The first time I tried an RPG, it was an AD&D session in the school lunchroom after-hours with a couple friends who were badly Mary Sue-prone. It didn’t go well, and it wasn’t fun for me; I had only the vaguest notion what sort of imaginary world I was dealing with, and what sort of knowledge my character would have.
It took a few rounds of ShadowRun with more experienced players and a better game master, along with a ton of reading (I went cover-to-cover through the player guides and bought several of the novels from the local used-book barn) before I really got the hang of it. I approached roleplaying like improv acting, but until I understood the world my character was interacting with, I was pretty bad at it.
But I enjoy roleplaying, and when I join an MMO, I tend to focus on the RP-only servers because I’d rather get ensconced in the world than focus on levelling up and acquiring gear; a similar situation occurs when I play a single-player RPG. As much as roleplayers get mocked for our preferred style of gameplay, I’ve always felt one of the more vital aspects of any game is to have a well-written and realised world that the player-characters can simply exist within.
While I dabbled in Unreal Tournament and Counter-Strike at LAN parties in the early 2000s, I didn’t really have the inclination to run single-player games; they seemed very anti-social, although that perspective came primarily from hanging around my then-boyfriend’s parents’ basement drawing or watching anime while he played EverQuest. There just seemed to be more fun in being able to scream obscenities and mockery at someone who was actually present in the same room rather than through choppy voice comms or via text. My PC gaming was very social in that way up until I moved to Scotland for university in 2003, at which point I fell out of the habit.
I only allowed myself to be convinced to give EVE Online a shot in 2007 after attending the Edinburgh Interactive Entertainment Festival that year (there’s a story about this event which I’m happy to share with anyone who asks, it’s quite funny but not particularly relevant here). EVE’s PVP aspects immediately drew me in, primarily because of my history with LAN-party combat and then-aversion to playing games solo. It was fun, I quickly discovered the stereotype of being nagged by a significant other for spending time playing games is not exclusive to straight guys, and at a point in my life where I was dealing with a near-crippling round of depression and social anxiety, it allowed me human contact without the pressure to perform in front of others.
It was during one of Atrocitas’ mercenary wars that I first encountered players who roleplayed in EVE — a game where your character is nothing but a bust portrait and interacts with others as a starship — and was fascinated by the idea. One of our enemies invited me into one of the chat channels where such RP takes place: the setting is described in the MOTD, and that’s it. You type /emote or /me to describe your actions. Anything goes, and other players’ characters respond to your actions accordingly. The ultimate open-ended RPG, unconstrained by dice rolls and game mechanics. There are self-imposed limits, of course, but it provides a fascinating level of freedom to experience the game in a way that makes the vaguely-outlined world real.
I tried other venues: City of Heroes/Villains, the few RPG islands in Second Life (the wasteland and post-apocalyptic zones are the most fun), Lord of the Rings Online, and then ventured into single-player games after a friend whose tastes run parallel to mine recommended a few.
That’s where my roleplaying habits ran into trouble.
Pen-and-paper RPGs are fairly freeform (unless you annoy the GM enough for them to drop rocks on your party) and players can choose to ignore or avoid obvious plot hints in favour of doing something else; there may be “maintenance” sessions between major campaigns where your characters can attend to their everyday concerns and to show that life goes on. Multiplayer games offer largely unrestricted roleplaying opportunities: you can say anything you wish and the NPCs don’t care, you can give as many or as few fucks about the factional conflicts as you want, you can take your time exploring the landscape and figuring out how to use power lines and balconies as short-cuts across town.
As much fun as single-player games are, the experience frequently has more in common with a Choose Your Own Adventure novel than an actual RPG. I loved those books when I was younger, but I was always frustrated with how limited they are. Part of the fun may have been to find the “best” ending among all the scenarios involving “your” character’s grim demise, but I was always in search of the most interesting story, preferably one that bounced off the most options possible (before the untimely end, of course).
Despite this, single-player RPGs have a massive amount of replay value for me, particularly if time has been invested in the quality and depth of the backstory. Some games provide more room to stretch your character’s wings than others, and there are different ways in which this is done. But there’s still that unsubtle push towards the endgame, and at times it can feel uncomfortably rushed. In some games, you have to accept a hefty penalty for delaying following the main plotline, usually sacrificing acquisition of better gear or vital skills or access to another area within the gameworld. In others, you simply run out of content: the dungeons have been cleared, all possible interactions have been held, all loot has been claimed, and every side-quest is done.
It can be frustrating, if not outright annoying, to be reminded that, despite the customisations you can make to your character and the ability you might have to prioritise side-quests and explorations, the story you are living within the game is not actually your own creation. I use what flexibility I can squeeze from the plotline to allow my characters to live a little, but most of the nuances happen only in my head.
My favourite single-player game experience to date is the first run of Dragon Age: Origins that I managed to complete. I didn’t touch the online guides (well, okay, I did once when I got badly stuck on the game mechanics), simply ran the character as naturally as possible without making uncharacteristic choices, and the ending was a fairly unhappy one even if we did manage to win. This was my first introduction to the use of actual consequences for your character’s actions; not an obvious black-and-white morality guide, but a genuinely demoralising outcome emerging from a single decision. It was great, I loved it, there was no plot-truncating penalty for it, it kicked me in the gut and said, “Despite your best intentions, you’re a Bad Person for doing that, and you should feel bad.”
I genuinely wish there was more of that in single-player games. Having tangible consequences for player action (or inaction, for that matter) are more possible in single-player RPGs than they are in MMOs — while player-caused MMO events might have dramatic consequences, it’s very rare for player actions to have an effect on the game world itself, particularly in multi-shard setups. Unfortunately, most single-player games resort to a morality system which has the effect of limiting future interaction options instead of directly incorporating consequences into the game itself; this usually has more to do with development limitations than game design itself, but it still feels like a cop-out when you discover you’ve moralised your way to the point where you can’t choose the other option even if your character would prefer a fuck-it moment.
Railroading doesn’t help the feelings of constraint, although it does serve a very good purpose. I learnt this the hard way the last time I played Mass Effect and went to the wrong planet purely by chance before the characters were ready for that particular challenge; the exploration bug had got the better of me and the result made completing the game that much more difficult, along with accelerating the plot. I came into serious gaming from an MMO where there is next to no guidance or assistance, and where if you take a wrong turn, it’s all on you; when I messed up my ME runthrough, the EVE-player in me cracked up laughing, while the RPer in me was annoyed at the foreshortening of the story due to a single wrong choice. It did make me wonder if that could have been handled better; as much as I dislike hand-holding in games, I understand a certain amount is necessary.
Open worlds help a lot when your goal is to build your character as a character and not just a vehicle for solving physics puzzles and shooting monsters. The more options you have to mix it up with the NPCs and hurt or help various factions, the better the experience. My mission-running in EVE only ever happens when I’m bored and feel like alt-ing for a bit, and I’ve always been somewhat disappointed that, in the backstabbity world of EVE Online grimdark, there’s no option to double-cross your agent or their faction during the course of the mission; you can fail it deliberately and the agent would be displeased, but the fallout is so minimal it may as well not exist. It takes a serious and deliberate effort to ruin your NPC standings in that game.
When you think about it, the majority of PC- and console-based RPGs are not entirely true to the description. I’ve often wondered if it’s even possible to develop a game that would match the experience of an actual RPG closely enough, particularly when production draws the line on the design limits, rather than the other way around. We’re getting closer, at least; a few recent games have certainly made an effort in that direction. For now, though, we’ll just have to be content admitting to ourselves that we’re really playing a pre-scripted role in a stage play.