictional bodies can itself make a game. In the card game The Resistance, players are given and identity aligned to one of two factions: spies or revolutionaries. Spies coordinate together to keep their identities secret while revolutionaries try to figure out who the spies are. The only mechanic to speak of is how well the outnumbering revolutionaries detect the spies and how well the more knowledgeable spies are able to dupe their colleagues. Victory goes to whichever team can reach their different and conflicting goal first. There is a flimsy context provided by the art on the box and cards, but unlike Monopoly it isn’t the sole appeal of the game. The appeal of the game is operating as a physical body in a fictional context.
Everything hinges on how well a player is able to practice or detect deception in a group of close friends. Again, players don’t need to buy into the context the game provides—obviously that’s what it’s there for, but they don’t need to—because the drama is in their interactions with people in their actual lives. The game creates a fabricated scenario where they must either figure out which of their friends cannot be trusted or they themselves must effectively trick their friends into trusting them. Like the camera zooming in the back of Joanna Dark’s head, the game highlights a fascinating split between avatar independence and acting within a virtual body.
For instance, the game begins the instant players know which team they’re on. Because players must begin with their eyes covered while the spies reveal themselves to one another, a clever spy can say something with their mouths partially covered to make it sound like they’re talking with their hands over their face. Revolutionaries take the knowledge of that into the game. No matter how the tactic is perceived by those it’s used against, the spy is using their physical body (covering their mouths) for the benefit of their in-fiction avatar (seeming more credible in their interactions with the revolutionaries). The game creates a fiction out of the physical. Players have to use actions and knowledge of the real-world for the benefit of their avatars in the game’s fictional context in an effort to move the plot in the direction that best benefits their team.
Hate Plus similarly highlights the interaction between the physical player and the virtual avatar. According to the fiction, the player takes on the role of an unnamed investigator unravelling the history of the derelict space station, The Mugunghwa, and the lead characters—AIs assisting the player in their investigation—address the player as if they’re actually participating in the fiction. Initially, this acts much like immersion in that it treats the player as if they exist within the story while ignoring their body outside of it. The interface the player interacts with is the interface that the player-character interacts with.
However, Hate Plus deviates from immersion in some very interesting ways. For one, to play the game, the player must take 12 hour breaks between each in-game day. The game’s clock is real-time and to play the player must remove their physical body from the game as long as the game asks their avatar to remove themselves from The Mugunghwa’s mystery. There is a cheat to go around this but the developer steps in and, in her own voice, tells the fiction-breaking player that they aren’t supposed to do that: players are meant to remain within the fiction and if they cheat to leave it, the game follows them. Finally, one assignment that the game eventually gives its player is to bake a cake and send photographic evidence of the cake to the developer.
Again, this drags the player’s own body and reality into the fiction. The game treats the player and player-character as the same entity, so when it demands actual physical work and evidence of that work to be sent to the game’s developer, it’s drawing the real, physical world into the fiction. The player must make something real and physical to further the goals of their fictional self in the game. Between real-time interruptions, developer interventions and physical labour as requirement to moving the fiction forward, Hate Plus draws the player into its narrative. The player is no longer a detached agent manipulating a character, they—the person in a room playing a game—become a character in the story, their room becomes a spaceship and their enjoyment of the written story becomes their investigation.
Bodies are instrumental in games. As fiction—that is, stuff that doesn’t actually happen—games are in a bizarre place in that they ask their audience to participate and carry out the thing that never happens. The relationship between the player’s two bodies is monumental to the reading of games by creating subtext and by highlighting the boundaries between the game and reality games create incredibly sophisticated experiences. Even when the player’s outer and inner bodies are functionally the same, the virtual body still creates a fiction, and in fact this fiction itself becomes a sort of game.
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Further reading: Keogh, Brendan. “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism. 1.1.
Schaefer, Alec. “The Sympathy of the Player and the Power of Narrative Involvement.” Push Select. Nov 5 2013.
Youngblood, Jordan. “‘C’mon! Make me a man!’: Persona 4, Digital Bodies, and Queer Potentiality.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. No.2.
Cross, Tim. “Diamond in the Rough – ‘A Body in the Dark’.” Game Set Watch. Sep 5 2008.