Specific and Nonspecific Avatars

In games in which the player does not get to design or choose an avatar but must use one supplied by the game, the relationship between the player and the avatar varies depending on how completely you, the designer, specified the avatar's appearance and other qualities.

The earliest adventure games, which were text-based, were written as if the player himself inhabited the game world. However, because the game didn't know anything about the player, it couldn't depict him or say much about him. Such avatars were nonspecific—that is, the designer didn't specify anything about them. Myst is an early example of a graphical game with a nonspecific avatar.

The nonspecific avatar does not belong entirely to the past, however. Gordon Freeman, the hero of Half-Life, does not speak and is never even seen in the game (although he does appear on the box). The designers did this deliberately; Half-Life, a first-person shooter in a world with no mirrors, offers Gordon as an empty shell for the player to inhabit.

However, game designers soon began to find this model too limiting. They wanted to develop games in which the avatar had a personality of his own and was some­one who belonged in the game world rather than just being a visitor there. It's awkward to write a story around a character whose personality the designer knows nothing about. Besides, designers often want to show the avatar on the screen. As soon as you depict a person visually, he begins to exhibit some individuality.

Modern games with strong storylines use detailed characters who have histories and personalities of their own. Max Payne, the lead character in the series of the same name, comes equipped with a past and a number of personal relationships that affect his life. Nancy Drew from the many Nancy Drew games (and of course all the books that preceded them) is another good example. These are specific ava­tars, and the player's relationship with them is more complex than it is with a nonspecific avatar. The player is not the avatar—clearly the player is not Nancy Drew—yet the player controls the avatar, so in what sense is the avatar still Nancy Drew? With a specific avatar, the player's relationship to her is more like that of the reader's relationship to the hero of a novel. The reader is not the hero, but the reader does identify with her: The reader wants to know what will happen to the hero, hopes that things will turn out well for her, and so on. The difference is that in a game, the player can help and guide the hero rather than just read about her. But—at least in some games—the specific avatar is also free to reject the player's guidance. If the player asks April Ryan (from The Longest Journey) to do something dangerous, she refuses with comments such as, "That doesn't seem like a good idea." Specific avatars sometimes have minds of their own.

Between the two extremes of nonspecific and specific avatars lies a middle ground in which the avatar is only partially characterized—specified to a certain degree but not fully detailed. For many games, especially those without strong stories, it's better to create the avatar as a sort of cartoonish figure (even if he's depicted realistically). Many

avatars in action games fit this description. Mario isn't a real plumber, he's a cartoon plumber in the same way that Bugs Bunny is a cartoon rabbit rather than a real one. Lara Croft, too, has more looks than personality; she's a stand-in for the player, not a three-dimensional human being. Generally speaking, the more perfectly photorealistic a character is, the more the players will tend to regard him or her as someone other than themselves, an independent human being, and expect them to behave as such. This isn't always a good thing, as it causes players to exercise more critical judgment than we might want them to. Nobody objects to a cartoon plumber jumping on car­toon turtles, but they probably would if both Mario and the turtles were photorealistic.

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