Role Playing in Games: RPGs and Empathetic Heroes

Role Playing in Games: RPGs and Empathetic Heroes

When trying to show off the most amazing perks of the video game format, it’s hard to go past role playing games. Whether it’s the expansive Skyrim, immersive Witcher 3, cinematic Mass Effect or the communal World of Warcraft, role playing games are often pivotal and influential for years beyond their release.

As this success has grown, we’ve seen RPG mechanics turn up in a variety of other genres. So much so, in fact, that it’s hard to even call them “RPG” mechanics. Features like skill trees, dialogue choices and varied solutions to combat problems are such examples. While iconic in role playing games, they allow us to better take the role of any character regardless of genre.

However sometimes, more choice does not always mean a deeper connection to the character. I wanted to take three general approaches and talk about the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Type 1: The Blank Slate

The “Blank Slate” protagonist is a common approach for developers who want to emphasize choice. This character is frequently silent, and often comes with minimal backstory. Bethesda titles in the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series are obvious examples of this character style, but also games like Dragon Age.

Two default characters from Fallout 4 stare into the camera

Bethesda titles like Fallout prioritise freedom in role playing.

The benefits of this character are in their flexibility. Race, background and gender can inform the plot but voice and detailed relationships can be restrictive. You could be a mercenary Lothario or sanctimonious do-gooder from the same starting position. To put it another way, the required features of the character are few. As such, not many characters the player might imagine are incompatible with what the game is telling you.

The major drawback comes from the same flexibility though. By permitting so much customization forces a compromise between depth and choice. If a main quest has two choices, then the developer has to write, program and integrate two outcomes. If it has more, the same expansion follows, and the problem is exponential for each choice offered.

The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim suffered from this problem. Though an undeniably great and immersive game, it focused on a ‘do anything’ mentality. Its unparalleled freedoms were however impossible to integrate with any depth, leading to each choice only having importance within its own quest line. Even one of its main quest lines, the civil war, had little more than a cosmetic effect on its world.

So if allowing too much choice cripples depth, what if we narrowed the scope slightly?

Type 2: The Half-Full Glass

What I term the ‘Half-Full Glass’ model has become a more popular model following the success of series’ like Bioware’s Mass Effect and CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher. These characters come to us whole, with extensive backstories, prior relationships, and stated opinions on various issues.

In Mass Effect, your protagonist Shepard is always a hardened veteran soldier.

Rather than existing as voids to be filled, we are instead encouraged to take these characters and guide them through the world. Geralt from The Witcher is kindhearted, but often states at the offset of a mission that he refuses to work without pay. Will you bend those rules out of sympathy, or stick to them as per your word? Both decisions are “in character”, but while your Geralt may be more lenient, mine might be more mercenary.

The benefits of this model are in their ability to craft a stronger narrative. With certain details locked in place, the writer can give more weight to the decisions you do make. With limited options, they can really flesh out those presented, because the player is locked into a certain degree of future activities. A player is also more likely to be guided down story paths with interesting sights.

The drawbacks to this model come from those same limited options. Every locked detail risks disconnecting the character’s actions from a player’s perception of said character. This is particularly apparent when dialogue either offers too many similar options, or doesn’t follow through on more varied ones.

Type 3: The Hero Possessed

Role playing games tend to fall into one of the two categories above. However, something fascinating has developed from RPG mechanics being so popular. That is the advent of play ‘styles’ in action games.

As an example of how this has evolved, let’s look at Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series.

The first Assassin’s Creed (2007) was typical of that era’s action games. Players received skills and upgrades in a linear, story-based progression. You could choose how you slew your targets, but it is implied that a direct approach is the outcome of poor play, not a choice.

A bunch of assassins sit menacingly in a smokey London.

The Assassin’s Creed series transitioned more and more into an RPG as they continued.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015) featured two playable protagonists, twins Jacob and Evie. Each had a speciality reflected in a few unique skills available to each twin. For the most part however they shared skill-trees. As such, there was no hard game-play reason you could not play against their narrative type. Players were instead encouraged to have Jacob brawl, and Evie sneak, and for most players this was the case.

Games like The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog) prove that action games based on immersion can be just as impactful. Not only do the actual game-play elements of Abby and Ellie differ to encourage different play-styles, but some players balked at certain actions in the game on that basis alone. “My Ellie wouldn’t do that.”

The benefits of this system come from action games in general – dramatic moments, precise narrative timing and a real sense of your actions mattering. The drawbacks come mostly from the lack of directional agency afforded to the player. Action games are not often made with multiple outcomes, but players who are invested may feel frustrated if forced to play out a situation they disagree with.

Dad of War – Role Playing through Empathy

2018’s God of War focused on turning protagonist Kratos from an edgy, murderous gore-monster into a layered and sombre father. To do so, it focused heavily on the relationship between Kratos and his somewhat estranged son, Atreus.

Spoiler alert for the end of GoW – Skip this section to avoid.

Over the narrative, Kratos works hard to teach Atreus to only kill in defence. Just before the final fight, antagonist Baldur confronts his mother (and your ally) Freya, with the intent to kill her. As quests of vengeance are familiar to Kratos, he tries to talk Baldur down but a fight ensues.

For me, it felt wrong to resort immediately to hitting him with an axe. There were times when the fight required using certain weapons, but for the most part I fought Baldur entirely with my fists. Freya spends the whole fight trying to separate you both, pleading for her son’s life even as he tries to kill her.

Kratos elbows a demon in the face

Kratos feels strong enough to monster people without resorting to petty weapons.

For the message my virtual avatar was trying to teach Kratos, it was important to me that Baldur had every chance to walk away. I knew it was a narrative game, with no choice over the final outcome. I knew it didn’t really matter. However, the role I was playing was Kratos, trying to steer Baldur away from this. Therefore, I slogged through the fight with my fists.

This sort of experience won’t resonate for everyone. However, I sat down after finishing God of War with this main thought – how was that any different to a role playing game? In some way, I bought into Kratos’ story more than I would a custom character.

In Summary

Role playing games as a genre need no publicity – many of them are the highest profile games of each generation. They also have loving and devoted fans, often some of gaming’s most passionate.

That said, as such a fan, there is something to be said for the guided experience. If you are a role playing fan searching for something to really carry you through, maybe it’s worth looking at a more directed experience. As player expression grows, the roles games offered only expand.

Thanks for joining us at Gamer’s Waypoint! If you enjoyed the piece be sure to share it around, and check out the Gamer’s Waypoint Twitter page and our Youtube Channel.

Have you had any moments where you made a decision based on character, not gameplay? Let us know in the comment section, while you’re there why not check out our look at the parables in Red Dead Redemption 2?

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