Introducing “Distance” 4

As Bill has men­tioned, I’m now writ­ing for the Ontological Geek! I’m excit­ed to be here, and unwill­ing to mince time, so let’s leap right into the meat of my first con­tri­bu­tion: a dis­cus­sion of avatar and play­er. Oh, and as usual, spoil­ers are nigh.

Two Very Different Games

Since I’ve been on break, I’ve had the chance to play through a num­ber of games I’ve been hop­ing to get around to, includ­ing Enslaved: Journey to the West, but also Call of Duty: Black Ops. If you know any­thing about these titles, you also know that they have lit­tle to noth­ing in com­mon other than their shared nature as video game, at least on the sur­face. Both games also present a nar­ra­tive (value of said nar­ra­tive aside), voice-acted char­ac­ters, and (for the most part) a sin­gle avatar for the play­er to con­trol and expe­ri­ence the events of the game through.

I would argue that Enslaved offers the best nar­ra­tive of the the two. The adven­ture game has incred­i­ble mer­its as a story. Its main char­ac­ters are intrigu­ing, lik­able, and the play­er’s avatar char­ac­ter, Monkey, goes through an inter­est­ing and believ­able growth arc through the events of the game. Those char­ac­ters have qual­i­ty voice actors, their lines are very well-written, and the stel­lar facial ani­ma­tion at play in the game allows for act­ing to occur out­side the dia­logue, which is some­thing attempt­ed in many games, but rarely to appre­cia­ble qual­i­ty. You can see a bit of that here. The game­play is good, but is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the thing that sets the game apart; sim­i­lar sys­tems have been exe­cut­ed more expert­ly in other games. What’s ulti­mate­ly impor­tant about the rest of the game is that it stays out of the way of the char­ac­ters, the story, and the gor­geous, over-grown vision of recov­er­ing post-apocalyptic America. The game offers an expe­ri­ence of par with the best of sim­i­lar styles of movies, and con­tains sim­i­lar pro­duc­tion value. It is a good exam­ple of game-as-art because of the worth of the tale it presents.

Call of Duty: Black Ops has a less refined story, poor­er dia­logue, and is less visu­al­ly appeal­ing. However, it also tack­les indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences in a way that no other medi­um can; one can­not envi­sion the expe­ri­ence as any­thing other than game. This is a trait that Enslaved can­not boast, except maybe in an argu­ment for the game’s pac­ing. Enslaved could have been just as effec­tive as a movie, and aspires to noth­ing more. In other words, at no time do you feel like you’re any­thing but an observ­er in the story (which, again, is admit­ted­ly fan­tas­tic).

Important Disclaimer

Before I go any far­ther, I want to make clear that this isn’t a bad thing. Enslaved is still a phe­nom­e­nal and fun expe­ri­ence, a qual­i­ty game that I have no qualms about rec­om­mend­ing; I have encoun­tered few sto­ries in a game that were as well-executed. However, it does not cap­i­tal­ize on the traits that sep­a­rate video games from the rest of art.

Inhabiting the Avatar

Black Ops is an inter­est­ing case. Its nar­ra­tive never becomes excep­tion­al­ly engag­ing, and its char­ac­ters are true to type, but never truly inter­est­ing. That said, in near­ly every mis­sion it seeks to trans­port the play­er into their avatar’s body at least once. For instance, here’s a scene where Mason is forced to play Russian Roulette with a com­rade after being cap­tured by the Vietcong, though it has a sur­prise end­ing. It’s obvi­ous­ly NSFW, though its worth not­ing that it has plen­ty of naughty lan­guage in it. It’s a decent scene, but notable because of where it places the play­er: in a spot so tight that you empathize more read­i­ly with your avatar.

Another, bet­ter exam­ple of this is the end­ing to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. There’s no way you can’t empathize with Soap here, even if just a lit­tle bit. Ultimately, your com­mands are respon­si­ble for his vengeance. Perhaps there alter­na­tive meth­ods of attain­ing equal or greater empa­thy with the char­ac­ter, but this method (allow­ing a play­er’s actions to cor­re­spond to a char­ac­ter’s actions in a dra­mat­i­cal­ly impor­tant sequence) is com­plete­ly unique to video games, and can result in a qual­i­ta­tive­ly dif­fer­ent empa­thy than that pro­duced by film or text. Other exam­ples include the whole of the stel­lar Breakdown and the end­ing of Halo: Reach, which I’d hate to spoil here, so go expe­ri­ence it for your­self.

These sequences dis­play the defin­ing qual­i­ty of video game art, albeit in their own gory and mas­cu­line fash­ion. They allow the audi­ence to play a role in the pre­sent­ed nar­ra­tive. Black Ops is dis­tinct from Enslaved in that it offers play­ers some degree of con­trol in dra­mat­i­cal­ly impor­tant moments, where­as in Enslaved there are clear bound­aries between the meat of the story, told in cutscenes where­in play­ers have no con­trol, and actu­al­ly “play­ing the game”, in which the char­ac­ters may speak to each other, but the char­ac­ter’s con­trolled actions have no dra­mat­ic rel­e­vance. Thus, there is greater dis­tance in empathiz­ing with Monkey of Enslaved than with Alex Mason in Black Ops. This does­n’t change the fact that, ulti­mate­ly, the play­er is much more like­ly to empathize with Monkey, but that’s because Monkey is a fan­tas­tic and fully real­ized char­ac­ter. Mason, even with the aid of shared action in impor­tant dra­mat­ic moments, never becomes any­thing more than anoth­er sol­dier.


I think that “dis­tance” may be an effec­tive term for describ­ing the degree to which a play­er occu­pies a char­ac­ter’s place in a nar­ra­tive. Distance is unique to the game. In Mass Effect, there is less­ened dis­tance between the per­son­al­i­ty of Shepherd and the per­son­al­i­ty of the play­er than there is in a game with fixed dia­logue, and this allows for the play­er to exert con­trol over the char­ac­ter, and thus the nar­ra­tive. However, even in games where the play­er does not con­trol the char­ac­ter’s deci­sions in a nar­ra­tive, dis­tance can still be reduced by immers­ing the play­er in the phys­i­cal or men­tal real­i­ties of the char­ac­ter and by allow­ing for a greater degree of con­trol with­in dra­mat­ic events. Quick-time events are the least sophis­ti­cat­ed expres­sion of this sort of dis­tance, but the Call of Duty exam­ple is much more effec­tive because there is clos­er cor­re­la­tion to the play­er’s actions and the char­ac­ter’s actions.

So, what are your thoughts? Do you think that dis­tance is an effec­tive con­cept in dis­cussing games-as-art? Does motion-based game­play, such as with the Kinect, cre­ate oppor­tu­ni­ties to lessen dis­tance?

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

4 thoughts on “Introducing “Distance”

  • allibot

    Have you come across this essay, ““Play, Memory”: Shadow of the Colossus and Cognitive Workouts”? (url below) I think it’s rel­e­vant to what you dis­cuss. I find the author’s equiv­a­lence of “pro­ce­dur­al and episod­ic mem­o­ry with the ludic and nar­ra­tive ele­ments of game­play respec­tive­ly” uncon­vinc­ing — what do you think?


  • Matthew Schanuel

    Thanks for shar­ing the arti­cle!

    I think that, while Ciccoricco makes some good obser­va­tions about how we inter­act with games, ulti­mate­ly the bifur­ca­tion between pro­ce­dur­al and episod­ic mem­o­ry, and between ludic and nar­ra­tive ele­ments of game­play, is too fine a dis­tinc­tion. Those aspects get mud­died so much that try­ing to sep­a­rate them becomes a fool’s errand.

    In wider scope, though I enjoy read­ing about the cog­ni­tive school of psy­chol­o­gy, to some extent any psy­chol­o­gy which does­n’t base itself on bio­log­i­cal fac­tors is built on sig­nif­i­cant abstrac­tions. It’ll be a good long while until we know how the brain works.

    Still, Ciccoricco makes some good prac­ti­cal points. He’s right in that the struc­ture of Shadow of the Colossus does fos­ter empa­thy with the pro­tag­o­nist through shared moments of reflec­tion; that def­i­nite­ly con­nects with the idea of dis­tance. I just also think that the human rela­tion­ship with story does­n’t fit so eas­i­ly in just one cat­e­go­ry of mem­o­ry, and I think it’s a lot more pro­duc­tive to just talk about our encoun­ters with nar­ra­tive.

  • swamplord

    In terms of motion gam­ing less­en­ing the dis­tance, it all real­ly depends what devel­op­ers do with the tech at hand. Even if the tools are there to lessen dis­tance, motion gam­ing has to be cou­pled with great design and ease of use for the play­er.
    One could also argue that the almost com­plete removal of tac­tile feed­back could coun­ter­act the immer­sion gained from motion gam­ing.
    Great arti­cle :)

  • Anonymous

    Admittedly with­out hav­ing thought about it too much, I would say that the role such tech­nolo­gies as motion cap­ture (again, about which I know lit­tle) play in immers­ing a play­er into a game is some­thing more for the realm of sci­ence to elu­ci­date. There is a very slight­ly relat­ed con­cept called the uncan­ny val­ley or some­thing like that, about robot­ics, and how some­thing that looks a bit like a human, but not quite, is scary, where­as some­thing that real­ly does­n’t much resem­ble a human is accept­able. I also do think, as a tan­gent to this poor­ly artic­u­lat­ed point (lol, a stub), that it does depend on the indi­vid­ual play­er.

    Thinking about Morrowind, which in my opin­ion has a high level of immer­sion, and which is visu­al­ly stun­ning (espe­cial­ly given its release date)… Does a game have to visu­al­ly real­is­tic or visu­al­ly con­sum­ing?

    And final­ly I will end this ram­ble by stat­ing the obvi­ous: whether the per­spec­tive is first per­son or third per­son has an impor­tant impact on immer­sion. Morrowind and Deus Ex are both first per­son, and the play­er can influ­ence the game to some degree, and for me I felt rather “inside” the games. Then for Arcanum, where the char­ac­ter also has some effect on the out­side world but whose story is told from a third per­son per­spec­tive, is much less immer­sive for me.

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