Shifting Roles

To better appreciate a story and its world, don’t play the hero

By: Alexandra Geraets

Filed Under: Editorial Role-playing Story-driven


Story is critical for me when I choose to play certain kinds of video games. I enjoy fluff as much as the next person, but I prefer strong stories and characters because they help me appreciate the time and effort writers put into creating game worlds. The best game stories tend to focus on a main character, the lead, through whose eyes the plot unfolds, the world is explored, and the game is experienced. Playing the lead all the time, though, can narrow a gamer’s experience of the story and the world; when you only see a primary perspective, designated the most important by virtue of the character’s role, it’s too easy to be caught up in an individual’s story, as opposed to the greater story at work.

Video games encourage the role of heroic lead. It’s part of the appeal of a game’s storyline, where the player gets to be the ideal person, the only one who can save the day, and put the world back in proper order. It’s a common theme of role-playing gaming stories, and it might even be their defining feature: the player character as the only person capable of completing the main quest.

It’s a good story; the basis of plenty of great literature stems from one person being chosen or roped into doing the right things to reach the right end. It’s the ideal story: one person steps up and makes decisions, gaining friends and enemies along the way, but ultimately follows the right choices and saves the day.

It’s the familiar, safe story of RPGs.

It’s familiar and safe enough that after playing three or four games with storylines that place the player as the main character who has to save the day, a player might wish they could let some other character have that job.

Being the chosen one is a rough gig; main characters have lots of responsibilities, and they have to put themselves last on the list of people they want to please. Sometimes, they want to be selfish, but the story dictates that selfless heroes get more out of life. Being selfless is the true mark of heroism, so sayeth the typical RPG storyline. Heroes get to experience the true length and breadth of their respective worlds while recognizing that they will have to make big sacrifices and even more important decisions to earn their right to see another day. Being the main character, the hero, is not for weak-willed players.

Except maybe a player doesn’t want to be that hero. Maybe, for once, it should be someone else’s job, a non-player character, whose actions benefit or harm the world, while the player character watches.

The recent Nintendo DS title Fire Emblem: Awakening does this, placing the player character on the sidelines. You still influence the story and the actions of other characters, while remaining a secondary lead. Your actions might impact the story, but another character is ultimately making those choices; you’re along for the ride, to watch, record, and experience, but in a different way from the usual RPG fare.

It’s a refreshing change to the familiar RPG storyline. On console, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings comes closest to establishing a game storyline wherein the player character is one part of much larger events, and is not the main character. Geralt, the Witcher, is swept up into a battle for the throne of his country. His interests lie in establishing alliances and getting violently opposed factions to work together, while deciding which group is least offensive to his (the player’s) interests: do you join up with the late king’s loyalists, guaranteed to place one of that man’s illegitimate children on the throne and likely influence her from behind the scenes; or do you assist the vicious, rebellious elves, the Scoia’tel, glorified terrorists if one is being honest, and face the prospect of putting another, unknown person in charge?

The Witcher 2 forces the player to look at a bigger picture wherein they play one of the smallest, yet still important, roles. The story unfolds differently depending upon which path the player chooses, but Geralt’s allegiance remains firmly to himself and his few friends. Pursuing a path leads him to observe events, to see them in shades outside of black and white; there are no clear cut ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ in this game. The Witcher 2 is set in a rich fantasy world that revels in its complicated politics, shady dealings, and mysterious creatures, monsters, and assorted horrors that assist in shaping events.

Seeing the story reveal itself through Geralt’s eyes, watching other people’s actions influencing the story – choosing one path leads to the rebels being massacred, and causes more friction between sides; siding with the rebels places Geralt in the difficult position of fighting against his former allies, and facing the prospect of losing some of the only friends he has – is a simple twist of the traditional RPG storyline that makes for an exciting experience. Playing the game out along both possible pathways reveals even more twists and turns in the story; at its break point, The Witcher 2 becomes two completely different games, with different stories and outcomes. Playing an observing main character, reveling in the complications of the world, and not allowing for simple answers, places The Witcher 2 in a class all its own; it’s a huge step in the right direction for console-based RPGs.

While not RPGs, the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare franchise has dipped into the side character method of storytelling, especially in its first entry. While playing “Soap” MacTavish and Paul Jackson, the player watches events unfold, observing the other characters as they act to prevent nuclear disaster. Through MacTavish and Jackson’s eyes, the player watches the story unfold, with disastrous consequences, while recognizing that they are playing smaller pieces of a much larger, and more important, cast of characters.

Playing a character in a game is part of what games are all about. Playing a main character is enjoyable, and gives a sense of importance to the player, but playing a side character is just as crucial, and sometimes more satisfying. Exploring a game world through a character’s observations and small actions, as opposed to direct involvement and decisions on a mass scale, gives a much needed sense of story perspective.

As a main character, you’re blinded by the expectations you heap upon yourself. Striving to emulate the heroic characters you’ve played in the past, you find that you’re playing the same game, over and over again, even if it has a different title, packaging, and story. Playing a side character, watching the story unfold through a different set of eyes and actions, puts a barrier between player and hero. For once, the hero leads, and the player follows.

Filed Under: Editorial Role-playing Story-driven

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.

One Response to “Shifting Roles”

  1. Steven Sukkau

    Great piece Alexandra! I definitely felt this playing Skyrim. I don’t know if it’s because of the utter incompetence of NPCs, or they abuse the “chosen one” story, but I was tired of being the hero. Sure you can be a thief and a generally bad person, but you cannot escape your destiny as saviour of the world. Kind of strange, given that my character will also kill someone for their boots.

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