The player is not the main character

Playful Narrative is a series of short weekly articles each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games.

The player is not the main character

One of the more important decisions to make in the early design of the game narrative1, is the perspective and role of the player2. Often though, designers leave themselves an uncertainty by not clearly defining this. This is painfully noticeable in uneasy dialogue and other work-arounds3 in the narrative of many games.

Many of you may think I’m wrong, you may think most games clearly define the role of the player: it’s the main character. This however, is not true. Unless the game is a live game where the player plays herself in a game world4 or a game without any characters at all, the player is not the main character. Let me clarify that: If I read a Harry Potter book, I’m not Harry Potter. I see the world (mostly) through his eyes, get a fair share of his thoughts and emotions, but this does not make me him. Why? Because often Harry Potter feels things or has plans I’m simply left guessing about until he actually enacts them. And most of all, Harry Potter does all sorts of things I would never do. This division seems clear to most people because we’re talking about a book; safe from writing my own version or kidnapping J.K. Rowling, I have no means of influencing Harry’s actions.

No Harry, what are you doing? The other girl. Harry... Oh whatever.

No Harry, what are you doing? The other girl. Harry… Oh whatever.

Now if this were a game, I would likely have a means of influencing many of his actions. This has boundaries however, and games will always have these boundaries. The player can’t do whatever she likes, but must abide by the rules of the game and by the limitations of its form5. This results in the game being required to fill in a lot of choices, actions and thoughts for the main character or cut them down in amount and significance because other options are simply not possible or undesired. As such, the player only influences the main character, she does not fully control him. Often, the main character does and feels things that take the player by surprise. Sometimes, this doesn’t really matter. In a game with no real choices and little to no dialogue, the role of the player might as well be left vague6.

But when this is not the case, not defining the role of the player in the narrative often leaves that narrative with weird and crippled dialogue and empty main characters7. Why is this such a problem? Well, it leads gamedesigners to leave the character influenced by the player as vague and nondescript as possible, because in doing so, the player will less often encounter a discrepancy between herself and the character and as such the lie of being the character is kept alive as much as possible. One cannot however write dialogue for an empty character that is not allowed to say much, if anything at all (read more on that here). And without an interesting and multidimensional main character, there is no moral conflict, no drama, no identification between player and character and as such, no story (read more on that here). So now that you know why you have to define the role of the player, read next week’s Playful Narrative to learn more about doing that.

This week’s point to remember

The player is not the main character. It is fundamental to understand this division and define the role of the player in relation to the main character and the rest of the narrative.


Next week in Playful Narrative: Define the role of the player

Whether you totally agree with me or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.


  1. Not just for games; books need to be written in a style requiring knowledge of the perspective of the reader, movies need to be shot and sometimes narrated from a certain angle. []
  2. Note that I often use the worth ‘role’ rather than ‘perspective’. The two have different meanings: perspective is mostly used to describe stories told through a certain viewpoint, where role can be used to imply that the reader/player is an acknowledged part of the storyworld, as is often the case in games. A role defines the perspective, but is more than just that. []
  3. Some examples of work-arounds would be having dialogue always revolve around things that have already taken place, or are of a trivial nature. Or giving the player freedom to form her own answer to a question but rather than actually doing something with the reply, responding in a way that is an acceptable response in case of the most likely answers. (Yes, just like they do in Dora the Explorer). []
  4. And yes, those games exist, but they’re rare. []
  5. For example, in a videogame, I can often not write any line I want to to reply to dialogue. In a live game, I could, but I wouldn’t be able to fight a dragon as they’re rather hard to come by. Every (plat)form has its boundaries. []
  6. These games tend to not define characters very strongly in the first place. []
  7. The RPG genre struggles with this most of all. Founded upon the idea that the player role-plays the main character(s), digital games weren’t actually able to live up to that promise. This false premise has lingered though and found its way into genres that have evolved from the RPG as well, like the MMORPG. []

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