I’ve never been a huge RPG man. There usually isn’t enough blood, guns or projectile limbs to hold my relatively one tracked mind, but trying to spread my gaming interest wide, I let the odd one through the net to try and tease my senses with an erotic feather dance of dialogue options.
Just lately, as I’ve made no attempt to hide, I’ve been going through Mass Effect and thoroughly enjoyed being the biggest prick in the universe. I was short, to the point and generally believed in sacrificing other people for the greater good. So ruthless, so efficient, so hilariously unfair.
But to what point did I play the role, as the name RPG strongly infers I should be. Yes, I influenced Shepard’s dickish tendencies and unhealthy lust for the homicidal solution to everything, but it didn’t feel like I was in total control of the decisions. I was the puppet master with a list of instructions, not the man on screen reacting to the situation.
To me, the term ‘role playing game’ infers more control and consequences from your direct actions, rather than selecting something to say from a list of good, neutral and bad dialogues.
Whilst not branded as an RPG, I feel that the Half-life series puts you in a role to be played a whole lot more directly. Everyone talks to you, everything is done by you and you have total control over everything Gordon Freeman does. Sure, this makes you a mute because you can’t input speech, but with the game not pushing any character motivation upon the player, you are free to fill in the blanks of what drives Mr Freeman. It just reinforces that you are playing as the crowbar swinging, science abusing physicist whose bad day at the office sealed his fate.
Now compare this to a Final Fantasy game or indeed Mass Effect, and it seems quite obvious how much narrative is laid out in these titles, simply leaving the player to choose which maze to weave through when it comes to NPC interaction and moral decisions.
I know that the Half-life games are fairly linear shooters, but when playing them, you feel a lot more involved in what is happening as the character you are playing doesn’t dish out any dialogue indicating a prior knowledge of the area, or which path to go down. He only knows what the player does.
It is entirely down to the person wielding the mouse to explore the dark tunnels and come to a conclusion for themselves. This is the sensation that makes me feel that I am playing a bigger role than just funnelling a conduit character model around a map.
Perhaps being the silent protagonist is the main force behind this feeling. Half-life, especially the original, is quite famous for having very little character interaction, with only one way conversations to the player being possible. The trouble with this is that when an RPG wants to spawn a realistic world full of choice and dilemma, it needs to be filled with people that have speaking parts, rather than a few hundred aliens that want to hump your face in to oblivion.
I guess we need to decide if a role playing game is about making a choice from a pre-prepared list, or consciously making the choice to go there ourselves, without a prompt, even if there is only one path to follow. The definition set by the current RPG market definitely hints at the former, but choosing from A, B or C, just doesn’t seem like taking the role of a game character, that jumping blindly into option Z does.