RPGs and You 2

Last month, I brought up how games that lack a cin­e­matic style of nar­ra­tive still rely on nar­ra­tive – specif­i­cally, cul­tur­ally ingrained nar­ra­tives that are more basic than the mas­sive frame­work of story most films and nov­els provide. These cul­tural nar­ra­tives are of con­sid­er­able value to us, since they are essen­tially the bedrock of our soci­ety, the “fic­tions” that we use to sus­tain order in and make sense of our lives. Peter Berger describes these nar­ra­tives as a lit­tle bit beyond what we read­ily under­stand as social con­struc­tion – newer, less ingrained ideas won’t have the same uncon­scious qual­ity, whereas we tend to accept these base ideas as “just the way things are.” For instance, roles as basic as “friend” and “enemy” are social con­struc­tions, as are the behav­iors we are expected to show to our friends and ene­mies. When I provide for the needs of another per­son, and they provide back, a bond devel­ops – depen­dency and trust fol­lows. What could be boiled down to a knowl­edge of another per­son (“I know how my friend will react when I show him this pic­ture of a cat rolling a water­melon out of the sea”) and sub­se­quent trust in that per­son (“He will talk to me when I need to talk”) is socially cod­i­fied into the role of “friend.” Its inverse, the enemy, occurs when per­ceived harm is incurred by another agent. The fren­emy is an exam­ple of how this sys­tem some­times breaks down.

But let’s not dwell on that; I know most folks aren’t as eager to delight­edly wal­low in post­mod­ernism and soci­ol­ogy as I am. What I’m get­ting at is that games all tap into story-space for us, just like every­thing else does. They draw from the same place as the most basic sto­ries we use to describe and define our­selves and oth­ers, latch­ing onto that sense of play and boundary-loosening that we encoun­ter in any art that pro­vides an alter­na­tive world to stand in, and thus an alter­na­tive per­spec­tive against which we can assess our own world. This brings me to my focus. RPG ele­ments have become preva­lent in gam­ing. As one plays, one can expect expe­ri­ence points, unlock­able items, and dis­crete lev­els that unlock new abil­i­ties. Some have argued that this is good, or that this is bad – it is of course com­plex, and there­fore nei­ther. But what I’m inter­ested in is what makes these mechan­ics so pop­u­lar. What cul­tural nar­ra­tives do RPG mechan­ics tap into? And, know­ing this, what cool things can we do with games to sub­vert that?

When we inhabit an alter­nate world in video games, it is often via incar­na­tion. We assume an avatar, another skin and per­sona, which houses the set of tools we will use to inter­act with the dig­i­tal world. Sometimes this per­sona is less vis­i­bly human or per­sonal than oth­ers, but fre­quently that avatar will be vir­tual skin-and-bone, rec­og­niz­able and under­stand­able and, if not human, meant to evoke human­ity. It pro­vides us a per­sonal mir­ror with which we can explore that world, reflect­ing our­selves in the world and also reflect­ing that world back onto ours for our ben­e­fit.

When mar­ried with RPG ele­ments, the avatar’s jour­ney becomes an unceas­ing ascent – the avatar gath­ers power and points that power ever upwards. The slope is grad­ual, but con­sis­tent, and plays into a notion of self-improvement, or coming-of-age.

This slope is totally appro­pri­ate for the hero’s jour­ney nar­ra­tive, a nar­ra­tive at which video games have excelled. The hero’s jour­ney speaks to the fac­ing of chal­lenges, and tends to mir­ror per­sonal chal­lenges that we go through. The stages involve ret­i­cence to face a chal­lenge, deal­ing with outer and inner road blocks, and finally over­com­ing what­ever great obsta­cle awak­ens the hero at the start. Virtually every tra­di­tional RPG has a ter­ri­ble vil­lain at its apex, a vil­lain that is the anti-thesis of what the hero is. For these sorts of nar­ra­tives, straight­for­ward RPG mechan­ics suit us well, but not per­fectly; an impor­tant part of the hero’s jour­ney is strife, and if the game’s mechan­ics express a cease­less mechan­i­cal ascent then the game must express the “fall” of tur­moil and hard­ship by chal­lenges alone. This is often less effec­tive than instances in which the hero/player might actively ques­tion their own resolve and abil­ity to see the jour­ney through, as it feels like the out­ward push­ing in and doesn’t have much influ­ence on the inter­nal world of the hero or player.

In gen­eral, though, RPGs are great at express­ing the hero’s jour­ney. By tying the player to the avatar, RPGs allow the player to expe­ri­ence that per­sonal growth first-hand. The state of self is the focal point of the game’s mechan­ics, and such is that focus that expand­ing the tool-set of the avatar can become an end in itself (see WoW). RPGs are more than just watch­ing num­bers go up because those num­bers are attached to our own self-definition. The avatar rep­re­sents a space of play in which the self can play and become not-self, but that play also indeli­bly reflects back on the self. We spend time play­ing a game, and expe­ri­ence “our­selves” improv­ing in con­crete ways. Some would argue that this isn’t a real improve­ment, but I think that’s a fool­ish way of look­ing at it; our res­i­dence in video games is cho­sen and not inescapable like our fleshy exis­tence, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Improvement is improve­ment to the human brain.

Indeed, improve­ment is espe­cially impor­tant for social nar­ra­tive I want to exam­ine most, the American nar­ra­tive. The nar­ra­tive of the self, com­posed of our own mem­o­ries and the sto­ries that other peo­ple tell to us about us, relies on cul­tural nar­ra­tive to bol­ster its weight and real­ity. The American nar­ra­tive is often one of self-improvement – themes of dom­i­nance, com­pe­ti­tion, and know­ing and increas­ing one’s own strengths are pro­lific and inher­ent to most of our lives. Roleplaying mechan­ics effort­lessly tap into this drive, giv­ing us a chance to prove our­selves in a dig­i­tal uni­verse. We expe­ri­ence a vir­tual ascent that can be as com­pelling and ful­fill­ing as a job pro­mo­tion or win­ning a pick-up game of bas­ket­ball and, depend­ing on how social the game is, expe­ri­ence this ascent in the eyes of oth­ers, as well.

Look at the myth of the self-made man who grew up with noth­ing and achieved every­thing in the field of his choice. It’s an espe­cially American tale; we’re obsessed with class flu­id­ity, even if our sys­tems are less suc­cess­ful at facil­i­tat­ing it than they might be. This same nar­ra­tive is expressed in every RPG mechanic. Nobody starts at level 20; every­body begins at level 1, on the same basic level, and they will often make mean­ing­ful choices as they grow and develop that will deter­mine their iden­tity and long-term suc­cess. Most expres­sions of lev­el­ing up are noth­ing less than the American ideal – World of Warcraft is a bet­ter expres­sion of America’s social val­ues than America has ever been.

Of course, this pic­ture of the human expe­ri­ence is incom­plete. Life is not an unceas­ing ascent toward per­fec­tion, and every indi­vid­ual suf­fers and loses ground. It is these expe­ri­ences that RPG mechan­ics fail to cap­ture.

This is not, in and of itself, a prob­lem. Stories are focused expe­ri­ences, and don’t need to cap­ture the whole of human exis­tence, and role­play­ing games as cur­rently envi­sioned don’t strictly need to focus on these descents. But that doesn’t mean they can’t, nor that it isn’t fer­tile, com­pelling space for new art. But it will require chal­leng­ing the basic for­mat of RPGs in order to ade­quately address such themes.

Let’s look at Mass Effect 3. Its arc is largely one of descent – Shepard is exhausted, and the stakes are no less than the fate of all sen­tient life in the uni­verse. Through dia­logue, voice-acting, and visu­als, the player watches as Shepard starts to lose her con­fi­dence, her reserves, and her allies. It’s a story that has just as many notes of tragedy, if not more, than notes of hope; its a story of des­per­a­tion. It’s also well exe­cuted, with one excep­tion – mechan­i­cally, Shepard only grows more pow­er­ful. Mechanically, the game is an ascent, and then Shepard is abruptly cut down in her prime.

This is a prob­lem of form over­rid­ing intent.

Imagine a Mass Effect 3 in which the player is con­stantly los­ing lev­els, forced to decide which tools to give up just as Shepard is forced to make hard choices. This grates against com­mon knowl­edge, and may not even be a good idea (though I really love it), but imag­ine a Mass Effect 3 in which the theme of sac­ri­fice is not just expressed by the devel­oper, but is a lived expe­ri­ence for the player.

Mass Effect 3 is an incred­i­ble game even with its reliance on the unceas­ing ascent of tra­di­tional RPG mechan­ics, but it’s not all those mechan­ics are capa­ble of. Games are noth­ing less than a col­lab­o­ra­tive story between the devel­oper and the player, and exist some­where between the developer’s bound­aries and inten­tions and the player’s lived expe­ri­ence. RPG mechan­ics are a pow­er­ful nar­ra­tive tool, but let’s play jazz with them. Human sto­ries are so much wider than pure ascent, and new takes on old mechan­ics can prove a bedrock for incred­i­ble new expe­ri­ences.

Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at http://embers-at-night.tumblr.com/

  • Jim Ralph

    Absolutely love this Matt! My own writ­ing usu­ally emerges out of a state­ment or sen­ti­ment in some­thing else that gets me think­ing, and there’s 3 or 4 in here I’d love to expand upon. Particularly inter­est­ing is the part cul­mi­nat­ing in ‘World of Warcraft is a bet­ter expres­sion of America’s social val­ues than America has ever been’. I think that opens up a whole bar­rel of ques­tions about just what escapism, not just in games but fic­ti­tious expe­ri­ences in gen­eral, are all about. Is part of the appeal of gam­ing the expe­ri­ence of a com­pletely rule-based envi­ron­ment, pure mer­i­toc­racy, in which suc­cess is guar­an­teed if you per­form the cor­rect actions? Life, as we know, is a bitch, but most of the fic­tions we cre­ate are fair and within them we value verisimil­i­tude as an essen­tial fea­ture. For all that we crave ‘real­ism’ in our media, what we often seem to be look­ing for is inter­nally con­sis­tent sys­tems, some­thing that I’m not sure many adults would describe real life as being.

    I’m waf­fling a bit I think. Suffice it to I enjoyed this, and you’ve got me think­ing!

  • The iOS game Swords & Sworcery has a mechanic like the one you’re talk­ing about. Over the course of the game, your char­ac­ter suf­fers tri­als that grad­u­ally weaken her. At the start, you have (IIRC) three stars worth of health, and you can sur­vive mul­ti­ple mis­takes dur­ing com­bat; by the end you have just one, and you have lit­tle wig­gle room. Besides fit­ting the story arc, it’s an inter­est­ing way to increase dif­fi­culty as you become more skilled at the game.