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The Roles of Roleplaying

On 06/29/2021 at 01:33 PM by Matt Snee

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There are many types of games, but what video games have still yet to rival tabletop games in is roleplaying itself. Western RPGS like Dragon Age and Divinity can tell grand stories, and offer players branching stories and conversation choices and a variety of ways to solve problems. But the essence of tabletop roleplaying – of creating and playacting a character of your own design, revealing their traits and desires though their actions, limited only by your imagination and the GameMaster’s leniency – is still very limited in video games. I’m not disparaging them; I’m just saying that playing a “role” is still in its infancy in interactive media, at least compared to tabletop games. I don’t know if that’s because it’s difficult to create video games that do this; or if games designers are just focused on other things – yes, it’s interesting to not be limited to binary choices and rigid solutions to problems and enemies; but what is less developed in games is the ability for the player to create and playact characters of almost limitless variety.

I’m not saying you can’t do this in games, and it’s a mechanic that many games use now. I’m just pointing out that often it’s a secondary concern or interest to the developers. And I’m not saying every game should do this. But I think there is room for some games to expand on what’s out there. 

I’ve been playing a lot of Europa Universalis, and while it’s certainly not a casual game, there is something about these types of games that really impress me – because in these games, anything is possible. In Europa Universalis 4, you might play as Japan and colonize Africa; or you might play as West Mali and colonize Norway. I’m not evangelizing the joys of colonization here, but what I’m to point out is the malleability of these games. Will you support the clergy or the nobles? Will You allow the merchants free reign? Will your country be a religiously tolerant society? Or will you somehow maintain a balance of all these things? You could also just play as a small state riding out the tides of empires. 

Western RPGs give you a lot of freedom to go where you want these days, but they don’t give you so much freedom to be WHO you want. We all tell ourselves stories and myths about our lives. But we are truly revealed to ourselves – and others – by the decisions we make and the things we say. There isn’t a good or evil answer to every decision. There isn’t a “middle road” answer to every decision. We have to make choices not knowing where they will lead – but the choices we make define us. 

I understand that the more possibilities in the game, the harder it is to program. And I’m not trying to be prescriptive, really. I’m just asking for game designers to focus less on telling their stories – and focus more giving the players the tools to tell their own stories. 




06/29/2021 at 02:32 PM

Origin Systems experimented with that concept in the 90s, especially with the last two Ultimas they made before they sold the company to EA, but the playtesting was an expensive nightmare for them and the games yielded little profit to show for their troubles. I imagine those issues would be orders of magnitude more problematic now.  Garriott tried to replicate that concept online with Shroud of the Avatar, where they claimed you could be an adventurer, a local artisan, or anything else you wanted in the game world. I wonder if you could role-play as a harlot.  Sadly, it fell quite short of its ambition, met a similarly lackluster commercial reception combined with a chilly critical reception after six years of development (at least from the time it was announced) and he ended up taking the game FTP before selling it off to one of his colleagues and retiring from game development. On a grander scale, Garriott's former employee/rival Chris Roberts has collected almost half a billion dollars in crowdfunding for Star Citizen, also with very little to show for it after almost a decade.  That's part of why RPG video games try to stay focused on staying within a narrative. Such projects look great on paper, but in practice almost always fall victim to feature creep and a sense of feeling unfocused.

Probably the most successful game that approximates that kind of role-playing is not an actual RPG, namely Grand Theft Auto Online, which allows you to try and create your own brand of mayhem on the streets if you don't want to participate in missions. Even then, most of that ends being the same kind of stuff that ends up on Arizona news sites when some random fool decides to start trouble at the local Circle K. 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

06/30/2021 at 07:49 AM

yeah, being able to do EVERYTHING is a little out of control. What I'm trying to suggest though is carefully curated choices that, when put together, create a character more complex than "good, bad, or middle." I find I have more fun when a character starts to be visible due to the choices I make in a game. I've been playing Tyranny a lot lately, and there's a lot of interesting choices in it that have let me start to sculpt my own personal story. I'm not saying games don't do this, I just think when they do, they're kind of unaware of it. 

You know, I was looking at Ultima 7 the other day on GOG. It's playable on Mac, so I think I'm gonna buy it. Just a couple bucks. 


06/30/2021 at 02:52 PM

Kingdom Come: Deliverance might be what you're looking for. 


06/29/2021 at 08:36 PM

If I cosplay as a goliath while playing Borderlands 3, does that count as true roleplaying in a video game?

Matt Snee Staff Writer

06/30/2021 at 07:50 AM

I don't see why not!


06/30/2021 at 07:02 PM

Tabletop RPGs are only limited by the ruleset, the minds of the players, and the mind of the GM. Video games replicate the first one pretty well, but the other two are limited by practical content limits and cpu intelligence. Human gamemaster level dynamic AI just isn't there yet, or it's not available to game developers at a practical expense.

What you're specifically commenting on is, I guess, character expression. While being a Figher, Mage, or Street Samurai ARE part of your role/identity (your trade/career is part of who you are)) it's the artists, animators, mo-cap actors, writers,and voice actors that  get to decide the personal touches. They get to decide how your avatar speaks and what he/she speaks, how they stand, how they move, how they gesticulate, how they look or can look.  In that light, zero video games allow you to actually role-play, unless there is some VR game with a fully reactive world I don't know about.

 Games like Tyranny are the exceptions, and more of then than not come from the singular lineage of Black Isle/Troika/Obsidian, or in the independent space, those influenced by them. I'm convinced most other developers making video RPGs have little if any experience with the source material: pen and paper RPGs; they just see what other video games have done and emulate. So they have no roadmap for the what and why of the genre, where to go, or what the possibilities are.

 Possibly another roadblock is the normalization of limitations in the most popular RPGs. Why deliver more than what a large number of players have come to expect from the most popular games, whether that's Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, The Witcher, or Persona?  Objectivley speaking, these games are far more..concise than RPGs normally aimed at the 'hardcore' CRPG audience.  They may succeed superbly in their own right, but people who only play these types of games may just assume they do all that can be done.  How much of a dent can/did exceptions like the fairly mainstream New Vegas (Obsidian again) make?

 Anyway, this is a topic I think about often and like to discuss. Anytime you want to chew the fat about it, I'm down :)


06/30/2021 at 09:44 PM

Fallout: New Vegas is my favorite of the Fallout games because of how the number crunching and character development works in interacting with the game world. It was leaps and bounds above 3. Unfortunately, it fell just short of critical and commercial benchmarks set in the agreement between Bethesda and Obsidian. New Vegas ended up being a big financial loss for Obsidian. I will also say that the delays with South Park: The Stick of Truth after its original publisher, THQ, was liquidated, were nearly the nails in the coffin for Obsidian. Pillars of Eternity, a low-budget, crowdfunded game, saved Obsidian from the same fate as Black Isle. To a degree, The Outer Worlds does recapture the brilliance of NV to a degree, and tries to make the decisions as weighty as those in NV. It was one of my favorite games of the past couple of years, but it's a more abbreviated experience because of limitations, specifically the limits of Obsidian's bank account. 

Bethesda's takeaway from New Vegas was to adopt a very play-it-safe approach for Fallout 4. Your choices weren't really consequential and didn't stand between you and the finish line. There was no cap on leveling and perks. If you play long enough, you'll be as much of an OP god as Terra in FFVI's endgame. There's only one choice in the entire game that changes the ending cinematic. At least the settlement-building was amusing, at least as far as testing the weapons and traps you set up by setting monsters against them. Fallout 4 opted to dial back the RPG stuff, go back to Fallout 3-style set-pieces, and the gameplay actually verges on Borderlands territory.

The less said about Fallout 76, the better.


07/01/2021 at 05:51 PM

I passed on both Pillars and Outer Worlds because of their themes/settings didn't attract me, but also I read a lot of criticisms of their systems, though now I don't remember exactly what the criticisms were lol.

Obsidian has had a bumpy road in the market, to say the least.

New Vegas is practically a miracle for the time it came out. That was a generation where we saw nearly every successor to a classic PC game or series get..."streamlined".  Including Fallout. Then NV comes out and is as just as intricate and rich as Fallout 1 and 2, and any other CRPG for that matter.

I've only seen Fallout 4 played with a survival mod, a genre I'm into. Made it look kind of fun. Other than that, never had interest. But do people not understand what the word 'perk' means? A perk is supposed to be something extra, not the foundation of your entire character development system! Todd Howard wants to make open world action games. He should be working at Ubisoft.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

07/01/2021 at 01:23 PM

Yeah, it's definitely a subject matter that fascinates me too. I'd like to check out more games off the beaten path. You play that Kenshi game, right? What do you think of that?


07/01/2021 at 05:54 PM

Haven't played Kenshi. Watched some videos. Looks cool as shit. Compelling world. Mechanics look like stuff we've seen before, so it's the setting that is the the selling point, to me.

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