Playing a Role

Playing a Role
Schizophrenic Storytelling

Robert Buerkle | 20 Jul 2010 11:55
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And yet, it somehow blends together smoothly. The gameplay is tight, the narration is compelling, and I never think twice about the fact that I'm being told the story that I'm playing by the very character that I'm playing. However, it does beg the question: How exactly am I supposed to inhabit the role of Max? It's difficult to imagine myself experiencing the story from Max's point-of-view, as I must exist both outside and within the narrative simultaneously, watching Max, listening to Max, and being Max all at once.

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This curious phenomenon occurs because videogames offer a unique form of storytelling, one that very few media have accomplished in the past: second-person narratives, stories in which the audience is positioned as a character. Yet at the same time, videogames frequently adopt the narrative conventions of other media - media that tell their own stories in very different ways.

Books, for example, do first-person address very well. They center on a speaking voice that controls the entirety of narration, and as a result, can easily reveal the interiority of character. "I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go?" In the course of telling his own story in The Catcher in the Rye, the fictional Holden Caulfield can let us in on his innermost thoughts and feelings, something only his narrating voice can accomplish. This isn't to say all books only use first-person, of course - plenty of books do otherwise. Yet the written word is exceptionally good at allowing one character to provide the entirety of the story, to relate an experience from an individual point of view, and this is especially evident in first-person storytelling.

Movies, on the other hand, do the third-person very well. They show us "someone else" - not the author, nor the audience - and let us vicariously follow that character's actions. "Here is Luke Skywalker, and he is perilously maneuvering his X-Wing through the trenches of the Death Star." Luke is not telling me the story of Star Wars, and the movie is not suggesting that I am Luke. Rather, Luke is merely "someone else," a third person.

But videogames do second-person very well, and they do so by providing a special type of character - an avatar - and telling us that "this is you." The packaging of Metal Gear Solid tells us "You are Snake." The game-over screen of Resident Evil tells us "You died." The text-based Zork begins with "You are in an open field west of a big white house" and the immersive POV of Half-Life implicitly tells us that "This is what you see."

Let's think about that last example for a moment. "First-person shooter?" Yeah, it's the most prominent genre of the medium and the label will last forever, but truth be told, it's a misnomer. Half-Life doesn't say "I'm Gordon Freeman" and Halo doesn't say "I'm the Master Chief." Instead, they say "You're Gordon Freeman" and "You're the Master Chief." If we wanted to be accurate, they're really second-person shooters, digital descendants of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novels and other second-person narratives that place the audience in the role of hero.

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