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


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innerdude

Legend
So I just read the article again, a couple more things standing out to me ---

. . . no predetermined relation exists between gameplay, as a real-time system of potential inputs and outputs, and traditional film elements like character, narration, or image. In theory, if one happened to strike the right buttons at the right time, one could play through a video game in its entirety without a single thought to what was transpiring onscreen, like a monkey typing out Shakespeare.

I'm not sure why this particular phrase stuck out to me, other than I can see a parallel to ultra-hardcore pawn stance, dungeon delve, map-and-key play --- Take, for example, your average D&D B/X party of four level-3 adventurers entering "Keep On the Borderlands."

Take away even the barest hint of narrative premise from the module, and once the team gets to the dungeon proper, there's certainly the possibility of little more than "button mashing" --- "We go to the nearest room on the left that has sounds coming from it." "Roll for initiative."

A short series of d20 + damage rolls later, the encounter ends.

"Okay, we go to the next nearest room that has sounds and footprints emanating from it." "Roll for initiative." A short series of d20 + damage rolls later, the encounter ends.

But I think we --- meaning all of us in the hobby --- long ago realized that we were sort of missing out on the best parts of the hobby if the goal was to enter a permanently fixated pawn stance.

But that first sentence, "no predetermined relationship exists between gameplay and aesthetic value." Okay, so, if there IS a predetermined relationship, what would it mean in context of an RPG?

Is it "GM backstory" that creates the predetermined relationship? Is it PC backstory? If there is an aesthetic value, it is predetermined.

So that goes into the next part ---

care, by definition, means choosing to have no choice, holding onto another person so tightly their survival becomes an inescapable necessity.

Now let's substitute and expound -- "Care, by definition---at least in a gaming context---means choosing to have no choice; choosing to enmesh your character's psychology and motivation into a predetermined aesthetic relationship (predominantly GM controlled) in such a way that you can play as if your character's natural inclinations are in lock step with the dramatic needs of the scenario in front of you. If you are playing the game, you are doing so in service to the predetermined aesthetic; your character's choices, build, progression, and rationales are subsumed in the service of heeding to the aesthetic need. To break from the aesthetic need is to accept a break from the illusion of a 'living world', and you are now re-entering 'just a game'. Breaking from the aesthetic need leaves you with freedom of choice, but you can no longer feel the surprise, wonder, awe, inspiration, disturbance, despair that comes from exposure to something that aesthetically moves you."

"Or perhaps conversely, care, by definition---at least in gaming context---means choosing to have no choice; it means giving up the game-driven power fantasy, the obsession over numeric superiority, the empirical 'need to win the game and be awesome doing it'. And in its place you instead give your character their full psychological due, their full emotional range, their fully formed sense of internal awareness, desires, drives, and instabilities. If you are playing a game at all, you are doing it in full truthfulness and integrity to the character you imagine, above and beyond your own inward desires to manipulate the gamestate --- for if we are to achieve aesthetic value in play, we must lose sight of the concept of a 'gamestate' entirely."


One last thing that caught my eye in my third reading ---

There is a big difference, in other words, between mere customization and true narrative control — if such a thing even exists.

This questioning of the idea if narrative control even exists in gaming generally is interesting. Does narrative control exist? What does that even mean? Does narrative control lead to "aesthetic experiences," or some other kind of experience?

It seems to me that the author's position is that it's the great paradox of gaming. The more control you give the player, the less likelihood that the player engages in any sort of combination of behaviors---inputs and outputs---that give rise to a meaningful narrative. If you want meaningful narrative to arise, it will be through the restriction of choice not through the expansion of choice.

The author spends several thousand words expounding this very notion to us; the aesthetic value of The Last of Us as a video game comes to us because as players we're given no choices other than to care about the outcome of the protagonists.

And what's intriguing to me is that it points to something I've long sensed, possibly even feared --- attainment of an "aesthetic experience" in gameplay requires willing sacrifices by the players of control. You either give up control to the GM narrative, or give up control to the internal psychology of your character.
 

innerdude

Legend
So my next question then becomes even more interesting ---

If you were a player in a GM-driven "trad" game, and that GM comes to you and says, "I really want to aim for some kind of aesthetic experience with this. Can you as players build your characters in such a way that the dramatic needs of the situations I'll be presenting fall in lockstep with the dramatic needs of the characters?"

Like, is that something you'd even consider doing as a player? What would that look like? Is that something you'd even attempt? If the GM was fully transparent about it up front, gave you all kinds of tips and pointers, but still said, "I'm probably going to railroad at points to make sure the aesthetic imperative remains intact," would you be good with that?

I ask this because I think most of us have been unwilling participants at some point in our gaming career in a GM's aspirations toward this goal anyway. Does it make a difference if the GM tells you up front that the railroad is going to happen, and why?
 

Voadam

Legend
So my next question then becomes even more interesting ---

If you were a player in a GM-driven "trad" game, and that GM comes to you and says, "I really want to aim for some kind of aesthetic experience with this. Can you as players build your characters in such a way that the dramatic needs of the situations I'll be presenting fall in lockstep with the dramatic needs of the characters?"

Like, is that something you'd even consider doing as a player? What would that look like? Is that something you'd even attempt? If the GM was fully transparent about it up front, gave you all kinds of tips and pointers, but still said, "I'm probably going to railroad at points to make sure the aesthetic imperative remains intact," would you be good with that?

I ask this because I think most of us have been unwilling participants at some point in our gaming career in a GM's aspirations toward this goal anyway. Does it make a difference if the GM tells you up front that the railroad is going to happen, and why?
It is something I have done with D&D.

I ran a gothic horror adventure path, the Pathfinder Carrion Crown AP in 5e and told the players this is going to be a gothic horror D&D game so I want predominantly human, part human, and classic D&D races (elf, dwarf) as opposed to inhuman dragonborn type races for the aesthetics of a more human normal person base for the gothic horror experience. I also want everyone to come up with a reason their character was connected to the former adventuring archaeologist Professor Lorrimor Jones or his daughter Lady Jessica and why you would be invited to be a pall bearer at his funeral.

Everybody was on board and came up with a lot of Indiana Jones cast and other appropriate type character concepts that blended well and gave great character hooks for me and them to riff off of in the campaign.
 

pemerton

Legend
But that first sentence, "no predetermined relationship exists between gameplay and aesthetic value." Okay, so, if there IS a predetermined relationship, what would it mean in context of an RPG?

Is it "GM backstory" that creates the predetermined relationship? Is it PC backstory? If there is an aesthetic value, it is predetermined.
So in these sentence you move from there is a predetermined relationship between G and the occurrence of some or other instance of A to G causes some predetermined instance of A. To me that seems a non-sequitur.

I think AW aspires to have a predetermined relationship between gameplay and aesthetic value. The basic moves and the GM moves are intended to secure that relationship. But there is no predetermination of what the particular aesthetic value will be.

Now let's substitute and expound -- "Care, by definition---at least in a gaming context---means choosing to have no choice; choosing to enmesh your character's psychology and motivation into a predetermined aesthetic relationship (predominantly GM controlled) in such a way that you can play as if your character's natural inclinations are in lock step with the dramatic needs of the scenario in front of you. If you are playing the game, you are doing so in service to the predetermined aesthetic; your character's choices, build, progression, and rationales are subsumed in the service of heeding to the aesthetic need.
If you were a player in a GM-driven "trad" game, and that GM comes to you and says, "I really want to aim for some kind of aesthetic experience with this. Can you as players build your characters in such a way that the dramatic needs of the situations I'll be presenting fall in lockstep with the dramatic needs of the characters?"

Like, is that something you'd even consider doing as a player? What would that look like? Is that something you'd even attempt? If the GM was fully transparent about it up front, gave you all kinds of tips and pointers, but still said, "I'm probably going to railroad at points to make sure the aesthetic imperative remains intact," would you be good with that?
In the first quoted paragraph, we shift from the player having no choice to the character's choices being subsumed into the GM's authorship. That also seems like a potential non-sequitur, or at least a recipe for stilted fiction where the character is obviously an author's expository vehicle.

In respect of the second quoted paragraph, I would run a mile. Unless it was a one-shot with pregens that was refereed by a very skilled thespian GM. (I've played a few of those. They can be entertaining.) What am I the player bringing to that game? What is the point for me, the player? What makes it more probable that this GM will (i) have worthwhile aesthetic goals that (ii) they will achieve via the unlikely mechanism of RPGing, than the alternative: namely, that the known processes of a game like Apocalypse World or Burning Wheel will do what they were designed to do - that is, produce an aesthetic experience via the way they coordinate the efforts of the various game participants?

"Or perhaps conversely, care, by definition---at least in gaming context---means choosing to have no choice; it means giving up the game-driven power fantasy, the obsession over numeric superiority, the empirical 'need to win the game and be awesome doing it'. And in its place you instead give your character their full psychological due, their full emotional range, their fully formed sense of internal awareness, desires, drives, and instabilities. If you are playing a game at all, you are doing it in full truthfulness and integrity to the character you imagine, above and beyond your own inward desires to manipulate the gamestate --- for if we are to achieve aesthetic value in play, we must lose sight of the concept of a 'gamestate' entirely."
I believe that this is false. Part of giving a character their full due is understanding when they try, and when they are too exhausted to do so. And this is something that a "gamestate" can contribute to - I'm thinking particularly of artha in Burning Wheel.


attainment of an "aesthetic experience" in gameplay requires willing sacrifices by the players of control. You either give up control to the GM narrative, or give up control to the internal psychology of your character.
I don't understand why the GM is not one of the players here.

The way to give up control is to let the game's mechanics do their job. I'm not talking here about B/X mechanics, which will produce an aesthetic experience only by coincidence. I'm talking about AW, BW, etc.
 

So my next question then becomes even more interesting ---

If you were a player in a GM-driven "trad" game, and that GM comes to you and says, "I really want to aim for some kind of aesthetic experience with this. Can you as players build your characters in such a way that the dramatic needs of the situations I'll be presenting fall in lockstep with the dramatic needs of the characters?"
I tried that specifically once with a pitch of "next game what do you think about everyone making lesser nobles? Everyone is the third or fourth son or daughter of a noble. You're born with your silver spoon, but you are near the limit of what you can draw from the estate. You are definitely going to make your own fortune. You know there will be no inheritance." The table was good with that, and next week we were ready to go except one player decided to make a hunter-gather ranger. That made for a bit of a bump.

It turned out okay in the end, and people enjoyed the campaign. Didn't come together quite the way we wanted. Alas.

Like, is that something you'd even consider doing as a player? What would that look like? Is that something you'd even attempt? If the GM was fully transparent about it up front, gave you all kinds of tips and pointers, but still said, "I'm probably going to railroad at points to make sure the aesthetic imperative remains intact," would you be good with that?
I have been good with that as a player with a limited duration campaign (4-9 sessions). If it was something open ended I wouldn't be. If it is more open ended, then in order for my character to be cared about I have to let them find their own voice. I don't think you can do that when you are a participant in the DM's story rather than working together to mutually discover what the story will ultimately be.
 

innerdude

Legend
So in these sentence you move from there is a predetermined relationship between G and the occurrence of some or other instance of A to G causes some predetermined instance of A. To me that seems a non-sequitur.

Yeah, the "predetermined" descriptor is confusing. I took it to mean, "There's no immediate/assumed/inherent correlation between the game 'bits' and anything narrative". Game bits like, I/O (mouse / keyboard / game controller inputs and buttons), mechanical number-crunching, how "heavy" something is within the game's physics engine, etc.

Which is true. In video games there is no relationship between game bits and narrative until the game bits are layered above/beneath/around some other factors outside the actual code which drives the bits.

The Last of Us, with its protagonists and their relationships stripped away, is just point-and-click-and-digital-shoot, vastly more sophisticated but still of a kind we've had since the 1970s with Asteroids and Space Invaders.


I think AW aspires to have a predetermined relationship between gameplay and aesthetic value. The basic moves and the GM moves are intended to secure that relationship. But there is no predetermination of what the particular aesthetic value will be.

True. The aesthetic value arises through the individual character choices/playbooks, the GM "fronts" chosen, and the interplay between making moves and success/failure/complication. It's not "predetermined," but more likely, shall we say, "expected to arise" from those components.

Which I think explains why you've always been highly cognizant of how much scene framing plays a part in all of this --- Why are characters framed into this scene, with these stakes? You've consistently beat that drum for years, and the article provides some thoughts on why, I think.
 

niklinna

učim hrvatski
So my next question then becomes even more interesting ---

If you were a player in a GM-driven "trad" game, and that GM comes to you and says, "I really want to aim for some kind of aesthetic experience with this. Can you as players build your characters in such a way that the dramatic needs of the situations I'll be presenting fall in lockstep with the dramatic needs of the characters?"
This has been pretty heavily implicit in most of my trad gaming experience, and very much understood at most of my con games, especially with pregenerated charcters, but also with half-pregenerated characters and with characters created during the session. And I do remember having explicit conversations with people at said con, after the very first game I played there went off the rails due to a player turtling "because it's what his character would do", about what I called "accepting the premise" and just rolling with what the game & GM offered. This was before I'd heard of "participationism" but that's basically what it was. In a one-shot convention game, you have to go with what's being offered or torpedo the whole point for being there. (This attitude of course accommodates player-driven games just as well! If you sign up for Apocalypse World, you'd better not be expecting any prescripted narrative or puzzle and better not play as if there is.)

Like, is that something you'd even consider doing as a player? What would that look like? Is that something you'd even attempt? If the GM was fully transparent about it up front, gave you all kinds of tips and pointers, but still said, "I'm probably going to railroad at points to make sure the aesthetic imperative remains intact," would you be good with that?
I have, rarely, and would be again—with one gigantic proviso. If the game promises to be about an aesthetic experience and winds up with 90% of the table time being round-by-round tactical combat, I am not going to be happy, and I am not going to remain in that campaign. I stuck out one yearslong campaign like that, I'm not gonna do it again (even though the end of that campaign was pretty cool).

I ask this because I think most of us have been unwilling participants at some point in our gaming career in a GM's aspirations toward this goal anyway. Does it make a difference if the GM tells you up front that the railroad is going to happen, and why?
Knowing ahead of time absolutely makes a difference. In my Torg Eternity campaign, the GM was running us an adventure in the Nile Empire, a reality of 1930's high pulp adventure, with loads of plot contrivance, tropes, and railroads (including a scene literally set on a train). It fits the genre so I was fine with knowing exactly what would happen once we got the MacGuffin: We were going to lose it—temporarily. That was half the fun! But in other areas, even with that same game system, it got old fast. Our GM didn't have time to craft his own adventures and set them up on Roll20, though, so we worked with the published adventures, which are almost all prescripted as heck (with a few shining exceptions—if you are interested in Torg Eternity, two thumbs up to the adventure "Mutie Town", set in Tharkold).

Edit: Fixed typos.
 
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niklinna

učim hrvatski
It is something I have done with D&D.

I ran a gothic horror adventure path, the Pathfinder Carrion Crown AP in 5e and told the players this is going to be a gothic horror D&D game so I want predominantly human, part human, and classic D&D races (elf, dwarf) as opposed to inhuman dragonborn type races for the aesthetics of a more human normal person base for the gothic horror experience. I also want everyone to come up with a reason their character was connected to the former adventuring archaeologist Professor Lorrimor Jones or his daughter Lady Jessica and why you would be invited to be a pall bearer at his funeral.

Everybody was on board and came up with a lot of Indiana Jones cast and other appropriate type character concepts that blended well and gave great character hooks for me and them to riff off of in the campaign.
Heh. My turn to GM Torg came up a few weeks back and I told the players I planned to run adventures in the gothic horror setting (with a heavy mod to the central mood mechanic of "corruption", which as written is boring as paint drying).

Not a one of them made up a gothic horror character—although the one playing the lizard person (edeinos) is disguised as a Victorian lady in mourning. I decided not to press the matter: It's my first time GMing since high school and just learning the ropes of running the game and roll20 is enough of a burden, and a big part of Torg's premise/appeal is mashing up wildly different realities/genres. At least the two Core Earth characters are built for paranormal investigation.

This does not mean I'm going to alter the nature of the scenarios I run or the threats they'll face. I told them up front that's what I would be doing, and they agreed to it. I'll try to accommodate the desires for roleplay and combat implicit in their character builds, but it's a lot of bread to spread the jam on.
 

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