It’s an oft-touted feature of certain kinds of games that you can ‘roleplay’ – play the character the way you want to play them. Free and open choice? Absolutely, the games say. A convincing world filled with interesting, believable characters to facilitate said roleplaying? Well of course, the creators chortle, eyes aglow. Genuine consequences for your actions? “You bet!” they respond, smiling and beckoning you further in. Only once you’ve turned over your money does the façade crumble and you discover how shallow and meaningless the ‘roleplaying’ options truly are.
Melodrama aside, this is a bit of a recurring thing in triple-A games. Your Bioware games, your Infamouses, your Deus Exes all seem to love the idea of the player mentally inserting themselves into the protagonist and playing as they like, but the reality of the gaming experience doesn’t quite hold up. In part, this is because the characters you’re supposed to roleplay are often designed specifically for such a purpose – that is, they are blank slates, designed so that the player may project their no-doubt fascinating personalities onto them. The greatest issue though is how most games try to present choice.
The worst offenders are games like Infamous and Mass Effect. These games boil down every choice, from dialogue options to plot-relevant decisions, down to ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Infamous blatantly does this, even awarding points depending on how you choose to conduct yourself. Mass Effect tries to hide the fact that it’s doing almost the exact same thing by renaming the options to ‘paragon’ and ‘renegade’. It’s this dichotomy being so blatant that leads to the issue – the character often ends up being dull and unconvincing precisely because the game has to be able to accommodate the character acting either as a curiously combative incarnation of Buddha or like they’re the adopted child of Ian Brady.
It doesn’t help that the choices by which you’re given to define your character are often nonsensical and contrived in context. Half the time the ‘good’ option might be to not go out of ones way to be needlessly cruel and unpleasant, and often the ‘evil’ option will be to not jeopardise a vital mission for the sake of some trivial task. Even worse (such as in Infamous or Star Wars: The Old Republic), rewards are locked behind the scoring systems the games use to keep track of how emotionally dead your character is, so in order to have a hope to accessing the rewards at either end of the spectrum, the player is forced to lock themselves into a style of conduct the second they make a single important decision. As a result of this, the player is often forced into spending the entire game roleplaying either as Mother Teresa crossed with Batman, or else as if your character’s childhood hero was Ramsay Bolton and they spend every waking moment daydreaming crushing the dreams of innocent children.
This sort of thing is handled a little better by the more recent Deus Ex games. While they also provide somewhat of a blank slate of a character, they opt for making the choices either implicit in the gameplay (such as lethal versus non-lethal) or actual choices between two equally viable options, which are almost never presented as purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Because the writers don’t have to allow for such massive variance in how the player chooses to act, they can actually give Adam Jensen a bit more character. Not much, of course – just the standard Mary Sue suite of gruff, competent, world weary, but good-at-heart, but at least he has a discernible personality. The problem with Deus Ex is instead that the choices often feel meaningless or uninteresting.
It can be done well, though, as demonstrated by The Witcher 3. Geralt, our hero, is at first glance essentially a randier medieval version of Adam Jensen, with his badass status granted by wielding two swords rather than having sunglasses implanted directly into his face. However, out of every game I can think of, none have their protagonist as already well established as a character. Geralt already has a huge amount of history with many of the characters he’s involved with, and has feelings about them before you even know they exist; he’s still his own character, and as a result, roleplaying with him is far more satisfying. Although you’re forced to roleplay from within the constraints of Geralt’s established personality, acting within these boundaries is fun because the character was already multifaceted and interesting long before you laid hands on him.
There’s a lot of different ways to allow players to roleplay in games, but I don’t think games should even be trying to let the player project themselves fully onto the protagonist. Frankly, most of us aren’t very interesting people, and it’s infinitely more satisfying to play and make choices as someone interesting enough to be worth playing as, whose choices and interactions intrigue us, which is where games like Mass Effect fail. But while Mass Effect leaves a lot to be desired, I suppose I do have to credit it for breaking new ground in one area – it worked out how to make the choice of which crew member to have exotic alien sex with boring. Well done, Bioware.