Role playing games love their drama, tension, and high moral flair. Western RPGs rely on characters and stories that push the limits of sense and reason, right and wrong, success and failure. The stories we see have a common plot: a hero sets out on a journey to defeat a nemesis, gathering allies and support along the way, only to realize that things are never so simple as they seem, and difficult decisions must be made. Choice is the fishing lure of the RPG genre: If a developer promises control and the importance of choice, gamers will dive headfirst into the game.
Every few RPGs, however, have a quest that leaves the player unsettled, scratching her head, and wondering just what the point of that whole thing was. Sometimes the wonder turns to outright anger, because the result of a decision was absolutely not intended. Choices were made, deals were struck, and still, things are worse than they were before. In several games I’ve played in the last few years, I’ve completed a few quests that had a cold, hard resolution: Instead of fixing problems, I made things worse, not better.
Fixing the world’s problems in an RPG is supposed to be easy, and it’s supposed to make sense. The bad guy was defeated, the world was saved, and someone, somewhere, is a hero. That’s how the story is supposed to work, right? As gamers get older, RPGs age with them, stories and writers get smarter and more aware of the world, recognizing that the complicated scenarios are the ones people will still talk about years after they’ve been played.
RPGs, by virtue of immersing players in their worlds, utilize quests that push boundaries. If someone’s buttons aren’t being pushed in- or out-of-game, then the quest is doing something wrong. At the same time, forcing a storyline to take a cynical or negative turn can actually push people away from RPGs.
Part of the reason I have embraced RPGs is because they insist on making the player an active participant in the story, not just an observer. If you’re forced to actively make a decision about how certain problems must be solved, you must still weigh your actions. Consider: Do you lead the rebel faction against the people who were trying to kill you only a few short quests ago, or do you allow your country to fall into the hands of the nationalist rebels who are likely to cause more chaos in the long run? Or: The enemy in front of you wears the face of a family member, someone you might have admired once, but if he is allowed to live, then your homeland will fall.
The worst choice: helping someone, only to have them use your friendship, your actions, and your seemingly infinite patience, and commit an atrocity that will be laid on your shoulders, as well as his.
In Dragon Age 2, I faced that dilemma: help someone you think you know, and then watch the fireworks. I thought that by offering assistance and trying to play diplomat between the two warring factions within the game – one a group of religious zealots, the other a group of potentially dangerous mages – I could make them realize that they were both wrong. One side wanted to confine the other; the confined mages did not want to be lorded over, and they were willing to go to horrific lengths to gain their freedom.
As a gamer, and as a player, I was tired of watching people make stupid decisions and then use those decisions to justify their little war. Someone had to bend, however, and since no one was willing, I watched one of my (until that moment) favorite party members blow up a cathedral, and everybody inside of it.
I did not offer my help to one character for the purpose of watching him later use that assistance as an opportunity to murder a building full of people. That was never my intention. I thought I was taking the right path, the correct choice, and instead, more people died.
It is a game, and whatever guilt and anger lingered were a result of spending too many hours immersed in the game world. In retrospect, though, I almost felt as though the game tricked me, by playing up character interactions, using certain phrases, words, and deeds to make me think that one character’s ideals were more important than another’s.
When the mage, Anders, and the warrior, Fenris, argue about the dangers of magic and why it is either wrong or right to imprison mages for the good of everyone else, my sympathies fled to the mages. In my view imprisoning a group of people based upon their abilities (even in a fantasy setting) sounds an awful lot like a parallel to historical concentration camps, and in the game it’s very clear that this is religious oppression based on fear. The choice seemed obvious: the mages are not to blame, and Anders is the one in the right.
I was wrong; I saw a city pay the price for my ignorance.
I was more than cautious in the subsequent adventures of Dragon Age 2. In fact, the game changed how I listen to RPG dialogue all around. Anders telegraphs his intentions from the get-go of Dragon Age 2: he will do anything to secure freedom for the mages of Thedas, and he’ll use anyone – friend or rival – to do it. That helping him acquire certain materials inadvertently leads you to helping him commit murder is the icing on the unsettling cake.
The moral of the story: If someone seems too good to be true, chances are that they have a card up their sleeve that you hope they never play, because you’re not sure if your character will be the same person if they do.
In this console generation, RPGs have taken on the heavy burden of morality, the importance of choice, the weighing of right and wrong. What video games view as acceptable is not always in agreement with the player’s personal opinion, but role-playing games are about taking on a role, another life and personality, and experiencing a story as that person. This generation of RPGs has pushed the moral question envelope, and asked all manner of inquiries about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, and how far you’re willing to go to explore those ideas.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim offers its share of unsettling quests with the Daedric storylines, and the assorted god-like characters encountered throughout. Most demand a brutal sacrifice and usually murder, but you go into those stories with a pretty good idea that things won’t end well. That choice is all on you, the player, as no one forces your hand.
On the other hand, Mass Effect 2’s Arrival DLC ended with the lives of 300,000 people on Commander Shepard’s hands, and there was no choice about it. It’s a piece of storytelling that I thought forced the player’s hand, and ended with too many pointless deaths. Unlike scripted moments where events like this happen, an RPG offers a brief window where the choice lies in the player’s hands. It is ultimately up to you. There are some places I’m simply not willing to go, given a choice in the matter, and I’d rather pretend it never happened.
One of the great things about role-playing games is the freedom they allow players; players can leap feet-first into problematic or complicated situations and solve those problems with a few quests and a line or two of dialogue. There are certain events where there simply is not a right answer, nor a satisfactory one. Every type of video game has a storyline or quest that makes things worse; it’s an inevitable part of storytelling. RPGs, however, rely on these storylines and quests, much for the same reasons that scripted television drama relies on troubling stories: they increase drama, tension, and viewer/gamer interest.
As people, when we grow older and more aware of how the world works, we play problem solving games with our friends. Over dinner and drinks we try to fix the world’s issues, offering what we perceive as rational solutions. How do we solve world hunger? How do we put an end to wartime profiteering? How do we allow for peaceful power transitions in contested countries? I suppose it’s possible that during such highly emotional discussions friendships have been tested, and sometimes friendships forged, but at the end of dinner, and after the last drink is consumed, the world is a safer, more reasonable place. We’ve solved all the problems. It’s time to move on until the next go around.
Now if only an RPG quest line was as easy to solve as real life.
About the Author:
Alexandra Geraets is an fan of story-driven video games. She's an even more avid fan of exploring how and why they resonate with all of us. Her essays have been found on Village Voice Media.