Caring ABOUT versus caring FOR a character -- Fascinating critique of gaming principles from "The Last of Us"

innerdude

Legend
I just stumbled across this in my Firefox "Pocket Articles" feed . . . and just . . . wow. My mind is now churning at 7,000 RPM.


What a fascinating, engrossing analysis of the true nature of "interactivity" vis-a-vis the creation of "narrative."

There's just so much here to unpack in relation to gaming generally, but this bit really caught my eye in relation to RPGs ---

This doesn’t mean video games shouldn’t tell stories, a pseudo-formalist position occasionally staked out by sour game-studies types, any more than cinema should limit its focus to the passage of light through a lens. The resistance of gameplay to being narrativized, and of stories to being gamified — what game bloggers sometimes call “ludonarrative dissonance” — can never be eliminated, only managed; the first question for any narrative video game is therefore how it plans to forge this formal contradiction into a compelling aesthetic experience. In fact, many of the most interesting video games tend to amplify ludo-narrative dissonance, allowing form to poke stylishly through the envelope of narrative content. Valve’s puzzle-platformer Portal famously ends by revealing the protagonist is trapped in a gamelike research facility run by a homicidal computer whose sardonic directions the player must disobey to escape. Here was a darkly comic acknowledgment that a life wholly composed of jumping, shooting, and pushing boxes around — the life of many video-game characters — would in the real world be nothing short of torture.

Bold emphasis is mine.

Man, there's just something bubbling under the surface here about player approaches to character, especially how players fictionally position their characters into a given fictional "space," etc.

It makes me wonder --- is this same tension ever present in RPG play? Does the "gamification" of character through stat blocks, XP/progression, etc., create this same sort of dissonance? That the aesthetic experience must naturally and inherently suffer through the overarching needs of allowing the player to "game the game"?

And wow, it just occurred to me that if the creation of an "aesthetic experience" is a desire to be realized during RPG play, then if this sentiment is true, then the least likely way for that "aesthetic experience" to arise is to just let the "game play out". No wonder the impulse of plot-heavy GMs to be heavy-handed in forcing "narrative structure"; it's likely the only way to have an "aesthetic experience" at all.

One more fascinating quote, that further brings home why it's so dang hard to produce real emotional character growth / character arcs in RPG play ---

Here, we may rightly speak of interactivity: One may care about a character on television, but one must care for a character in a video game.

And just . . . Oh my goodness, yes! Of course that's why it's so hard! As players it's just so incredibly difficult to make that psychological distinction. The constant tug against just keeping your PC alive to fight another day, versus really delivering what would be viewed as an overwhelming psychological need for the character. To care about the character, you actually have to CARE ABOUT the character. You have to view the character's psychological need as something real, something tangible, to the point that you have to play the character in a way that does not defy those needs.

Otherwise, you're just playing a game.

This completely explains the sense of character betrayal I felt during a 16-month Savage Worlds fantasy campaign as a player a few years ago. My character's pressing, urgent, deep need to rectify her past as an escaped slave went completely unaddressed during the entirety of the campaign. And so of course, I was always just caring for the character, never caring about her.

Final thought ---

What would it take to elicit this same kind of critique of RPG play, at this level of thoughtfulness and respect for the medium? Clearly the author of the article has tremendous respect for the creators of both the video game and the television show, while bridging the two "performances" of the narrative with her analysis.
 

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Voadam

Legend
This completely explains the sense of character betrayal I felt during a 16-month Savage Worlds fantasy campaign as a player a few years ago. My character's pressing, urgent, deep need to rectify her past as an escaped slave went completely unaddressed during the entirety of the campaign. And so of course, I was always just caring for the character, never caring about her.
How so? Was it that you wanted to strike back against your former enslavers but could not? That it was a light hearted campaign but you were a trauma victim character?

I think there can be a lot of overlap between this definition of caring for and caring about the character. When in say a high stakes combat/conflict campaign, such as one with a war or survival horror or saving the world from a cosmic threat, then focusing on keeping alive and defeating foes makes sense for most every character.
 

Emoshin

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
What would it take to elicit this same kind of critique of RPG play, at this level of thoughtfulness and respect for the medium?
If I understood your question correctly, I think one starting point is to ask: where do we the draw the line between caring about the character and caring about the game? Because I think that's a very blurry line.

Just for example, your character, Alex, has just gone through a heart-wrenching dangerous adventure where they ultimately saved the land. Suddenly, Alex is called onto to a new adventure. Does the player say yes or no?

If you're caring about the game, well, sure assuming you like the PC, you say "yes"!

If you're caring about the character, you might think something along the lines of "No!" because Alex is traumatized, scarred physically and emotionally, and really just needs a break and maybe settle down with a family and have a regular life and do some art. But now, you, the player, are excluded from the next adventure.

That kind of tug and pull has kind of always been in the game, but I think most of us almost always lean to caring about the game. Because what's the incentive of caring about the character if it starts conflicting with playing the game?

Edit: Perhaps the "way out" is that we create the sort of PCs who were born/destined to go on death-defying adventures and not prone to prioritizing their mental and physical wellness
 

Bagpuss

Legend
I think Blades in the Dark says you should treat your character like a stolen car. The first time I saw that phrase was in GM advice in Monsterhearts "Remember to treat your NPCs like stolen cars. They aren’t your property, so you don’t need to worry about losing them". It's nice to see it extended to PCs.

It's something I've tended to do in all RPGs with my PCs as well, and generally I've only notice a similar style of play with a few other people I've encountered. Most players I've encountered see survival of their character as the goal, as winning.

I'm more interested in if the character provides a good story, than if they live to carry on that story. A character dying a good death is much better to me than having a character betray their nature just to stay alive (although doing that on occasions reveals stuff about the character). I really love playing characters with self-destructive flaws, so they end up doing things that aren't in their best interests.
 

Bagpuss

Legend
If you're caring about the game, well, sure assuming you like the PC, you say "yes"!

If you're caring about the character, you might think something along the lines of "No!" because Alex is traumatized, scarred physically and emotionally, and really just needs a break and maybe settle down with a family and have a regular life and do some art. But now, you, the player, are excluded from the next adventure.

Surely you as a player aren't excluded, it just gives you a chance to come up with another character.
 

Emoshin

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Surely you as a player aren't excluded, it just gives you a chance to come up with another character.
That's true. I guess I was thinking of a typical campaign where you take your PC from level 1 to xx and you really want to keep going with that PC for a sense of incremental progress.

But I agree with you that caring about your character could mean swapping PCs however many times. It just misses out on the game part of seeing one single PC increase in power from level 1 to xx.
 
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Alzrius

The EN World kitten
A salient difference is that a video game is ultimately a finished product unto itself (DLC jokes notwithstanding) that you partake in on terms that are set for you. While there might be many different styles of interactivity set out by the programmers/developers, you're ultimately bound by their vision of how things should work, short of modding the game or uncovering exploits. This limits the methods by which we can not only interact with the world, but sets up how the characters(s) ultimately grow and evolve. There might be some sort of "event tree" they can go through, but that tree was grown by someone else other than the player.

Tabletop RPGs aren't like that. Not only are there no hard-and-fast boundaries with regard to the nature of the game world (hence they endless tales of PCs going "off the map"), but even the game rules are essentially an agreed-upon framework that the players (and especially the GM) can change as they see fit. To that end, there's always an implicit understanding that it's not just about your character, since you have the potential to push the boundaries of both the setting and the mechanics which define how the entire world functions.

And that's not even getting into the collaborative aspect of the whole thing, with its inherent understanding that "I'm just playing my character" isn't an excuse for upsetting everyone else at the table. You can't just care about your character, you have to care about everyone else's, too.

All of which is to say, I'm not sure that the points raised in the OP can be translated 1:1 from video games to tabletop role-playing games.
 


That is a problem inherent in the level system. That's why I tend to prefer systems where your character doesn't as significantly improve over time. CoC, Cyberpunk, FATE Core, etc.
I've actually been in a Fate Core game that went off the rails from advancement. We'd have been better off keeping things more static.
 

This whole topic is hardly new, though interesting. It has more dimensions too. That is, to what degree is the entire milieu of the game shaped by gamist considerations, or in order to serve one specific narrative purpose, and how does that impact characterization and role play?

IMHO there is little really deep authenticity to characters in these games. They're fairly one-dimensional constructs. It is after all a game, not a highbrow activity...
 

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