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Player and Character as One: Why uncensored games are the most impactful storytelling medium

Classifying a piece of media as “uncensored” colors a more sexual and profane nature to it. It sets an audience up for a cheapened and gaudy experience instead of a subtle and sophisticated one, which is not always true if we rethink what “uncensoring” something means. Using video games as an example, I want to define “uncensoring” as a new approach for a player that could make his or her experience of a game’s story and world more intimate. 

More than any other medium, video games provide the most access to a character’s mind and experience because of player control. This aspect of the player’s experience is especially effective in role-playing games and interactive fiction where the player’s choices affect the game’s world and characters.

But even in this immersive medium, how much can a player connect with their character when there is a natural disconnect between them? How can games minimize the divide when players make high-stakes decisions? It is important for a player to see what is at stake–to feel integrated with the ensuing choices and consequences. Censorship can inhibit this by making players aware of their suspension of disbelief.

Let’s consider a classic ethical dilemma: “The Trolley Problem”.

The Trolley Problem

trolley-lever

A trolley is headed to kill five tied-up people on the track if no action is taken. However, if you pull a lever from a distance, the trolley will change course and only kill one tied-up person on the track. Would you pull the lever? If you would, you’re not alone, as most people would do it to save more people, sacrificing one for the many.

trolley-push

Different situation: five tied-up people on the track will die if nothing interferes with the trolley. But instead of a lever, you must fatally push a large person in front of the trolley to save them. What would you do now? Would you go through with pushing the large person? Most that chose to act in the previous scenario opt for inaction in this one. The reasoning behind sacrificing one for the many is called into question for them. Despite the outcome of both scenarios being the same, their answers change because they are directly connected to the situation.

So what if we applied this kind of drama to choices in video games? What if the game took that extra step to show a realistic take on what the character actually sees when they make a high-stakes choice or find themselves in a suggestive situation? While not appropriate for every game, this level of explicitness and realism can minimize the player/character disconnect and make for a richer experience.

Uncensoring Romance in Mass Effect 3

player romance traynor

Games I think would’ve benefited from this approach is BioWare’s Mass Effect series, as it was not afraid to present tough choices to the player controlling Commander Shepard. Yet, when Commander Shepard expresses his or her ultimate vulnerability to his or her chosen love interest… It’s in their underwear? Granted, this doesn’t happen with Liara’s scene, but why is Samantha Traynor in her underwear while she’s taking a shower? Why does Commander Shepard join her fully clothed? I could not suspend my disbelief enough for the scene, making me effectively disconnect from the event. This ultimately limits the emotional impact of later references to their relationship and makes certain aspects of the game’s conclusion ring hollow. An uncensored version of their expression of love would’ve enhanced both their relationship and revealed their overall emotional synchronization as a couple.

Heavy Rain and Compulsory Participation

player heavy rain

Let’s move on to the more traditional high-stakes choice and take a look at Quantic Dream’s Playstation 3 exclusive, Heavy Rain. The game has the player make some tough decisions for each of its four protagonists, but I felt Ethan had the most compelling of them.

Ethan must cut off one of his fingers to unlock a puzzle piece to find his missing son. There are a multitude of devices to choose from and a timer on the clock to heighten the stakes. Every action Ethan takes, including his emotional response to the situation, is by the player’s hand.

Not only does this scene offer immense variety and choice, it also has a ticking clock and constantly keeps the character’s emotions in play. If the player wants the clue, the scene not only forces the player to choose the implement of their character’s self-mutilation but also forces them to complete the dismemberment themselves. The camera is uncompromising and does not allow players to look away; they will be an active part of Ethan cutting his finger off if they want the information. Having this experience shown so explicitly colors future scenes with subtle information and justifies Ethan’s behavior. While these same feelings could be touched upon by “fading to black”, it still gives the player more information about the character they play, which makes their gameplay experience richer because they see what the character sees. They have a tangible shared memory between themselves and the character, lessening their natural disconnect.

Player Application of the Approach

Seeing that explicit storytelling can be done successfully, how far can games take this approach? And should they take this approach? While I think many games would not benefit from this, the ones that would add a lot of emotional gravity to their stories. A player actually seeing his or her choices and consequences in action raises the stakes, demanding extra care be placed in decision making–the kind of care the main character is supposed to be applying in the narrative.

They say to “walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you criticize them”, so what better way to understand a world or situation that isn’t your own than through interactivity using the power of exploration and role-playing? Video games have the greatest opportunity to place us in another world more than any other medium, allowing us to understand what we otherwise would have never understood. The plight of civilians during wartime in 11bit studios’s This War of Mine or the pain of having a terrorist in one’s family in Akabei Soft2’s G-Senjou no Maou would not have been as effectively told in any other medium besides video games.  

I encourage you to keep an open mind and try games that employ explicit storytelling, even if the scenes or subject matter make you uncomfortable. Not only could this lead to better understanding of your main character, it could also lead to a more understanding and empathetic world.

Written by Kara Ashbeck

Kara is your resident Indie game consumer who likes anime waifus and husbandos a little too much. She studies Screenwriting at Chapman University and aspires to write her own video games.

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