Lectio Praecursoria 12.5.2010

Introductory speech at my defense:

Honoured Custos, honoured opponent, ladies and gentlemen.

My research is about designing single player character-based computer games.

With character-based games, I mean games such as Thief II: The Metal Age, Fahrenheit, Ico, and Half-Life.

From the design point of view the player character, the character controlled by a player, is the most important character in the character-based games. Game designer Steve Mereztky claims that “the element that is  most likely to leave a positive lasting impression on players are the primary character or characters“, because “humans are hard-wired to respond to other humans“. However, some researchers and game designers have been critical towards whether player characters can have personality at all, because the character is controlled by a player. It is argued that the presentation of the character is irrelevant, because it does not make one to play differently. I think that this is a simplistic view that overlooks how gameplay can guide interpretation and playing experience.

If we want to understand playing experience in the character-based games, we cannot ignore gameplay, and how the character is present in gameplay. I claim that player character engagement depends on gameplay as well as perceivable features of the character.

I propose that engagement depends on two processes. The first is goal-related engagement and the second is empathic engagement. Goal-related engagement is the most typical mode of engagement in different types of games, including Tetris, whereas empathic engagement is only likely in games that have human-like characters.

In goal-related engagement, players are acting to reach a goal. The experience is regulated by the decision-making, actions, and successes and failures. For example, we feel happy when we reach the goal and tense or scared when the goal is threatened. The goal-related engagement is fundamentally “I” experience: I am making choices, acting, succeeding and failing.

In empathic engagement we react to and infer the actions of a character. A part of this is based on automatic and involuntary mirroring of perceived emotional expressions or actions. For example, we tend to smile and feel happy when we interact with someone smiling. Empathy is based on this mirroring. In addition to mirroring, gameplay and character presentation guide interpretation and engagement.

In what follows, I ignore alignment and allegiance parts of the model for sake of simplicity and focus on character recognition. The recognition, the player’s construction of  a character, depends on perceivable features of the character. These features include body, face, voice, and its actions.

Computer games guide the actions of the player character using goals, possible and impossible actions, predefined functions, and cut-scenes. The role of goals is two-folded: First, the goals limit sensible choices if one wants to progress in the game. Second, the goals imply motivations of the character. Possible and impossible actions include actions that are made available to the player, what is left impossible, what actions are hard to perform and what are easy ones. With predefined functions, I refer to the way the player character performs the actions. Cut-scenes are pre-scripted cinematics. In addition, how the other characters react to the player character describe the personality of player character.

All these influence how  the player guide the player character and perceive the actions of the character. Hence, the player character has personal ways of behaviour and handling situations despite the player control.
Next, I demonstrate how some commercial games portrait characters and deliver information that is used in the character recognition.

Thief II: The Metal Age uses explicitly given goals to describe the player character Garrett. These goals, steal but not kill, tell about the personality of the character. Interestingly, the character changes with the difficulty levels. In expert, Garrett is against killing while the difficulty settings lowers he gets more liberal on that.

In the next examples, the action of the player characters of Ico and Beyond Good and Evil are the same, but their predefined functions differ. Look how the movement style and attacks differs from these two characters. One is portraited as a seasoned fighter and other is a trying to utilize his limited fighting skills.

In Thief, Garrett does not have problem of moving bodies, but in Fahrenheit the player needs to work by tapping R1 and R2 buttons turn-wise to make Lucas Cane to move the body as we will see in the next example. The player character’s psychological state is also integrated into the game system. If the character gets too depressed, the game ends. The psychological state is presented in the user interface.

In contrast to these previous examples, Half-Life does not show the player character Gordon Freeman in the game. The character does not speak. Yet, one gets feeling of controlling Gordon Freeman. The source of the information is other characters and how they react to and talk to the camera, Gordon Freeman. I hope that you endure the dialogue in the following clip without nausea—maybe it is bad enough to have camp value. More importantly, the clip illuminate how the character is sketched in the game.

I hope that these examples demonstrate that games utilize different techniques to portrait a player character and the personality of it. I should emphasize that perceived actions and limitations are not personality, but that personality is inferred from those and from other available information.
While player characters have an important role in character-based games, there is no game without opposition and conflict.

I propose that the conflict design part of  Lajos Egri’s method for dramatic writing can be used in the game design of character-based games. Egri’s idea is that conflict originates  from the personalities of characters, and a writer drafts characters, so that their personalities and needs are in opposition, is useful in game design.

Dramatic writing and game design obviously differs, and in game design, designers should be designing game systems, not structuring the fixed flow of events. The goals and possible and impossible actions and predefined functions gives tools for that; and, hence, plays an important role in operationalizing the conflict.

My study includes a design experiment Lies and Seductions. The role of the game has been two-folded. First, the draft version of the character-driven game design has been used in the design, and the experiences are used to refine the approach. Second, ideas of implementing social conflict in the level  of game system have been tested with the game. Even if the game is based on the novel Dangerous Liaisons, the design approach including character design, has been utilised in the design process.

I propose that games can invade new territory by utilizing nonviolent character–character conflicts. There is much unexplored design space there, and I hope that design space will be in use in the future.

I ask You, honoured opponent appointed by the Research Board of the School of Art and Design, to present the critical comments on the dissertation You find well-founded.

Published by lankoski

Petri Lankoski, D.Arts, is a Associate Professor in Game Studies at the school of Communication, Media and IT at the Södertörn University, Sweden. His research focuses on game design, game characters, role-playing, and playing experience. Petri has been concentrating on single-player video games but researched also (multi-player) pnp and live-action role-playing games. This blog focuses on his research on games and related things.

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