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.