The Player’s Role

I

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.

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15 Responses to The Player’s Role

  1. Anonymous December 28, 2009 at 1:36 PM #

    Heh, I was already thinking of Sten before you even mentioned him, as my character faced just the same dilemma the first time I played Dragon Age. Or should I say, I faced the dilemma, as my character could see no good reason for letting him out of the cage, it was me who wanted to. But, I held to character and left him there. It’s a testament to the game that I cared enough to want to stay in character at the cost of missing content, I’m usually far more of a content-glutton.

    Now I’m replaying with another character, and very much enjoying his Stenny goodness. He’s a great character, and interesting to have along – but I don’t feel that leaving him in the cage before was the wrong decision, or that my first playthrough lacked anything as a result. It made sense for that character, and that story, and overall, I was very happy with the narrative I ended up creating by the end of the game. Which is what matters, to me.

    I like that DA:O provides many ways to do this, there doesn’t feel like there is an overarching Right or Wrong Way to go about things. I daresay there are still narrative holes one can fall into, but considering how hard it is to cover all bases in terms of players’ ambitions, I was impressed.

    • Grayson Davis December 28, 2009 at 3:17 PM #

      “I daresay there are still narrative holes one can fall into, but considering how hard it is to cover all bases in terms of players’ ambitions, I was impressed.”

      Yeah, BioWare has definitely gotten quite good at creating very smooth narrative experiences no matter what choices you make (even when they give you very meaningful choices). I do sometimes wonder, though, if modern BioWare games are a little “flatter” than other RPGs, i.e. the lows aren’t nearly as low but the highs aren’t quite as high, even if the overall experience is much more enjoyable than many other games.

      And I’m glad to hear Sten is a good character. I was planning on picking him up on my second playthrough.

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Anonymous January 10, 2010 at 12:50 PM #

    Regarding your point in the beginning, what’s wrong with playing your character as the “good kid who fell in with the bad crowd”? Sometimes, cohesiveness in games is what you make of it. I made choices like that in Mass Effect, the character’s reasoning being my own.

    A good dynamic RPG shouldn’t give you a “worse” experience for making certain choices, rather it should give you a different one. It should allow you to just go with the flow, even if you feel like your missing out on some content.

    It’s satisfying to compare your experience with others online, or to have an entirely new one through subsequent play-throughs.

    Also, I like the recent emergence of dynamic narrative in other genres. Just yesterday I started playing Far Cry 2, where a buddy was killed because I failed to save him in time. Rather than game over, the game continued and I won’t get to experience that characters story until my second play-through The reason he was put in jeopardy was because of how I decided to tackle the mission in the first place, and this revealed to me a multi-faceted system that actually beats out anything Bioware has done.

    Anyway, I think I’ve fallen for this gameplay device a little more than you have, but great article all the same!

    • Grayson Davis January 11, 2010 at 10:44 AM #

      “Regarding your point in the beginning, what’s wrong with playing your character as the “good kid who fell in with the bad crowd”?”

      You’re absolutely right about this. Sometimes you can create a story for yourself that lets you do some unusual things without feeling like you’ve “cheated” the game’s story. This is how I justified my character in DA teaming up with Zevran :)

  3. Ken Rolston January 12, 2010 at 12:25 PM #

    Consider the roads not traveled, and your imaginative interest in those roads, to be a significant part of the value of an RPG experience like Dragon Age.

    If a player is are anxious about missing out on content and experiences, he can wait to play until he can review bulletin boards, FAQs, and walkthroughs and make a more informed choice. He’ll lose the delight of narrative discovery… but he should accept the responsibility of balancing that loss against his anxiety about missing a ‘best’ gameplay experience.

    To make an informed judgement about Dragon Age or Torment, you need to consider more than your own responses to your own game sessions. You can experience and report your personal experiences, and profitably for your readers, and you can enrich your reports if you play and replay, exploring and weighing the values of roads not taken in other playthroughs. But I think an informed critical appraisal of Dragon Age’s value will require some understanding of the playthroughs and responses of many other players.

    The formal presentation of narrative choice is relatively modest, even in the RPG genre, compared to the scope of conflicts and choices implied in the greater narrative of the game. If you delight in those modest choices, then you are in good company. It seems ungrateful to complain about the difficulty of the sacrifices and uncertain rewards those choices imply.

    Personally, I grumble when comparing the attractive fantasy of the Shapeshifter narrative to the not-very-satisfying gameplay experience offered by the Shapeshifter mechanics. But I don’t grumble about the quality of the narrative choices presented by Dragon Age’s companion characters. Those choices are delicious and praiseworthy, perhaps even BECAUSE they involve personal sacrifices of roads not taken.

    • Grayson Davis January 12, 2010 at 12:43 PM #

      All very good points. Thanks for your comment!

    • Jason Young January 12, 2010 at 1:25 PM #

      Thanks for taking the time to make the informed response, Ken. I personally respect your opinion a great deal and should probably thank you for some of the most enjoyable RPG hours I’ve ever clocked.

      I have just started Dragon Age and have actually regretted some of my decisions to try and take on too many paths with one character so far. The less actions I have to ‘justify’ or ‘excuse’ for my character, the more seamless and positive my roleplaying becomes. So far, Dragon Age seems to do a pretty good job of avoiding situations where I am forced to compromise my character’s personality for the sake of the plot or a required quest. My own selfish desire to experience more game in less time has been the only problem I’ve encountered.

  4. Dolgion January 14, 2010 at 8:35 PM #

    First, I have to say I didn’t play Dragon Age yet. In my opinion the sten-situation shouldn’t have been an issue at all, if Bioware had designed the game with a stronger vision.
    The game designer has several options how to deal with such dilemmas.
    Either he could simply forbid a character of your alignment to team up with a murderer (not giving you even the option to take him into your party), or the game could allow you to take Sten, but causing your character serious penalties on his/her credibility in relation to the world, as well as your character starting to complain after a while (like in BG2, which can cause Sten to leave the party), or even a change in alignment of your character through influence by Sten (if you decide to do evil deeds with Sten’s presence). In the end, the question is to what extent the game allows you to control your character/ who has the power over whom.

    • Anonymous January 15, 2010 at 4:34 AM #

      @Dolgion

      If played it, I think you’d be pleasantly surprised by how close the dynamic is to things you describe.

      I especially like the bit where Sten tries to challenge for control of the party, if he thinks you’re wasting time with stuff he considers unimportant.

  5. Jargo January 15, 2010 at 4:15 AM #

    Hmmm, i really don’t see the problem.

    First time i encountered Sten in Dragon Age with my stereotypical good dwarven warrior i left him in his cage, alistar was a better suited fighter for the good cause anyway.

    After having so much fun with the game, i started again as a really evil mage and of course freed Sten how is now my primal fighter.

    Isn’t this WHY we play rpgs ? To have choices and don’t see the “full” game in the first play. And to play it again with a total different approach?

  6. Matt W January 15, 2010 at 7:33 AM #

    WRT Torment, I’d argue that the mechanical weighting towards mental attributes in general and wisdom in particular is thematically appropriate. The game (and the setting is portrayed in keeping with this) is a fairly strongly cerebral experience, with an emphasis on introspection, reasoning and social exchanges.

    The message it repeatedly throws at you is that, while it is usually possible to make progress with violence and ignorance, it’s rarely the optimal path. Given this, the fact that you /can/ make a fighter character with high physical stats and low mental stats, but that he’ll fail to experience the full range of opportunities available in the gameworld, is in fact a very neat mechanical reflection of the overarching themes.

    Or, in other words, the fact that “the story is not as meaningful to a character who’s dumb as a rock” is a natural and indeed desirable consequence of the game’s setting, and serves as a very neat piece of mechanical commentary.

    Also, from a purely mechanical standpoint, wisdom gives you more experience, which makes it a natural option for anyone with the slightest min-maxing tendencies anyway :P

  7. Grayson Davis January 15, 2010 at 10:11 AM #

    @Jargo

    “Isn’t this WHY we play rpgs ? To have choices and don’t see the “full” game in the first play. And to play it again with a total different approach?”

    This is definitely a big part of it, but this is also one of my questions: if you play an RPG only once, are you less ‘qualified’ to talk about the game than someone who’s played it twice? At what point do we see the ‘full game,’ if ever?

    @Matt W

    “Or, in other words, the fact that “the story is not as meaningful to a character who’s dumb as a rock” is a natural and indeed desirable consequence of the game’s setting, and serves as a very neat piece of mechanical commentary.”

    I generally agree with this, but it conflicts with what we conventionally consider ‘good game design’ these days. We don’t like to be told that one way of playing the game is less meaningful than another. Is it interesting? Absolutely. But it is problematic, I think, or at least raises some design concerns.

    Thanks for the comments everybody.

    • Anonymous January 15, 2010 at 3:31 PM #

      @Grayson Davis

      I don’t think I’d argue with the suggestion that that sort of thing is rarely a good idea in a “conventional” game. For example, it’s probably a bad decision in something like Dragon Age, where much of the target audience is not looking to be pushed outside their comfort zones or feel like they’re being short-changed for making whatever decisions they feel like.

      However, any convention which holds that it’s always bad design to present an agenda/message/ideology (mechanically or narratively), or to push the player out of their comfort zone or tell them they’ve made a bad decision, seems to resign gaming to being a comparatively banal and unchallenging form of entertainment, and nothing more.

      tl;dr Any convention which considers Torment’s narrative structure bad design, is a bad convention :P

      • Grayson Davis January 15, 2010 at 4:08 PM #

        “However, any convention which holds that it’s always bad design to present an agenda/message/ideology (mechanically or narratively), or to push the player out of their comfort zone or tell them they’ve made a bad decision, seems to resign gaming to being a comparatively banal and unchallenging form of entertainment, and nothing more.”

        I can generally agree with this, though “telling the player they’ve made a bad decision” is a precarious design choice, as you run the risk of “telling” the player by simply cutting them off from more interesting content. It’s something I feel RPGs have handled pretty badly at times, perhaps even Torment in some areas (though it’s been too long since I’ve played the game to go into great detail on that). Though RPGs have also handled this very well (including Torment in other ways!), so it’s a toss-up.

    • Anonymous January 17, 2010 at 4:39 AM #

      Quoting Grayson Davis:
      @Jargo

      “Isn’t this WHY we play rpgs ? To have choices and don’t see the “full” game in the first play. And to play it again with a total different approach?”

      This is definitely a big part of it, but this is also one of my questions: if you play an RPG only once, are you less ‘qualified’ to talk about the game than someone who’s played it twice? At what point do we see the ‘full game,’ if ever?

      I think to see the “full” game you have to play it 4 times because there are 4 archivements for diffrent endings. i will try it but i probably wont have the time. but i dont fell cheated in any way.

      I remember old rp games where i never avoided a battle via talking because i missed maybe a interesting item in the loot of the opponent. today you often get a special reward for not fighting.

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