Playing a Role vs. Creating a Role

Back before role-playing game meant what it now means, back when people were playing D&D, role-playing meant having full control over said role. You’d come up with the player’s stats (including Charisma); you’d come up with the lines; you’d attempt the actions. Usually you or a friend could choose the setting, the quest, the costumes, etc. You could even choose your gender.

The nineties came around and started the RPGs we think of today: you’re playing Link or Ash or Cloud. It’s more like acting in a movie. Or sometimes just watching it. You’re watching what happens to them as you help them achieve their goals. But no matter how well you play Cloud, Aerith always died. Link always (in a successful game) defeated Gandalf and saved Zelda. Ash became a Pokemon master. There was a set role out there, and you fulfilled it.

Now, with advancing technology, the act of creating a role has come back around. Granted, Bioware games (and others with strong stories) more often contain several roles, and you select what role you fulfill through your choices. Truly open-world games like Elder Scrolls, or MMORPGS like WoW and PoE, though, are bringing back the act of truly creating a role. You choose your attributes. Your look is customizable. You choose how you interact with your environment, the words you say to fellow players who are also shaping the game play experience. It’s no wonder that people get so sucked in when you can quite literally be whomever you want.

Still, despite the availability of this kind of game play, you still have people like Hideo Kojima or games like BioShock that set out to tell a story. And often, they succeed wonderfully. Why?

I think, for a large part, it’s about making the audience think like the protagonist. “What would Solid Snake do in this situation?” “How would Booker talk to Elizabeth?” It creates a mindset in the audience that helps us to empathize with the character, and in that capacity can help us to accomplish a lot.

I read recently that Eiji Aonuma (producer for Zelda) wanted to make clear that upcoming Zelda games are not influenced by Skyrim, and tons of fans posted on the site, relieved. An interesting comment was “Zelda should always be an influence for other games, not the other way around.”And I think it’s because, in part, people like to relate to Link. People want Link to always choose the side of right. They want to rely on his noble honest-heartedness. They don’t want a Link who can “fall to the darkside.”

That’s really important for a plot-driven RPG. Because you’re pushing your player to be the character, the character should be someone that people want to be.

Now, it’s fun when games like KOTOR or Jade Empire allow the player to choose “darkside” or “lightside.” Heck, they can choose to sink the Republic and end freedom and democracy for all, with Revan living on as a malevolent tyrant. Or Revan can reach redemption and restore balance. But if the game has only one ending, one story line, and it’s one that the player must take part in, the character has to, overall, stand for the greater good.

Booker DeWitt is a good example. A troubled man with a dark stain on his past: he sold his infant daughter. If the game had ended that your character just ends up becoming the vile Comstock, would it have received the amount of acclaim it did? Instead, you have Booker sacrifice his life for the greater good, and the interpretation exists that he undid his past error. That kind of redemption is what draws audiences and elicits an emotional response from the audience (after all, who does not want to be redeemed of some wrong?)

It’s a fine line, though, between telling a story through an RPG or handing someone a visual novel. While I had a lot of fun with Phoenix Wright, I (initially) did expect that the cases could be won a number of different ways, with a number of different arguments and pieces of evidence. It was frustrating when I could figure out a way that a particular piece of evidence could support a certain defense, but due to the game play (and the fact that the game can’t read my thoughts), it was invalid. There really only exists one key argument that will enable you to progress in the game.

In The Lotus War, we do have a strong character present in Ren. While there are things about the plot that will depend on your actions overall, the game carries out one solid plot. Being this story-driven game, we hope to deliver something that leaves a good taste in your mouth. Since the player does not create the role that needs to be carried out, we hope the one we thrust you into is one you enjoy occupying for a little while.