26 July 2010

Along for the Ride - Playing a Role in RPGs

Note: This is an article that I pitched to The Escapist which was declined but I decided to write as I feel it raises some interesting points.

‘You can put a 'J' in front of it, but it's not an RPG. You don't make any choices, you don't create a character, you don't live your character... I don't know what those are - adventure games maybe? But they're not RPG's.’ - Daniel Erickson, Writing Director (Bioware).

The RPG is a strange beast, constantly evolving and changing in the current video game climate. Right now, you would be hard pressed to find a game that does not include some form of RPG elements. However, that is a different subject entirely. What Erickson is referring to here is the JRPG genre in general and questioning the validity of calling these games, specifically Final Fantasy XIII, RPGs. In broader terms we could ask essentially; what is an RPG? A far greater question than could be answered here. If I had the time and resources I could trace the history of the role-playing game from its roots in Dungeons and Dragons style RP games, through its developments across console generations and the current elements associated with an RPG game to try and form a solid definition. Instead, I would like to scale the process down a few degrees and take an analytical approach towards Erickson’s statement to see if I can develop his thoughts any further.

In the broadest terms possible, it can be argued that all games are role-playing games. There is no denying at a basic level this seems inherently true. In the majority of video game experiences we are placed in control of a specific character. We take part in their story and see it to its conclusion. Does that necessarily mean that we are playing their role though? I would be inclined to disagree.

First, let’s consider what the term ‘role-playing’ actually suggests from a gaming perspective. I’m not searching for a definition but isolating some key associations. It assumes taking on another persona, one that is often completely different from your own. You assume full control of that created character guiding them through a situation, making choices and responding to others based on your created character’s mental processes. In some cases it may be that you decide to incorporate elements of your own psyche into your character but in those cases you are still playing a role, transferring elements of yourself into a new character in a fantastical situation.

With this is mind it seems that certainly a game such as Final Fantasy XIII, recognised as part of the biggest RPG franchises of all time, is actually contradicting the experience of role-playing. For example, the game offers the player control over six different characters. Only three can be used in battle at once but the story revolves around all six and their struggle to understand and complete their Focus. Yet, our ability to control and role-play these characters in severely limited. Consider Hope, a character that for the majority of the game’s introduction holds a strong grudge against Snow; blaming him for the death of his mother named Nora (this also conveniently turns out to be the acronym used for Snow’s rebel team! Coincidence? I think not. Daft writing? Most definitely). So, for a select few hours or so of the game whilst Hope is paired with Lightning we are told and told again and told again that Hope is really mad at Snow and at the next opportunity Hope will unleash the fury he has built up inside of him and quite possibly kill Snow. Of course, that is not the case. We must suffer by watching more cut scenes and listening to more dialogue with Hope consistently losing confidence at the final hurdle. Until at last, he plucks up the courage to say something and attempts to kill Snow.

Now, whilst I am not here to discuss the tedium of that character development I must ask; what was my role in those events? I certainly was not playing the role of Hope; I moved his avatar through each subsequent level; he was there in my party; I selected actions for him to use in battle; I chose which abilities he would learn on the Crystarium and I upgraded his weapon a number of times. However, none of these actions relate to myself, playing the role of the character. They function on another level, separate from the narrative or hidden away in menus which in turn make them very impersonal aspects of character development. At no point could I select Hope, walk up to Snow and decide at that moment I would attempt murder. At no point could I select Lightning and get her to abandon Hope in the forest because he was infuriating.

This is because in Final Fantasy XIII we have no direct control over the story and characters as they are already set in stone by the developers. No matter what minimal actions we are allowed to take, the end result will always be the same because from a narrative perspective those actions have no consequences. If we die we return to the last checkpoint; if we upgrade a character’s statistics or weapon they only become stronger in battles; if we decide to never use a character in battle they will never abandon us or if we rely on the same party combination throughout the whole game we cannot encourage them to develop stronger relationships. Therefore, I would argue that we do not play the role of the characters. We are relatively subservient guardians over their destinies; guiding them towards it without directly influencing the outcome.

As Erickson’s struggles to define Final Fantasy XIII, so do I. A ‘role-experiencing’ game? Indeed, it does not roll so well off the tongue and is so broad it probably defines every form of character driven fiction but it applies more to the game than ‘role-playing’. Let’s now briefly look to the other side and those games that seem to offer the full role playing experience. A whole host of fantastic games instantly spring to mind such as: Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Fable. These games offer that full experience because they place so much emphasis on the player’s control over their character. I’ll narrow things down by taking one game as an example and of course, I am going to use Dragon Age: Origins.

Through the game's foundation in choice and our own imagination we can play the role of our character; choosing how we would act in a specific situation or formulating an in depth personality for our character and choosing how they would react. We can choose which other characters we want our character to develop strong relationships with and in turn, they will receive statistical boosts in battle. Character development, gameplay and narrative are meaningfully tied together instead of awkwardly separated.

In my first play through as Rebecca, a female human noble warrior, I took the second route and forged a completely unique character. She began as a religious sceptic who was kind and compassionate to others but transfixed on avenging the death of her parents. Of course this incorporated some elements of my own personality but when considering dialogue options and some of the game’s significant choices I always considered my character’s mentality first. In addition, I made a number of choices throughout the game for the sole purpose of character development. For example, I decided that the discovery of Andraste's Ashes converted her to a believer in the Maker and her aspiration to see Alistair as king (whom she had formed a close bond with) led to her sacrifice in the defeat of the Archdemon.

In these situations we are offered a true, role-playing experience where we can craft our own original characters; shape the events of the story and become fully immersed within a different world. We are not limited, as in Final Fantasy XIII, to the enclosed path of the story and severely pre arranged stages of character development. In the majority of RPGs and games from other genres we lack a degree of control over the characters. We play their roles no more than when we watch Tony Stark, Frodo Baggins or Michael Corleone. We are given the illusion of role-playing but we are simply there; along for the ride.

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