Monday, January 11, 2010

The Implied Player

So while complaining about "Post Script" and the like, it struck me that these mods heavily rely on a certain notion of an "implied player" -- the ideal player, the one who won't mind walking across long stretches of terrain and who will listen to every voice over and read every note and ponder the deep meaning of everything. (I wish I could do this, but usually when I play I'm trying to pick everything apart.)

The closest comparison that I can think of is how literary criticism has held the notion of an "implied author" and "implied reader" for some time now...

When Jane Austen begins Pride and Prejudice with, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" -- Austen (whether as the "real" author or the "implied" author) clearly doesn't believe that statement because the whole novel is about how this first sentence overgeneralizes so much. And then there's the "implied reader," perhaps someone who was raised on Elizabethan conduct manuals for young girls and can appreciate how P&P riffs on those.

I was going to write a long post about how to apply this narrative theory to games and why such theory would be useful, but fortunately Gregory Weir has already done it for me -- and probably much more eloquently than I would've. So go read that.

One thing that strikes me immediately, mostly because Weir already mentions it, is that literary criticism usually focuses on the implied author / narrator relationship... while with games we're definitely more interested in the gulf between the player character, implied player, actual player.

Video games are definitely designed with an "implied player" in mind -- the one who will play the game optimally, utilizing each mechanic to achieve deep and meaningful strategies -- the type of player who will use an "ice" spell to freeze an enemy then an "earth" spell to shatter the frozen enemy, the player who won't stare at the wall while Alyx says something important, or the player who attaches sticky bombs to a corpse to fling at a Big Daddy.

Is it bad practice to assume the actual player will play so much like the implied player?

Say... Alyx was saying something important, but instead you were looking away, playing with some crates -- well, she would get pretty upset that you're not listening to her. Maybe she'll hold a grudge for the rest of the game. Assuming you agree with the "manifesto" declaring player choice as king and you had the art resources to do it, shouldn't you account for this and support the choice to listen / not listen during these cutscenes?

Or maybe it'd a waste of time -- because it's a game, and who cares if the player can see the rails? Maybe we shouldn't even worry about it, because if we treat games like texts (as many commentators are suggesting) then it's not really a problem. After all, Half-Life 2 is still enjoyable even if you don't care for the scripted drama, and Pride and Prejudice is still a good read even if you don't know much about Elizabethan social norms.