While I was on holiday with just my laptop to play games on, I decided to have a quick game of Sid Meier’s Civilization (number IV, not that it really makes much difference). Being in a chilled out mood, I set out to win with a ‘cultural victory’ which means you’re the most modern, advanced, progressive nation, and all the others are barbarian primitives. It took about five minutes for me to get bored of building theatres and universities, and send a wave of panzer tanks to invade America.

Unfortunately peace just doesn’t make much of a game.

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!

I finished playing Dragon Age Origins a little while ago. It’s a great game, squarely set in a Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy world - a sprawling RPG adventure with dozens of subplots, villainous Darkspawn baddies (picture Chaos Orcs) and entertaining sidekicks with top comedy banter.

My one disappointment with the game was that I didn’t get to hit stuff with a sword. To be clear, my characters were hitting plenty of stuff, just not as a result of me pressing the controls – rather they got on with fighting all on their own in an automatic system reminiscent of the ‘Knights of the Old Republic’ Star Wars game. You get to pause the action to trigger special abilities, but the hacking and slashing just carries on with the game making virtual dice rolls to see how successful you are. It left me feeling somewhat removed from the fighting, playing on an abstract level rather than being in the thick of the action. 

This is what led me to play a Mage character. To be fair, I tend to play a magic-user in any fantasy game because, well, they just get to do all the coolest effects. But usually, it’s a difficult choice swayed by personal preference – in this game there was really no contest. The fighty characters use up their handful of special abilities in the first few seconds of the fight, leaving you little to do but watch them swing away. The wizardly types, meanwhile, build up to having a massive array of magical pyrotechnics, and with the aid of a few potions, you can carry on zapping, burning and freezing right through the fight.

All of which brings me on to the hats. As with practically all RPGs, the armour and other gear you wear improves your abilities. Now of course, with a traditional dice-and-paper roleplaying game, these items make your character look just as cool, dashing and stylish as your imagination allows. However, in a computer game, you’re in the hands of the designers. In Dragon Age, the armour and weapons for the heavy hitters are a bit over-sized (World of Warcraft style), but decent enough to be seen in down the local dungeon. Unfortunately the design of all the wizarding kit is quite frankly a bit embarrassing. Especially the hats. I was left with the irritating feeling that I really had to wear the tassel-covered outfits and lampshade headgear because of the hefty in-game bonuses, but was cringing the whole time because it looked like I belonged in the front room of a fashion-challenged old age pensioner.

Rule vs cool

Good games design should reward you for doing something cool, not punish you by making the rules more favourable if you do something less cool. In many cases this comes down to making all the choices of equal value, so the player can genuinely make his own decision. Now this kind of game balance is not easy, and is rarely perfect. Many of us have played first person shooters where a sniper rifle is the best way to win despite being the most boring way to play. And many will have witnessed Warhammer Daemon armies, carefully themed to Khorne, Slaanesh or Nurgle, except for the  units of Flamers (because they’re such a bargain, you’d be silly not to field them). In the case of Dragon Age the imbalance is not with the rules but the cool factor – something like the choice of whether or not to field historical miniatures painted with the wrong uniforms.

Now I’ve spent some time pointing out faults with this game, but I played it and enjoyed it to the end – and it’s a really long game. I strongly recommend it if you can, as I did, put up with a few silly hats. It’s just that I’m sure those Darkspawn were sniggering at me behind their shields before I fried them alive.

Leave a comment and let me know your own experiences of rule vs cool.

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