Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Player Character Suffering ≠ Player Suffering

Or, a few more thought on the ‘pathetic aesthetic’.

The pathetic aesthetic is not about making players suffer. It is not about the machismo of endurance. Players are not player characters, obviously. A game that evokes the pathetic aesthetic will involve player characters enduring – if they are lucky – possibly catastrophic negative consequences. The players do not endure these consequences, they are playing the game whether their characters are ‘succeeding’ or ‘failing’. A player does not ‘lose’ when his or her character fails, it is simply more play.

Playing a gaming is not work. But some games can make play feel like work. And while play leaves behind nothing but the experience of play, work should leave behind something more tangible. If gaming feels like work, it would only be natural to feel cheated if your character suffers a catastrophic negative consequence that would undo hours of work, and would require hours of work to rectify, if it is even possible. Hours of play cannot be undone, those hours are their own reward.

Computer games can often feel like work. Consider Grand Theft Auto IV. A great computer game; terrific environments to explore, full of humour, and some pretty sharp social commentary too. When I started playing GTA:IV I drove cautiously, careful not to attract the attention of the police, and I tried to play smart to keep my character alive. But the consequence of being caught, or killed, was not that your character suffered any permanent negative effects (death, prison, disability etc.) but simply that you needed to play though parts of the same game again – whether the recover the money and equipment that you had lost, or to replay the same mission. Again and again. Player character failure is not meaningful to the/in the world of the player character; it demands that the player endure.

If a tabletop RPG treats failure in this way, as something that can simply be erased through more gaming, then failure is something that the players endure and gaming can start to become work. Failure, and the real risk of failure in the pathetic aesthetic is about the consequences of such failures having real, lasting effects on the player character. Their failures, and the consequences of their failure, should be meaningful – in the sense that they have a real effect on the character and his or her world – and while some failure will be dramatically meaningful, by the fact that the player characters are protagonists (not heroes), the fact that the game involves random elements and valorises player agency demands that many of these failures will be 'pathetic'.
It is that it is the very fact that failure in games that embrace the pathetic aesthetic always has the potential for catastrophic permanent consequences is part of what makes failure a fun part of play, not a speedbump to be overcome through work.      


  1. As teenagers we used to play our games thinking that XP is in fact a bonus a character gets, not something it is entitled to. In fact in Shadowrun I used to play two characters simultaneously and their street nicks were Zero and Karma. I refused to use (or even note down) any Karma to develop them further mechanically from the starting point. I wish that more roleplayers could adopt the kind of mentality, that playing RPGs is not about XPing upwards...

  2. Traveller is a game that manages to sustain long running campaigns without requiring any character advancement beyond the accumulation of wealth, power and influence within the game world itself.

    And I've always loved its character generation system/mini-game.