Know Your Role: The Place of Role Playing in an RPG

How many people remember the days before console RPGs, when you and a group of your friends would gather up pencil and paper, dice and character sheets, descend into the basement of your friendís house (you know, the one who always got to be DM in exchange for providing the pizza and Coke), and no longer be an average high school student with above average grades? From then on, (at least until mom picked you up) youíd be Jacen Darklight, the level 12 Ranger with Boots of Water Walking and that sweet-arse Bow of Paralyzing that none of the monsters ever seemed to get a save against. While Iím really sinking into nostalgia here, this trip down memory lane brings up a point about what we call Role Playing Games today.

I speak, of course, about the concept of getting into character and playing a role in the game, about opening that door in the labyrinth and taking your chances of getting hit by a trap, or trying to steal from the minotaur rather than answer his questions. Iím talking about the ability to make your own decisions and create your own story using a character who reflects your own personality, your own style. Itís a crucial element of the role-playing game experience, and itís an element that is virtually non-existent in what we call console RPGs today.

Do a quick fast forward: youíre playing Xenogears (while a bit dated, it still proves my point). The game begins and youíre asked to go visit Dr. Citan to get his camera to take a picture. Sounds like a plan, right? But whose plan is it? Certainly not your own. I mean, it may be some peopleís idea of what to do first, certainly it fits the circumstances, but what if you donít want to get the camera? What if you want to keep painting? What if you want to flirt with the girls and settle down? What if you want to kick Danís ass (prematurely, of course)? The fact is, you canít. In fact, the only thing you CAN do if you want to advance in the game and the story is to go get the camera and bring it back to the village. Itís an act thatís been totally pre-planned by Squareís writers and programmers in which all agency is taken away from the player. You have to get the camera.

By now, you might be wondering what my point is. Clearly it doesnít seem such a big deal that you have to get a camera in order to advance the story, but I say that it is. This seemingly mundane task and the legion of others in Xenogears and in most other console RPGs are a big problem that is not often addressed when trying to define an RPG. Itís the problem of removing the player from the characters he or she is supposed to be playing. Itís the problem of curtailing the playerís ability to make the story, and, rather, relegating him or her to the status of voyeur, a passive participant rather than an active one.

Donít get me wrong, though. I like this type of interactive story, very much so. From Dragon Warrior to Final Fantasy to Xenogears, Iíve enjoyed watching the story, being able to move the characters on the screen and make them fight in battles. Itís something you donít get from either a book or a movie, a little more interactive than either of them, but you still arenít playing a role. All the characters have scripted dialogue and all the elements of the story are programmed in so that only when you do A the way the game wants you to do it, will B occur, and then only the way the game is programmed to show it. All this just so you cab go on to C at the proper time the game wants you to get there. No ifs, ands, or buts. You have to open the door with the key, even if itís a flimsy piece of polygonal plywood. You donít have the option to kick it down, bust it in, torch it, blow it up, or pick the lock. You HAVE TO GET THE KEY! And thus itís no longer done the way you want to, but, rather, the way the programmers and story writers want you to do it. Almost total loss of player agency in the matter.

To be fair, in the defense of console RPGs, they have certainly become more and more interactive since the days of Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. Games such as the Romancing SaGa series, Shen Mue, and other non-linear RPGs impart the ability to, in the words of the late Frank Sinatra, do it my way, but only as far as the game has been programmed to allow you to do. Obviously, at this point, a console (or even PC) RPG canít be totally free form, and I donít expect it to be. In fact, Iíll go so far as to say they shouldnít, since I really do enjoy the stories that Square and Game Arts and Enix and Sega provide for me to watch and enjoy. My point is in calling a game a "role-playing game" in the same sense we call Dungeons and Dragons a role-playing game, we put the wrong spin on the genre. The two are clearly dissimilar entities, one linear, one free form, one with very rigid rules, one with rules that allow for some leeway. The biggest difference is in the ability of the player to play his or her role, to influence the story the way that he or she wants it to go.

There are obvious exceptions, I might add. Many MUDs and MUCKs, chat room RPs, message board RPs, and the like are as close to the old pencil and paper dungeon-crawling sessions as anything has gotten so far. PC RPGs do a good job as well, providing a non-linear plot, something they can do because of the larger storage capacity of a CD and Hard Drive combination. In fact, most games that allow you to create your own characters aid in that role-play experience, but, at least in the near future, itís not going to be a substitute for the human imagination. After all, itís hard to compare the freedom given by having Chrono never speak to the ability to create your own dialogue and have it answered by someone else who has created his own dialogue, both of you playing in character.

Console RPGs are great. So are games of D&D or Werewolf the Apocalypse, or Shadowrun, or the myriad of other pencil and paper RPGs out there. I just donít think that the former should be called role-playing games when they clearly do not mimic the freedom you get from a session of the latter. Maybe calling them interactive stories would do them more justice. Abraham Lincoln once said calling a tail a leg doesnít make it a leg, but then again, Lincoln never guessed that calling a tail a leg could prove so profitable.

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