Have you ever played a pen and paper or tabletop RPG? RPG, for those who obviously don’t know what website they are on, is an acronym for Role Playing Game. In most pen and paper RPGs, at least the ones I’ve played, you take the role of a character that you create, and talk through an adventure with other players. In games like Dungeons and Dragons, a DM, or Dungeon Master, sets up a story or scenario for you and the other players. Some players like to fully immerse themselves in the roles of their characters, and will speak as if they are the character they are role playing. Other players don’t get as into character, but will still make decisions based on the thought processes, ethics, morals, and experiences of their created avatar.
Early computer role playing games kind of gave you a similar experience. Your character would not have much personality, so it was up to you and your imagination to give that character feelings, thoughts, and desires. As I mentioned in an earlier article, you don’t get to play and converse with friends, but you could definitely shout at your computer screen, if you wanted.
As the Japanese RPG started to gain steam in North America, people started associating the term RPG with video games that contained narrative stories and developed characters. While these games pulled a lot of inspiration from Western pen and paper RPGs in terms of lore and gameplay mechanics, something was lost in translation. You, the player, no longer took on the role of the adventurer, you merely experienced the story told by characters that were already written for you.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good SNES Japanese RPG! The Final Fantasy games are some of my favorites, but they don’t really give you that same experience as a true pen and paper RPG gives you. You don’t get to flesh out the character you are taking control of on your own. You are at the mercy of the scenario and story writers, and are told where to “stick the pointy end” of your sword, as it were. There isn’t much of a choice in these types of games. In an RPG, you should have the ability to make decisions on how the story is going to unfold, or at least how you are going to approach the unfolding story. Dialogue of the character you are role playing with shouldn’t be written for you. YOU decide your own course of action. YOU create your own backstory. YOU imagine what the character on screen would have to say in a given situation. In a true RPG experience, YOU are the main character of the story.
I am constantly playing games in the Elder Scrolls series. I play these games because they give me a chance to immerse myself and escape from the world I live in. They also give me the opportunity to fully take on the role of someone else. In a recent playthrough of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I created an older, balding, male Nord named Walsh. I decided that this guy had lost his family in a skirmish between the Stormcloaks and the Empire. He blamed the Empire for his loss, and was incredibly traumatized by the event, as a man who lost his family to violence would be. I would have Walsh act aggressively towards Imperial soldiers whenever the situation arose, and wound up in jail a few times. I made the choice to behave in a way that I knew I’d have to answer for. Eventually, Walsh met up with Ralof again after escaping Helgen with him, and joined the Stormcloaks so he could continue to hurt the Empire. Sure, I could have just as much fun passively experiencing the story without giving my character a backstory and motivation, but I was playing a role. I enveloped myself in Walsh’s story and tried to imagine how he would react to given situations and I loved it.
Games like Skyrim, Fallout, Kingdoms of Amalur, and Baldur’s Gate give you the ability to create your own character and step into the role of that character. By creating your own character, I don’t just mean morphing the character’s face to be the perfect image of Lumpz the Clown. You get to not only LOOK just like our clowny contributor, but you get the chance to fully realize your dream to make decisions as the clown ninja with a heart of gold himself would. This is a TRUE role playing experience.
Yes, games like Final Fantasy X give you the ability to step into the shoes of characters like Tidus, and experience the story through him, but they don’t give you the ability to act out his role in the story. You simply run him down a (literal) linear path, press a button to watch him swing his sword, hear him make “witty” comments, and force laughter like a moron. If Final Fantasy X gave you a TRUE RPG experience, you would be able to respond to Yuna in such a way that you’d never have to watch that horrible, horrible cutscene ever again. By the standards of Final Fantasy X, pretty much ANY video game could be given the label “RPG.” You don’t role play Mega Man, but you run him down a linear path, press a button to make him shoot, hear him scream like a child in pain when he gets hit, and force terrible dialogue like a moron. (I’m looking at you, Mega Man 8) There isn’t a lot of difference.
I challenge everyone to at least try and role play through a game like I described earlier. Give your character motivation, a backstory, and act out the way that character would act in a given situation. Don’t attempt to get the best outcome gameplay wise to each decision you must make, make the decision that would give the CHARACTER you are role playing the best perceived outcome through his or her eyes. This is a great way to revitalize your interest in a game you’ve invested thousands of hours into. It’s a ton of fun and worth trying, at least once.