Identifying – or not – with characters

ffwIn Katherine Bigelow’s hugely underrated movie Strange Days, a virtual reality technology allows users to fully experience the memories and sensations of another. It is incredibly erotic and interesting. […]

We are all stuck, to some extent, in the bodies we have, in the people we are. […] The thing is, any one who is capable of compassion, imagination or identification, wonders what it is to be someone else – to be better looking, uglier, or of a different race or age or gender or species. How can you not wonder about that?

The identity paradox – the quote above comes from this article on gaming which struck me as insightful and partly relevant to the way we maybe identifying with characters in our favourite productions – whilst not “feeling” the same characters in productions we didn’t enjoy:

The term ludonarrative dissonance is widely mocked [within the industry], but it is a depressingly common phenomenon – and when [players] see no link between the narrative sequences and their own in-game reality, questions of identification and association become more problematic.

For opera fans, narrative dissonance happens when you think the director’s take on the libretto is bollocks. Our in-opera production reality is whatever take on the characters/story we agree with. It’s physically more pre-determined than in a video game, as we can’t have even a virtual effect on what is going on on stage. However emotionally things are a lot better. There are times when we recognise our own vision – or something very close to it – in a certain production. That’s akin to choosing from a selection of game-given decisions towards solving a task – only not as immediate, unless we’re lucky to stumble upon a preferred production from the get-go. Even in a sandbox game the possibilities aren’t unlimited. I suppose imagination itself is limited by our socialisation; that is, if we look hard enough, we will find that (or those) opera production(s) with which we strongly agree. So even though it looks like we’re not influencing what is happening, the director isn’t making decisions outside of our shared emotional field. Of course there is a variation in taste regarding which solutions we end up choosing from the common palette open to us. When we say we trust this or that director we’re delegating him/her to make visual and dramatic decisions for us.

Which doesn’t mean we’re not required a leap of imagination from the get-go:

Most narrative [games] are about action, they are concerned with events rather than people – and so their heroes are often little more than archetypes put in place to facilitate the machinery of conflict. Even the most emotionally resonant usually operate at the extremes of experience, amid war, apocalypse, or fantastical adventure. It is difficult to truly inhabit, say, Joel from The Last of Us Mephistopheles because his reality is beyond anything we can imagine – he is an agent of chaos and horror and everything he says and does exists within the parameters of armageddon.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that people complain about having to suspend disbelief when it comes to opera but are ready to do so in the case of something like a video game.

The article also touches on something similar to how actors/singers approach their roles:

“Cohen’s work looks at [viewer] identification with [media] characters suggesting that character identification involves an ‘increasing loss of self-awareness and its temporary replacement with heightened emotional and cognitive connections to the character’,” says cyberpsychologist, Berni Good. “[If we relate this to gaming it would suggest that] we do put ourselves in the role of the character, suspending our sense of self [in these virtual worlds].”

Whereas this is less valid for us as audience, it’s not completely so. In order to care about what is going on on stage you need to identify with the character(s) to some degree. It’s not as intense as when you’re actually acting out the character’s actions but it does imply a degree of loss of self-awareness. You know what I’m talking about: the lights go down, the music starts playing, the curtain goes up, the actors/singers appear and (if the show is compelling enough) you gradually start shifting your focus from your own life to this story that has no – immediate – relevance to your life. In a sense, the audience is part of the show, an extension of the characters on stage. Actors and audience, we’re all there for the same reason: the plot at hand as expressed through music. So did what we saw on stage really happen or we’ve all been just pretending it did? In a sense it did happen and in a sense it didn’t. 2000+ people were compelled to pay to see it happen and not happen at the same time. Identifying characters is to shamelessly plunge into fantasy. Curiosity?

Some people in the comment section also made interesting points:

Shiraman: I think part of the success of HL2 is that the game never really tries to explain why Gordon does the things he does – it’s happy for you to have your own motivation, known only to yourself.

As soon as a game character opens their mouth and starts talking about their opinions and motivations, it risks opening up a gulf between them and the player – who probably isn’t actually a guilt-racked space marine, gangster-with-a-heart-of-gold or what have you.

This, in opera parlance, is the ambiguous character, which is the true darling of regie. You can give him/her any shape, parachute him/her in any time period or even scenario and somehow we still relate.

I’m not just throwing regie in there because we all love it to death. The increasing incorporation of non-linear play in gaming is nicely paralleled by the proliferation of regie theater. They are the result of our psychological need to control what is happening to us and a logical step during this period of dissolution of linear narrative.

A while ago I had this conversation with mum about identifying with characters vs. rather enjoying the story in a book, film etc. Sometimes I like the story but the characters not so much. For the sake of the story I will more or less blank the pre-existing characters and build my own afterwards. Or the other way around – when I like a character but I think the story is rubbish. Enter fan-fiction. Or, in opera, regie 😉

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About dehggial

opera lover with a predilection for Mozart and Baroque

Posted on April 27, 2014, in acting in opera, freeform weekend and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I’m too old – please explain “non-linear play in gaming” !

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    • Grand Theft Auto is a good example: you have your main missions but there are a lot of side missions you can do and you can simply spend days just driving around in different cars. The Sims might be even better: you create your own character and – within a set of limitations – you can create your own plot as the one the game imposes is minimal.

      btw, I think you’re actually younger than me 😉 I’m just very immature…

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  2. Very galant – but I would wager a pound to a Threepenny Opera that you are not 🙂

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