Define the role of the player

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

Define the role of the player

Last Playful Narrative, I talked about how the main character and the player are rarely ever the same. This week I will guide you along the most frequently used roles for players in a game1. This will not be an exclusive collection, but rather a basis to work from when designing. It could be you need to combine two or more of these perspectives to get the one you are looking for, or design something entirely different.

  • The player is like a ghost possessing the main character: This allows the player into the characters body but not his head. Often used in adventures and other linear types of videogames, it gives the player a certain amount of control over the actions of the character but keeps her guessing about what goes on in its mind. In these narratives the events of the present often have roots in past events that need to be unfolded at certain points in the story2. Games with this perspective are often about uncovering these past events to assemble the plot. They use a lot of flashbacks and can also feature dialogue between the main character and the player, even though the player is rarely ever defined or directly mentioned. Lastly, the player occasionally has a different view than the character would, sometimes for the game in its entirety and sometimes only for specific scenes.

Ashley nails it: there is no such thing as memories when it comes to game characters3.

  • The player is some form of subconscious of the main character: Different from the ghost role in the physical aspect, this perspective usually gives the player no direct control over the actual actions of the main character. All the player can do is manipulate its thoughts and choices and in that way influence the outcome of actions and events. It is often the opposite of the ghost perspective; where that perspective gives the player mostly physical control to manipulate the immaterial parts of a story, here, the player controls the immaterial aspects (thought, memory, decisions) to manipulate the physical part of the story (actions, events). Because of its tricky and intense storytelling nature, this perspective is used less often.
  • The player is a background character: This perspective is used quite often, but mostly without designers actually realizing it4 The player generally only knows what characters tell him, either in witnessed dialogues between characters or between the player and one character. She can however get additional information through personal actions or background story handed to her via a narrator.
  • The player is a manager: Used a lot in RPGs and other games where the player manages multiple characters. The player can be a background character herself, but could also be a godlike being that manages things without the characters acknowledging it. She could even be seen as a narrator in this role, manipulating the story and adding to it herself when she sees fit. The player typically has a top down perspective and can access most conversations between characters and even inner dialogue in some cases.
  • The player roleplays herself: This is mostly applicable to Alternate Reality Games and other types of live games, but also true for many board and card games. The player plays the game without enacting a character, rather, she is herself in the reality of the game world. There is a fine distinction between roleplaying yourself and being yourself; the game-version of a person can perform actions and have motives that are legitimate and accepted within the game, but would not be perceived in such a way outside of the game. Actions performed within a game often bear a different meaning within that game than they normally would.5. As mentioned last week this perspective comes closest to the idea of the player being the main character.
  • The player roleplays a character: This perspective is mostly used in roleplaying games6. The player will be allowed to create a character within a certain framework or granted the freedom to complement a ready made character. If the player has motives that differ from the character’s she is generally expected to act upon those of the character rather than her own. Giving the player this role however also requires the game to facilitate roleplay as the main form of gameplay: if the enacting of the character does not matter and is not rewarded the player will carry out her own motives rather than those of the character. For this to work, the game will have to offer a great deal of freedom. The player greatly influences the character and will often project traits of herself onto the character both knowingly and not7.

So now that you have a list of some of the most used player roles, actively define them next time you create a game, at least for yourself as the designer. It will help you craft sensible dialogue and be in control of your aesthetic distance. But most of all, acknowledging and understanding how perspective and player placement works in games is one of the first steps on a path of telling better stories through games. Understanding perspective is one of the basics of good writing and games have evaded getting a grasp on this for far too long.

This week’s point to remember

There are many different perspectives in games. Understanding them gives you the skills to frame your story and control your aesthetic distance.


Next week in Playful Narrative: Weave your story

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. Many games out there have ‘broken’ perspectives in the sense that they try to let the player be the main character. When practising perspective in games, it is good practice to take a game you’ve played and think out which perspective the player really has in this (and whether the designers acknowledged that). []
  2. Often, games give the main character some sort of amnesia so they can wrongly pretend the player is in fact the main character, this in fact has been done so much that it has become kind of a cliché in game writing. []
  3. In the game Another Code, you supposedly are main character Ashley. Yet if you would be, Ashley would be constantly talking to herself and ask herself to perform simple tasks and move conversations forward. Many games work themselves into these bizarre situations by pretending the player is the main character when it is clear she is not. []
  4. Resulting in the player being a background character, but that character never being mentioned or taken into account by the designers. []
  5. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson attributes this phenomenon to a difference in ‘keying’:“The statement ‘This is play’ looks something like this: These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote.” []
  6. It is not applicable to roleplaying videogames because the term has come to stand for something else in that genre and these games aren’t about traditional roleplaying. []
  7. Even experienced roleplayers that know they do so often face great difficulty playing a character not at least partly influenced by their own character traits as this requires some very solid acting and writing skills. []

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