Getting Into the Role …

Another old GG repost …

So, I’ve just picked up the game “Elder Scrolls: Oblivion” with some trepidation. After all, when I played Morrowind a few years ago — I got it for free with a new video card — the game … didn’t go well. What happened was I was enticed into the game with the vast character creation options, hopped onto a Silt Strider, ended up in some out of the way village somewhere, picked up some plates and things for the novelty, had no idea what to do next or if I was even in the right place … and then went homicidal and attacked a guard, who killed me. I uninstalled the game and never played it again.

So, in thinking about my past history with the series, I started thinking about the age-old debate over what makes for the best roleplaying in a roleplaying game. Some say that sandbox-style games are, in fact, the epitome of roleplaying, because there’s so much freedom to create your own story. Some disagree, finding the lack of a clear story too limiting in being able to play a role.

Thinking about the games that I consider the best games for roleplaying that I’ve ever played, I think I fall into the second camp. The games that I find the best for roleplaying are Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Persona 3 and Persona 4. These games are all incredibly linear; while there are some choices of ending and the like in them, the story pretty much proceeds without you. In a sense, you don’t really make the story at all. So how, then, can I consider so great at delivering roleplaying?

For me, it seems, I don’t really want to change the world when I roleplay. I’m perfectly happy being railroaded down plot elements, and where even if I don’t want to do something the plot conspires to make me do it anyway. Of course, there are better and worse ways to railroad, but the plot working out regardless of what I do isn’t a problem for me, and isn’t really what I’m looking for in a roleplaying game. So, then, what is it that I’m looking for?

I wanna be me … or, rather, I want to be my character. To me, a strong plot and underlying story helps me be my character, as I can play the game as if I was my character tossed into strange circumstances. I can react as my character would react, and the story — more or less credibly — reacts to it. As long as the game doesn’t try to tell me what I’m really thinking, I can be who I want to be. But if that story is taken away, then it’s a bit harder. Not only do I have to craft my character’s reactions, I have to write the story while I’m doing it. It’s too much work; I might as well just write a novel instead of playing the game.

A good example of this comes from KotOR. In that game, at one point you get the big reveal, and the main villain asks if it upsets you. I was playing a version of Corran Horn from the EU novels, and thought that he definitely would be upset by the reveal. However, he also would never let the villain know that it ticked him off. So I answered for my character that he wasn’t upset about it at all. Later, when with my friends, I did unload that it bothered me. But the game didn’t tell me how I actually felt, but just let me decide what to say. It gave me the background story to get really tough decisions in, and never let me get lost, but let me be my character. That, to me, is good roleplaying.

The Persona games are different. The main story is just as linear, if not more so, and there aren’t all that many conversational choices in the game. But about half the game is leveling up what are called “Social Links”. And what are they? Your interactions with people in your high school and city/town. So, outside of the dungeons, you decide who you hang around with, who you date, and who your friends are. And while the individual links are linear as well, they again don’t go into your internal motivations. In one S-link, you meet an unscrupulous businessman you tries to scam you out of some money. To activate the link, you have to “fall” for the scheme a few times, until he tells you that you are naive for falling into it. The second time through the game, I had a character with millions of yen (since money carries over between games), and so my character pretty much suspected that it was all a scam … but with money to burn, he wanted to see how far it would go. So, when charged with being “naive”, he was able to simply shrug his mental shoulders and think to himself “Ah, this is how far you’ll take it.”

Ultimately, good roleplaying allows you to be your character. Yes, more choices about how the story turns out certainly helps with this, but what linear plots give is just that: a plot. A story that you find yourself caught up in and reacting to, and something for you to react to. That reaction to events is roleplaying, no matter how you get it.

Whether that’s by the railroad or the winding country road

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