Skip to content

Who puts the R in RPG?

March 5, 2013

RPG article Header

Roleplay is a funny old thing. It sits on the borders between what has these days become an acceptable (and indeed fashionable) level of nerdishness and a more socially awkward, live-in-your mother’s-basement style stereotype.

And although that makes me a little sad, I believe that the majority of people who think roleplay is a waste of time are probably roleplaying without even realising it.

So to start I’ll nail down a few definitions (sort of). The vast majority of games available today, be that console, PC or otherwise, will have the player playing as a character. Agreed?

So whether that’s a hot-pant wearing adventure woman, a plump Italian plumber or a four-wheeled death machine driver competing for cash, they all have one thing in common; and try not to scrub your hands too hard while you think about it because, put very very simply: this is roleplay. Dirty, isn’t it? No amount of soap’s going to wash that off. Ooh you deviant.

Yes, those 15-year-old lads who up-end the school nerd into the nearest rubbish bin for playing D&D (I don’t know if this still happens, but I assume it does, along with mood rings, roller skates and boomboxes) are doing pretty much the same thing when they go home and fire up Call of Duty. ‘Go away mom, I’m playing army man with my internet friends.’

So where or what is the difference?

Tabletop roleplaying games like D&D, pen and paper roleplay, LARP – these things are all created and played with the specific intention of immersing yourself completely into a character and playing as them for a couple of hours.

But the likes of Uncharted 3, Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, they fill a different niche. Despite playing a defined character in these games, you’re left to play the game itself. The wonder comes from the sublime graphics or impressive gameplay. They’re games that are to be played for enjoyment, a quick blast, or for you to master in order to beat your friends. It’s a more mechanical approach. You don’t play as the character, you play with them.

But the eagle-eyed among you may have noted that none of the above games are marketed as an RPG, so this is kind of irrelevant, right? Let’s take a look at some of the biggies of 2012 instead: Skyrim with its various DLC and Mass Effect 3. These were two of the biggest games of 2012 (arguably THE biggest in certain aspects). As gamers, we know that both of these games are RPGs – both action, one sci-fi, the other fantasy, but a quick check of their respective boxes and, oh, hold up – where does it say RPG?

The fundamental rules of an RPG hark back to the likes of tabletops, before consoles and PCs were around. The player takes responsibility for playing a role (and that’s a key concept, hang onto that for a second) and works within a set of rules to accomplish a goal and develops their character as they progress. Now, with a video game, these rules are hardcoded into the software. Back on the tabletop they were written in-depth in a set of dusty tomes that were likely to weigh more than the average gamer. But, more or less, the constraints placed on the character in order to play them in a world have stayed the same.

But these fundamentals, these game rules, are the same across the board, whether you’re Ezio Auditore, Jack Rourke, or Nathan Drake. Then what sets RPG and non-RPG apart?

Let’s take Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed. I have those games, so I can talk about them with a certain amount of clarity.

Like Uncharted, Batman and BF3, Assassin’s Creed would fit into the ‘play with the character’ category. Yet it’s definitely possible to roleplay in Assassin’s Creed and in fact I’ve done it myself. It’s also quite easy because we’re given a fairly well-crafted set of characters. It’s all about putting yourself into someone else’s mindset, making the character act as you think they would act, performing careful assassinations and setting up traps and ambushes rather than bashing around with an unwieldy mace in broad daylight (unless the situation calls for it). But you don’t have to do it like that at all. You could ignore the the character the game gives you and create a different character for yourself. You could make Ezio an absolute fool, or decide to play Altaïr as a pacifist.

But this is where the trouble comes in. The creators didn’t have this level of choice in mind when they created the game. You may well wish to play Altaïr as a pacifist but, sooner or later, the game is going to want you to kill someone in order to progress.

Take a shooter, nearly any shooter. You could try all you wanted to make an intellectual ‘character’, intentionally spending hours working out the best way to solve something without brute force. But in the end it’s a game about shooting people. Pure and simple. If you wish to progress, you’ll have to brute force it at least some of the time.

Then we have Skyrim, an RPG. Here, the developers do have the element of choice in mind. They’re aware that you might want to roleplay or that you might want to just go for completion. You can spend the entire game collecting things if you wish, avoiding combat and simply hoarding treasure. You could use nothing but a bow, favouring range over close quarter combat. You can even ignore the main quest line and never see a dragon, preferring to spend your days with your ugly but charming spouse and a tower of cheese wheels. The developers allow all these things but it’s your choice whether you do them. And that is why they won’t plaster a big RPG sticker on the box. The very rules of roleplaying allow you to disregard them at any time.

Roleplay is in the details, most certainly. Visit a roleplaying realm on a game like World of Warcraft for ten minutes and you’ll come across people who have spent months (literally) crafting the precise character that they want. And chances are they’re probably just wandering around town and not ‘playing’ at all. Some mock them. Some just see them as part of the furniture and get on with their own game.

Roleplay is down to you, the player. You can, if you so desire, roleplay any game you wish. The constraints lie in the choices you’re allowed to make. It is then up to you as to how far your imagination takes you. If the game forces you to kill where you wish you could save a life, then you’re entitled to ignore it. If the game makes you race when you’d rather conserve petrol and just make your car look rather pretty, then pretend the races are being raced by your evil twin brother. It’s your call.

Roleplay is in that funny place between imagination and constraint, much as it’s in the funny place between cool and … not so cool. For me it’s wherever I want it, and usually that’s in a place where it works. But, every so often, it’s quite refreshing just to blow everyone up and ignore the ramifications.

Yes, you and I put the R in RPG but the G is very firmly held by the developers – at least in a video game context.

Well then, I guess it’s just left to us to P ourselves silly.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2013 4:03 pm

    ha — In fallout and Skyrim I just can’t steal anything – and it annoys the crap out of me when my ai companions continually get killed. At least there I can be a hero :)

    • Sam Roberts permalink*
      March 6, 2013 9:55 am

      Ahh that’s the thing… to leave them dead or reload? Like I was saying above, we can pretty much set our own rules but in the games where I’ve decided to let deaths be mortal then it’s often a lonely road as a hero! Damnable giants. *mutter*

Comment Or Die

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: