Playing the Role

I am working on a rebound for Vampire:  The Masquerade – Bloodlines right now, but I do not think I will publish it.  I wanted to point it out as a great role-playing experience, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it failed in most of the same places that every other RPG does.  Namely, these games do not make you play a role.

Think about the term “role-playing game”.  It is older than the genre of video games.  Instead, it refers to games like Vampire:  The Masquerade and Dungeons & Dragons, where players spent an inordinate amount of time creating characters based on pre-defined skill sets (classes), and creating elaborate backstories for them.  These backstories and skills dictated how the player would react in the game.

This is a key point.  In the few (two) D&D campaigns I played, the DM encouraged us to play our characters, and in extreme cases, going “out of character” was an offense punishable by a loss of experience points.  So, my paladin character was expected to protect others and uphold the law, the mage was expected to be a devious little ass, etc.

When game developers started playing on the popularity of table-top games, there was a big shift in the dynamic of these games.  Yes, the stat-heavy combat and interaction remained, and was streamlined very well (rolling a character can take hours on paper), but the story elements of the game were turned on their heads.

Instead of the iconic “What do you do?” we got, “Attack, Defend, Magic, Item”.  Instead of a real person acting out the roles of NPCs and responding dynamically to the players questions, we got…dialog trees.  I hate to call them out, because I can love me some dialog trees, but they pale in comparison to dynamic exchanges between adaptive players.

Essentially, game developers lead players around by the nose.  Instead of prompting the players to act, and creating a response to that action, developers create goals that the players must meet before continuing onto the next scripted encounter.

Given that gamers generally expect said encounter to occur some time within the next two years, creating content on the fly is a bit difficult for developers.  (It would be awesome, though…)  I lack the insight and intelligence necessary to solve this particular problem, but I do think developers could easily take steps to capture some of the fun of playing the role in table-top games.

One thing that bugged me about Mass Effect was that your Paragon and Renegade attributes (ME’s response to good/evil stats) simply tracked how many points you accrued in either stat.  Doing a Renegade action, like shooting a prisoner, raised your Renegade stat, but did not lower your Paragon stat.  The effect of this isn’t obvious at first, as most dialogue choices in the game gave you mutually exclusive Paragon and Renegade options.

Every once in a while, though, you care across an option that did not have an Paragon/Renegade alternative.  For example, on Eden Prime, the first planet, the player may come across two researchers who have barricaded themselves in a trailer.  One of them is stressed past his breaking point, and babbling.  At any time during the conversation, the player has the option of “calming him down” via a knockout punch.

In terms of the game mechanics, there is no reason not to punch this NPC out.  Bad characters get badder, and good characters lose nothing.  Actually, all characters can use both Paragon/Renegade points, as they offer persuasion and intimidation options respectively.

The problem in terms of role-play is that my goody-two-shoes, by-the-book Shepherd just punched someone’s lights out for being mildly irritating.  It breaks the illusion.  I am not saying the option should not be there for all characters, but the game should react appropriately.  There should be consequences, if not in the mechanics of the game, then in the plot.

Take for example a generic situation where a player has the option of executing a prisoner.  Should a character who has been primarily bad throughout the game choose to execute him, he should do so mercilessly (or take pleasure in it, depending on the character type), and perhaps even throw a warning look at his companions who may question him.  If a good character was to make that decision, then the party would react in surprise, and the character should try to rationalize his actions.  Likewise, a bad character who chose to let the prisoner live could hint at an even darker fate for him to come.

All the while, these decisions could feed into stats normally, and the NPCs could change their behavior to match it.  Perhaps the love interest of a character who shifted from good to evil could remark bitterly at one point, “I remember when you were a good person.  What happened?”

And this would not have to be restricted to issues of morality.  Using the “warrior” and “rogue” archetypes so common to RPGs, a clear-cut warrior character could choose more cunning solutions (slipping in through a window vs. breaking the lock, etc) and have his stats grow at a different rate.

I liked how Morrowind and Oblivion only leveled the skills you actually used, and this is a great way to enforce role-behavior through mechanics, though the plot in Morrowind, for example sees the player character assume control of a Great House, two opposing religious sects, and the Fighters, Mages, Assassins, and Thieves Guilds.  Obviously, these games put little emphasis on playing a role in the plot.

There are a few points in the game where VtMB‘s dialog shines.  These are when the game lets you show a little personality.  Take this little conversation branch with a vampire showing your newly-minted bloodsucker the ropes.

That’s it kid, that’s what it’s all about right there.

1.  Great!  When do I get my cape?  Do I get to pick the color?

2.  I don’t know how I feel about it, but it does feel good.

This choice occurs immediately after the player feeds on a human for the first time, only a few hours after being Embraced (turned into a vampire).  The first response is a wisecrack that might betray the character’s stress given the recent traumatic events.  The second response is from a character who is slowly coming to terms with his/her condition, and is currently enveloped in a euphoria stronger than heroin (according to the NPC).

The game goes on just the same no matter what the player chooses, but just having that option forces the player to think about the character.  Is this fledgling vampire going to be an accepting soldier, willing to follow the orders of his/her Elders, or a rebellious smart-ass who questions everything around him/her?

When it works, this creates a feedback loop similar to the stat modifying scheme suggested above, though it’s all in the player’s head.  The player starts developing the character’s personality, and gets to choose the responses that make the most sense.  Unfortunately, this particular game stumbles often, making the rebellious characters so blindly recalcitrant that the player is forced to choose the more conservative options in order to avoid alienating helpful NPCs.

Another positive example to hold up is Fallout 3.  The game tracks player stats such as knowledge of Science and Medicine, and what is cool is how the developers worked these stats into the dialog trees.  When conversations drift into an area of the player character’s expertise, new options are open, with the operative stat in brackets before the dialog option so the player knows why he/she has that option.

So, a character with a high Science skill will follow and contribute to  a conversation about water purification research, while a character with a low stat will have his/her eyes glaze over and wait until the scientist tells the player what to do next.

In terms of mechanics, these dialog options often unlock new ways of completing missions, often for more experience points or other greater rewards.  Unfortunately, Fallout 3 avoids a strict class system, so each player character history feels pretty much like the last, even if they play completely differently.

As cheesy as it sounds, one thing I have done for years is try to develop my character beyond the scope of the game, at least in my head.  I think about his motivation and his history, the circumstances that made him choose his class, and how he might be reacting to game events.

In games like Diablo II, where gameplay and story are largely separate, I believe this makes the experience much more enjoyable.  Even in games like VtMB, where the player character’s role is a bit better defined, it still makes things more fun.  Just because the game forces you to say one thing does not mean your vampire was not thinking something completely different.

Give it a shot, next time you roll a character for an RPG.  Ask yourself why he/she would be in the situations the game creates.  I bet you will connect with the character a whole lot more, and probably have more fun.

While gamers work on that, I hope developers will make a greater effort to encourage and reward role-playing in their games.  I think the shape of the genre today indicates that people enjoy what role-playing elements are actually there, so efforts to add more would be rewarded.

Academia is actually doing the most work, from what I can tell, to bring video games closer to the freedom table-top players still enjoy.  Projects like Facade give the player a greater sense of control over the events of the game, and when we can see elements of that worked into a top shelf game, it should be a sight to behold.

In this respect, I’m watching Heavy Rain like a hawk.  Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit was a cinematic experience, and an accomplishment in interactive storytelling, if not gameplay, but Quantic Dream’s latest project could very well be a groundbreaking game.  Now if only they would announce a PC version…

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