When Shigeru Miyamoto christened the tiny elf that the player would control in The Legend of Zelda, he chose the name “Link” because the character was designed to be the link between the player and the game. Since that time, the concept of the player character, or “PC”, has evolved a great deal. Now, instead of being a mere square pixel or a plumber or elf of unknown origin, characters have become serious business.
In the current age of gaming, we love us some character customization. We like to take ownership of our in-game avatars; we dress them up with little hats and sunglasses that, even though hundreds of other players are wearing the exact same little hats and sunglasses, make them uniquely ours. Why, though? If anything, a giant yellow hat with a feather in it would make, say, the Scout in Team Fortress 2 an easier target. But we don’t care. If there is a funny hat or alternate skin (or gunhorse) available to spice up the player characters, rest assured, somebody will gladly pay for it.
In thinking about contemporary gaming, I’ve identified three different kinds of PCs: There are Characters, Conveyers, and Containers. These three types are delineated by the amount of control the player exerts over the in-game avatar, and a specific relationship to the player exists for each. For Characters, we are the Audience, for Conveyers, we are Actuators, and for Containers we are the Animus. The specifics of which game falls into what criteria can vary, and are indeed debatable, but for the most part each game that I’ve encountered features main characters that fall into one of these three.
In games featuring Characters, the player takes control of a person that already exists in the world. This person has friends, a backstory, and (ultimately) a set destiny (read: the end of the game). Though the player has some rudimentary choices over the life of, say, Cloud Strife, ultimately Cloud’s path is scripted, and his life must reach the same conclusion whenever it is played out (so to speak).
Characters are used most often when game designers want to focus on telling a story, and we as players are brought along for the ride. Player choice matters little, as the character’s choices aren’t the central focus of the narrative. Such games (see Red Dead Redemption, the Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and Halo series, as well as the first Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game have, from a story perspective, a pre-determined player experience, much like the conceived plot of a film or novel. Going through this experience, controlling this character as he or she interacts with the world and moves from plot point to plot point, is the game. We are the Audience in this brand of interactive fiction.
I believe Conveyers compose the majority of games available. Conveyers are those characters to whom an at-most limited personality is ascribed, and whose adventures are less directly impactful on the larger game world. The purpose of these characters is to provide a tabula rasa onto which the player may project him- or herself to a more superficial degree than Containers (whom we shall address presently). Put more simply, Conveyers are stand-ins for the player, and the actions of the player, as well as his or her desires (generally for mayhem and tomfoolery), are conveyed into the game world through them.
Most sandbox games, however story-driven they may be, generally fall into this category. The protagonist of the Saints Row series is a prime example. Ze1is a blank canvas; the player may dress hir up in all manner of silly costumes and run over all the old ladies the player’s heart desires while hijacking a sewage truck and spraying shit over all and sundry. Great fun is to be had when the only shit given is the one described above.
With Conveyers, the goal for the player is a certain level of detachment through customization, which affords a greater level of vicarious enjoyment or wish-fulfillment. Hence the player functions as Actuator, transmitting his or her desires into the game world and having them actualized by the character. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, for example, allowed the player (in the guise of an up-and-coming skateboard legend) to pull off insane tricks and combos that by no rights could ever happen in real life to even the greatest of skaters. Yet the skating laity (myself chief among them, though I was quite good at the games in question) were allowed a chance to see what this world of being a kick-ass skater was about (or at least feel like we could see what it was about). This level of vicarious enjoyment is achieved through either direct customization (as in the Saints Row or Tony Hawk games), or through a muted protagonist.
When dealing with Conveyers, the focus is not on the character hirself, but on what the player does. For a very loose example, in the Civilization series you choose a people to lead rather than a great world ruler, and your actions are those of a developing nation rather than its leader. The leader you choose affords specific bonuses, but at no point do you assume direct control of him or her. Unless you choose to role-play as the specific historical figure (and if you do, can I join a game with you?), it makes little difference whether you, the leader of, say, America, are given the designation of Washington or Lincoln in the grand scheme (apart from the fact that you are playing a different Civ game, of course).
Though he has an established backstory, and his games feature a cohesive narrative, I would argue that Agent 47, of the Hitman series, is a Conveyer. His character design is blank, devoid of identifying marks, save a barcode that is mysteriously never mentioned in eyewitness reports. The player is meant to project him- or herself onto 47, who is a literal blank slate. Link, as described earlier, was intended to be the same, although he has since evolved into more of a Character. Mario, too, I would submit, was similarly intended, as story has never been a focus in the Mario series (“Tonight, on a very special Mario…”). These games do not focus on a rich, compelling narrative, so much as fun gameplay, placing emphasis on the experience of the player, rather than the PC.
A common tagline of the Elder Scrolls experience is “Be whoever you want to be.” This is achieved by minimizing the character’s story; the three things that are certain in any of the main Elder Scrolls games, story-wise, are that you did something bad, got caught, and that your mother was right when she told you that you were special. Further, the game allows you to define your character however you see fit. Consequently, these games, at least in my experience, do not facilitate easy role-playing. Any role-playing must be projected onto the character (Actuated). The game itself neither mandates nor asks what kind of character you are playing, and sometimes directly undermines your role-playing efforts, as it did when I attempted to play a Shadowscale, that is, an Argonian Assassin born under the sign of the Shadow. These are the only requirements to be a Shadowscale, and though I selected them at character creation, I was told point-blank that I was not a Shadowscale. So, despite my choices, I was unable to impact the game world in a meaningful way, even though it sure felt like sweet revenge when I murdered the smug lizardly bastard who said I couldn’t join his stupid secret club.
This presents a problem with games that feature Conveyer PCs. The PC is meant to convey the player, and the player’s will, into the world, but usually these do not have lasting impact in the world of the game. In most sandbox games, you can go on murdering rampages involving rocket launchers and crashing things into other things, and after you leave the area (or maybe after you manage to hide from the cops for a little while) everything returns to normal. In the Elder Scrolls series, you could murder entire townships and steal from everyone you meet. Though the townships remain ghost townships after you move on, nobody ever laments the fate of the fallen (although news of your considerable bounty will have mysteriously traveled to every single guard in the game, of that you may be sure). This lack of consequence often makes it difficult to become immersed in the game world, which usually leads to less memorable gaming experiences.
Lastly, we have Containers. Containers are designed not as a canvas upon which the player may project, but as a vessel into which the player may insert him-or-herself. The player is presented with a world and is given a means of interacting with that world that is wholly unique, namely the PC. The world is defined, and certain parameters (such as class, race, eye color, etc.) are set at character creation, but from there everything is directly in your hands. Your actions really do affect not only the world around you, but your specific place within it. When the PC functions as Container, this leads to a greater ownership of the character, hir actions, and the impact those actions have on the major groups in the game.
Perhaps the best example of a Container in gaming is the PC in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. In World of Warcraft, there are primarily two games: there is the Player Vs. Environment game, wherein you the player take your character from place to place, murdering X number of pests that are causing the quest-giver so much consternation ze can’t even move, let alone take care of the problem hirself; and then there is the Social game, where you must interact with other players who have probably spent so much time honing their craft (or War-craft, if you will) that they have forgotten how to type properly or behave like not-children.
During my time in Azeroth, I experimented with both games. While I found them to be very different in terms of what was expected of me, they were basically identical in terms of the Player/PC relationship. Your character is not so much a hero in whose hands lies the future of the world of Warcraft, but one of many travelers through a vast and dangerous landscape where you must either prove yourself useful or GTFO. The system of dungeons and raids, the upper levels of WoW’s Social game, is almost a competitive sport, wherein the entire party must be on its A‑game or face Leeroy Jenkins-esque levels of extinction (or “wiping”, as it is called). Ultimately, the PC is a direct representation of the player, and sinks or swims as the player does.
When playing with Containers, we the players serve as their Animus. The PC does what the player decides for the player’s reasons, and poor performance on the part of the Container is directly attributed to its Animus (whereas an Audience would never be criticized as a n00b for the poor performance of hir Character, nor could an Actuator justly be accused of griefing for the antics of hir Conveyer). If your Paladin doesn’t have the necessary resurrection spells to keep your party afloat in a grueling dungeon, the ire of said party will be directed at you for not having invested enough time or practice the game.
I would also go one step further and apply the label of Container to the player’s avatar in games involving direct competition with other players, such as first-person shooters. The Container essentially functions as our literal avatar; it embodies us directly, rather than simply being a vehicle for our play, and is a representation of the individual player. More emphasis is placed directly on the player, who is made responsible for hir performance independent of things such as levels or stats. To illustrate, the difference between Container and Conveyer is the difference between Battle Bots and Boxing. A level 3 Courier in Fallout: New Vegas can’t be criticized for being ripped apart by Deathclaws, as there is no way a low-level PC can realistically stand a chance against such hellspawn. However, a player of low skill level in Counter-Strike who, say, doesn’t know how to diffuse a bomb (shameful confession), will be held liable for hir transgressions when the bomb blows up in hir face (I shame-quit the next round). Returning to WoW for a moment, it is one thing to be given a max-level character with an impeccable build and the best equipment available. It is quite another thing to know how to use it.
Though it is impossible to select the most important aspect of what makes a good game, the relationship between player and PC deserves especial consideration, for what is a game without a means of influencing its outcome?2In most games, we are given one of three of means, (Character, Conveyer, and Container), and each has us as players fulfill a specific role in turn (Audience, Actuator, and Animus, respectively). There is undoubtedly some overlap between each of these three categories, but I believe there’s value in thinking about PCs this way. Each of these categories highlights different modes of player/PC interaction, and I believe each of them offers us a unique insight into ourselves, both as players and as people.
- When a character’s gender is left up to the player, and is thus vague until otherwise defined, or when speaking of individuals who identify as such, I prefer the singular gender-neutral pronoun Ze, and its plural, Hir. I remain unconvinced as to the correctitude of the use of They/Their, despite however many hundreds of years it has been used, and this is a ship down with which I intend to go, unless some individual wishes to be called such. [↩]
- A miserable pile of cutscenes! [↩]
I’m curious as to where you think Commander Shepard fits into these categories. He seems, to me, to be a mix between a Conveyor and a Character.
Well written article, btw!
Shepard, in my bold and flamboyant opinion, defies the system (and other systems, which I shall explore after I play ME3). Shepard can be any of the three, if the player is of a certain frame of mind and style of play. I of course invite you to draw your own conclusions, but I would place hir in the Character category, with a big, throbbing asterisk for off-the-charts (it would seem) levels of player agency, or being able to make impactful decisions.
Do you have a citation for Link’s naming? It makes sense, but I’ve never seen it in print before.
Moving on. Even when the PC is a character, the player still takes a more active role in the story than someone reading a book (for example) would. The player is forced to become not just a viewer but also an interpreter. It’s up to you to figure out where the boss key is hidden and how to defeat Ganondorf. So even as a member of the “Audience,” you’re not a passive viewer: you must invest your ego in the events of the game. This isn’t necessarily counter to your thesis, but I think it should be explicitly noted.
Sadly, I don’t have a citation. If I had to guess where I picked it up, it was probably some Ocarina era issue of Nintendo Power or something.
Granted, the Audience is more than simply a passive viewer, but that’s the nature of an interactive medium. You the player are always doing, for that is what the player does. The Character/Audience relationship is the lowest level of “synchronization”, if you will. The distance between player and PC is at its greatest when you are controlling another person. Link will always fight Ganondorf, and he will always find the key. It’s just that you are the one defeating and finding at this moment, and not another player. And you will always be doing these things as Link, for Link’s reasons. As we move across the spectrum, the motives shift from the PC to the player. The Avatar is diffusing the bomb because you, the player, need to diffuse it, or else the terrorists will win, and player and PC are completely united in purpose and action.
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