Roleplaying games are a main staple of gaming nowadays. However, as they have become more mainstream, they have had to become further and further removed from their source origin and, ultimately, the core reasons roleplaying is still going strong today.
Dungeons & Dragons invented roleplaying games
Although it has become a go-to synonym for nerdiness in pop culture, Dungeons and Dragons (the board game, not the awesome animated series) is the seed from which Mass Effect, The Witcher and Final Fantasy owe their gaming success from.
The Dungeons and Dragons gaming structure was, and still is, incredibly popular. Pop into your local tabletop gaming outlet and you are guaranteed to find a group of familiars and strangers alike sat around a table, and questing their hearts out.
The recipe is simple: Take a group of friends, allow them to create a character in their entirety, put them into an engaging world populated with friends and foes, and let the quest naturally weave it's way along. Of course, the appeal grows from that very first action — creating the character. Fully generating a character, their strengths, weaknesses, and individual quirks is one of the most satisfying elements of roleplaying.
Being able to stay in character throughout the experience is where the joy lies, and the human imagination really gets to shine. If you choose to be gung-ho, you will inevitably weigh into fights happily. If you are charismatic, you may avoid all combat through conversation or leave it to your more classically muscular compatriots (as I have done on many occasions).
Having your character's background be meaningful is what inspired so many to try to recreate the experience digitally.
The state of roleplaying games today
For the longest period of time, roleplaying games were seen as grind fests which were only savored by basement-dwelling solitary folk or anti-social teens. Games like Final Fantasy made some strides to changing this perception. Unfortunately, the true nature of roleplaying was already lost in translation.
In order to produce a satisfactory experience for all players involved, there had to be a fixed series of events. Certain bosses had to be fought, swathes of NPCs had to be slain, and your characters were fixed on their pre-determined motivations. While these experiences were incredible, Final Fantasy 7 stands out, the impact of your choices had been muted. You were roleplaying on a surface level only.
Then came the reinvention of roleplaying games, and the influx of the buzzword "choices." The Fable series, and Knights of the Old Republic, can be seen as the mass market beginning of this era of roleplaying. Players were being given the option to make game shifting decisions. Save or not to save. Kill or not to kill. We could change our game to our liking. Or so it seemed.
Look under the hood of even the most lauded series, and the truth is hastily revealed. You must still fight Character X here. Worse still, you only have two realistic options: be selflessly benevolent or unspeakably evil. Games began to add in grayer options, but we are only dealing in shades of an extreme.
When you strip away the graphical updates and flashy marketing, you'll still find a game which creates the illusion of choice but is skilfully funnelling you along a path (like a virtual magician).
Where roleplaying is going
Torment: Tides of Numenera is, hopefully, a clear indication of where roleplaying is going. The game has clearly been lovingly crafted by people who fondly gathered around a table to escape the mundane everyday, and are proud to tell you that. In character creation, you can choose from a long list of characteristics to shape your playthrough, and alter skills such as persuasion or deception.
Equally, you can use a finite pool of ability points to influence actions pretty much anywhere in the game world. 50% chance of shifting that heavy boulder out the way? Use some of your strength skill points to boost the odds. Fancy convincing that trader their items are worthless?
Use some intellect points to improve your persuasion skill. Admittedly, this isn't true for every conversation, but certainly seems to be true for any conversation that truly matters. In fact, failing these tests can sometimes be more useful or interesting than passing, meaning a frustration can become wonderfully useful or entertaining.
Torment does its best to replicate that real-life equivalent. Indeed, should you wish, it is possible to complete the entire game without killing a single enemy or being in any proper fights. You can talk and coerce your way through instead. Decisions are neither paragon or renegade, they are genuine moments of indecision and thought.
For example, early in the game you have the possibility of releasing an apparently murderous beast and a dangerous criminal. Or, you could not. There is no clear indication of the real results and even then you may have to wait a while to see the real consequences.
Torment even goes further, and seems to actively divert from roleplaying game tropes. Not even death is an end for you; there are circumstances where this may simply cause an enticing skew in the plot. Effectively, the game has been beautifully crafted to allow you to properly role-play from beginning to end of your experience with Torment, with all of your choices being important in one way or another.
You can be the character you want to be, without the game's writers trying to shape you one way or the other.
If there is any justice in video gaming, games like Torment will be the norm and not the exception. Technology has surely reached the point where we can better replicate the source material from which the roleplaying passion stems.
Do we really still need to soldier through games as the good-guy who has no issue with the countless massacre of bad guys? Can't we make a choice on how we approach situations? There is a deserved place for more narratively designed experiences, but there should also be room for me to create my narrative.
Games will never come close to the bizarre permutations the human brain concocts, yet we should be looking to make roleplaying about playing a role again, and not just playing the role somebody has told you to.
What do you want from your roleplaying games? Let me know in the comments!
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