Storyboard: You are what you pretend to be

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|11.01.13

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I still love the Zorai designs.  The game the Zorai are in, not so much.
It's the day after Halloween, and that means we all take off our costumes. Or to be more accurate, we all take off the costumes that other people get to see. We're still wearing costumes just the same, except we call them our normal personalities and hope that no one notices.

None of this is shocking. We all know that we present ourselves differently to different people. You don't act the same way around your boss that you do around your closest friends, you don't treat strangers like your mother, and so forth. It's part of the human condition: We put on different faces depending on whom we're dealing with at any given moment.

Do your characters do the same? They should. Even if they aren't technically human, most alternative options in games still have more or less human thought patterns. So let's talk a little more about putting on a brave face for the outside world and what it says about your character as a whole.

Hey, I'm at work, did you still want to hang out on Friday?What you are

For most of us, what we are is not what we pretend to be, except we're not really pretending, per se, just filtering.

As I so frequently do in these columns, I'm going to use myself as a prime example. I can go into a number of diversions in my articles about pop culture on the basis that at least one or two people reading are going to find that pretty darn interesting. Yes, it's possible that not everyone reading this article has been watching Orange is the New Black, but that's a shared cultural touchstone, and I can bring it up.

If I started using a huge chunk of an article to talk about my deep-seated emotional issues, though, that would be unacceptable. Admittedly, you'd never get to read it because I'm pretty sure my editor would send it back with a few choice unpleasant adjectives, but that's not the point. Nor, for that matter, could I write an article just talking about how much I love Pokémon Y's clothing system that at no point ties back to the theme of roleplaying.

Filters have to be put into place. Some parts of me just aren't appropriate for inclusion here. It's the reason you learn so many surprising things about people as your friendship deepens; filters lift away and you get a better view of whom you're dealing with.

Your character is the same way. Yes, she might be desperately seeking a man because she doesn't have a construction of femininity that's independent of being a wife, but she isn't going to bring that up in Final Fantasy XIV while waist-deep in tonberries. Your Templar in The Secret World will happily talk to people in New York about his love of cooking, but he's going to avoid waxing poetic about his personal religious revelations until he's in a group of similarly minded individuals.

Or he won't.

This is where you can start to realize that the idea of putting up a mask can be a useful roleplaying tool in both directions. Maybe the aforementioned Templar talks about religion all the time because he doesn't know how to operate around people for whom that isn't a major part of their lives. Sure, underneath that is a man who loves cooking and plays a great game of poker and loves to sing karaoke, but he puts up his religion as a gatekeeper. It's the split between what we know to be true about a character and how much is shown to the outside world.

Behind the mask is nothing you want to see.What we pretend to be

The danger of adopting a mask for too long is that eventually, you aren't pretending to be something any longer. Or, as Vonnegut put it so expertly in Mother Night, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be."

It doesn't have to be something insidious, but it can creep up on your characters slowly, and it can provide a great source of conflict that requires no one to instigate it. Your Draenei in World of Warcraft can realize to her horror that she hasn't actually done anything about rebuilding her people's home in months, that she hasn't even been home in months, that even though she thought that was important, she's been doing something else entirely. Somewhere along the way she stopped being there to show solidarity with her fellow Alliance members and started actually having that solidarity, and now she doesn't know what she actually wants.

This is the root of the mid-life crisis: realizing that what you pretend to be for the purposes of work is slowly becoming who you are. But it doesn't have to be at a specific age. I've had a character realize that as much as she wanted to be a scholar, her main talent is killing people, and that's what she's been doing, until no one even remembered she was supposed to be something else. Another character thought of himself as a soldier just taking some mercenary jobs to pay some bills... only to realize that no, he actually wants the money.

You can go two ways with this. The first is that it's a good way to handle a change for characters who don't quite work out. Give your character a reason to start doing it, have him do that long enough, and you can slowly watch as what he pretends to be becomes what he is. On the other hand, you can produce a lot of interesting character conflicts if your character starts running back to what he says he wants instead of what his actions indicate.

Plus, it layers in plenty of... oh, you know the word, and you're tired of reading it. I'll just tag it and move on.

Comments are welcome down below or via mail to Next week, I'm discussing things that you do that breaks some part of the game, and after that I'm discussing the fourth wall and when to lean upon it -- or even break it down for a few moments.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.
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