Hand Over the Body and No One Gets Hurt

I’ve been thinking a bit about avatars this afternoon and evening for a writing project I’m working (achingly slowly) through, and I got to thinking specifically about that moment of transition in games where you suddenly (or not so suddenly) find yourself in control. You could call it a moment of “hand-over”, when the avatar is transferred into your possession, when you start calling the (gun)shots.

In thinking about it, I realised how exciting that moment is, how subtly charged it feels to me. You watch the introductory stuff, perhaps even build your character (in RPGs, for example), you wait and watch, and then there comes the moment when you’re asked to participate. I always get a kick out of it, the moment I step into the world, any world.

In Mass Effect I remember the feeling of first taking control of my Shepard, walking off to have a conversation. I remember the moment when I, as John Marston in Red Dead Redemption, stepped off the train and into life. Or when the blocky and pixelated Sonny Bonds in Police Quest began to respond to my commands.

These moments are special – they mark a boundary of play, a first encounter that is very important into the lifetime of a particular game. Those early moments of getting to know your avatar and of situating yourself in a new world are very precious. In some ways it can feel to me that it’s all downhill from there – that as the world of the game and its underlying mechanics become more clear, there’s less and less intrigue available.

But at the cusp between watching what is effectively a movie, and being told by the game, “now you drive” – at that moment it seems as though anything could happen.

16 October 2010
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