The Actor and the Audience

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This year, I tried to do National Novel Writing Month again. For NaNoWriMo, you have to write 50,000 words within the thirty days of November. I successfully did so in 2014, but this year? Well, depends on what success means. I only got to 27k words of the required 50k, so I didn’t “win” this year. However, I meant to use my 50k words to establish characters, backstory, and plot for a video game that I’ve been working on (working title: Collision Bend). At this, I was quite successful. I feel like the characters are much more fleshed out.

When you are trying to vomit out fifty thousand words in a month (which is honestly how it feels sometimes), you resort to desperate measures. I made two of my main characters talk about video games in a section that was a poorly-disguised Author Tract. Don’t hate, I got a thousand words out of it. Enjoy.

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It was another beautiful day at the close of summer. The sun starts setting sooner and there is a promise of fall in the air. The evening settles and Kyle and Emily are sitting at a bar on a Tuesday night. Again. The radio is playing some variety of 90's pop punk that seems to be the rage these days. Kyle had nothing against it personally. He recently realized that he was entering his prime demographic years and would see all of his nostalgias catered to. He would shudder if he tried to imagine what fresh horrors Hollywood would prepare for him as he grew older.

"It's a young medium. People are still figuring out what to do with it. What's possible to do with it. It's pretty exciting to be there at the beginning," Kyle said.

"Haven't video games been around for something like fifty years now?" Emily asked suspiciously. She was drinking a cheap beer, as usual. He had tried to improve her taste in beer for a year now without any success. Some people were just born to be tasteless. Tasteless like her beer. Kyle smirked at his own private joke.

"Maybe technically, but I'd say everything before the nineties was more toy than potential."

"So then it's been twenty-five years. That still seems pretty old."

"Maybe not," Kyle continued, "think about how long it took film to come into its own. And we've really only had games start trying to be artistic in the last decade or so. Most everything before that was intended to be entertainment. Blockbuster. Hollywood. Not that those games aren't fun, it's just that they aren't aspiring to be more."

"Alright, I'll give you that." Emily said, tilting her glass. "But what makes games different? Where can they go that isn't just Hollywood?"

"Well, what's the difference between playing a game and watching a movie? It's sounds obvious, but you play a game and you watch a movie. A game has a level of interactivity inherent to it. Movies are passively consumed. Games are actively consumed. Games have choice."

"I think that argues against your idea."

"How so?"

Emily took a swig. "If a game includes choice, then the artist has to surrender that choice. When you watch a movie or look at a painting, you might be able to choose a few things - like what room you watch the movie in or where you put the painting on the wall - but you'll never be able to choose whether Starry Night should be more green or less yellow."

"Hmm," Kyle considered. "You don't get to choose everything in a game either. You can't, say, save the princess if you're playing Tetris. A game comes with constraints on the choices available. Beyond that, that loss of control is present in other media as well. Consider music composition. If you are writing a sonata, you don't have complete control over how the piece is performed. You can perform it yourself, but when you commit those melodies in your head to the page you leave the performers with choices. Not necessarily choices of which notes to play, but choices of how to play them. All you can do is leave short little hints in the margins on how you intended the piece to be played."

Emily chewed it over. "So, to you, a video game player is a like a musician? They choose how to play the game?"

"Yea, but that's not quite all of it. See, musicians play for an audience. Nobody really plays a video game for other people, outside of those e-sport leagues. I prefer a slightly different metaphor. To me, the player is the actor and the audience rolled into one, only the actor hasn't read the script before. The player-as-actor has to follow the cues and hints given by the director, and the player-as-audience watches the show."

"What happens if the player doesn't follow the cues?"

"What happens if Romeo and Juliet don't meet? If Macbeth never betrays his king? It's the same thing that happens whenever an actor goes off-script. The show turns into a dumpster fire, and the audience is deprived of the intended experience. If the player is having fun doing that, hey, go for it. Just don't judge the play based off of a performance where the lead actor misses all his cues. Now, a good game designer needs to give good cues, but a good player should follow those cues when they make choices."

Kyle continued, "And remember, the choices available are constrained by the game itself. The flip side of that is that every choice allowed is allowed intentionally. The game should explore a possibility space. Allow the actor to play their character differently, but it should be coherent within that character, within that space of potential choices."

"Alright, I'm following so far. But what does that interactivity buy you?"

"I think one of the coolest things about it is that games can play off of that tension between the player-as-actor and player-as-audience. The game can demand the actor perform things that clash with what the audience wants or expects. There's a sort of dissonance there that's ripe for exploration. Something that hasn't been seen before in movies or novels or anything else. Not that you've never read something or seen something where you, the audience, were shocked or surprised. The difference here is that the player, by being the actor in the play, is complicit in the decision. The player-as-actor knows what they must do and does it. The player-as-audience recoils. The effect is different than the audience passively witnessing tragedy. There are no longer any bystanders, just accomplices."

"And what can you do with all this dissonance?"

Kyle took a drink and savored the taste. The IPA had layers of complexity to it. Hop-heavy, but nicely balanced by a heady malt body. A gentle aftertaste lingered. "Oh, I've got a few ideas." Kyle said, smiling.