The Power of the Inhabited Protagonist

I find this news piece on fascinating, and not just because of the post I wrote about baptism in Bioshock Infinite:

[O]ne could argue that the game has justifiable reasons for forcing players to accept baptism…but that doesn’t make the scene any less uncomfortable for some, like Breen Malmberg—a gamer and a Christian.

“As baptism of the Holy spirit is at the center of Christianity – of which I am a devout believer – I am basically being forced to make a choice between committing extreme blasphemy by my actions in choosing to accept this ‘choice’ or forced to quit playing the game before it even really starts,” Malmberg explained to Kotaku.

Apparently the idea offended him so much that he stopped playing and demanded a refund.  What is interesting here is the extent to which the narrative has succeeded in creating a second person narrative.  I’ve written before that:

Interactive narratives that utilize the combination of first-person perspectives and silent protagonists… radically deny characterization and individuation to create a protagonist that has no distinctiveness from the consuming subject, whom the consuming subject is invited to inhabit. The consumer becomes the protagonist, or the protagonist becomes the consumer. These two narrative techniques, then, are powerful rhetorical devices that in effect create a second person narration.

The protagonist in Bioshock Infinite is not even a silent protagonist: he has a voice and a face (barely defined, but a visible face nonetheless), a gender, ethnicity, history, etc.  Nevertheless, the consumer in this case seems to have completely inhabited the protagonist, and feels that actions the protagonist takes are his own actions, to the extent that he is afraid of committing blasphemy simply by consuming this narrative.  This is a radical departure from other forms of narrative consumption:  it is hard to imagine this reaction from reading a book.

The work, then, seems to have completely succeeded in creating a second person narrative.  The language used in the article is also suggestive: the game  “forc[es] players to accept baptism,” rather than the protagonist.  This language, which those who follow the gaming press will recognize as commonplace, underscores the extent to which these narratives routinely succeed in convincing consumers to completely inhabit their protagonists.

Many of the comments are quite vitriolic (this is the internet, after all), but some make the point that Bioshock Infinite is a piece of art, and consuming it not the same as performing the actions it depicts oneself.  Also interesting is the response of one of the people the author surveyed for the article: “Its not like playing as Shepard in Mass Effect; I’m not being me, I’m Booker DeWitt.”

This person apparently cannot fully inhabit the protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, and does not accept it as a second person narrative. Booker DeWitt is not “me.” However he or she does accept Shepard, the protagonist of Mass Effect, as “me.”  Mass Effect is a second person narrative for this person, while Bioshock Infinite is not.

Why?  Shepherd also has a voice and is an individuated character.  Shepherd is visible on the screen unlike DeWitt, creating a degree of separation that first-person perspective does not.  Mass Effect allows more freedom of choice for its protagonist than Bioshock Infinite does, but Shepherd’s choices are still limited: the consumer cannot act with complete freedom.

Is it a matter of degree?  Does a certain amount of characterization or freedom limitation obstruct the consumer from inhabiting the protagonist, with the cutoff level varying for each consumer?  Another possibility is that the customization permitted in Mass Effect engenders a sense of ownership of the protagonist: Shepherd becomes a unique individual the consumer created.  Or perhaps the consumer here simply created a character in his or her own image so they could go through the narrative with a protagonist that is visually “me.”

Obviously these are questions that can’t be answered without some kind of survey, but it seems there may be an array of complex factors that determine whether consumers can fully inhabit the protagonists of interactive narratives.