Editor’s note: Most games put you in control of a character, but how often do your motivations actually match those of your character? Thanks to Red Dead Redemption’s epilogue, Ben found one of these perfect moments in which he made this connection. Do you agree with his findings or have one of your own to share? -Greg
Warning: The following contains major Red Dead Redemption spoilers.
My perfect gaming moment to date came during an a period of nothingness, unlike many of the most enjoyable moments in games. It was a simple moment. A moment in which the character and I became, in many important ways, as one.
This moment wasn't brought about by an emotional cut-scene. It wasn't the result of the heart-pounding emergence of a zombie dog through a hallway window. It wasn't an epic sniper battle in a forest, nor was it a perfectly executed hop-skip-and-jump over a lovingly re-created Florence skyline.
It was, as I mentioned, during a period of nothingness. The game wasn’t doing anything of note. In fact, this moment, which was really a thought, came to me and (I firmly believe) my character, Jack, as he was ostensibly doing little more than regarding the sunset over his late parents' farm and adjusting his boots.
Before continuing, it's worth noting that of course, many, many games don't ask you (or give you the opportunity) to identify or empathize with the motivations of an individual. Take SimCity as an easy example. You are the mayor of this new town, aren’t you? No. What you are is an omnipotent manipulator of a finite number of controllable variables, operating in a dynamic environment. Your "character" loses no sleep over a UFO attack.
But for a number of games, a gamer's empathy with the their character is the axis on which the intellectual and emotional enjoyment of the game turns. Traditionally, this has been the domain of role-playing games, but it also extends to some first-person shooters and beyond.
And it was that kind of game I was playing. Red Dead Redemption was the game, and the nature of the moment was the convergence of my motivations with those of my character.
Now, here's a bold, broad, and probably not wholly true statement: Gamers' thoughts are unique in their application of the first-person singular.
The gamer has a split personality: They are simultaneously viewing the game as themselves, while also viewing the game world as their character. The gamer is consciously playing the game, making gamers' choices, while the character is pursuing his or her personal quest, albeit in a manner dictated by "external" forces — the code and the gamer.
How often can we say that in such games our motivations and our character's motivations are even remotely aligned? I argue: not very often at all.
For example, at the start of Fallout 3, the character leaves Vault 101 desperate to find his/her father and come to understand the nature of the world they grew up in. That's their motivation.
By contrast, my motivation as a gamer was to explore the environment, to level up, and to progress the plot. All of which I should find, to some degree, "fun." This can’t be said for my character.
I didn't take my character's plight personally. I wasn't emotionally involved beyond the experience of a decent film. I played in such a way as to advance us both toward our respective goals, but it was a marriage of convenience, nothing more.
It’s for this reason that developers fall back on either linear or directed gameplay if you, the player, are to understand what’s required to fulfill both your needs from the game, and the character’s needs in the game.
For example, all too often games rightly need to give you mission markers — colored blips on a map and the like — in order to show you, the player, where you should go next in order to progress the story. Red Dead Redemption is terribly guilty of this. As has been noted elsewhere, it's one of the sadder aspects of the experience that so much time must be spent looking at the radar rather than the beautiful scenery.
The perfect moment I've been talking about comes when you first assume control of Jack Marston. He is standing by his mother's grave. There is, it appears, nothing further do be done. It’s a moment of nothingness.
That is, until it occurs to you (both) to go to Blackwater and find Edgar Ross (pictured), the man responsible for John Marston's death.
And yes, despite the fact that on the face of it Jack was just standing around, and I was just sitting around, it felt to me that in the moment it occurred to me, it occurred to him.
For Jack, this desire for revenge is natural. His motivation was simple. And here’s the thing. Uniquely, that was my motivation too. I wasn't thinking about seeing the credits, or upping the completion percentage. I didn’t even know if Ross would be there; in fact, naively perhaps, I believed the game to be over. There was no obvious carrot to entice me to continue.
Furthermore, I didn't need a blinking question mark to show me Blackwater was the place to go. I knew where to start looking. There was absolutely nothing the game designers needed to add to prompt me to go hunting for Ross. It came to me as naturally as I knew it came to Jack. I wanted to see if that man was there to be found, and if he was, I wanted to shoot him.
It was, as I said, a moment in which the character and I became, in all the important ways, as one. And for me, it was perfect.
I don't need this replicated in all games; as I’ve noted, it’s beyond the scope of many. And I'm sure plenty of gamers didn't share my sense of oneness with Jack. It’s a personal thing, made more likely to occur by some clever writing and game construction. I'll be willing to bet though, that the immersion I've described has been experienced by other people playing other games, producing moments that have meant as much to them.