When We Play Video Games, Who Are We?
Are we ourselves? Or are we someone else entirely?
The character creation screen in "Destiny"
"I'm going to make a pretty lady," my boyfriend says idly.
I'm watching him play the beta for Destiny (impressions of which can be read here), the massive interplanetary shooter-epic from Halo house Bungie. It's not really my kind of game, but I kind of like Destiny: it's stylish. In a break from genre conventions, it actually has colours – Northern Lights, sky-blue atmospheric coronas. When you look at it, you can actually feel the stirrings of humanity's real ambitions for space, rather than that anticipated sci-fi hard left into brown craters and neon-green robo-helms and things like that.
It has a beautiful user interface, too: fine white text hangs subtly over its world, where in similar games you'd expect some awful corrugated metal roll-down menu ringed in warning lights. Yeah, it's the kind of game where you spend hours zoning out with one of those headset microphones on, but it's less dorky than usual.
More character customisation in "Destiny"
The character creator is my favourite part, though. Pale, strange aliens with fine bone structures blink serenely at you, waiting for you to apply a colour pattern to their faces. You can choose from what feels like an impossible array of hair sculptures. They all look incredibly real. It's stunning.
Mostly, though, I'm watching closely to see what my boyfriend thinks a "pretty lady" is. He is choosing the skin colour, hair colour, lip colour. He makes a dark-skinned woman with smooth hair. I'm a light-skinned woman with coarse hair.
It's not like I'm jealous of a video game character. I mean, she's not even a "character" really, she's my boyfriend's own avatar in Destiny. In a way, she's not my rival; she's him. Right? I mean, when you make a character in video games that allow you to do so, you're really just making an incarnation of yourself.
A still from "Destiny"
"You" is a fundamentally-present concept in games (Austin Grossman's fiction novel, on the weird, distinctive work of game development, goes by the same name). Despite all the modern industry's talk about "storytelling", and despite all the earnest comparisons to immersive cinema that people often make when trying to get others to take games seriously, we're not acclimatised to talking about them in narrative terms. We talk about you.
In Destiny, "you" do this, you do that. In Super Mario Bros., you have to rescue the princess. When you hand your friend a controller, you're less likely to say, "Okay, you are Lara Croft, and Lara is hunting for treasure." Instead, you tell them: "Here's how you jump. You need to get over there."
There's an interesting tension there. Games have many commonalities with theatre – you agree to perform within an imaginary circumstance, and you make moment-to-moment choices in pursuit of an objective determined by the story, for one. But an actor has internalised that she's performing as someone else; although she has to channel that person's nature through the instrument of her own body and her own experiences, she is expressly not herself. She is the character, and needs to behave as such.
But games, designed to let us act as some fantasy of ourselves, don't often ask us to think about what someone else "would" do. That players have choices is considered one of the medium's exciting traits, but I always struggled a little bit to connect to games that have that kind of openness – am I playing a character, or am I being me?
Male Shep, or female Shep? And that's just the beginning (from "Mass Effect")
For example, I never got along with Mass Effect, BioWare's popular space-opera trilogy, where players define the hero, from appearance to behaviour, through choices and interactions with other characters. I had to decide who "Commander Shepard" is, and what she would be like, but I could never quite decide whether she was "me" or not. Should I make the decisions that feel innate to me, or should I decide on a trajectory for this individual, commit to that? Sometimes I did one, sometimes the other, and it was disruptive, often comic, inconsistent.
Telltale's The Walking Dead games excel in dunking the player headfirst into the slimy bucket of split-second decisions that have to get made in a zombie apocalypse. That's the fun of apocalypse fiction, particularly the ubiquitous zombie sort: everyone loves to think about what they would do, who they would save, how they would allocate the food among some ragtag band of accidental companions. When someone might have been bitten, do you shoot now, or wait and see? You know, that kind of thing.
But in The Walking Dead, you aren't "you". You're Lee Everett, responsible for caring for a kid called Clementine, with a mysterious past that the player isn't immediately aware of. When your fellow survivors start to ask Lee questions about himself, you have to decide how he answers. These are profoundly uncomfortable decisions, hustling the player into a claustrophobic space crammed between their own wishes – who they think Lee is and what he might do, and who they hope he is, and what they hope he'll do.
The self in games is an unsolved problem. Players seem to want strong characters, but we also want to make our own choices. They are our heroes, but they're also our dolls.
I watch my boyfriend choose between two shades of deep red for the lips of his woman.
For almost all of the game, she'll be wearing a helmet anyway. He'll be focused on the field of play; her, a vague shape seen mostly from the back, always aiming at something else.
Leigh Alexander's Understanding Games will be back for another edition before long. Meantime, find the author online, here.
Previously – Do You Cut Off Your Arm or Eat a Baby?
VICE Vs Video Games is our new games column – find it here.