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Side Quest: Where is the "R" in CRPG?

by Corwin, 2006-11-13
How much Role playing really happens in a modern CRPG? According to a recent readers poll on a well known gaming site, more than a third of all respondents said they only played ‘themselves’ and fewer than that actually tried to play a role. Should this be surprising, or has the ‘Role’ disappeared from our gaming?

To examine this issue, we need to differentiate between Single Player (SP) and Multiplayer (MP) gaming experiences as they are quite dissimilar. Obviously, what you choose to do while playing SP, is between you and your computer, while playing online with others presents myriad opportunities to explore your creativity and imagination outside the limitations imposed by plot and dialogue imperatives.

Within the genre of SP RPG’s, we find two other divisions; those based on class distinctions such as D&D and those where your character can develop anyway you choose as in Oblivion or Gothic. It goes without saying, that people who choose a particular class, such as Paladin, or Wizard will have certain restrictions imposed on them which, in a sense, force them to ‘role-play’ to some extent. You can’t be an evil Paladin and your wizard won’t be very effective running around in plate mail armour, but is this ‘really’ playing a role?

Surely it can be argued, that the real role-playing lies in the dialogue which, in effect, truly delineates your character, whether it be a certain class and alignment, or not. Do the dialogue options in SP games allow us to genuinely role-play a character? For the most part, I don’t think so. Perhaps the only game which really succeeded in this was Planescape: Torment, though I think Fallout came close. Where today can we find games with the depth of character those two classics created? And there’s the ‘rub’ as Shakespeare would say, depth of character.

For me, the worst examples of CRPG’s are those which present the player with no character choice whatsoever. Instead, you begin with some sort of pre-generated character which you are then expected to role-play. How can I, a somewhat elderly male, be asked to realistically play a female teenager? Sorry, but my creativity does not extend quite that far. That’s NOT to say it makes for a poor GAME, it’s just not a ROLE-playing game for me.

Dialogue trees are at the heart of most CRPG’s, but do they really encourage role-playing? If well done, they can, but usually they fail. Why? Probably the simple answer is that the more meaningful choices a player is offered, the more complex the game becomes, which translates to more work, time, and money for the developers. Add to this the fact that many players want ‘action’ over long sessions of reading dialogue option after dialogue option, and you begin to understand why a sequel was never made to PS: T.

What are the normal dialogue choices in a CRPG? Usually three, or at the most four; good, bad, neutral and silly. Frequently, they all end up in the same place with very few consequences for making a poor choice. Oblivion leaps to mind here. The better games do try to include a set of consequences, where your choices actually do affect the World and the game-play, but even here, they are often of a very limited nature.

What happens when a developer goes out of their way to offer many meaningful choices that will have serious consequences for the player? Well, in my experience, all it leads to are pages of whining forum postings about how unfair it is that someone cannot complete certain quests, or join certain factions, just because they made a choice early the game which has come back to bite them. Welcome to real world! I feel sorry for the developers, who appear to be in a no-win situation.

There are other aspects of character which may impact somewhat on the question of role-playing, such as whether or not the in-game avatar displays clothes and weapons the character has, but for me these are only incidental to the issue. Sure they help, but I can certainly role-play without them. Character creation and genuine dialogue options are paramount if I’m going to feel I’m really role-playing.

Perhaps, while still dealing with SP games I should briefly mention party vs solo games. Let me first say that I love controlling a party, especially if the game is Turn-Based. The extra options, the tactics, the conversations between the characters, all make for a fun gaming experience. However, I am NOT role-playing. If anything, I’m managing the party, rather than playing each of the characters which would be extremely schizophrenic.

If the SP experience is doubtful as an example of genuine role-playing, then is the MP option any different? The answer, is Yes, it can be. I’m hardly an advocate for multiplayer gaming, but in the right circumstances, it’s very possible to approach the RP experience in the same way as you would a PnP game.

For a real multiplayer role-playing experience, one game stands out above all the rest; Neverwinter Nights. I’m very hopeful that NWN 2 will be even better. NWN not only allows you to play online co-operatively with friends, but it has a DM client which permits the players to emulate a PnP session to a large extent. Here, each person has the freedom to play the role of their choice with the other characters/players, free from the restrictions imposed by dialogue trees except when dealing with the in-game NPC’s. The option of using VOIP technology has further enhanced this experience.

While most other MMORPG’s don’t offer the same options as NWN, there is still plenty of possibility to role-play with other online players. Some games, such as Minions of Mirth, encourage people to form alliances to complete challenging quests, or to raid an opposing faction. There is a cornucopia of opportunities here to role-play however you wish. Unfortunately, from what I have seen, most people fail to avail themselves of these chances and play SP in an MP.

This brings us back to the question I posed in my title. Where is the ‘R’ in CRPG? Unfortunately, it appears to be primarily lodged somewhere in the MP experience, while drifting further and further away from the SP game. Is there anyway to change this? I don’t know. Games today are very expensive propositions and I don’t see any of the big players taking any risks. Our only hope is that some small independent developer will take up the challenge to put the ‘R’ back into CRPG.
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