Many gameplay experiences are third person, you are, but you are not the protagonist. You are, as you control their actions, you tell them to move through this world and choose to help them proceed to the end of their story arc or just stop, waiting to be picked up again. (Even if you never pick it up again.) And you are not because its not your story. The actions you take as Mario, Lara Croft, Mega Man, Marcus Fenix, etc. have no effect on you as a person. Yet the simulation of being these people can make you feel as if you really are them.
The third person experience can keep you separated from your World of Warcraft character, yet it can also skew a person’s world view. Granted not all games are third person, you don’t always have a story to follow and you aren’t alway playing as person with a fully defined identity. Yet these are the stories many of us spend our time playing. Characters are relatable in some ways and while playing games that have a death as a consequence you never really say “[Character’s Name] died.” you would say “I died.” although you aren’t Samus Aran, Mario or Batman (although many of you would probably disagree on that last one.). Either was you still identify yourself as this character. Not saying that you shouldn’t or in any of these instances you aren’t that character. You are that character, because you make your own decisions but in that character’s shoes. Even when you can’t really make a decision, at least in the sense of progressing a game. There are great engines that allow you to choose how to handle a situation in a plethora of ways and still progress the story in your own way, Fallout 3 has choices, Mass Effect has choices, but even in cutscenes where you have absolutely no control of the main character’s actions, you have choices.
In these forced instances of action, you have the choice of how you feel about being made to take this action. Some games, even if unintentionally, can force you to make a choice but everyone experiences that instance differently. Let’s say a mission has you escort your Cousin, let’s call him Vinny, around casually until you reach a point that you must shoot him in the back of the head once you’re completely alone. Let’s even take away the possible failure of doing so quietly and subsequent possible chase scene (like many GTA missions I’ve messed up…) and its completely a cut scene. You could think Vinny has been a complete douche in this game and deserves the bullet, I might think that it’s totally fucked up that I have to off my own cousin, and Jared sitting next to me might not really care. This could affect how you feel about certain character in this game. Even if your character doesn’t share the same joy, resentment or apathy the player feels.
My two favorite instances of forced action to progress a story are in Metal Gear Solid and Bioshock. First up is Metal Gear.
You have control but every time you try to fire Snake says “Its no good I can’t do it.” In this instance Gray Fox begs for an end to his life while ending the battle, but Snake just can’t pull that trigger, even if you’re bashing it on your PSX controller. In the end causing as much frustration as Snake probably has, knowing you could end it there, but there’s just something stopping you. Then again maybe you share Snake’s sentiment and just let the scene end knowing you can’t shoot your old friend. Next would you kindly remember Bioshock’s confrontation with Andrew Ryan.
For me this really talks about the player game relationship as a whole. Through out the game, you don’t realize it, you are doing as told because, well its a game and there’s objectives and to continue on you must complete these objectives, you’ve formed attachments to certain people who’ve guided you, you know the character’s life story and identity you get to know them as yourself and relate. You can’t help it, its what you’ve been doing since the days of the Super Mario Bros. Jumping after a guide that told you where to go subconsciously to save a princess and share the frustration of finding out she’s in another castle. Then again maybe I’ve just been playing too many video games.