This one’s the second part of a three-parter on The Swapper – if you haven’t read the first part, you can read it here, or you can just keep reading, because I’m about to summarise the main points. The conclusions we came to last time are going to serve as the starting point for talking about The Swapper, a game which raises some interesting questions about those conclusions. So: the conclusions.
#1: People organise their lives through stories.
#2: When people engage with fictional stories, they may sometimes see aspects of their own story reflected therein.
#3: The silent protagonist in video games is designed as a sock for the player: they have no personality of their own, thereby allowing the player to extend their own identity through the sock into the game world.
Right, now let’s do a quick overview of The Swapper for the folk that haven’t played it before. The whole premise of the game is that there’s this technology that allows you to a) clone yourself and b) shift your consciousness from one clone into another. This raises all sorts of interesting questions about the self and identity – not to mention all those other questions about ethics and cloning and so on. Among this host of weighty philosophical questions, there’s a slightly different question as regards the nature of the video game – that is, the relationship between player and player-character.
Let’s give a couple of examples. Imagine that you’re at the top of a ledge, and the only way forwards is down. After a bit of hesitation, you jump off. It’s a very long way down, and you know your body won’t survive the fall – but that’s okay, because moments before you hit the bottom, you create a clone standing stationary on the ground, transmit your consciousness into her, and move along. The previous you, devoid now of any Self, hits the ground with a crack. The body folds into unnatural angles, the space-suit tears under the impact, and that vital oxygen escapes with a hiss… and you, the player, move along towards your next goal in an identical body. Another: you step on a button, and a door to the next area opens. You step off the button, and it closes again. You return to the button, create a clone of yourself past the door, teleport your consciousness into that new body, and leave. The old you is stuck on the other side of the door – but who cares? You’re making progress.
What The Swapper shows us, then, is how disposable the player-character actually is. Not only are you swapping bodies like so many socks, but the body as empty disposable husk is a narrative fact. In most video games, you die and you reload – your ‘death’ is wiped, in a narrative sense – it never happened. That’s not the case in The Swapper. You’ve got clones, and they die (regularly) – they’re disposable, right? Realistically, they’re just vehicles that you run around the world in. It’s not great when they die, because it’s inconvenient, but I suspect most of us don’t feel bad for their pain. The worst thing about character-death is that it sets back your progress. This attitude towards the player character is emphasised by the fact that they’re a space-suit – we never see a face or anything.
Given, then, that we don’t actually care all that much about the avatar (except maybe on a ludic level), are we really that immersed? Different question – more productive – exactly how are we immersed? It seems clear that the player doesn’t necessarily invest the character with Self, with the player’s identity. There’s a level where the player-character is a sock, and any violence to that sock is frustrating on a ludic level, rather than as violence against our Selves. If that’s true, then what is the nature of immersion in a video game? Blank slate characters are supposed to be all about immersing ourselves into the fictional environment, but we clearly have no particular attachment to the avatar beyond a ludic responsibility.
To some extent this is a difficult topic to discuss, because each different player is going to have a different relationship with their sock. Some might be more attached than others. However, I would still contend that nobody really feels personally hurt when a sock gets killed. I feel kinda sad sometimes, because they’re these pathetic little socks that I don’t really care about, but I only feel sad in that situation because they’re so neglected (by me). I don’t feel sad for them in the same way I feel sad for myself.
What I’m gesturing towards here is a relatively simple point: I’m not convinced that the blank slate character allows you to become truly fully immersed in a fictional game world. I think the ludic nature of the game takes priority, and I suspect that the fictional aspects are actually less powerful without any emotional hook. Some games with blank slates do have emotional hooks, of course, but they’re in other characters, and the player-character never explicitly engages with that emotional hook, because they have no personality.
Thus, although games with blank slate characters can obviously have emotional impact (see image above), it’s hard for the player/player-character to become a part of that emotional drama. In the example of the Half-Life series, you’re an observer, not a participant. The drama and character development is happening to other characters, and you get to watch and feel things – but not get involved. We have to be a bit subtle here, because this is a tricky point. Imagine you decide that you’ve developed a personal vendetta against the Combine, and you really deeply truly hate them. That anger doesn’t impact the characters of Eli or Alyx – it’s your own little personal fantasy. It exists in a separate fictional bubble insulated from the rest of the characters in the game. They will not take your feelings into account, they will not appreciate your thoughts, and they will not develop or resolve conflicts with you. The range of human interactions between you and the other characters is sharply limited, especially compared to the range of interactions they have with each other.
An interesting point of comparison might be Firewatch, which I’ve just recently finished playing. I’ll look at that next – we’ll call it a Part Three-ish.