We investigated the role of the player within works such as Skyrim, The Last of Us Part II, Genshin Impact and many more according to various film studios.
We open our eyes to see a wobbly wooden surface. When we raise our heads we realize that we are sitting in a car. “Hey you, you’ve finally woken up,” Rolof tells us. We don’t know what we’re doing there, why do we know that Rolof is called that, or who we are. The legendary Dovahkiin, perhaps? Or a thieving Khajiit who has fallen into the clutches of the law? This matters much less to us when a dragon appears that destroys everything in its path and makes us put our feet in dusty control in hand until we get to the character design menu.
(Notice: There are minor spoilers for The Last of Us Part II and Danganronpa V3 in this article)
In The Elder Scrolls V we have total freedom to choose from which perspective we want to enter the lands of Skyrim. We have the answer to all the above questions, and most of them will not have more weight than what we want to give when it comes to role-playing, because most likely we will use the camera in the first person practically all the time . We are any inhabitant of the region, we can even be an adaptation to this world of our own person, if we act according to our ideology and we configure ourselves as a human at the time of starting the game.
This is the case with The Elder Scrolls and many other role-playing games that invite us to an open world where we can act in the way that seems appropriate, thus giving rise to role-playing and endless possibilities. But what about other genres? Or even within RPGs, who are we in The Witcher 3? A tormented Gerald of Rivia, whose past we do not know or how he got to the situation he is in? To try to answer some of these questions (or at least reflect on them, since there is no single point of view from which to analyze the matter) we are going to base ourselves on psychoanalytic studies that have analyzed the role of the viewer in the cinema, and transfer it to the field of video games.
The mirror phase: the screen as a reflection of the player
Freud and Lacan developed the mirror phase theory on which other scholars later relied on to interpret moviegoers. Broadly speaking, the theory says that a hypothetical six-month-old baby becomes aware of his own corporeity by looking at himself in the mirror in his mother’s arms: if his mother is reflected on that surface, therefore, the thing he is holding in his arms is the same.
Many authors agree that the cinema screen acts as this mirror, but a dilemma arises when it does not find its own reflection in it, but rather a story and a series of characters other than itself. In the field of video games a similar mechanism occurs: we take control, we make that nice little plumber squash that mushroom with eyes but we (at least in most cases) are not a plumber with a jumping ability shocking nor do we live in a world populated by Goombas, sadly. So who are we? Perhaps in this case a higher entity with the responsibility of calculating the protagonist’s jumps to the millimeter, using the information we obtain from seeing the situation and the enemies in advance thanks to the positioning of the camera. But we will analyze this in depth later.
Jacques Aumont identifies two simultaneous ways in this process: identification and projection. The case of projection has a much more significant weight in video games than in cinema because, after all, we are participating in history in one way or another with our own inputs. In titles like Detroid Become Human our input, our decisions, are a decisive factor for the development that history takes and the port it reaches.
On the contrary, in The Last of Us Part II our interaction is necessary, but we don’t have the option of taking a different path than the bloody revenge route that Ellie has chosen. We have to tighten the circle when the moment calls for it, and if we don’t, the scene just doesn’t move forward. In that case, our opinion and ideology do not matter, because the protagonist is Ellie and not the player. And, when the point comes where we consider letting go of the controls and turning off the console because we feel that Ellie is getting the issue out of hand, we move on to control Abby, another character who has made at least questionable decisions and who , at first, we do not want to carry.