When the ground-breaking text adventure game Zork tells us “You are standing in an open field…” who exactly is it talking about? When the quarreling spouses Tripp and Grace in the virtuoso interactive drama Façade address me as “Janet” whom exactly are they talking to? When the designer of Myst claims that people should feel as if they are actually in the fantasy space (as I know from reading an excellent thesis in progress from Georgia Tech M.S. student Nic Watson), does Rand Miller really mean that I, Janet, should feel that I am there? This is the kind of question that comes up a lot in my interactive narrative course.
As designers it helps to remember that there are three different layers of identity we can potentially address with that simple word “you”. The first level is the actual person, Janet (or Tom or George or Hillary) who lives in actual space as an embodied human being and has to operate the joystick and accept the level of violence or the time commitment of a game. When we invent a new gesture-based game controller or a new mobile genre like augmented reality, we have to think specifically about how to fit the many possibilities of human action to the specific affordances of the new formats.
Secondly, there is the constructed identity of the interactor or player, the part of the human being that is figuring out how the new environment works and choosing one action over another, creating expectations that should lead to the experience of agency.
Thirdly, there is the character, the fictional being embodied in the imaginary space with some of the attributes of imaginary people such as a name, a visual representation, a history, a set of goals. Games work most smoothly when the character is identical with a well-understood story role — a treasure-seeker, warrior, explorer, or detective taken from the familiar formulas of genre fiction.
But as computation gets more expressive, designers are creating characters with fictional roles that lie outside of standard game mechanics, like the guest in Façade who has to cope with a quarreling couple through a free text dialog system. Telling the player that they have freedom to do whatever they like because “you” are actually there is not helpful enough: players need a clear interaction pattern (how can I be sure they heard what I said?) and a clear character (“I” am supposed to be an old friend but I don’t know anything about them). The drama fails when I find myself questioning gameplay and character in these ways. On the other hand Façade succeeds when I draw on the game-player’s familiar action of exploring alternative paths, or when I am scripted by the social role of “friend” to offer Tripp and Grace advice or encourage them to express their feelings.
Thinking about these three levels of engagement and explicitly asking how we are scripting the interactor at each level is a much better design strategy than leaving humans to guess who they are and what they are supposed to do because the environment is designed for an undefined “you.”