Friday 10 December 2010

Player - Avatar Symbiosis

In a recently released paper, Jeroen D. Stout (creator of Dinner Date) proposes an interesting theory on the relashionship between player and avatar. It is related to the things that have been discussed previous post about immersion, so I felt it was relevant to bring it up. The full paper can be gotten from here. I will summarize the ideas a bit below, but I still suggest all to read the actual paper for more info!

Most modern theorists of the mind agree that it is not single thing, but a collection of processes working in unison. What this means is that there is no exact place where everything comes together, but instead the interaction between many sub-systems give rise to what we call consciousness. The most clear evidence of this is in split brain patients, where the two brain-halves pretty much form two different personalities when unable to communicate.

This image of a self is a not fixed thing though and it is possible to change. When using a tool for a while it often begins to feel like an extension of ourself, thus changing ones body image. We go from being "just me" to be being "me with hammer". When the hammer is put down, we return to the old previous body image of just being "me". I have described an even clearer example of this in a previous post, where a subject perceives a sense of touch as located at a rubber hand. Research have shown that this sort of connection can get quite strong. If one threatens to drop a heavy weight or similar on the artificial body part (eg the rubber hand), then the body reacts just like it would to any actual body part.

What this means for games is that it is theoretically possible for the player form a very strong bond with the avatar, and in a sense become the avatar. I discuss something similar in this blog post. What Jeroen now purposes is that one can go one step further and make the avatar autonomously behave in a way that the players will interpret has their own will. This is what he calls symbiosis. Instead of just extending the body-image, it is the extension of the mind. Quite literally, a high level of symbiosis means that part of your mind will reside in the avatar.

A simple example would be that if player pushes a button, making the avatar jump, players feel as if they did the jumping themselves. I believe that this sort of symbiosis already happens in some games, especially noticeable when the avatar does not directly jump but has some kind of animation first. When the player-avatar symbiosis is strong this sort of animation does not feel like some kind of cut scene, but as a willed action. Symbiosis does not have to be just about simple actions like jumping though, but can be more complex actions, eg. assembling something, and actions that are not even initiated by the player, eg. picking up an object as the player pass by it. If symbiosis is strong then the player should feel that "I did that" and not "the avatar did that" in the previous examples. The big question is now how far we can go with this, and Jeroen suggests some directions on how to research this further.

Having more knowledge on symbiosis would be very useful to make the player feel immersed in games. It can also help solving the problem of inaccurate input. Instead of doing it the Trespasser way and add fine-control for every needed body joint, focus can lie on increasing the symbiosis and thus allowing simply (or even no!) input be seen by players as their own actions. This would make players feel as part of a virtual world without resorting to full-body exo-skeletons or similar for input. Another interesting aspect of exploring this further is that it can perhaps tell us something about our own mind. Using games to dig deeper into subjects like free will and consciousness is something I feel is incredibly exciting.


  1. This is all really fascinating and it's things like this that make your games so goddamn good. Unlike other big developers you've really put research and thought into this. You know what you're doing and are learning as you go along. Having played Amnesia before Penumbra I can see the big jump being made from Overture to Amnesia. Keep up the good work.

  2. "...especially noticeable when the avatar does not directly jump but has some kind of animation first."

    i'm not sure what's meant by this. a cutscene? or (in first person) the character's hands reaching onto the visible screen? forced camera control?

  3. Rex:
    What I mean is for example when a character crouches or similar just before jumping. Another world is a game that does this and so do many others.

  4. Thomas:

    aaah! anticipation or preperation animation. problem there is that you can't start moving before the player presses the button, so if you want to sink more than one or two frames into it you'll get a little latency between player instruction and avatar response. "abe's odyssey" suffered from this- you had to press the button well in advance.

  5. Rex:
    Funny how some games solve it: once the jump animation starts, you become invincible until it ends (although the game may try to hide it by calculating the probability that you fail, so that you can occasionally get knocked down by enemy).

    About the topic: right, full and absolute control does not equal immersion. Consider a 3rd person game where your character always looks at your mouse pointer - it just starts to feel too mechanical after a while. For example, if you stop moving your mouse for some time, the character just stares at the same point and it just seems like a robot on idle (which it is, in a way...). Better game designs take such important little things in consideration and manage to more or less hide the non-sentient nature of the 'avatar'.

  6. Anonymous:
    really? i've never seen it handled that way.
    what i was worried about wasn't so much reaction speed in the face of threats- it's breaking immersion through latency. character responding poorly or slowly breaks flow. a really nice animated jump (in animation, not so much games) uses probably almost a whole half-second to bend legs and get ready...way too much time for a game...unless you somehow had a way to guess when the player would jump? like subtly starting the animation as the player neared a ledge?

  7. Rex:

    What about if the player specifically has to press and hold the jump button for how long they wish to crouch before jumping. When that's used the player can still have control and the latency is understandable. What if the game is not a speedy action game? Realism has more immersion effect than game-play functionality, STALKER for instance. STALKER is the biggest game-play headache and it's the most atmospheric game of all time.

  8. segmentedreality:
    that's a good way to deal with it- and to give the player another form of prescise control.
    though if speed and timing are not an issue, is there really a need for the ability to jump? to get to high places? a "vault" command- possibly tied with the default action command could probably serve as well, or better than a jump in the first person environment.

  9. I know this isn't the right place to post it but I figured it is more likely to be seen here than on the forum (and I have posted it there just now) an abridged version of what i said:

    Overture you could fight back but it was a clunky hit them repeatedly until they stay down affair. Not being able to kill your enemies is a good way to keep the player scared but.. feel a little too underpowered... I think would be a particularly good idea is puzzle killing. Making the player think on their feet and giving them intricate ways to defeat their enemy or even just slow them down... a matter of wit.. sense of satisfaction when carried out.. even having guns used to shoot a rope which drops an anchor on the foe for example.

  10. Andrew:
    We did have that in Black Plague though? :)

    I agree puzzle killing is nice, but the problem is that then enemies become not cannon fodder but puzzle pieces. While I agree it is better, it still detracts from that pure horror feeling we where striving for. I think the water lurker is pretty much as far as puzzle enemies goes. From playthroughs I seen and comment I read, I think that one was pretty successful. Figuring out these kind of encounters is really hard though, so it is difficult to make a make with lots of them.

  11. Thomas: I haven't actually had the good fortune of playing black plague yet so sorry if my comment was kind of pointless. I see where you're coming from. I'm just giving my personal opinion because I felt during Amnesia it would be nice to have the option. Nonetheless I know your next game will be amazing :D

  12. Still, being able to occasionally set a trap for an enemy would have been great. You first make the player despair that the damned thing just will not stop lurking in the vicinity, and then show him/her a hint for a wonderfully convenient possibility to creatively put the former out of it's misery... It would make the player fell good for a moment, after feeling oppressed for the past two sections. If only to prepare him/her for a major scare later.
    But, to be fair, there were a few such moments in the game, except for the monster getting squashed part: sewers - when the thing stands right on your designated path, or the Inner Sanctum - when you have to pull the lever to slow down "the shadow" and make time to do what needs to be done.

    BTW, I know I'm a bit late, but I just finished Amnesia.
    Real nice how the iron maiden CLOSED ON ME when I decided to step in and check it out.
    Ehem... Who's brilliant idea was that?
    Wanted to punish those with morbid curiosity?
    You will suffer my revenge!!!

  13. Yeah Tresspasser had nice ideas but I don't think it really worked well in the end.
    Perhaps it could have ended up better if they had the time to finish it, because it still feels in beta since it gets buggy and looks ridiculous at time (the motions you can make look as if the character had all his bones broken)
    However I think that it didn't work mainly because of the control scheme: using a keyboard&mouse to move your body joint was very tedious and un-natural.

    But what if we imagine this kind of possibilities with some kind of advanced controller that has yet to be created and with which it would feel more natural? If the movement in-game and the movement executed by the player are similar, I think it could work.

    However this sounds very similar to the rubber glove thing, and what could be the risks in this case? Would the player start to feel pain if the character gets hit... ?

    More importantly, is this type of controls what people really want to see and expereience, or even if it existed would it only remain as a testlab thing ?

  14. You guys did a good job in Overture putting the player in Philip's shoes. The commentary was just about the same thing most people would of thought. The best were the notes (or e-mail?) that Philip wrote that you read periodic though the game, as if he (or you) had just written it. I was mentally attached to Philips thoughts as if they were my own. The Physiological (or maybe 'emotional') immersion in Penumbra is the best of all your games, but I guess it wasn't quite as scary as the rest either.

    Since then that type of immersion has been lacking.(not to suggest that the games haven't been good) It was ok in Black Plague; Clarence kind of snapped me out of it whenever he talked, but I would usually get drawn back in.

    Requiem was terrible in this area. As someone on the forums once put it, "I no longer felt like I was playing as Philip, but as Player 1" I don't hold it against you guys though. I know that was a quickly made expansion to satisfy all the people on the forums asking questions.

    Amnesia was defiantly the scariest of all your games. But I didn't feel any kind of attachment to Daniel. Maybe it was because he didn't remember anything or because I couldn't right click on everything to see what he thought or because he wasn't from the same time period. I'm not sure what it was.. But I was hoping for a story that kept me more attached and wanting to move forward. Overture might of been the best because each note left more questions then answers and in Amnesia it was vise versa.

    Anyways, if you guys could incorporate the emotional attachment from Penumbra and the Physiological trauma from Amnesia you guys could make one kick-ass game.

    PS: I hope I don't sound like a dick or anything by telling you guys how to do what you do best. I just figured you guys would like to hear some feedback from a long time fan.

  15. Virtua Tennis is actually a game that your post is reminding me of.

    It was a highly celebrated game for the arcade and Dreamcast, that only had two buttons and an analogue stick.
    Despite this limited control set, you could do a wonderfully diverse amount of movements: Forehand, backhand, lob, smash, serve, dive for the ball, where to aim the ball, have a careful wind up with precise control, or reach the ball at the last moment and have a very inaccurate shot.

    The key to the game was that the controls were about communicating the player's intentions, and the actual simulation of the game worked out the details such as exactly what sort of shot to pull off, how much time the player had before the ball reached them, etc.

    It led to an extremely absorbing experience that was critically acclaimed, and I've always remembered it for the lessons it taught about marrying a simple controls with deep and intricate mechanics giving the player a lot of power and ability in the game world without confusing them.

  16. Sofox:
    Very interesting to hear! To sounds like a very good example at symbiosis at work!

  17. It is so strange how the mind works.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  18. Hi there! First, congratuations on a successful game, one that gave me hours of enjoyment (and fear!)

    You and Jeroen would do well to review the work of Lev Vygotsky, who was the first to coherently put forward the concept of extension-of-self-through-tool, for instance the extension of the blind man's sense of self through his cane. As selves are more engaged by the media presented - such as that provided by Amnesia: TDD - it only makes sense that the characteristics fo the avatar (or similar) will work their way backwards onto the self.

    If you're old enough to remember Planetfall, this was often held up as the standard against which other interactive fiction of its time could reach. Amnesia was similarly successful: I scare very easily and at times had to step away before being able to return to the game.

    Vygotsky also was the first to posit the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), well-used in games these days as adaptive levelling. I noticed these kinds of features occasionally in Amnesia, for instance when I got killed by a monster and respawned near where it was, forcing the engine to remove it to allow me to proceed. Or in the large dark wet room with the invisible monster; after a few failings, I was able to basically run across the water and get to the gate without it noticing I was there. (I'm not very good at these games still!)

    I'd love to discuss some of this further with you; this research is at the core of my PhD candidacy. Drop me a line if you'd like to discuss further?

  19. wohali:
    Thanks for the suggestion, will check Vygotsky out!

    As for discussions and such, please contact through the contact page:

    I would be very interested in hearing about your research and references to more. I try to read up as much as I can on advances in cognitive theory, but it is very easy to miss out on things (new as old).

  20. "I have described an even clearer example of this in a previous post, where a subject perceives a sense of touch as located at a rubber hand."

    Idea, similar scenario:
    Imagine a game scene like the following. The player (or his avatar) wakes up and is tied to some torture table or chair, the right hand of the avatar is visible in front of him, also tied to an armrest with a rope. Now, the mouse no longer controls the view (head) but instead the struggling movement of the avatars hand (say: right hand on mouse = right hand in the game). Even the mousebuttons allow to move index and middle finger a bit. The players task is to free his hand by doing certain hand movements or maybe he thinks that its his task. This is to strenghten the connection between virtual and real hand. Give it some time.
    Then SUDDENLY a chunk of plaster falls from ceiling onto this hand or an oil candle nearby tips over and spills hot fluid all over the hand (something like this), you get the idea.

    If the player is not prepared to this scenario, maybe he is so shocked that he nearly throws his mouse around. Don't know but maybe?

  21. I don’t think I’ve ever FELT like the character I was playing, however I’ve never been more emotionally immersed in a game than I was in Penumbra. This was an amazing effect, and I think that this is maybe what you’re going for.
    While going through the underground tunnels of Overture I found myself enjoying Red’s monologues. In real life I would be fairly weirded out by his often nonsensical ramblings, but because you were so scared and alone having another human to talk to, even a deranged one, was comforting. It felt terrible killing him, an action I tried to avoid.
    This continued, with even greater effect, in Black Plague. Dr. Amabel was a warm presence within the cold facility you explored. Her promise of curing you of the disease was accented with more…erotic suggestions as well. These in concert made me look forward to our interactions as well our eventual meeting as if upon seeing her the oppressive atmosphere would melt away for good. When I found her as an Infected, I frantically ran around the room trying to find a way not to kill her, to change her back. When I realized there wasn’t a way, I dropped that box on her. Hearing that scream was one of the most horrifying moments in a game I’ve ever played. I turned around and found her head crushed, lying on the floor. It was all a trick from Clarence.
    And here we have possibly the most interesting character in the games. Throughout Black Plague he taunted you, telling you he was deleting your memories of your first kiss and forcing you to kill Dr. Amabel. As I was assembling the ingredients for the mixture that would take him out, I was motivated by these terrible actions to destroy him for good. After I heard his final words in my head though, I suddenly realized I was alone. Alone in these dark underground tunnels with no one to help me or talk to me. Even though I hated Clarence, he had been a companion in a very lonely endeavor. The game literally gave me Stockholm syndrome. Of course it was short lived, as I had to kill his body now, another scary memorable moment in the game. However I soon began to dread going outside of the room alone again.
    Although Amnesia was scarier in some respects than Penumbra, I felt I had less of an emotional attachment to it or the characters within. Although Agrippa was a very pleasant man, something I did not expect upon seeing him, I never felt much for him. Part of this may be because you could see him. Penumbra handled its graphical limitations very cleverly, always putting a door, a screen with white nose or your own head in front of the characters faces. Thus, you could imagine their movements and looks for your own, never being forced to think of them as polygons. Although the graphics in Amnesia were far improved, seeing Agrippa pulled me from the experience. This may have been because of the question “How can he talk when he has no lower jaw?” For a guy whose favorite videogame character is Raziel from the Soul Reaver games, this is admittedly a bit of a strange reaction. But, that’s how I felt. It didn’t help that when you finally met Alexander his mouth didn’t move when he spoke either.
    I don’t know If I ever felt like Phillip, or David for that matter, but I know that I wanted to meet Dr. Amabel and kill Clarence for my own reasons. If that’s what you want, then I would love to see more attention put into creating more memorable characters next time around. As I said, I’ve never felt more emotion in a game then while playing Penumbra, and I’ve never felt more scared from a game than while playing Amnesia. I hope your next game focuses on a mixture between these two.


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