magine you are playing an epic fantasy roleplaying game. If you’re familiar with these games, you know, at least among North American and European developers, that these games pride themselves on the freedom of choice they offer the player. Now imagine you’ve chosen to play the stereotypical Good Fantasy Hero, the type of righteous do-goodnik who roams the countryside slaying monsters, saving innocents, and generally doing the right thing.
At some point, you’re bound to run into a problem. Fantasy RPGs invariably offer a host of possible allies for you to adventure with, and at least one of those possible allies is not going to be a Good Fantasy Hero. More likely, you will run into an Evil Fantasy Hero, or at least a Morally Questionable Fantasy Hero. Let’s imagine for the sake of this discussion that this Evil Fantasy Hero is also an utterly fascinating character.
The problem is this: you, the player, really want to bring this Evil Fantasy Hero along with you. He or she is immediately intriguing and will surely provide an engaging story and unlock game content that you would otherwise miss. However, your character, as you’ve chosen to roleplay him or her, would never team up with the Evil Hero. The Evil Hero’s goals are not only different from your own, but in many ways opposed.
In short, teaming up with the Evil Hero makes absolutely no sense from a narrative perspective, but presents you with a greater amount of game and plot content (and, in this situation, content that is probably very interesting). If you choose to abandon the Evil Hero, you will have a consistent but less interesting narrative. If you choose to travel with the Evil Hero, you will have a richer but thematically incoherent narrative. Which should you choose?
The example above is admittedly simplistic, but even then the answer is not obvious. Some players may value the roleplaying aspects of a game and do not want to compromise their character’s narrative integrity. Other players may take a more practical approach and don’t mind compromising their character if it means they can experience more of the greater story.
The question becomes more difficult when you consider that RPGs don’t always present such simple problems. You are not always choosing between Good and Evil, and most modern RPGs have abandoned those simple distinctions. Recently, while playing BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, I encountered a warrior named Sten. He was imprisoned for the brutal murder of a local farming family, a crime to which he readily admitted, and he was left to die in a cage. The circumstances surrounding the crime and his capture, however, were dubious, and his motivations were mysterious. As a player, I was intrigued. I wanted to bring Sten into my party and learn more about him. As a character, though, it was not so straightforward. The idea of traveling with an apparent murderer didn’t mesh with how I had conceived my character, and there was no reasonable in-game justification for me to do so. Freeing Sten would compromise the narrative I had established for myself, while abandoning Sten would compromise the narrative that BioWare had spent so much time crafting for me. By abandoning Sten I am discarding a chunk of story I’m interested in. Other characters may provide a different experience, but none will provide the Sten experience, whatever that might be.
Of course, RPGs are unique for the fact that no two experiences are the same. Even if most players hit the same major plot points, any two players will play as different characters, travel with different characters, make different dialogue choices, experience events in different orders, and overall experience a unique story. Whether as a player or as a character, you will have to make many choices that change the course of your game. You will cut yourself off from some game content as a result of your choices, and there’s no way for the developer to ensure that you have an “ideal” playthrough. As a result, some players will have significantly better or significantly worse experiences than others.
Planescape: Torment frustrated me for this very reason. The game is rightfully lauded for the scope and depth of its narrative, but the game, in so many words, rewards certain characters and punishes others. Characters with high mental statistics – Wisdom in particular, to use the proper D&D terminology – will experience more of the story. They will have greater narrative opportunities. They will have access to more of the game. No fan of Torment will advise you to play The Nameless One as someone of average intelligence, and many will specifically advise against it. There is very much a “right” way to play the game and a “wrong” way, and when I played, I chose the wrong way. The game was still an impressive work, but I couldn’t help but feel as if the game failed in its design. Why should I have a notably inferior experience because I made choices that the game allowed me to make?
But is this really the developer’s fault? Much has been said about emergent gameplay and the role of the player in directing game narratives, but Western RPGs are unique among player-driven games in being much more strongly directed by the developer. Broadly speaking, a Will Wright game or even a Grand Theft Auto game is a sandbox where player action completely directs player experience and the developer is mostly responsible for creating an interesting system, but a Western RPG splits narrative responsibility between the player and the developer. RPG developers try their hardest to ensure that the game is equally rewarding for all players, but there comes a point where narrative integrity cannot be reconciled with freedom of choice. Fallout, perhaps the best example of a non-linear RPG, can be completed without killing a single person. Or you can kill every person in the game. Or you can legitimately beat the game in nine minutes. (Admittedly, not very likely).
In a sandbox game, players can have similarly unique experiences. I could load up Grand Theft Auto IV right now and murder everyone in sight, or I could cruise around obeying traffic laws while listening to Vladivostok Radio. However, the game does not provide meaningful feedback to these actions. The game world responds, but in superficial ways. Pedestrians react to me either as a lawful citizen (which is to say, they do not react) or as a murderous psychopath (they will run away or attack me), and once I lose my wanted level, Liberty City resets to normal. This is not to say that GTAIV’s world isn’t impressively detailed, but its goal is to be a sandbox, and your actions have only temporary consequences. A game like Fallout, however, strives to respond to my actions in meaningful ways. “Choices with real consequences” has been the defining theme of Western RPGs for many years. We even tend to associate choice in games with the RPG genre, the so-called “RPG elements” found in so many games.
The abundance of choice makes RPGs difficult to appraise. We tend to value more choice over less, but this can make games inconsistent, inaccessible, or possibly disastrous. It’s not hard to play Torment or Fallout and make a character that isn’t particularly skilled at anything to the point where the game becomes less satisfying. You are totally within your power to play a character that is contradictory to the point of insanity, performing alternatively righteous and gruesome acts. But these games are near-religious experiences when they work well. Your actions are given a weight they can rarely achieve in other games, and you have a personal investment in the narrative that other media cannot match.
If I play through Dragon Age and have a terrible time because of the choices I make, is that BioWare’s fault? If I enjoy Dragon Age less because my character doesn’t adventure with all of the characters I find most interesting, is that my fault? Would Torment be a better game if it required you to play with high Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma? Is Torment badly designed because the story is not as meaningful to a character who’s dumb as a rock?
I don’t think these are easy questions, and I’ve worded them more simply than they deserve. I don’t want to suggest that all RPG developers should get a pass because of the nature of the genre. Clearly, there are better and worse RPG developers, and better and worse RPGs. But when we talk about how well designed an RPG is, we tend to talk of it as some hypothetical whole. You cannot talk about one person’s experience with Baldur’s Gate II as if it’s definitive, because a choice by its nature requires you to sacrifice other choices. We all learn to weigh the opportunity costs of our choices, and even if we acknowledge that most choices in RPGs are not designed by the developer to be “better” or “worse” than others, we still judge them according to what we personally value, and it’s entirely possible that we will make bad choices.
When we ask ourselves how good an RPG is, in what form do we judge it? Do we judge it based on its greatest potential? Do we judge it based on how strong the average experience is? Do we judge it based on our subjective experience? Can we even truly judge an RPG by playing it once, or do we need to consider what we did not play and possibly never will play? If we play an RPG twice and hate it the first time but love it the second time, do those experiences average out or does the greater experience override the weaker? Or do we judge the game as an abstract, unplayable whole, as a system that facilitates numerous unique experiences?
The optimist in me says that there’s some rational way to judge these games, that we can look at these games as complex narrative systems that either strongly direct players towards satisfying experiences or don’t. Realistically, though, I know that the player plays a major role in that process. RPGs, unlike any other genre, not only benefit from active player investment but demand it. RPGs present you with constant, meaningful choices, and unless you’re prepared to invest yourself in those choices, your experience will suffer. You have to accept that you will probably make some bad choices, and your experience will suffer anyway. RPGs are unique in that regard. More than any other genre, every individual experience is an expression of some platonic game that we can never know. For some of us, that expression will be less meaningful. For others, more. I do not think this is a problem with RPGs, but rather an idiosyncrasy.
Practically speaking, this knowledge does not affect how any given player will play any given RPG. No matter how interesting an RPG is in design, if your experience is weak, then that’s what you’ll take away from the game. Even with a more satisfying experience, there may be low points in your game. But to play RPGs with this knowledge in mind means you will be more aware of one of the great strengths of the medium – that strongly directed and dynamic narrative – and you may find value in the game’s design where you didn’t in your experience.