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Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games

Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 8, 2008 2:55 AM (edited 1/8/08 9:48 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
The term “RPG” gets thrown around a lot in the realm of video games, but the literal meaning of the phrase “role playing game” seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. You’d be hard pressed to argue that you play more of a “role” in a modern Final Fantasy game than in any given Grand Theft Auto game, for example. Nonetheless, I think the term still holds significance. Only a few RPG’s have ever really made me feel like I was playing the role of the character, where his motives, feelings, and decisions were in fact my own. Two series of games in particular have achieved this, in my experience: Ultima and Baldur’s Gate. Though I’ve given it a lot of thought, I haven’t discovered any single factor that sets these games apart from others in the genre.

There are a number of buzz-words that get tossed around in reference to RPG’s these days, which all supposedly enhance the interactivity of the game. The oldest of these is non-linearity, where a game does not force you down a set path from beginning to end. The more recent concept that has been played up by games like KOTOR and Mass Effect is that of choice and consequences. I don’t believe either of these has much to do with achieving the sort of role playing I’m talking about here, or more accurately, neither are vital to achieving it. But then, what is the “X-Factor” that sets Ultima and Baldur’s Gate apart?

The pen-and-paper role playing games that early role playing video games were based on are by their very nature non-linear. The starting point is generally defined, but neither the middle nor the end necessarily is before the game is played. Even when a campaign has an overarching plot, there is a good chance the overall plot could change depending on how the characters behave. We have not yet reached the point where video games can have such an undefined ending. Most games proceed from event to event in the same order every time, but many RPGs try to avoid this by allowing the player to decide for himself when to follow certain plotlines. There will always be a finite number of events to follow, but some may be missed entirely on a given playthrough, and the game can even have multiple endings depending on what the player does. This is the core concept of non-linearity, and the theory is that a non-linear game is closer to the pen-and-paper role playing ideal because the players’ decisions have an important impact on the game.

Non-linearity comes in many flavors. In most modern RPGs, the main quest is linear, with many sidequests available at any given time to give the illusion of non-linear play. This is often done because of the high production values involved in modern games: if you have to spend money to put a scene together, you want that scene to be used. It can also keep the main storyline from getting out of hand (though not always – it’s always fun to spend months breeding chocobos in Final Fantasy VII while the meteor is set to hit the planet “any day now”). Ultima VII, a game of high role playing quality, follows this model loosely. There is a main plot which you eventually must follow to finish the game, but there is plenty to do on the side.

A second form of non-linearity involves branching story paths, where the player can choose from several possible sequences of events to progress the plot. They usually recombine into the main plot at a later point, but can remain divided right through the ending. Baldur’s Gate II has one example of this type of gameplay, where you can choose wildly different routes to your goals at certain points in the plot. This model adds replay value (and can frustrate obsessive gamers if you can’t explore the alternate paths later), but doesn’t seem to add much to the role playing aspect of a game. It is more akin to the “choice” concept discussed below.

The truest form of non-linearity that I am familiar with is where a game has a goal, but no predefined path to that goal. This is how the middle Ultima games were designed, and it definitely helps to create a true sense of role playing. Still, you can generally boil these kinds of games down to just a few vital goals, most of which are linear in and of themselves. And directionless game design doesn’t necessarily lead to a feeling of role playing, as evidenced by the first several Ultimas, where you spend much of the game just trying to figure out how to make any progress.

So how much influence does linearity have on role playing? Clearly a totally linear game will have a hard time creating a sense of player control, but it doesn’t seem necessary for a game to be as non-linear as Ultima V to be considered a true RPG. Baldur’s Gate II and Ultima VII are both linear to different extents, yet include some of the best video game role playing one is likely to find. But these games do have a different, but related, concept in common: freedom. In Ultima IV-VI, you can go anywhere in the world right away, and must to discover how to achieve your goals. But in Baldur’s Gate (especially the first) and Ultima VII, you are still quickly given free access to the world despite the linearity of the plot. Not only are you free to explore, but you can discover clues that are part of the main storyline long before their importance is known.

Moral choices have been all the rage recently, especially in BioWare games. Even before KOTOR and Mass Effect, the Baldur’s Gate series allowed you to play any of the nine D&D alignments, though they didn’t make nearly a big a deal of this as in KOTOR. This phenomenon isn’t restricted to BioWare, either, with games like Fable also trying their hand at morality. Choice is not necessarily limited to morality, either. As mentioned previously, you can choose branching plot paths in some games, or choose different party setups, or even choose sides in a conflict. Often these choices lead to different endings, developing different skill sets (such as light side or dark side powers in KOTOR), and so on.

I admit I’ve played few of these games, but I keep hearing the same sentiments about them: people play through the first time, excited to try both the good and evil path (or whatever), but when they finish the game once they often do not return to it. Indeed, this is consistent with my own experiences, where for instance in Baldur’s Gate II I never had any real desire to play through as a character of another alignment, or choose a different path at some point in the game. (Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t if I replayed the game, just that I wasn’t compelled to replay it just to do these things.) We must ask ourselves why this is.

My hypothesis is that it has everything to do with what “role playing” is really about. I played Baldur’s Gate as a Lawful Neutral character, because that’s the alignment I’ve always felt drawn to in D&D. Alignment doesn’t dictate your actions in the game in any mechanical way, yet I followed mine very closely because I was role playing, and I was rewarded with one of the richest experiences I’ve had playing a game. I wanted revenge on the villain for what he did to me, a feeling totally consistent with my alignment, because I was playing me as much as I was playing a character. I doubt I could ever get as much out of the game as an alignment I didn’t really understand. (In this way it seems to me that tabletop games and video games differ greatly: In table top games people often play characters much different from themselves as an escape, yet this is true of the majority of video game characters as it is. In video games the holy grail of role playing is to play out a fantasy situation more than a character.)

Of course, that’s not to say that choice doesn’t promote role playing: if you are better able to express yourself through your character, you will feel more in touch with that character. Many choice-based games have only superficial differences based on how you act, which is often considered a shortcoming. I would tend to disagree with this analysis, as I find that a well-constructed story can often lead to the same end regardless of personality. (For instance, in Baldur’s Gate you will defeat the villain whether you’re good and want to rid the world of his evil, or you’re evil and after his power, etc.) But nor is choice necessarily required for role playing. In every Ultima game from IV on, you are obligated to uphold the eight Ultima virtues, but this doesn’t get in the way of role playing. (Of course, most people would consider themselves virtuous, or at least wish that they were – perhaps one who has problems with the virtues would find the Ultima series annoying to play.)

In the end, you need some form of choice, however arbitrary, to qualify as a role playing game. Like the concept of freedom mentioned earlier, choice lets you play the game you want to, which is a vital part of role playing. Even in games without moral choices (like the Ultimas), you often have multiple ways to accomplish your goals. A lack of choices stifles roleplaying, but even the most superficial ones can encourage it.

What Else?
Freedom seems to be a central concept to role playing video games, but how else can it be expressed besides the concepts outlined above? These concepts allow for freedom in the moment-to-moment gameplay, but don’t necessarily address the long term. For that, you need freedom of plot. No one has quite come up with a totally open-ended RPG just yet, so we’ll have to settle for a freedom-friendly plot. What kind of plot am I talking about? A minimalist one.

One thing the Ultima and Baldur’s Gate games have in common is that the overall plot, while important, does not really bear down on you at all times. Whether you’re trying to become a champion of virtue, rescue your sovereign lord, or avenge yourself, you aren’t constantly under the burden of taking the next step in the plot. In these games, you are often thrown into a world with a clear goal, but without a clear method of achieving it. Much of the gameplay revolves around discovering clues not only about how to proceed, but about what you should even be doing. Time is generally not of the essence, and you’re free to decide for yourself which leads are most important and ought to be followed up on first. In short, you, and not your character, are doing the work to progress through the game. This is the fundamental basis of role playing.

Role Playing in Modern RPGs
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all RPGs that don’t fit the narrow definition of “role playing” I’ve tried to codify here are not worthwhile or anything. I am an unabashed Final Fantasy fanboy, I just think the term “RPG” is hilariously out of touch with reality. But I feel that modern games have failed to capture the vibe I get from the classic RPGs, and I miss that feeling. I haven’t discovered such a game in a number of years, and I must ask myself two questions: why not, and can that be changed?

The first question seems simple enough to answer. Game design has favored accessibility and high production values of late, and neither is very compatible with freedom in a game. As I said before, if you spend a lot of money designing cutscenes, you want them to be used, and the more specific they are, the less freedom the player has. Voice acting in particular can be a problem because it doesn’t easily allow for subtle changes that acknowledge the player’s decisions and make them feel significant. Further, a game released today where you are dumped into a world with little or no immediate direction would put off many potential players. Even a game like Ultima VII, which has a linear plot but one which you are not hand-held through, would cause an outcry from the mainstream, and rightfully so.

So, what can be done to bring back some real role playing to our games? As I mentioned, true player freedom is not necessarily compatible with an accessible game, so it may be that “true” RPGs ought to be restricted to the hardcore. A large retail release following all the suggestions I have made here would almost surely fail. Perhaps then a smaller effort, such as a downloadable game of some kind. This has the additional advantage of avoiding the high production value pitfalls: voice acting won’t restrict your game if you don’t have any. Hell, maybe there is a treasure trove of exactly these kinds of games out there right now (for all I know, the Avernum disc [thanks Steve! Smile] sitting on my desk is the answer to all of my worries).

The era of the role playing-centric RPG may be over, at least in the mainstream. In fact, it’s arguable that such games never were mainstream to begin with: the Ultima series was among the best-known for home computers during its time, but gaming was still very much in its infancy at the time. Games such as KOTOR and Mass Effect have clearly been designed to bring some of these concepts to big games, but I feel that the focus on buzzwords like moral choice and non-linearity is hurting as much as its helping, causing people to see them as gimmicks instead of essential game design. If we get to the point where such things are expected of RPGs instead of being bullet points for the back of the box, perhaps we’ll be getting somewhere. But in the meantime, maybe we should take another look at what “RPG” really stands for.

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 8, 2008 4:20 PM (edited 1/8/08 11:20 AM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
I'm going to try to reply to this now, but I've honestly been a bit light headed and dizzy from all the medicine I'm on today, so if my reply doesn't make sense I want to apologize in advance Smile

I want to add an extra criteria to your list:

I'm defining this as how much the game world responds to player actions. I think this principle is what you were getting at with Choice and Linearity, but I've found that games can have both of those and have very little Reactivity.

I have not played any of the Ultimas or Baldur's Gate to any great extent, although I have messed around in both of them. The main RPGs I've played have been both KOTORs, Fable, Morrowind (although I didn't finish this) and Fallout 1.

In terms of Reactivity I would put Morrowind at the top, followed closely by KOTOR II, then KOTOR I, then Fable, then Fallout 1.

In Morrowind the general response to the world around you is dictated based on your character to an almost unbelievable extent, with your race, class, notoriety, guilds you belong to and quests you've done determining the reaction of every NPC in the game.

KOTOR II is similarly reactive although the reactions tend to take place more within your party, with the choices of your character determining how much party members are willing to open up to you and how much they despise you. It provided for a pretty intense character experience, and was easily my favorite part of the game. Several of the characters could become Jedi in time if you were able to be the sort of leader they were looking for.

KOTOR I lacked that degree of party interaction (although there are still characters at either end of the spectrum who won't deal with you if you are too far in the other direction) but the game had a brilliant series of 'key moments" - scenes you had to play out regardless of whether you were Dark or Light, but with vastly different outcomes for each scenario.

Fable is, I think, where you see the maximum amount of choice and non-linearity and the minimum amount of reactivity in a modern game. 95% of the quests in the game are optional, and the only "linearity" comes from the fact that you need a certain amount of notoriety before taking on a quest, but regardless of how you complete it (good, evil, neutral), the outcome is usually the same for you. Rewards don't differ much and the world doesn't change much, all that changes is your character.

Fallout is practically the definition of Old School, and no less fun for that. I don't really recall it offering much in the way of Linearity or Reactivity, but it it offered a whole lot of Choice, and it probably altered the game play experience based on the initial character stats more than any other game except Morrowind.


Other than adding that criteria my thoughts on your post are the following:

1) I think it's a bit hard to define one title as "more of an RPG" than another title when people play RPGs for so many different reasons, even when playing Tabletop RPGS, which offer totally freeform play - didn't the PHB2 or DMG2 go over the different player types?

2) I'm not sure that the ability to define your character necessarily makes a game feel more like an RPG to me. I'm still playing a role even if the role is pre-determined for me, and I'm not always opposed to that. I think the strength of the role matters more to me.

Ugh, I think I had more thoughts but the cotton balls in my brain keep getting in the way. Maybe more later.
I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 8, 2008 4:31 PM (edited 1/8/08 11:31 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
Yeah, I really needed to come up with a different term than "role playing" here, since it's really ambiguous and I meant something very specific (i.e., the feeling I get playing Ultima V and similar games). Kind of like how I used "game" with multiple meanings in the APFFRT... gotta stop that. Smile

As for reactivity, yeah, that is a good concept and one I hadn't considered because I haven't played a lot of games where it is a big deal. There's a small bit of it in Ultima, in early games if you weren't virtuous and more specifically in Ultima VII based on whether you wore a Fellowship medallion (which was interesting because you could join the Fellowship, but the average member didn't know whether you did or not and just judged you based on the presence or lack of a medallion). Baldur's Gate had some of this sort of thing, I believe, but having only played through it the one time I'm not absolutely sure.

Of course, this concept also applies on a different level where Ultima shines, that of person-to-person interaction. Many characters will react differently based on how you acted towards them in conversation. In early games this was limited to canned responses to questions ("do you think I'm a good mage?" where they would be mad if you said no and give you a clue if you said yes), but they did tend to have a little bit of depth as the series progressed. Of course, these are almost always malleable (often you can just talk to the person again and say the opposite things to get another response) because it's a game, but it definitely enhances the conversation system.

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 8, 2008 4:44 PM (edited 1/8/08 11:44 AM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
Yeah, that's very much the kind of thing I'm talking about. I think it can really be boiled down to "how much do I feel like I'm changing the game world, not just the plot?". I did finally play through Fable a second time, but only because the expansion pack had come out and I needed to replay it on the PC since I no longer had an Xbox. Since I was replaying it anyway I finally did a different alignment, but there wasn't a lot of reason to try a new alignment for it's own sake because doing so had very little impact.

Whereas I played both KOTOR games through twice to see the difference between light and dark in each one.

I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 22, 2008 3:22 PM (edited 1/22/08 10:22 AM)
chaoscat (452 posts) Ambassador of Good Will
Rating: Not Rated
Now here's a question: is it possible to have a reactive world in an MMO?

I think you can, to a degree. Obviously things can't die and stay dead, but you can have NPCs remember a character's actions, and react based on race/class/quests completed/etc. I haven't played that many, but I don't really know of much that does this. Anyone else have thoughts?

Balerion (3:13 PM): wow Tozzi, that was the best tiny dick joke I've ever heard

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 22, 2008 3:28 PM (edited 1/22/08 10:28 AM)
Balerion (1224 posts) Elite Powergamer
Rating: Not Rated
Lord of the Rings Online had a fairly early stage when you leave the "beginners area" where your village is attacked and torched and it remains a burnt and blackened village for the rest of the game. Not sure how many other things like that they do, but it seems possible to me.

I really think the three “!”s really captures the exuberance that Clair must have been feeling when he almost said it. -Cuzzo

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 22, 2008 3:32 PM (edited 1/22/08 10:32 AM)
Talraen (2373 posts) Doesn't Play with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I don't know, given how much praise Mass Effect got for doing things like this in a single player game, it seems like legitimate NPC reactions are too complex for an MMO, at least any time soon.

Re: Role Playing and Freedom in Video Games – January 22, 2008 4:17 PM (edited 1/22/08 11:17 AM)
Airclair (1096 posts) Doesn't Play Well with Others
Rating: Not Rated
I've been playing WoW again and they have factions that you gain reputation with. one of them is the Skyguard and when you hit Honored they begin to respond (via text that everyone can see in the immediate area, as if they're speaking) with salutations/hails. When you reach Exalted they respond with cheers and accolades and high praise.

Instances (unique versions of dungeons as you enter them) are a step towards reactivity I believe. Certainly when a player entered Lower Guk (lguk) or Sebilis (seb) in EverQuest, what they saw was never what was intended (unless you were like me and saw Seb day 2 or whatever, woo), instead you saw a blank zone with campers sitting at the rare spawn points, or parties cleaving their way through stuff. Instances certainly allow you to experience the dungeon as the designers designed it, and for you to experience a plot of sorts.

I think true reactivity is going to be difficult. As any long time EQ player could tell you, missing that GM quest that rewarded the best role-playg (oh I mean kiss ass) with that swanky artifact was great, except you'll never get a chance for it yourself. With PVP necessitating at least the potential for equality (hey man, SKILL!) it will be difficult to fit in truly unique encounters into an MMO that respond to you, the individual player.

As always when this topic comes up, I think FF had it right. Fully instanced quests with cut scenes. Yea it's linear, but it was immersive as hell.

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