My first memory of role playing games is a dim and confused afternoon, in the after-school day care, when I was eight years old. The big kids had gotten a new game out of the boardgame cupboard, and had laid out a complex-looking game board, blue and white with little squares everywhere, and little metal game pieces carefully positioned around the board. I had no idea what I was looking at, and when I worked up the courage to ask one of the big kids what it was, he said, ‘Dungeons and Dragons.’
I was playing — or trying to play, with what few opportunities I could muster at age 9 — from then onwards, with very little comprehension of the rules, the goal of the game, the format, the source material, or any of what makes D&D actually work as a game. I read and re-read the example of play in my increasingly battered Moldvay edition of the Basic book. I had this sense of what a role playing game should be, and could be, and I wanted to make that happen somehow, with no real friends and no opportunities to play with interested strangers.
In those early days, a role playing game was an attempt to simulate the world. Your destiny was largely in your hands, and your adventures were the natural result of whatever action you happened to take. That map I saw the big kids (incorrectly) using as a game-board was the Caves of Chaos, from the Keep On The Borderland game supplement. The Caves were just a place, which happened to be full of monsters and loot. You could find them and go there, or you could go to a different cave system, or you could go somewhere else and do something else. Take over the keep. Set up your own competing keep. Conquer the region. “I want to try X,” you’d say, and if X was something your character might reasonably be able to do, your gamemaster would let you know the results. Your ultimate goals? Whatever you wanted them to be. Amass wealth. Conquer the world. Open a school. Build a castle.
Story, in the sense we now think of it, was a much later addition to the genre. I’ve seen arguments that place its birth in the work of Weis and Hickman, in Ravenloft and Dragonlance. In the new ‘story style’ of role playing game, the first thing you learn is your ultimate goal. Defeat the vampire lord. Recover the magic weapon to save the kingdom. Find the treasure, but not to keep it or use it yourself for your own ends; instead, return the treasure to the Queen so she can use it to protect her land from the Evil Darkness.
This new focus paralleled a similar shift in fantasy fiction. Early fantasy fiction was content to just follow a powerful character as he aimlessly explored his fantastic world, doing things as he came across them, fighting or stealing or conquering as seemed best to him from day to day. Conan, Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, Elric: all these heroes had no real overarching plot to drive them from event to event. Where did their feet happen to take them that day? What urge or need drove them to steal that jewel, or kidnap that princess? It’s a style known as ‘picaresque’.
Plot-driven fantasy was probably born, or at least made into a powerful alternate path of storytelling, by Tolkien. The Lord Of The Rings is a saga, an epic story about an epic plot in which heroes take epic actions with epic consequences for the whole world. There’s still the essential fantastical element of exploring an unfamiliar world, but it’s become more than a guided walking tour of the world. It’s About Something.
So the new model of role playing game was an attempt to follow this alternate path, Tolkien’s path, towards games that were also About Somethisng. And, by and large, the story-driven games won. I can’t think of a single game I played or ran after the advent of AD&D 2nd Edition that didn’t begin with a Hero’s Journey-style call to action. The corporate fixer in the bar in Shadowrun or Cyberpunk. The panicked scrawl of a letter from an associate in Call of Cthulhu. The coming-together of novice magi seeking a stable home of Ars Magica. Even the old hoary standby of a chance meeting in a medieval tavern had to be fraught with impending Story; everyone knew that failure to add a healthy dose of narrative direction in that tavern would lead to a brawl.
The essential question at the heart of the player experience stopped being ‘what do we want to do?’ and slowly became ‘what are we supposed to do?’. (And I’d argue that the role playing game is poorer for the overwhelming and unquestioned acceptance of this change, but that’s not really what I’m driving at here.)
In a modern tabletop role playing game, we no longer insist on total freedom of action. There are lots of bitter unresolved arguments throughout the internet about the inability of, for instance, 4th Edition D&D to model a completely open world with total freedom of action. The elemental building block of content in the new RPG is not the ‘monster’, the single opponent who will block your actions with whatever means he has at his disposal. Instead, the new elemental building block of content is the ‘encounter’, or the ‘scene’.
The scene model allows for a lot more narrative to be crammed in to one piece of content. The scene could have a princess with ambitions, her personal assassin who’s not as loyal as she thinks, the Duke she needs to kill to secure her estates, the duke’s illegitimate magically-powerful son, and the flustered captain of the guards. Stick them all together, declare that a fight is going to break out, and plan out who does what in that fight. You’ve set the scene with interesting props and terrain, so you know that there are tapestries to be pulled down, a balcony to leap off, ropes holding hanging candelabra to be cut, and tables to be overturned. You see the whole encounter in your mind’s eye, and then you put the players of your game into the encounter and set it off and running.
The obvious drawback, of course, is that you don’t know if your players want to save the Duke. Or protect the princess. Or kill everyone in the room. You know how you need things to happen here in Encounter #5, so that Encounter #6 will play out correctly. So you know that ultimately the Duke has to die, and the princess live, so that Encounter #6 will have the proper setup. And so during the fight, you cheat. You cheat to ensure the Duke dies, you cheat to ensure the princess lives, you cheat to make sure that players can’t alter these outcomes. If the players really, really want to oppose your goals, you maybe even break the fourth wall and tell them it’s important to keep the princess alive. It’s frustrating, but it’s the price you pay for a game with an actual narrative. A priori narratives are restrictive. You can wiggle around in them, but you can’t break out of them without breaking the narrative itself.
When we play tabletop role playing games, we’re not so much creating a narrative, as we are looking for opportunities to stamp an existing narrative with our perceived character ‘flavor’. If I am playing a priggish young nobleman, I will rescue the kingdom but I want to do it in my own idiom, priggishly, looking down on the peasants I’m rescuing. If I’m a northern barbarian berserker, I will also rescue the kingdom (even if it makes no sense that I’d do so) but I want to flavor it with mad berserk rage and battle. We’re going to follow the same plot, nobleman and barbarian, with the same scenes and same encounters, but we might get to provoke some interesting reactions from the game world as we go. As long as they don’t divert the story away from its destined track to the planned ending, we can express our foibles all over the landscape.
We accept this because we recognize that aimless wandering with no plan and no expected narrative payoff is going to eventually get stale; that the only way to enjoy the fantasy epic we’ve found ourselves in is to let it be a fantasy epic, with a destiny and everything. (And I should say here that there are games that try to subvert this relationship between player and narrative, whether by eliminating the idea of a fixed narrative but still simulating the flow of narration, or by placing the tools of narration in the players’ hands.)
But look, a priori narrative is here to stay. It’s what we really mean when we claim to want more ‘story’ in our computer and console games. It’s what we’re criticising when we say a game has no ‘point’. We play narrative-free games and pine for a guiding narrative. We want to be constrained because we want to feel like the arc of our mastery of the game is leading us towards a recognition, by the game, in the form of a story climax, of our mastery. We build up to the ‘final boss’ of a game expecting the ‘final boss’ to be a satisfying end, followed by a denouement and exeunt.
Candy Crush Saga, a game that needs a narrative like a fish needs a bicycle, has a narrative. It’s meaningless noise, with no gameplay expression, but it’s there: you’re saving a serpent whose lake has dried up, or repairing and resupplying a candy factory, or whatever.
It’s a truism that computer and console role playing games are not ‘really’ role playing games. You have no freedom of action; your course is restricted by the tools the developers have given you to manipulate the game world. That set of tools has become more and more elaborate over time, such that there are actual moments in a sufficiently detailed world where you can suspend your disbelief and imagine you are the character you’re playing (for instance, Gone Home (**)). But the toolset is necessarily limited, because the developer has to anticipate every action you might want to take, and she’s not going to catch all of them (even assuming catchng all of them is desirable).
My contention here is that the perception that the computer role playing game is too limited to be a ‘real’ role playing game is flawed, and the flaw is that modern tabletop role playing games aren’t open-ended in the way we claim to want from our computer role playing games. In other words, we’re asking developers to rise to the challenge of a type of gaming that’s been effectively dead since Dragonlance. We’re setting unrealistic expectations based not on the tabletop game as played today, but the tabletop game we imagine from days of Gygaxian yore, the tabletop game of total freedom.
‘My character should be able to dig a hole. Why can’t I dig a hole? This isn’t real roleplaying.’
What are the chances that your demand to dig a hole in a tabletop game would be met with rolled eyes from the gamemaster (and likely the other players, if you’re the sort to pull this kind of stunt often) and a perfunctory ‘Fine, you dig for an hour and get tired. Can we move on?’ The other players want to get to the next encounter, the next scene, the next opportunity for something interesting to happen. They don’t want to watch you dig holes. That you can or can’t dig them in a game is irrelevant to the game’s story, so who cares?
‘What if it’s relevant to the fight? What if I dig traps for my enemies?’
What if you do? The game you’re playing might have a ‘set trap’ skill; World of Warcraft certainly does. And if it doesn’t, are these missing pit traps honestly the difference between you winning and losing the fight? Aren’t you going to win the fight, overcome the challenge, whatever, without these pits, anyway? The challenge is there as a speed bump between you and the narrative payoff, and everyone involved knows it. Your digging is irrelevant.
That said, there are games that strive for the total-representation form, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning them; Dwarf Fortress, Minecraft, and to some extent the various Elder Scrolls games attempt to model a whole world and give you all the tools you can imagine to interact with that world, with only the lightest sprinkles of narrative direction to guide your play. Let’s accept those examples and call them outliers, and move on.
Here, I’m finally going to introduce my central thesis: Bioware Austin’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is a real role playing game. It’s probably the best role playing game I’ve experienced on a computer or console.
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we? I spend a lot of time carefully planning out my character’s appearance. She’s chalk-white with deep black tattoos all over her face in bold angular lines. She has red glowing eyes. She’s bald, and has a permanent look of icy contempt on her face. She’s a member of a sith slave race.
The game starts with abuse, an NPC calling me nasty names, threatening me, declaring me to be worthless before I’ve even gotten started. This NPC is my instructor, and as drill sergeants go, he’s not very motivating. I resolve that I will hurt him, possibly kill him, before I’m done. I’m fully expecting to be foiled in this plan, because hated NPCs can’t ever be killed in a game, or at least not in any satisfying way.
Over the next few hours I watch my character’s personality emerge from the various dialogue options, the maze of choices. She’s cruel and delights in pain, but her cruelty is a symptom of a deeply-rooted fear. She must constantly hurt those she perceives as weaker than she, so she can reaffirm her own power, her own defenses against being hurt again herself. She enjoys killing and arbitrary nastiness as a way to assert her position in the universe, her relative ranking in the pecking order.
How much of this is me reading between the lines, and how much is present in the dialogue itself? I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. I’m making new choices in each conversation based, not on what choices I picked in previous conversations, but rather on my understanding of those conversation choices. The particular path I’ve followed through the maze is unique to me, forming a shape that only I know. The character, at this point, is mine. I’ve made her mine.
Ultimately the game lets me kill the instructor, after mocking him, threatening him, and ruining him. It’s extremely satisfying. I feel good about grinding him down, as though I’ve accomplished something. I haven’t, you’ll note; this is not an option I could have avoided. The instructor fails regardless of the decisions I made. He’s doomed to die from the moment I arrive on Korriban, the Sith training world. He might die because you kill him, or he might die from a different student killing him, or his own master; I don’t know all the possible final fates that await him. But it’s clear he has to be shuffled off-stage at this point, and he is.
The question to ask, then, is: without any possible choice in his death, am I really interacting with the game? The path forwards leads through a point called ‘instructor’s death’. There is no way into the land beyond that point without passing through it. You either follow the plot to where he dies, or you don’t do the plot (and the game is basically unplayable if you skip the plot; too many other things depend on it). Isn’t this lack of ability to direct the narrative yourself anathema to the idea of SWTOR as a role playing game?
Sure it is, if you mean the Gygaxian set-out-for-adventure role playing game. But those games are dead, and have been since the 80s. The modern role playing game is exactly as constrained as SWTOR. The Goblin Chieftain has the crown. You need the crown to save the King. The Goblin needs the crown to maintain his authority over his tribe. Impasse! You and the goblin fight, and you take the crown. Or you knock him unconscious and later his people usurp him. Or he kills you and keeps the crown; game over! Maybe you come up with a plan to make a fake crown but if you’re already hip deep in the dungeon, with a hundred dead goblin warriors littering the passages behind you, chances are good the other players are going to swear at you, and attack the Chieftain while you blabber about fake crowns.
There’s a path, and it leads forward through a point called ‘goblin chieftain’s death’ (or more precisely, ‘acquire the crown’). You can’t get to the land beyond that point without going through the point.
Dislike of this model is a totally reasonable reaction. But let’s make sure we correctly identify what you’re dissatisfied with. It’s not SWTOR; it’s the concept of the narrative-driven role playing game, as expressed by Weis and Hickman many years back.
SWTOR uses the Mass Effect conversation system. In it, NPCs will speak to your for a while, and then you’ll be given the option to say something. You don’t know what you’re going to say. You know the general outlines of the sentiment that will be expressed, but it’s often hard to know the tone that you’ll use. I’ve picked what I thought were sarcastic remarks and gotten whimpering and groveling before (and been forced, by my own sense of character identity, to restart the conversation and avoid that choice; clumsy, but necessary.)
Most of the time, these choices don’t matter, by which I mean they don’t significantly affect the narrative, or even the conditions under which you pursue the narrative. They’re temporary forks in the river that immediately rejoin just a little ways downstream, leaving no trace that the fork ever happened. Some of the time, the choices affect your character, in a longer-term sense, aligning you more strongly with good or evil, or changing what your various companions think of you. This ‘matters’ in only the broadest sense, as being particularly good or particularly bad doesn’t seem to lead to any fork or more persistent branching of the story. The narrative keeps you pointed forward, regardless of how vigorously you push and shove to the sides.
Some of the time, the choices do matter, and there’s generally enough build-up to such choices that you can anticipate one is happening, and think more carefully about your responses.
To illustrate this, I’ll tell the story of last night’s play session. I am hunting ghosts, with a proton pack and ghost trap seemingly built into my hands and chest. There is a Jedi ghost I need to acquire, for Reasons. The only person who can summon this Jedi ghost is a Jedi padawan who’s young and arrogant and sure of herself. I arrange to have her attacked by a group of Sith assassins, and then sweep in to kill the assassins myself, and save her from them. With one assassin begging for his life, I have options. I can kill him. I can let him go. Or I can ask her to kill him. Choosing the last of those, I learn that I can use the Force to compel her to kill him; I can torture her into obeying me; or I can just… talk to her.
I talk to her. For a few minutes, we have a conversation about good, evil, and pragmatism. It ends with her, of her own free will and without any Force compulsion whatsoever, killing the prisoner with her lightsaber. It was a brilliant, amazing moment, one of the few I can point to and say: ‘This. This feels like Star Wars.’
My choices there are likely to resound through the rest of my relationship with the Jedi. She’s coming along with me for the rest of the game, as my newest companion, and I expect to have many more conversations with her about good and evil.
The obvious objection is that I’m not actually speaking for my character. I’m selecting from a menu of canned responses, and I can just hope that there continue to be options that match my understanding of my character and her personality. This is a completely legitimate objection, but I think there are two things happening in SWTOR that counter this objection.
First, and probably most importantly for the game’s long-term success, there are a lot of viewpoints being expressed in the game. It is perhaps my most deeply-felt critique of Bioware’s RPGs that the dialogue options are absurdly narrow, confined to a three-color spectrum of ‘good, evil, and boring’. Mass Effect offers no room to explore a character through dialogue. There are three characters you can play, and only three. You can play Good Shepherd, Evil Shepherd, or Boring Military Shepherd.
Dragon Age gave me hope, because it started with a more elaborate promise. I made a Dwarf character, part of the underclass, living in the slums. This implied a plethora of viewpoints, each coming from a particular combination of character race, class, origin story, and morality. Alas, once the character-specific prologue was over, it was back to Good, Evil, Boring.
The thing to realize in SWTOR is that the content is split in two. There are Republic missions, and there are Empire missions, and (at least so far as I’ve played, close to level 40) they never meet and overlap. So right from the start, the content is shaping your dialogue options. We’ve got, at a minimum, ‘good republic’, ‘evil republic’, and ‘boring republic’, and the same set on the Empire side.
The content differentiation continues. Each character class has its own storyline — that’s actually the primary narrative in the game, that class-specific storyline — and is thus further subdividing the content into ‘good [class], evil [class], and boring [class]’. And, what’s more, many character classes have their own unique responses to content that’s not in the storyline.
There are other axes of variation among the dialogue options, as well. One of my companions likes to be paid. Sometimes I’ll have two identical responses, only in one of them I demand payment. If I choose that option, he’ll like me more. Another of my companions is bloodthirsty. Sometimes I can torture a person to shortcut past dialogue. If I choose to do that, my bloodthirsty companion will like me more. So now I’m making choices not just for my own personal character development, but in the context of how my allies will perceive me. How do I want to be perceived? Unlike a one-off NPC on a distant planet that I’ll never see again, my companions will always be with me, and the cumulative effect of my choices will be indelibly recorded on their character sheets.
In other words, SWTOR represents a monumental quantity of content. It is, in fact, absurd in scope and complexity. Even as I play the game I’m well aware that I’m missing half the content just for my own character class — and there are seven other classes as well, across two totally separate sets of content. It is unlikely I’ll ever make it all the way through the content the game has to offer. The dialogue is canned, but there are more cans to choose from than I will ever exhaust.
Second, canned dialogue is actually superior to what you get from an actual tabletop role playing game session.
I invite you to search youtube for recordings of game sessions, or videos of LARPs in progress. Listen to their dialogue. Pretty awful, isn’t it? When it’s not being directly cribbed from existing sources (most often Monty Python), it’s a flat, affectless, empty exercise in florid sentence construction and exaggerated body language. It’s not just bad theater, it’s bad improv theater. It hurts to listen to, and it hurts to try to respond to.
When I run tabletop role playing games, I often have players tell me what they want to say. Not what they actually say, mind you, but what they want to say. ‘I want to convince him that we’re working for the captain of the guards.’ Sometimes, when I’m feeling masochistic, I respond with, ‘Ok, go for it. Convince me,’ and watch the player splutter and search for the right words. Other times — most of the time — I nod and ask for a roll of the dice.
The thing is, the dialogue we each construct in our heads is going to be better than the dialogue anyone actually said out loud. Improv acting is a skill, it’s a difficult skill, and it’s miserable and embarassing when done poorly. Imagination is always goinng to be better than amateur improv. ‘I threaten him by describing the uses of a potato peeler’ is good, because we can all collectively shudder at the description without ever hearing it.
I can think of an instance where I’d rather hear the actual dialogue, the literal words spoken rather than the intent of the words: if those words were written by a skilled professional with all the time in the world to ponder the right phrasing and word choice. And if those words were then delivered by a skilled professional actor with multiple takes to get just the right tone and shading of meaning.
Which is, of course, what Bioware’s done in SWTOR. They’ve put a writer and voice actor in chairs just behind and to each side of the player. The player says, ‘I threaten him!’ and they spring into action, writing a really clever threat and then delivering it in a voice of total, vicious contempt.
It’s an odd thing, really, that we accept our abstract inputs into a combat system, then translated into imaginary action stunts, as a distance from the game world. We roll dice to hit a target, and then more dice to inflict damage on the target, and we accept that as a good model of battle, a reasonable distance between ourselves and the action. But when it comes to spoken dialogue, we want no filters between us and the game. We want to type the text ourselves — or, preferably, speak it aloud.
In combat, we push a button to declare an intent, and then combat system designers and animators and particle effect artists and character artists spring into action (technically, they sprang into action years ago) to express our intent in the game. The dialogue system in SWTOR is literally the same concept: I push a button to declare an intent, as described by the text associated with a choice. The writers and voice actors and content designers and animators and character artists spring into action to express that intent in the game. I want to forgive him, I say. They write dialogue indicating I forgive him, and it’s much much better than anything I could have come up with on the fly. Hell, in a lot of cases it’s better than what I would have come up with after a lot of thought and effort.
There are so many available intents, so many options and paths through every dialogue maze, that I’ve rarely felt trapped into a decision point where at least one of the options didn’t reflect the idea of the character I was developing in my mind.
So insofar as I’m able to explore my character in a tabletop role playing game, within the constraints of the planned narrative, I’m also able to do that exploration in SWTOR. And it’s arguably a better, more affecting exploration, given far more power through the voice acting and writing, and the ability of the game’s designers to remember and follow through on your early choices, teasing them out into later converations and later choices.
The big question that I’ve been ignoring this whole time, of course, is ‘What about the multiplayer aspects? This is an online game, with all the obligations and drawbacks that brings with it.’
I understand why SWTOR is an online game, from a development perspective, but… can I be frank, Bioware Austin friends? The other players are the worst part of this game. The chat channels are toxic waste dumps, filled with the lowest kind of racism and sexism, homophobia and death threats, spam and clutter that I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of a game with more offensive chat than SWTOR. Even WoW Barrens chat doesn’t come close to the shit I see on the Republic Fleet.
Nothing about the game’s design demands that it be an MMO. Arguably the game’s real strength is in its ability to sustain an interesting storyline through accessible single-player content, from the beginning of the leveling curve all the way to the end. To the extent that I want multiplayer in this experience at all, I want it with my friends, and exclusively my friends. I could play this game as a Diablo-scale small multiplayer game, or (at most) a Phantasy Star Online or Guild Wars lobby-and-quest-area game.
But regardless of the multiplayer, the core of the game is that long-awaited first step I’ve been hoping for since I played Ultima 5 on my aging monochrome desktop computer back in the late 80s. It’s a real RPG. I am thrilled to see what situations my character will get into next. I look forward to missions purely for the satisfaction of the many opportunities they provide for my character to express herself and her personality. I eagerly dig into dialogue and quest text, hoping for chances to torture people, verbally abuse them, make unreasonable demands of them, and occasionally provoke them into attacking me.
I’m playing a role at least as much as, if not more than, any tabletop role playing game I’ve played in the past.