Chaining Together the Player and Character

With our current level of technology, games are limited; players have to follow the path laid out for them in order to progress the plot and finish the game. Sometimes it’s nice that you can just play without thinking about your character and their motivations, but sometimes this breaks your immersion when the character acts out of character or you’re forced to go somewhere you don’t want to. One of my favourite plot mechanics acknowledges games’ inherent limitation and explains it in the story, which increases immersion by drawing parallels between the player and the character.

Until machine learning gets a whole lot more awesome, any game with a plot will be limited by its design: in order to progress the plot and complete the game, the player must follow the path laid out by the game’s designers. If the player doesn’t follow the path, the game freezes in time and won’t progress until the player does what they’re supposed to. For example, look at the Mass Effect series. There are these big bad space robot things, and they want to kill everyone. Sure. Presumably this is an ever-encroaching wall of death and doom, but if Shepard never goes where (s)he’s told, the Reapers will never show up. If Shepard decides to instead be an intergalactic space miner, (s)he can do just that, and the bad guys will never get to Earth. The game will never end, but if you think about it, you’ve accomplished your mission and saved Earth anyway. When you play a game with a plot, you accept that you have to do what you’re told or the game will not end.

This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can happily maintain your immersion by not asking questions or pushing the boundaries, but on the other hand, you can use this to your own advantage. Take Fable 3 (kinda spoilerish, but the game is 2-3 years old, so I don’t really care). After your rebellion has succeeded, your brother is out of the throne, and you need to decide how to progress. You need money to save the people, but you lose money when you make righteous laws and keep your promises. The game wants you to make the tough choices and to really think about your integrity and your sacrifices, but it needs you to play along. If you don’t play along – if you don’t go to your next kingly meeting thing – the game cannot move forward. When I played through, I ignored my kingly duties and instead made pies and played mandolin on a street corner for pocket change. I spent months of in-game time and made piles of money so I could do it all – and when I went to that next meeting, the game thought that only a week had gone by. I broke my immersion and manipulated the limitations of the game itself to my own ends, and while I was glad I could save everyone while being a nice leader, I totally subverted the intentions there.

Now let’s look at Bioshock 1 (definitely spoilers here, and here I care b/c if you haven’t played it you really should go do that now).

<Bioshock 1 Spoilers>
Bioshock knows that the player will do what they’re told because that’s how one plays a game. As players, we have no choice if we want to continue the plot. The clever part is that for the first half of the game, the character has no choice either. Thanks to some nefarious (and magic) behavioral conditioning in our protagonist’s childhood, he is forced to follow orders when they are phrased a certain way.
</Bioshock 1 spoilers>

Upon learning this, the player has to take a moment. All those times where you had to do something you didn’t want or that didn’t seem in character just switched from immersion-breaking into something that makes your connection to the character even stronger. A less dramatic example is Mark of the Ninja (more spoilers!).

<Mark of the Ninja spoilers>
You spend the game following orders and listening to Ora’s tutorial advice, and at the end you realize that she’s a hallucination. As a player, I did what she said because she was clearly the game’s device for tutorials and plot exposition – and I never once thought to question her motives. Besides, I wanted to keep playing the game, and to do so I needed to do what she said anyway. By making her a hallucination, the game reminded me that I’d been following orders blindly, not even thinking about why.
</Mark of the Ninja spoilers>

In both those situations, I had been playing the game and following orders because it made sense, and I wanted to follow the game through and progress the plot. Then they both handed me these pretty big realizations that changed how I had been looking at my characters. I, as a player, had been following instructions because I had to, but the game made me focus on exactly why the character in-game was doing so as well. By recognizing that the player’s hand is forced and giving a plot reason to force the character’s hand as well, the game removes a layer of separation between player and character, which makes the game that much more immersive.