(There are no substantive spoilers here. I keep things very vague. This account shouldn't affect your enjoyment of playing The Bell should the opportunity arise.)
The Bell uses a device that is widely seen in larp and RPG one-offs - amnesiac characters who slowly recover their memories. This is sometimes called a cliche, but I prefer to think of it as archetypal. (Or as the gaming equivalent of a jazz standard. Every jazz singer has their version of "Summertime", right?) Amnesiacs-recover-memories is a narrative form that is perfectly suited to done-in-one roleplay, because it unifies player and character knowledge and has a built in arc of development. The Bell uses it well.
Here's my war story:
It seemed like every character had a choice to make. Mine was this: help someone to oppose the immoral business of my family, or shut them down to eliminate the risk they present to our wealth and status.
In the first section of play, however, I didn't know any of that. Even by the standards of amnesiac games, my character was nearly a blank slate at the beginning, with only a few personal issues noted and zero broader context. Events in this period proved crucial, as the person who opposed my family happened to have been the kindest, most engaging person I interacted with in that first section while I was ignorant.
As a result, when it became apparent they were at the centre of the choice before me, I was strongly disposed to help them - it just felt like the right thing to do, and the consequences and risks of turning against my family seemed distant or unreal.
As the game progressed, more detail emerged for me, but still there were only a few points of "hard data". Much of the content was evocative and suggestive rather than definitive. Because character information was limited, my play of the character relied on personal creative interpretation to a greater extent than usual in this kind of game.
As the game approached its final third I started to make my stake in opposing my family more obvious, asking to take my help to the next level. The other person was reluctant. As time ticked down I put more and more pressure on them to share their knowledge and bring me into their plans against my family. As this pressure became more forceful, it perhaps hardened their resolve. Ultimately, I was refused.
As we entered the conclusion and debrief, I abruptly knew exactly why I'd put so much pressure on the other person. I knew that the end of the situation depicted in the game would mark a change in my character. I knew that my character, in normal circumstances, was weak; was subjugated by the family; would serve their interests loyally. My eager support for the opposing character was urgent because this was the only chance either of us had.
So I established in the debriefing that my character would become an implacable enemy of the person I had begged to ally with.
That final twist has stuck with me. I think this is because of how strongly felt it was, and how little it felt like my choice.
And yet, the strongly envisioned character that emerged through play was not imposed on me. There was nothing in the game material that determined how I related to my family; quite the opposite, this relationship was clearly up in the air and open to interpretation. There was nothing that forced me into a time limit. There was very little in the game material at all that framed this decision as I describe it above. But it didn't seem like that. It felt inevitable, and tragic (in the classical sense of a character's fatal flaw leading to disaster). I felt trapped. Saddened, even, by my failure to escape this circumstance.
That divergence fascinates me. How could I feel victimised by something that must have come from my own head?
It felt like a glimpse of where character comes from.
Where do characters come from?
In a typical one-off game, players will be assigned characters to play. They will be given some kind of dossier on the character, that indicates things like their personality, their role, their relationships with others, their goals. Dossiers can be extensive or slender, and can be handed out in advance or (in the case of most amnesia games) piece-by-piece. The job of the player is to play a character that is not just consistent with this information, but has this information as their central defining nature. This is the first side of the character triangle: facts.
Facts of course can never be sufficient to fully encapsulate a character. People are simply too complex. This means that a player's projection into the role must go far beyond the facts. Inevitably the character is an expression of the player's views and intuitions and interests. This is the second side of the character triangle: self.
No game can ever hope to fully explore all sides of a character. The specific situation met by the character will force some aspects of character to be brought to light or challenged, while leaving other aspects unexamined. As the game progresses, people encountered and changing circumstances will give time to some aspects and leave others. This is the third side of the character triangle: situation.
My experience of The Bell was unusual in that so much space was given to the second side of the triangle, self. I was conscious of having to bring my own interests and personality into what I was doing, to "fill in the gaps".
The fixed points, or constraints, provided to me in the form of character information did not seem to provide much help in shaping my moment-to-moment play. They meant I was attentive for anything happening around me that seemed related, and once or twice there were occasions when someone else would make a comment that was relevant, so my response was related. Mostly I took a few general principles from the character description and made everything else up.
Character detail steadily increased as memories returned. As previously noted, I didn't receive much in the way of hard data about the character in each new packet. However a curious trick took place - because I had been taking actions and having interactions right from the start, I had accumulated an extra set of data about my character, namely what I had done. My early (mostly instinctual) choices about the character became strong elements informing the next "phase" of greater knowledge.
This big-picture structure of prior actions constraining future actions can be seen in the specific situation of that final choice. Why was I putting so much pressure on the other character as the end of the game approached? Partly because of the in-game situation, where I felt that other character genuinely would benefit from my involvement right then. But that's far from the whole picture. Partly also because of that old larp instinct to get everything out in the open by the end of the game, to bring every secret to light. Partly because it gave me something to chase after hard in an environment where goals were not dictated by the situation. Partly because playing a bit of conflict is a fun thing to enact.
But once this action had been taken it asserted its own logic on my character. That pressure was driven by something - some hidden urgency, greater than was obvious, not even understood by the character himself. Hence the snap of realisation: that the character as I had played it was not going to win; that outside of this room, outside of this situation, outside of the time when me-as-player was in this character, they would weaken, and they would submit.
Stories manipulate us
Chekhov's gun. When it appears at the start we wait for it to be fired. As a writer would see it: I want to fire a gun later, so I'll put it on the wall now. (Or I want the reader to think I'll fire a gun later, so I'll put one on the wall now.) That works if you write to a plan. But the truth is, no writer ever plans everything, and sometimes guns just appear. (I was just thinking, what would be in this dude's room? Yeah, a gun, that feels right for the character. This other character would definitely notice that gun, too, so it's a nice bit of character detail that shows how they're different. Great stuff.)
Except it doesn't stop there. Now that gun is on the wall, and the characters made a note of it and everything - it eats at you. You keep working and writing and that gun keeps popping up again. Even as a writer you're waiting for it to be fired.
This is how stories bully us. We've internalised their principles - in this case, dramatic parsinomy, the idea that everything in the story is part of the structure of the story. And when we ignore the principles, or try to subvert them, they don't give in easily. They push us around.
That's how I ended up feeling trapped by something I created myself. I had put a bunch of guns on the wall early on, and by the end I realised they were all pointed at me.
That's where characters come from - they come from play itself, in-game activity from moment to moment. Characters come from what they do. Facts, self and situation are three sides of a triangle, and the triangle they form is action.
And that, perhaps, is why this play incident has turned over and over in my head - because it isn't just about larp. We construct character through action, in games like this, in writing fiction, in acting, and other overt creative pursuits. But this also applies to our own real-world "character", our identity, our nature. Informed by facts and situation, and some kind of "self" that we perhaps barely sense, we construct ourselves through the actions we take.
Playing a character who is not yourself is escapism, of course. But it is also, fundamentally, an act of empathy. It is the process of identity, opened up so we can comprehend it in a new way.