A Chain of Fake People

Any creative work is a sort of conversation between two people: the author and the reader. Except it’s not.

Books, movies, music, video games, and so on are created by one or more people, and then are consumed by one or more people. The work in question (let’s call it a game) serves as a medium by which the player communicates with the authors or developers. One can imagine an experience analogous to digital gaming where two people sit in a room, one telling the other what’s happening and the other responding with their actions. This actually wouldn’t be too different than tabletop roleplaying.

But playing games doesn’t really work like that; there’s this big thing between the authors and the players called a game. The authors and the player can be in different states; they might not speak the same language; the original author might be literally dead in real life. But the work, the game, spans this void of time and distance to allow a sort of mediated communication. And in the middle there are a bunch of imaginary people existing in a series of nested universes that make the exchange possible. Let’s meet them, shall we?

Note that a lot of this post is basic narrative theory, filtered through a writer who has had only passing education in the topic.

The True Authors and True Players

A digital game is created by a group of people and consumed by another group of people. The creators are often called “developers,” but let’s call them authors for now. The consumers are often called players, but “readers” (or maybe “audience”) is the term that English majors would be more familiar with. The authors include anyone who helped design, program, draw, model, write, or otherwise contribute to the actual product that we call a game. This could be a single person (Auntie Pixelante) or a group of hundreds (Ubisoft Montreal). The group of players contains every person who has ever touched the controller for a game, but only a small subset of those will be interacting in any one instance. Even with a MMOG, most of the players have no direct interaction with most of the other players.

The Implied Author and Player

Typically, the authors and the players will never meet each other. Instead, each group has an imaginary person in their head that represents or models their counterpart. Players imagine a person called the implied author. The implied author is the person who apparently created the game, based only on the clues provided in the game itself. Players don’t know that half the dev team quit after the first year, or that the lead designer is a Knicks fan with five cats. They see a single, amalgam entity that is the creator of the game, a sort of platonic ideal of Blizzard or Derek Yu or Valve. The implied author might be similar to the “true author,” and it might not… and that doesn’t matter in the consumption of the game, because “the author is dead.” In other words, the author can only reliably communicate about the game through the game itself.

There’s also an implied player (or reader). This is the imagined ideal player for a game, the one that the author is targeting with the game. It could be “an 18-24 year old male who enjoys violence” or “a 35-50 year old woman who’s busy but has time to play in small chunks.” Just as the implied author can be gleaned from the game, the implied player can as well. The way a game communicates with its true player will reveal what the implied player of the game is supposed to be.

The Immediate Player

But there’s an extra person here that’s not present in books or films. Linear narrative always presents the same sequence of words or images to the reader in any reading. The reader might interpret it differently, but the work doesn’t change. Games, however, play differently on different play-throughs, and allow choices to be made that block off parts of the game. For this reason, the player finds herself inhabiting a series of fake people as she plays multiple times or reloads a saved game. There’s the player that didn’t pick up the new weapon and died, the player that decided to sneak through the enemy camp, the player that decided to date Miku instead of Sakura. Each of these imagined people is what I’ll call an immediate player. An immediate player might persist through an entire run of a game, from opening to closing credits, or might just be a single subsession from game load to game save or death. It doesn’t matter where you draw the line, only that you recognize that the player or implied player is the sum of all these immediate players.

Narration

All of these people: true, implied, and immediate; author or player; exist outside of the work proper. That is, they influence or observe the work, and don’t exist in the world of the game. If we enter the universe of the game, we see a very important pair of people: the narrator and the narratee. The narrator is the person who is communicating the events of the game. It is especially frequent in digital games for this to be a limited third-person narrator without any assigned identity: a “camera” that just observes and applies no particular spin. Many games, however, have a first-person narrator that is an actual character. In first-person perspective games, this is the player character; in other games, it might be a secondary character (e.g. Lakitu in Mario 64). Many games have unreliable narrators, especially in survival horror games where the player character is being affected by mental influences.

The narratee, on the other hand, is the person to whom the game is portrayed. In almost all video games, the narratee is an abstract entity with no personality or influence. In some games, however, there is a clearly a character to whom the game is narrated; think Farah in Sands of Time. Together, the narrator and the narratee represent the interface between the game world and the real world. The author expresses herself through the narrator, and the player observes only what the narratee does.

Agents

If we were discussing linear narrative, we’d be done. However, because games are interactive, there is one more pair of people that bear discussing: the player character and the simulator. The player character is the means by which the player affects the progress of a game. This may be a specific individual (Gordon Freeman), a more vague person (the unseen commander of an army), or an entirely abstract figure (whatever moves the blocks in Tetris). Regardless, the player character translates the player’s actions of buttons and mice into actual effects on the game world.

The simulator, on the other hand, is the entity which enforces the rules of the game. In most cases, this is not an actual character, but a property of the game world; one could call it the “god” of the game, never appearing but guiding everything to occur smoothly. The simulator can be personified, though; the authors of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance made Judges an in-game representation of the rules, while the players of Left 4 Dead often refer to the Drama Manager as a malevolent being.

Summary

We can see that what seems a simple conversation between authors and players is actually a complex chain of people and entities that may or may not exist in a series of nested realities. The entirety of the chain looks like the below diagram, with arrows representing the direction of communication between entities:

True Authors ⇒ Implied Author ⇒ Narrator and Simulator ⇔ Narratee and Player Character ⇔ Immediate Player ⇔ Implied Player ⇔ True Players

Note that players can affect an ongoing game, but authors (99% of the time) cannot. This is because players act in a synchronous manner — they interact with the simulation as it is running — while authors act asynchronously — they create a game, distribute it via disc or download, and can only change it by releasing updates.

Understanding games this way allows us to make useful observations about the way they work. Just as a start, we can see how a large difference between the implied player and a certain actual player could make a person not enjoy or engage with an otherwise well-crafted game. Additionally, we can see how a simulator which is actively opposing a player character (and seems adversarial) can be the agent of an author who is trying to provide the implied player with an entertaining experience. Many arguments about games that seem intractable are really misunderstandings about whom we mean by “player” and “game.” If one person is complaining about the way the simulator treats the immediate player, and another person is advocating the way the implied author treats the actual player, then they are bound to have trouble reconciling their viewpoints until they recognize their different viewpoints.

What do you think of this discussion? Did I leave out any important entities? Do you, the implied reader of this article, disagree with me in some way? Leave a comment below and we can communicate about it.

bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark bookmark

3 thoughts on “A Chain of Fake People

  1. So with tetris, say, where does the agency of the player lie? I’ve thought about this a lot, and have never had my thoughts settle in a satisfactory manner: they just hang suspended.

    It’s not really right, I think, to say that people are constantly interacting *through* this notion of the ‘implied player’ and ‘immediate player’. They very much have direct interaction with the player character. These other concepts might still pull weight, but insofar as a person is still pressing buttons, they may think of their actions in terms of those of an ‘ideal player’, they might not conceptualize it as so. I would rather say that, in terms of player experience, it’s the divergence between the actions of the player and those of an imagined ‘ideal’ player that are as imminent to the experience of playing (“I don’t feel I’m doing things right”, say, or “Ah I’m really getting in to this”).

    To some extent, insofar as immersion is for a lot of games the ideal, your relations present only obstacles, but do not seem to deal with what might might call a state of absorbed engagement.

    The one-way arrows deserve qualification, in that most developers test their creations quite extensively on players.

    It’s also not *entirely* clear why you lump narrative + simulation in with one-another (other than their more obvious non-linear interaction).

    I guess in terms of virtual agencies present during play, the list might be endless when one starts breaking these things down, and certainly game-dependent.

    1. You’re right that most players aren’t thinking of these layers when playing; at any one moment, the immediate player and the true player are probably one and the same. But when looking back on the game, even before it is finished, there’s a disconnect there. The player’s “past self” becomes separate from the player’s current self. The most obvious example I can think of is when someone plays a “good” run and an “evil” run of an RPG. The immediate players of those runs are very different, even though they’re embodied in the same player.

      I would say that immersion requires that the implied player and the actual player have little in conflict. Any obvious disconnect will break the absorbed engagement: “What kind of person would (find this fun/think of that solution/put up with that constraint)?”

      Testing does complicate that diagram, as do updates and expansions. But as a general rule, authors can only affect the game in discrete, asynchronous chunks, and not in response to the actions of any one individual player.

      I don’t think that narrative and simulation can be properly separated in a successful game. A well-made game has its narrative and simulation work hand-in-hand, so that the rules support the story and vice-versa. That’s why I lump the Narrator and Simulator together on that chart; they act on the same level, but perform different tasks. You can’t really say that either the narrator or the simulator is “closer to the author” than the other. The narrator is the output of the game, communicating events and images, and the simulator is the processor, responding to the player’s actions and updating the internal world state accordingly.

  2. I think your diagram is really solid. Most folk clearly make the distinction of an implied author, but rarely an implied player, and I never really thought about that. Good work.

Comments are closed.