Thursday, July 18, 2013
Role or Character?
As a game player and game designer I like to examine my games as I play them, trying to understand how they work mechanically as well as aesthetically. As a primarily role-player (as opposed to shooter or strategist or other common game type) I am always looking at the role-playing aspects of a game. I loved Borderlands, with its skill trees, spent far too many hours on Morrowind, played the entire Mass Effect series, and so on and so forth. Recently however, something struck me when thinking about the role-playing game that I have been designing for some time now. And it came from thinking about real life.
Whenever two people meet, invariably early on in the conversation a question will arise: what do you do? This is, of course, the signal for the person being asked to give his or her occupation. So, if you asked me that, I would say, "I'm a computer technician." And that simple and common fact suddenly struck me with regards to games. See, the thing is, asking someone's occupation does not always tell you very much about them. You might assume, from mine, that I was a computer geek who loved to work with computers, could program and hack and fix things, and likely I am not very good with people (since the stereotypical geek/nerd is a shy person). Which is all well and good, even somewhat accurate in my own case. But it is missing something.
That something is very clearly shown in an odd dichotomy with regards to games. See, we talk about role-playing games, thus the point is to, well, play a role, right? But then, we call such role-players by the odd title of "player characters" which, it would seem, defines their job as playing a character. So, which is it? Are we playing a role or a character, because they are two very different things.
See, computer technician is my role. But it is not me. My first job was security guard, worked a lot of odd jobs after that, spent about 5 years as a baker and cook, then the last 10 off-and-on as a computer tech, with a few other odd jobs thrown in. I like computers, but I don't love them. I love games, specifically I love designing games - having worked on one of my own for literally over half my life to date. I like people well enough, and while kinda shy I get along with just about everybody and don't mind at all talking to or teaching someone. I've got lots of patience. I can write HTML and CSS but not really code, and as a hacker, well, I'm more a script kiddie. More over, I'd rather play a game than fix a computer, will talk your ear off for hours about movies and comics and fantasy or science-fiction books and, well, you get the picture. The role I play is only a small part of my actual character. Which was the realization that hit me, we tend to confuse the two an awful lot.
A lot of table-top players like me wish there was more role-playing in most computer games. But really, there is. When I play my tank in an MMO, or good Shephard/bad Shephard in Mass Effect, I am playing a role. What we really mean by that, is that we wish there was more character playing in computer games. And, in fact, I wish there was more character playing in table-top role playing games too! Maybe it is a quiet thread, a legacy of the roots of the first role playing game. Dungeons and Dragons, which all of the old timers like me started on actually began life as a wargame, called Chainmail. In a wargame, each piece has a role to playing the larger army, like you could say each piece in Chess plays a role. Characterization meant giving your miniatures a custom paint job. When D&D arrived, what we got was really just an extension of that. The class-based system is a system of roles. I'm the fighter, I'm the healer, I'm the thief, I'm the wizard (once, then my spell is gone and I'm the one hiding behind the thief). It was a list of job descriptions. And many games of the era, the 80s, followed that same general template.
Then as we progressed the industry grew and changed, like all industries do. Role-playing games began to focus more on story and all those things we didn't have any rules for, and well, we got the storytelling-game. Now it wasn't about your specific role being played, it was about the larger narrative of us together. Still, though, it wasn't about character. Well, let me clarify that. Any game is about whatever it has rules for. That's a good functional definition of a game, an activity with rules - as distinguished from make-believe in general. While the top-down approach of the storytelling game allows playing a character, it is only tangentially. The rules of a storytelling game are usually all about who has control of the narrative, who gets to make up what happened, they are not mechanically tied to the characters (on average). The bottom-up of role-playing also allows the same thing, doing your role allows you a chance to show your character, but again there are no real rules for it, you just make believe something you like. Character, how you feel about and react to the things that have happened to you and the things that you have done, sits right in the middle of both typical game mechanics.
So, how do we have a character-playing game, what sort of mechanics do we need? Well, that's a very fine question, and hopefully someday I'll have an answer for you. In my own game I'm designing I am struggling with that very issue, overturning many years of mechanics and ideas in realization of something I missed and want to implement. While I'm working on mine, I think it would be a healthy, lively debate to start though. I'd love to hear what sort of mechanics and games other people feel capture the elusive 'character-playing.' Please leave a comment below if you have an example or an idea (or just want to comment on how crazy I am for asking).