“It would be great to take a few hours to just sit here and watch life pass by, but, duty calls!”
That’s what April Ryan says in The Longest Journey if you instruct her to sit on the bench outside of her apartment complex. It’s meant to be an innocuous statement, a gentle push for the player to keep them properly playing the game, but there’s a deeper implication about what the developer thinks it is to actually play a videogame. The suggestion seems to be that the game is in the activity: you shouldn’t sit down here, because sitting isn’t actively contributing to your eventual success. You should be running around Venice, collecting random items until you’re able to divine their obtuse purpose. It’s likely because that statement’s innocent intent that I find it so interesting: it presents this idealization of human nature – unwavering, consistent motivation that contributes to constant activity – as though it were totally natural. Maybe for a lucky few of you that’s the reality of life, and Ryan’s impulse to immediately rise from the bench seems totally reasonable. But to me, this little event is a symptom of a larger issue: the functionalist impulse that dictates how most videogames treat their player characters, i.e. how they are treated as tireless automatons designed to fight and explore until the mission is done or some arbitrary meter hits zero. Thankfully, videogames both big and small are becoming conscious of this (e.g. Wolfenstein: The New Order’s nail-on-the-head metaphor of the human brain inside the robot), but reflexive commentary just starts discourse around the problem, it doesn’t actually solve it. What’s frustrating is that The Longest Journey outright rejected one of the easiest solutions 15 years ago: placing value in relaxation by simply letting player characters stop and sit down.
I’d predict that a decent percentage of people would find the inclusion of player character relaxation redundant: “games are already a form of relaxation,” they’d argue, “why bother showing our character do what we’re already doing?” I’d counter this hypothetical response by rejecting the very idea that (most) videogames are relaxing at all: the core component of ‘player effort’ that denotes a videogame implies a certain level of stress or stimulation that other media tend to lack. There are, naturally, exceptions to this, like visual novels or calm exploration games like Proteus, but the point still stands: games are often invested in making you do things in very specific, often challenging ways, which directly contradicts the notion that they’re a merely means of docile relaxation. In fact, modern videogames seem to serve, in part, as a bizarrely fallacious remedy to the lack of motion in life. I believe it was Ian Bogost who wrote in “Things to Do With Videogames” about how some games allow the player to recapture agency in transit and travel that has been removed from daily life via the train, the plane, and the enforced roadways: games allow us to walk, run, and otherwise navigate in a manner that is freer, and thus in some ways more demanding, than real-life navigation. In action games especially, motion and physical exertion take precedence over the kinds of sedentary labor and structured movement that is growing to define modern life. In the diegesis of the game, things like sitting take on a different, older meaning: no longer is being seated a symptom of an over-structured lifestyle, but instead becomes a release from an overly chaotic one.
But for that point to make sense, one needs look at the player character not as a functionalist means of the player to explore a gameworld, but as an entity with which we are meant to directly interact and empathize. Doing that, we can begin to understand the inherent disconnect between what we experience and what the body we control is experiencing. I said not two weeks ago that games are built on empathy, which I stand by: empathy with the player character is, to me, a core facet of the general videogame experience. But that empathy does come with certain caveats, the primary one being that we simply can’t physically replicate what our avatar undergoes in a game. While playing, say, FIFA, one could feel a certain sense of stress or adrenaline that accompanies competition, but the player can’t feel the physical exhaustion that the players would. Stress-induced mental exhaustion is as close as we can come. If we consider the player avatar in a way I’d hesitantly refer to as “traditionalist,” in which we project ourselves onto whatever character we play as, physical exhaustion becomes a non-issue, a fragment of reality that is abandoned in the magic circle of the game. But should we instead view the player avatar as a role to be taken on, or a separate being with which we interact, we can begin to appreciate the needs of that body as it exists within their own world. And bodies need to rest.
I’m not calling for games to all include stamina meters, or otherwise model fatigue procedurally. I’m asking, simply, for more games to let the player character sit down because that is something humans do. The mere act of sitting and resting suggests to the player that they are in control of a person because sitting is something that people regularly do, and in the high-activity worlds of videogames, it’s an action that carries meaning and suggests a very human capacity for weariness and physical discomfort. Take the bonfires of Dark Souls, for example. The way the PC sits, head down, curled up near the flames, gives all of the previous action an elevated weight: here we see the toll the violence has taken, how the oppressiveness of Lordran is affecting the protagonist deeply. But at the same time, the act of sitting presents a feeling of uneasy relief, as the player character is allowing themselves to drop their guard and take part in something healing. In fact, Dark Souls captures the importance of rest by making sitting at bonfires literally healing; much in the same way sleeping restores the player’s health in the later Fallout games. The difference being, Dark Souls visually represents rest, communicating relief in a way that allows the player and the player character to share in a similar experience while still allowing the latter to develop independently as a character. That desiccated corpse we control becomes an empathetic entity, simply because we see him/her feel the need to stop. Sitting communicates a fundamentally human weakness, suggesting that the bodies we control in games experience sensations beyond what the player senses through them; that the audio and the visuals aren’t all there is in the game’s diegesis, that’s just all we can perceive because that’s how the videogame medium works. The player character is the means by which we understand the gameworld, and if the character behaves as though he/she is responding to the world as we respond to ours, the gameworld itself becomes more convincing, just as the character does.
Furthermore, letting characters sit allows for character interactions to feel more natural and intimate. Playing through Dragon Age: Origins recently, I became hyper-aware of the bizarre behavior of my party members in my camp: every single one of them stands completely still (in full armor no less!) like they were frozen in time, until I choose to speak with them and break whatever spell they’re evidently under. And when I do speak to one of them, they always stand about 4 feet from my character, never budging from their spot, as though they’re an eleven year old paranoid about not leaving their mark in the school play. This camp, which is meant to be a peaceful area where the entire team sleeps off their battle wounds (literally – whatever critical wounds the PC and the rest of the team has endured are healed here) feels deeply false, functioning more like a prettied-up dropdown menu than as an actual place. And the conversations feel just as unnatural: tents and bedrolls are prepped for use, and yet each character is content to stand awkwardly, never making meaningful use of these provisions. Nothing feels real in Dragon Age: the good voice acting and the decent writing goes to waste because the conversations just don’t occur like actual conversations: instead, we watch 2 animatronic busts exchange information with each other in boring shot-reverse shot sequences. There’s nothing intimate about these conversations: we learn information about the characters, sure, but the body language that accompanies them doesn’t suggest that any of this is meaningful. No one ever lets down their guard: they stand in camp assuredly as they do in battlegrounds. Contrast this with the benches in Ico: no words are exchanged between Yorda and Ico, but through their positioning on each bench, and the way Yorda examines Ico as he looks out into space, a moment is constructed that is far more intimate and evocative than any given conversation in Dragon Age: Origins. There is unspoken weariness in Ico and fascination in Yorda that comes across simply via the way they sit, and it makes them feel remarkably, genuinely human.
There are a few select conversations in Dragon Age: Origins that occur between two seated characters, but they occur mostly in cutscenes, whereas the bonfires and benches of Dark Souls and Ico are integrated into the gameplay. Normally, the presence of something in a cutscene as opposed to its presence in gameplay means very little to me: I am unabashedly pro-cutscene, but lack the energy to defend them here, so I’ll direct you to this article instead. But in this case, there is a significant difference at work. In his thoughts on Mountain, Brendan Keogh talks about how he places importance on the sensation of being “bodily caught up in the form” of the videogame, to feel connected to the world that surrounds whatever entity the player controls to explore it. The act of rest being integrated into the gameplay of Dark Souls and Ico imbues those acts with additional meaning, then, simply because a physical act is being performed via a physical act: allowing the player to control the act of sitting involves the player in the form. When you hit the ‘B’ button in Dark Souls to make your character sit at a bonfire, there’s an abstract heft to both the press and the way your character sits. Hitting ‘B’ becomes a catharsis on its own, as though it signifies the PC’s legs giving way under the weight of the world. Easier to comprehend, perhaps, is waking Ico from sleep in Ico: nudging on the stick resembles the physical sensation of nudging a boy from his slumber.
For a moment, Ico feels alive. I watch him slowly rise, and think to myself: “I understand. I’m tired, too.”