So I’ve got a little folder of games to write about tucked away on my computer, and one of those games is The Swapper, by Facepalm Games (2013). I made it a priority, because I wanted to write a paper on it for a conference, but I’ve since realised that I won’t have the time. No worries though – I’m happy talking about it here instead. Apparently, all of the backgrounds were originally modelled in clay. They digitised them afterwards, but there you go – fact of the day.
Now because I’ve said that I want to talk about The Swapper, it makes sense to immediately about-face and talk about Half-Life instead. One of the big things people talk about is the role of the silent protagonist in Half-Life, and how that fits into a story. On the one hand, you’ve got the people who self-insert, seeing themselves in the world through the vehicle of the silent protagonist, and on the other you’ve got the people who like character, who look at the protagonist rather than through them. Rather than trying to argue one over the other, we can simply acknowledge that these are two entirely subjective responses to game design and move on.
So the silent protagonist, in theory, is designed to allow the player to project themselves into the game. You might like it, you might not, I don’t care. What’s interesting is how it ties into embodied cognition. The basic idea of embodied cognition is that your mind is influenced by and maybe even determined by your engagement in the physical world. For example, if you’re busy doing something, you’re less likely to notice stuff that’s unrelated. There’s an experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris where they asked people to watch a video of some actors chucking around a basketball – the subjects had to count the number of passes. People would start counting, and then a gorilla would dance through the actors. In that situation, heaps of people ending up not noticing the gorilla – because they were focused on something else. In this case, what you’re actually doing impacts how your visual consciousness functions.
So embodied cognition has some pretty hefty implications for play in video games. Video games have this dual-purpose thing going on, where on the one hand you’re playing a game, and on the other you’re (sometimes) playing out a story. There’s often a narrative wrapped around any given video game, so there’s a narrative motivation for what you’re playing. Whether it’s shooting Russians or trekking through forests, there’s a narrative goal that you’re trying to achieve. This dual nature of game/story actually feeds into embodied cognition in an interesting way: if what you’re doing affects how you think, then playing a game should affect how you think about the story it’s wrapped around. I’m making a jump here, because I don’t have the knowledge or the research to back that up, so we’ll call it my hypothesis. That said, Marie-Laure Ryan has an article about how interactivity (gameplay) is, by its very nature, completely opposed to immersion in a fictional world. If I’m right, then she’s totally wrong, because interactivity would serve as a massive enabler for immersion.
Let’s keep going with this assumption about embodied cognition. If interactivity makes you more immersed in the game-world, then presumably a silent protagonist supports that purpose, because you don’t have a character to interrupt the extension of the player’s identity. There’s just an empty vehicle the player can fill up with themselves (hey look, we’re back at Half-Life). There’s already theories about the extension of identity into inanimate objects – they pop up all over the place. If you’re driving in a car, and somebody hits your car, you might say “They hit me!” rather than “They hit my car!”. This suggests that, on some level, you as a driver have extended your sense of self outside of your physical body and into the car as a whole. It’s a theory that often pops up in literature, and Scott McCloud applies it to comics in Understanding Comics (either that one or Making Comics, can’t remember which).
The basic idea with extension of identity is that we make sense of our own lives by telling stories about who we are – either on a cultural or an individual level. Different cultures have creation myths, stories about who we are as human beings, where we came from, and what our purpose is in the grand scheme of the universe. The scientific perspective is also narrativised, made into a story that underpins the identity of plenty of people. For example, Terry Pratchett refers to humans as Pan narrans, storytelling monkeys. When we tell stories about faceless protagonists, people may see themselves reflected in the story. It’s the principle behind most superhero stories – an uninteresting, unremarkable person with a secret hidden power? It’s a classic escapist power fantasy that says to readers “You are the super hero”.
The same theory applies to games like Half-Life, except instead of just reading a story, you’re actually fighting off the aliens yourself. The competitive nature of the game adds an element of skill, increasing the required player effort and boosting the sense of success at overcoming obstacles. You are Gordon Freeman, you are the Batman. You’re embodied in the game through the mute player-character, a blank slate intended to allow you to fully immerse your identity into the story-world.
What’s that? What about The Swapper? Oh, yeah. We’ll get to that next week.