Games are often compared to film in any number of ways. Be it in search of our Citizen Kane, which studio is the equivalent of Pixar, how to deliver a narrative, or the fidelity of the graphics, many use film as where we want to aspire our productions to be. The roles and best practices of directors, writers and producers has been translated countless times over, often rather successfully. But the role of actor is a bit trickier. It can be either the developer or the player that is cast as actor depending on the moment to moment gameplay or genre of game. Which is rightfully entitled to the role is a topic of many discussions, but my question is “Are either actually GOOD actors?” Because no matter how good the director, story or effects, if the actor lacks authenticity, the entire production falls flat.
How does someone become a good actor? Certainly, some are born with a gift for it more than others. But much of it comes from being able to let go of inhibitions and embrace the role. It isn’t about controlled lying and the reciting of preconceived lines but about delivering a performance with authenticity. SO, how do we as developers become better actors which will in turn allow the player to let go and become that actor they want to be?
Before we can apply acting principles to games, let’s first define what makes for great acting. A rather timely list crossed my twitter feed this week giving 10 top tips by acting coach Mark Westbrook. These tips are fantastic because they focus on getting past our self-conscious nature and finding authenticity in the roles we take on. Essentially they find the truth in imagination, which is what immersion is all about. Let’s focus on a few of these tips and how they relate to both the developer and the player.
“The great enemy of authentic behaviour is self consciousness. To evaporate self-conscious, you need to give the consciousness something else to focus on. Something achievable to really do in the scene. A TASK. A living, breathing, constantly changing entity. If you attempt to achieve your TASK, there’s a good chance that it will change.”
This is great, because in giving yourself a task, you are giving yourself a goal. When that happens, you stop being aware of the moment and are instantly thinking of both the before and after of everything you are doing in an effort to reach your objective. And that is when an actor comes alive, because they are more than just what they are saying. They are a thought process. In also giving a goal you allow the actor (read: player) to use the lines (tools) they are given to reach the goal in a more natural way.
But as if that task was another actor, make the goals of your game ever changing and evolving. Let the objectives seem almost as aware of the player as the player is of them. Again, that keeps the player thinking and adapting, bringing their own honest reactions to the games evolving challenges.
This is something that player driven experiences can use when trying to still deliver some sort of over arching narrative to great effect. Games certainly make it easier for someone to be less self conscious of their actions than in real life, but any self conscious behavior can ruin the authenticity of the experience and will quickly lead to the player’s actions as being out of character with the rest of their experience. Instead of just throwing the player into the world, coach the player to be a better actor. This can be through the games systems and mechanics, an NPC, or quest. Think of the game as a supporting actor for the player, as lead actor, to perform with. If the game can honestly react to the player’s TASK, there is a good chance the player will continue on the path towards their own Academy Award.
“The way that we achieve our TASK is through strategy. We call the small strategies that we employ TACTICS. TACTICS are verbs that can be done to someone else. You can pre-plan which to use when, but that’s not really authentic because you need to respond in the moment to what your TARGET is doing!”
This goes hand in hand with wanting a living, breathing, constantly changing entity for the player to work towards. When we give the player systems or mechanics that work together, we are giving them the ability to create tactics, which is one more step towards keeping the player from being too aware of their lines. But just as we want to keep them on their toes by not allowing the same tactic to work for them every time in game, we need to not try to always pre-plan our own tactics as developers. Overly scripted sequences, invisible barriers, locking out the player from certain actions because it could break something are the quickest way to make the player self conscious and aware of your game. And once that authenticity is broken, it can be incredibly hard to re-establish. Think of methods when your game responds to a player’s TASK not by blocking them, but dodging them. The player is just using the tools given to them, their script, and as supporting actor, it isn’t the game’s place to yell, “CUT!”
“Connect to what doing your TASK is like by finding a parallel in your imagination or memory. In your imagination you must still use a real person, but day dream to imagine what that TASK is like to you. What would you do to the person if you needed to get the TASK achieved? Do those things to the TARGET.”
This one falls on the shoulders of developers as this relates directly towards what the player sees on screen after a decision has been made. Sure, it could resonate with the player more if it reminds them of something similar in their own life, but this is not something we can count on or even really expect. So finding and maintaining the authenticity is up to us. This is where we get to do some method acting. Or in this case, method developing. Act out your scenes. Become the character you want the player to control. Try and wield a tool or weapon in real life to get a tactile feel of that object. Try and recreate the scenarios for yourself, in a room somewhere, and see how you would react. See what you would want to do when presented with a similar problem. Do this before you even take the time to design the full level or game. Because when YOU are in the thick of it, you will see what the character would want to do in game. That in turn will translate to what the player wants to do. And that is where you will get a beautiful harmony of character, player, and narrative.
If you are creating a war game, get the entire team together and stage airsoft or paintball scenarios, so that they can feel what it is like to be in the thick of it, whether they would be running full steam or crouching and walking slowly. Find out what it feels like to be ambushed and shot. Go to a shooting range to understand the weight and feel of a real weapon. If you have a character with a big backpack, wear a giant backpack to see how you react with it on. If you are creating a tense, horror game, go to a haunted house and see how you react and move. Observe the actions of those around you to see how they move through the rooms. All of these moments and experiences will add to your understanding of the situation, and while they might not be 1 to 1, you can at least sympathize with the characters in the world. Everything you create you should try to have some touchstone in real world experience. Because that is when you will bring your own personal touches, which will make it feel unique and honest.
“Learn the lines cold. That means so you don’t need to think of them. If you need to reach for the lines at any time, you’ll be distracted, self conscious and dead in the water. Learn them without intonation or tonal inflection though – in other words don’t fix your speech patterns – otherwise you’ll struggle to change moment to moment.”
Obviously this means give the player controls that aren’t going to be hard to grok and give them the appropriate amount of time to learn them. Overly complex controls that aren’t natural to the gameplay, but randomly required will force the player to look at their controller for a moment. At that moment, they have to yell out the gameplay equivalent of “LINE!” And nothing makes someone more self conscious than that.
But as developers, it means know your subject. Before you can make it move, you must understand what it looks like standing still. You have to know the form, the structure, the purpose. It means you must know your tools. You have to be comfortable with a pencil, before you can bring a drawn character to life. This is obviously the same with a rig, software package or editor. But on a deeper level, it also means, KNOW THE CHARACTER. Know their personality, their background. Know what they would say, and when they would say it. Get inside their heads, and get into character. This is how you convey not just their physical weight, but learn to understand and express their emotional weight.
“Actors speak the language of action. Don’t expect everyone else to speak your language though, but always translate whatever you’ve been asked to do back into action. Directors often talk in terms of the results they want and often you’re on your own as to how you deliver these results. When you do these tactics with the same intention as the character, you give the illusion the director wanted.”
Alright, this is equally the most fun and dreaded part of any acting experience. IMPROV! The first rule of improv is that you always say “YES and” to whatever the other actor says. Instead of saying “No” and stopping the experience dead in its tracks, you go along with what has been given to you and you build upon it.
For the player, this is the best part of the game. This is where they get to go all MacGyver with the tools and systems you have given them and if your game is living up to its supporting actor aspirations, the player gets to act it out with the authenticity of Marlon Brando. As with staying away from pre-planned tactics, force your game to adhere to the “Yes and” rule.
But beyond the back and forth with the player, improv can be a powerful tool for the entire development team. It encourages everyone to become less self conscious, increasingly capable of dealing with failure, and more eager to say “Yes and” during critiques and play tests.
With all the silly ways games are compared to film and the insane culture that surrounds actors, it is easy to forget how much we can learn from them. Acting is the craft of being able to authentically imagine yourself as someone else. As games, we provide that opportunity to anyone that picks up the controller. Let’s make sure that we are allowing the player to be the actor they didn’t even know they were capable of being by getting past our own self-conciousness.