Monday, January 09, 2006

Actorial and experiential distance

Over at Mo's blog, I wrote a bit why Universalis and Shades are both not very immersive (in the weaker sense of that word), but not very immersive in a different way. Here is an attempt to explicate that difference.

In some roleplaying games, you are very close to your character - it is easy to see the world through her eyes and see her actions as your actions. In the terminology I developed/stole earlier, these will generally be games where it is fictional that you are your character.

In other roleplaying games, such as Universalis and Polaris, you are much more distant from your character. In the first, you don't even have a character - you and the other players are like gods who move the pieces in the world, conjuring them into existence and battling each other about their fates. In the second, you are cast into the role of a storyteller telling tales about a time long ago that, paradoxically, nobody remembers anymore.

I suggest that this distance from the character can be dissected into at least two different components: actorial distance and experiental distance.

You are actorially close to a characters if your actions and decisions as a player generally mirror the actions and decisions of the character. You are actorially distant from a character if your actions and decisions as a player generally do not mirror the actions and decisions of the character.

GM: "You brother stand before you, mocking you with that silent smile upon his lips. What do you do?"

Player: "Damn! I get out my sword an run it through his heart. I will not be mocked!"

This is an example where the player's decision and the character's decision closely mirror each other.

Player: "And Lord Giauzar grabs his starlight sword and beheads t he demon with one fell swoop."

Player: "But only if his black blood streams forth copiously, poisoning the surrounding land for decades."

Player: "It shall not come to pass."

This is an example (using the Polaris rules) where the decisions of the player (shall I trade these things for each other?) do not closely mirror those of the characters.

You are experientially close to a character if the way the fictional world is described by or to you puts heavy emphasis on what the character (fictionally) experiences. You are experientially distant to a character if the way the fictional world is described by or to your puts heavy emphasis on things that the character does not (fictionally) experience.

The Game Master says: "You are standing before a closed wooden door. Behind it, you hear muffled sounds, as if some people are moving heavy furniture - or fighting." Here, the emphasis in the description is on what the character experiences.

The Game Master says: "Ron and Vincent are fighting down in the basement, but there is a locked door between you and them." Here, the emphasis is not on what the character experiences.

So, with this terminology in hand, we can say that in most traditional roleplaying games you are both actorially and experientially close to your own character. In Universalis and Polaris, on the other hand, you are generally both actorially and experientially distant from the characters / your character. But the two don't have to go together.

In Shades, you are actorially very distant from your character - mostly, you are thinking about the narrative on a very high level, trying to tie things together and introduce or resolve contradictions. The decisions you make and the decisions your character makes often do not mirror each other at all. But you are experientially very close to all the player characters, as the majority of the story is narrated as their memories and inner monologues, in first person even. This makes it feel very different from the two games I mentioned previously - you are there, and yet you aren't. Quite ghostly, actually, which is all to the good given the idea of the game.

So, are there games where your relationship with your character is actorially close but experientially distant?


  1. This makes me think of Play By Email, and asynchronous, text-based play. That always feels more experientially distant to me, particularly in games where one can see posts that one's character is not present in. I need to think about this further and write something up.

  2. I'd also think that Sorcerer, played close to the character and with lots of Crossing, could be authorially close but experientially distant. You see things in scenes you aren't in, then react to them in you scene as your character....

    Could very well work.