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Gamasutra - The State of Character Arcs

by Magerette, 2008-01-14 19:39:20

Gamasutra has put up an opinion piece examining "emergent player character arcs" in depth in such games as Mass Effect, Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Here's the intro: 

 In this in-depth opinion piece, EALA's Borut Pfeifer takes a look at the state of 'emergent player character arcs', referencing titles from Mass Effect to BioShock in order to analyze how immersion increases when in-game events dynamically affect your character's personality and story arc.

The article goes on to define character arc, slip in a refrence to personality type, and gives some examples:

One topic of interest of late is emergent player character arcs. Most games allow very little expression of the player character's personality. Player-character being the opportune word here - the combination of the existing, predefined main character's personality, as it is interpreted or acted upon by the player.

Meanwhile - a character goes through an arc if they've grown in some capacity, changed, or learned something due to the events that have taken place.

Thankfully, yet sadly (in that it took so long to get to this point), it has become more common for game characters to go through an arc as part of a game's scripted storyline. Kratos, moreso in God of War 1 than God of War 2, is a good example - in the first game, he deals with how he killed his own family.

The Rarity Of Player Agency

It is still somewhat rare for games to allow the player to express their own personality through actions in a game. Even more rare that these actions have some impact on the game itself (going from player expression to player agency).

Games like Deus Ex or S.T.A.L.K.E.R. provide many options for a player to solve the problems in front of them but these options are difficult to describe as expressing ”personality” (unless being sneaky and blowing the shit out of things really are personality classes… INTP and ESFJ, maybe?).

Rarer still are games that explore the interaction between the player and the role they have taken on. This is partly due to two forms of long standing industry bullsh*t: one, the kowtowing to existing, scripted media that completely define the extents of a character's personality, and two, the completely reactionary response - that game characters should be blanks to increase player immersion, by allowing them to completely imprint their own personalities on the character.


 More specifically--spoilers omitted:

 Mass Effect & The Player Arc

Mass Effect (pictured) explores player character arcs in a few interesting ways. At the beginning of the game, you choose two backstory elements (from two groups of three - your background: Colonist, Earthborn, or Spacer, and your psychological profile: Ruthless, Sole Survivor, or War Hero).

There are specific missions for some of the types, but character dialog (both your options and what NPCs say to you) is affected by all. As a Sole Survivor, I came across one more survivor of the same attack....Dealing with him and the scientists brought a new perspective on my character's past.

By adding a layer of hidden information between player dialog choices and actual dialog & action, Mass Effect also reinforces an element of role playing that can lead to such arcs. Often it has no consequences, but occasionally there are very large ones. A friend of mine and I had drastically different playthroughs because of how we dealt with [a particular] scene...

However the exploration BioWare does into the player-character is still limited - with accordance to their style, it's very choose-your-own-adventure-y, having clearly defined branch points. So how would you create a player character arc, where the player, in the role of this character, learns something from the events they experience, which emerges from a more complex set of ongoing interactions?

  The article continues with examinations of Bioshock and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and concludes:

The only way for us to really know the player has learned anything is if they've changed their actions. So you start with a continued action or set of actions by the player, and over time you can change either its direct effects, or the value of those effects by changing the context they can be used in...

...Direct effects don't just have to be mechanical, they can relate to the story in terms of how characters interact with you, or even be purely presentation/visual in nature. Changing the context doesn't change the what effects the actions have, but makes the exact same effects more or less useful by changing the situation.

One of the problems with the larger arcs is that players want to see all the variants - they don't feel ownership of those arcs. Lacking that feeling means the arc doesn't provide any meaningful closure for them...
...In order for larger arcs to be meaningful, you'd have to combat the player's need for completion by giving them more satisfaction and a feeling of ownership over their own playthrough/arc(s).


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