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

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.
And that's hard to do sometimes. The vast majority of my characters are playing pieces. A few make it to imaginary people who might make different decisions than I would. It's an interesting frission; I can only imagine it is what authors mean when they say they "lose control of a character".

I was one of four players in a game centered in the city of Sanctuary, the setting of the short story collection. Rules were RuneQuest. My friend's character was Connor, a Scottish-themed character with a war flail. Over time, he ended up finding a romance with a woman who had a 10 yr old. Once we had a really big score, my friend announced that Connor was retiring. "He has everything he ever wanted. He can only lose through adventuring now." It was a shock, and we all felt a real sense of loss. Connor was a great friend to our characters, and the new guy could never fill those shoes.

Good times.
 

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innerdude

Legend
If I've understood this right, you're looking at the potential tension between (i) the "game" aspect of play, which generates player motivations that are not grounded in the PC, and (ii) the character as character, who has their own inner life and dramatic situation which (if it's going to be brought to life at all) must be brought to life by the player.

Definitely part of that was in my thoughts. I just think this is a very fertile ground for exploration, and that it's something I think I've long intuited in my own RPG play without being able to articulate it as meaningfully as this author does.

I'm fascinated by the idea that there is no true aesthetic promise in anything that is being interacted with as a game. Like, can there really be nothing profoundly aesthetic arise from the actual play of the game; i.e., the inherent quality of artistic appreciation, inward thought of consciousness, awareness of a larger human aspiration being expressed?

Do any and all game mechanics --- when in use and the focus of mental engagement --- naturally buffer away the the ability to apply artistic or narrative sensibility?

Because the article strongly suggests this is the case. Which hints that functional narrative is only possible in a gaming context when a player fully gives over narrative control.

The very act of declaring, "I am the agent of control acting on behalf of this sentient fictional entity" immediately cuts off any claim to aesthetic property. You cannot create "art" or "narrative" at all while working in that state.
 

innerdude

Legend
And if that implication is true, it's a profound rejection of the principle of dissociative mechanics.

The key argument of dissociative mechanics is that mechanics which do not have a correlative fictional grounding --- that could not be rationally, causally explained by a character within the fiction --- creates tension with the player being able to remain more mentally within the shared fictional frame.

The article's proposition radically exceeds that notion. The article hints that the dissociation happens at the character psychology level, not at the "fidelity to the game world" level.

Any and all game mechanics put the player in the position of having to abrogate the character's inner self in service of some other agenda, regardless of whether "Come and Get It" is "dissociative" (or not).
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I would, at the risk of being roundly booed, suggest that lots of mechanics, including ones that might be described as dissociative, can quite happily exist inside the right mix without causing any kind of problem. Not everyone agrees, of course, for example some people simply cannot play in games with FitD flashback mechanic as it just bumps them out of the game. That's fine, but that's also not the same as saying it bumps everyone out of the game, which it doesn't.

I think that in terms of managing the character's inner self, that good games give you just the right choices, and bad games probably give you too many, or maybe the wrong ones. I do not, however, think that the nature of the mechanic is the prime mover in that situation.
 

Yora

Legend
Should we even aspire to achieve artistic expression through playing an RPG?

We are playing a game, after all. Engaging gameplay should be the goal. While there are stories in games, playing games is not writing.

From all I heard, there certainly are RPGs that aim to be storytelling and character development. And maybe they could be engaging activities to certain people. But I don't think they are being helped at all by refering to themselves as games. The impression that I am getting is that they don't really want to be games, but they still cling on to rules and mechanics that come from dungeon crawler games.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm fascinated by the idea that there is no true aesthetic promise in anything that is being interacted with as a game. Like, can there really be nothing profoundly aesthetic arise from the actual play of the game; i.e., the inherent quality of artistic appreciation, inward thought of consciousness, awareness of a larger human aspiration being expressed?

Do any and all game mechanics --- when in use and the focus of mental engagement --- naturally buffer away the the ability to apply artistic or narrative sensibility?

Because the article strongly suggests this is the case. Which hints that functional narrative is only possible in a gaming context when a player fully gives over narrative control.

The very act of declaring, "I am the agent of control acting on behalf of this sentient fictional entity" immediately cuts off any claim to aesthetic property. You cannot create "art" or "narrative" at all while working in that state.
You probably won't be surprised that I tend to answer "no" to the question that is your second quoted paragraph. I think it depends what the mechanics and other system elements are.

One aspiration of a game like AW or BW, as I understand them, is to integrate the roles of the GM and player participants in such a way as to ensure that, when each does their own thing as the system tells them to, "art" or "narrative" will arise although no particular participant is in charge of making sure that it happens.

Part of how that is done is to try and makes sure that the system doesn't generate incentives - especially player-side incentives - to do things that would disrupt the "art"/"narrative". Obviously that's a demanding design constraint.
 

Do any and all game mechanics --- when in use and the focus of mental engagement --- naturally buffer away the the ability to apply artistic or narrative sensibility?
While i appreciate the depth and thoughtfulness of the OP and thread, I'm yet to find a compelling case for this.

One might equally ask - doesn't the presence of props and lights and booms and cameras and make-up people having a cigarette and the need to remember lines and hit marks naturally buffer away any artistic or narrative sensibility in film-making?

It would seem that in both cases there are artistic processes, technical processes and editing processes happening in enormously complex parallels and sequences. Neither are a continuous stream of artistry or mechanics.
 
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Should we even aspire to achieve artistic expression through playing an RPG?
Yes, if that's what you're looking for. It's not going to happen every time, nor should it, really. You're not going to make high art repeatably like in theater. Being able to make choices as a part of a group prevents the fine tuning that a director lends.

I'm fascinated by the idea that there is no true aesthetic promise in anything that is being interacted with as a game. Like, can there really be nothing profoundly aesthetic arise from the actual play of the game; i.e., the inherent quality of artistic appreciation, inward thought of consciousness, awareness of a larger human aspiration being expressed?

Do any and all game mechanics --- when in use and the focus of mental engagement --- naturally buffer away the the ability to apply artistic or narrative sensibility?
Only until you get to know the character. The rules of the game define the physical aspects of the character. The experiences in the party as they adventure inform the personality.

I don't think you can get to that level unless it is something that you want, first of all, and you've been playing the character for a while. This isn't going to happen at a convention game or one-shot unless you have done a number of cold reads. You have to discover the character in play, first. As you play, especially once you become adroit with the system, it fades in the background. On the third adventure or so, once time has been invested in the characters, party, and milieu, then they generate a life of their own. This is when "I'm just doing what my character would do" stops being a shield for jerks and becomes something that doesn't need to be said. Everyone around the table, whether they are shocked, delighted, amused, upset in the moment, knows your character well enough that it makes sense after the fact.

When you take a role in theater your performance is based, ultimately, on three things: the author's words, the director's vision, and the actor's insight. When those blend together harmoniously you have an amazing production. But, that's not what we're doing. We need to develop insight into our characters, but the authorial and directorial responsibilities are shared. You're not writing a story or directing a play. You are in a rules-based process of discovery. As such, you have only partial control over the end.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Otherwise, you're just playing a game.
There's nothing wrong with "just" playing a game.

Not everyone wants deep character immersion or deep storytelling. Some people just want to move a playing piece around the board or map and throw some dice. The trick is if you are okay with "just" playing a game you can still get character immersion and storytelling. But you have to let it emerge naturally rather than force it.
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"?
The aesthetic experience doesn't "suffer" unless you have a rather narrow definition of story. Emergent story is a thing in RPGs and has been since the beginning. That style of play came before the Hickman revolution that gave us all this GM-imposed story.

Imposed story and being allowed to play the game as a game are inherently at odd, yes. Because RPGs are not storytelling games in the sense of a single person telling a story. Whatever story emerges from an RPG is a combination of 1) the GM's prep, 2) the players' decisions, 3) the game's rules, and 4) the roll of the dice. All of these elements fight against each other and pull in different directions. That is to say, whatever story an RPG naturally produces is emergent. The "story" (such as it is), emerges from those four things struggling against each other.

If the GM has a set plot in mind, they must decrease the relevance of the other three elements of the experience. To impose a story the GM must reduce the ability of the players to participate (they might make the "wrong" choice), must reduce the reliance on the rules of the game (they might produce unsatisfying results), and must reduce or ignore the dice (they produce random results). It stops being a game and turns into the GM's story time.
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.
It would take academic study of RPGs, which we essentially don't have. It would require people to stop treating RPGs like a "messy" form of storytelling that they have to "clean up" by negating 3/4 of the experience to force a story. It would require taking RPGs for what they actually are: a game with emergent storytelling.
 

Aldarc

Legend
It would take academic study of RPGs, which we essentially don't have. It would require people to stop treating RPGs like a "messy" form of storytelling that they have to "clean up" by negating 3/4 of the experience to force a story. It would require taking RPGs for what they actually are: a game with emergent storytelling.
"I wanted to be an author, but I couldn't write a book, so I forced my tabletop group to play through the world and story that I built for my never-to-be-completed novel."
 
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