Here follows the first essay I ever did write on gaming philosophy. Its a bit angry, though in mind it was written long before Bioware’s Dragon Age or Mass Effect 2 so probably goes a little harsh on the ‘ole developers. Since I wrote this article it seems games actually have moved slowly in the direction the younger, angrier me wanted them too. Still works as a rough manifesto, though.
The Nature of the GRG, and that it is better known than the RPG
First, a disclaimer! This essay looks at the term “Role-Playing Game” and seeks to explain that really the “Role-Playing” has been lost along the way. That is not to say that the modern RPG is any worse a “game” for it, any less fun, just a different beast. If you happen to love Bioware RPGs I apologise if any of this seems confrontational or, more likely, patronising. The point is there was once something called “Role-Playing” in RPGs and that it was lost somewhere along the way. I personally think this is a shame, others may not.
Computer RPGs have had a bit of a bad rap. The embarrassing gap between their real world ancestors, most notably their closet relative the pen-on-paper RPG, is well documented. If such documents have yet to pass under your nose, here is the basic gist of the problem:
In the beginning, Roleplaying games were simply that. Games were people would play the roles of certain characters, simulating their lives with bits of their imagination, pens and lots (and lots) of paper. That’s were this “RPG” term came from, and they are still played by many to this day. Pen-on-Paper Role Playing Games rely almost entirely on the intelligence, creativity and sensitivity of their “GMs” (Game Masters). It’s these wily individuals that are responsible for setting each scene, steering the players through their experience, throwing up obstacles carefully designed to test the players in ways that are reasonable and fun and allow proper room for the players to roleplay their little hearts out. The ability to react to any given situation that might come up is vital: a player asks where the dwarf got that scar on his cheek, and it’s GM to the rescue. The players want to collaborate to attempt a heist at the local shop, it’s GM that can judge wither this is feasible, probably or even desirable, and react accordingly. The rule-sets dictated by the makers of whatever game is being played still apply, but the imagination and daring of the GM (and of course the players) was what was vital to the creation of story.
The GM ultimately fixes every problem, if he is indeed wily (and dedicated, patient, etc.) enough, then players can really experience full-on the magic that is roleplaying in another world. To be in another place, to be another person, to adventure in this amazing realm of opportunity, it can be fantastic fun for everyone involved.
Of course, you DO need a great GM.
Therein lies the problem, as far as Computer RPGs are concerned. We are forced to jump down from billions of years of meticulously designed, evolved human intelligence with a culture and a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, experience and social guile to shoulder this immense task, instead to have it dealt with by what is essentially a grown-up Smarties Calculator with a colour screen.
Computers are dumb. Really dumb. So dumb that the ENTIRE of the leg-work previously done by the human GM is totally too complicated for the poor electronic sod to even begin, giving us the uneasy compromise that every single possible action by the player and reaction by the world has to be programmed-in before hand to be drawn upon when needed. The only thing that these snazzy Smarties Calculators-Come-GMs can manage, however, and even outstrip their human counterparts at, is number-crunching. Computers are the supreme number-crunchers, willing and able to work out d20-oh-seven-nine-b-zero rolls far faster and more efficiently than any human ever could bear. This, interestingly, is the biggest problem for our dear old human GMs; how to deal with pseudo-random and even the pseudo-predictable when it comes to physical conflict. RPG Gamers can be an unruly bunch, prone to getting into unsavoury situations and just as prone to want to know why when things go pear-shaped. The best way the Gods of D&D devised to deal with such biting questions as “How likely is my barbarian to hit that rat with his axe?” and “Is my thief able to pick the wizard’s pocket before he notices?” was to remove any shred of subjectivity from the equation, and throw in handy dice-rolls, with pages and pages of character sheets and stats to approximate the likely outcome for any such action. It takes a huge burden off the human GM’s judgment, though not without some nasty side effects, namely that as soon as a rigid, readable system is in place, there are always those (lets be honest, a majority) that will learn how the system works, and look to exploit it. A guard is no longer a guard, he is a bundle of potential dice-rolls, some more risky than others. A character is a character no longer: he is now a list of stats, a tool used to manipulate in any way the system leaves possible, a vessel used to reach the goal. Look at this for horrific: the stat-lords have even attempted to objectify morality itself into a set in stone list of nine possible archetypes. Think about what I just said.
Of course, all this jazz fits nicely in with what was soon to become to strict norm – I’ve already mentioned it: Dungeons and Dragons. A party of adventures is on a quest (that may well involve BOTH dungeons AND dragons) to get the gold or the princess of save the kingdom or the world or un-make the one ring. When 90% of your time is spent bonking kobolds on the head with a broadsword exactly what you need is a purely objective, statistical system to handle the transition from roleplaying into a nice, satisfying fantasy tactics simulation. The difference is crucial. A few paragraphs back, we were in a subjective world of human understanding, we were in the shoes of our chosen characters and we were living their lives. The questions were: “What sort of a person is my character?”, “What is his role in life?” “What would this character do in this situation?” And for the GM, “What would be the consequence?” As we drift into the world of d20s and goal at the end of the dungeon, this is what we are left with: “How can our party get through this dungeon alive?” and “How can I make this fun for them?” Not to say there is anything wrong with this game, nor that it can’t be just as fun. But, strictly speaking, this is no-longer a role-playing game, but a goal-reaching one. Note that down in your copy-book now.
Of course, as long as you are still playing with humans, still within the whole theatre of roleplaying space where any action can be interpreted and reacted back at by your fellow players and your GM, and the intent is there, there is still a fighting chance you can still be roleplaying and not, as the case may well be, just playing an elaborate fantasy tactics game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware the great legacy D&D has had on people coming together not just to “GRG” as I’d put it, but Role-play, too. However its not like our habit of coming together to pretend to be other people and role-play together started there. We all did it as children, didn’t we? D&D allowed adults to continue this and at the same time take part in another game, the game of dice-rolls, of Character Sheets and the “how-many-health-points-can-I-afford-to-lose-before-I-should-run-away-from-this-dragon” conundrum.
You are probably ahead of me at this point. This element above depicted is, of course, the only dredge of the role-playing tradition that survives; some would say that COULD survive the transition from paper + brain to Smarties Calculator.
Sorry, that was a pretty long “gist”, wasn’t it?
So were does this leave us? Neverwinter sodding Nights, that’s were. The dirty, necessary mechanics of dice rolls and stat sheets are transferred with pain-staking accuracy, installed beautifully and tweaked to perfection to give you the perfect base from which to write a fantasy tactics game on. Now let’s not be harsh; as mentioned earlier every single possibility has to be programmed in, so we aren’t going to come to the party with great expectations of roleplaying joy. But we know these games are made by so-called lovers of the RPG, and Bioware and minions Obsidian will toil away to ram as much RP into their G as they can manage, right?
I’m sorry to disappoint, but apparently they aren’t, because that isn’t what Bioware ever had planned. This is GRG (Goal-Reaching-Game, look, I coined a name!) through-and-through. You are given quests, goals to achieve, and you choose a character with which to reach them with.
Don’t get me wrong, they want the player to be able to kill the dragon, save the princess, get the treasure in whatever way they want. They even give a few crumbs to those that don’t want to go about on murder-sprees, by slipping the occasional non-confrontational solution in. You can kill the orc with a bow, a spell, a sword! You can pick the lock, you can kill the wizard to get the key, and you can even ask him for it (if you are nice enough!).
The key problem here is that entire list comprises of is a lovely amount of different ways to do the same thing: complete the game. In a very, very narrow sense we are talking roleplaying, if you look at it being your character’s role in their party’s quest to save the world. In the more important sense, the sense that matters, your character’s role is the hero, the world’s-saviour, the character that will complete this list of objectives in this order to reach this goal. That much is never brought into the player’s control, into the realm of gaming-narrative. Locked is the aspect of the player’s role in life from player choice, which isn’t really what we want, is it?
Now we are secure in our understanding of the RPG name’s etymology we can objectively ponder just how much this name is fitting nowadays. What, strictly speaking, makes Neverwinter Nights more of a RPG than Call of Duty 4? Your role is set in stone in both, it’s simply how you go about that role (IE, by sword, bow, AK47, M4, etc.) that sits in the realm of player choice.
So, what, exactly, SHOULD we call an RPG? Do any real RPGs even exist? These are big, big questions, after all, any game that could deliver the ability to roleplay in a theatre of true gaming narrative would be just about the best game we could hope for, wouldn’t it?
Well, I think it would.