I finished playing through Mass Effect 2 last night. It’s a sci-fi RPG computer game (on PC in my case), in which you fly around in a cool space ship and attempt to save the galaxy by gunning down, punching out or chatting up aliens. It’s very good, although not quite up to the original in terms of plot. Once it was over (galaxy saved for the second time), I started to wonder how much actual roleplaying I’d done.

So what constitutes a roleplaying game anyway? Whether a video game or the traditional dice-and-paper variety, the criteria should be pretty much the same, right? At the most basic level, I need to play a character that is not me – to step into somebody else’s shoes is surely the essence of playing a role. Well, all RPGs achieve that, but then so do all first person shooters – you’re literally looking out of their eyes after all. And if I play a wargame, I’m taking on the role of the commander. In fact if I play Monopoly, I’m roleplaying a property tycoon (albeit one that looks like a small dog).

The next thing that RPGs seem to have in common is the option to choose equipment, skills and even personal appearance. But Team Fortress lets me do those three things, while Bioshock does the first two, but neither are considered RPGs. In fact all the FPSs I can think of let you choose weapons, which effectively dictate your skills anyway, while your own appearance lives mostly in your own head just like a dice-and-paper RPG. 

One of the accepted differences is that FPSs rely purely on player skill, while RPGs give you help in the background depending on your character’s attributes, helping you to hit if you’re good at fighting, letting you hit harder if you’re strong, etc. But if you think about it, these mechanics still exist in FPSs – the game still decides how accurate you have to be and how much damage you do, it’s just that there is less player control over them beyond picking up a shotgun or a crowbar.

In fact, I’m not sure that having more choice about how your character functions in the game really has much to do with roleplaying. Rather it becomes just another game mechanic to master and exploit in order to win – you max out the stats that fit best with your chosen career, with the best skills and the right weapons. Most RPGs even show you the numbers so you can literally calculate the optimal combination. I remember struggling with the enormous choice in Oblivion until I discovered how to string together spell combos to ramp up the damage. The so-called roleplaying choices I was making quickly became little more than maths-based tactical decisions. Now I’ll be the first to admit that I rather enjoy the challenge of working out how to get the most advantage out of the game mechanics, but I don’t think it constitutes roleplaying.

So when do I get to do some true roleplaying? Games like Mass Effect give you options during conversations with other characters, usually a friendly reaction, an unfriendly one and a neutral (boring) middle ground. It also has cool bits where you can interrupt the conversation by punching out an annoying reporter, or throwing a bad guy through a top floor window, etc. However, all these nice or nasty actions are tied in a nice/nasty swingometer mechanic that ultimately unlocks more options if you are nice or nasty enough. So while I really enjoyed being Jack Bauer in space, I ended up choosing the nasty options every time because I was aware of the mechanic – at least partially a tactical decision rather than a roleplaying one. Many recent RPGs have some similar form of moral rating, including things like your reputation in the Fallout wasteland or your preference for the light or dark side of the force. Fair enough it may be interesting or ‘realistic’ for the game have this kind of mechanic in the background, but giving me a quantified rating for my moral fibre works against any real roleplaying. It either becomes just another stat to max out, or allows me to check if I can ‘afford’ to do something evil.

Please point me to a game where I have genuine freedom to roleplay, without having one eye on the game mechanics!

3 Responses to “Anyone know a good roleplaying game?”

  1. Jim Sowter says:

    Check out a cool game by Steampower Publishing, called Dead of Night!


    That Andrew Kenrick is a genius ;)

  2. Andrew says:

    I suspect Graham meant a computer rpg! It’s a little old, but I’ve always found Planescape: Torment hard to beat when it comes to roleplaying. The mechanics are fairly seamless, and reflect how you act and react to other people, rather than the other way round.

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