The other day I was watching a retro YouTube games channel in which the host made the claim that JRPGs — Japanese roleplaying games — weren’t actually roleplaying games at all. They were fine games, she said, but they were their own format that had very little to do with actual roleplaying. The gist here is that these games present a story on rails that offers little to no directional input from the player and thus doesn’t offer a role to inhabit and play.
So, yeah, we’re going to get nitpicky and messy with terminology here today, and we’ll probably not come to any great conclusion, but that video really got me thinking about where the “roleplay” is in MMORPGs. In pen-and-paper games, it’s the meat of the game, with the rules and stat sheets and dice being the skeleton. That’s almost a given. There’s a large emphasis on roleplaying a character’s actions and decisions in a live gaming environment.
Of course, video games have taken this broader format and “gamified” it to a large degree — with a huge emphasis on combat. The term “RPG” has been watered down to the point where it’s now shorthand for any fantasy-ish game with hit points and leveling and loot. But again, that’s just the combat mechanics and not any actual roleplaying.
So where do we find, if anywhere, actual role play in MMOs? To me, roleplay is when we make the transition from seeing the avatar on the screen as a disconnected character to an extension of ourselves in some way. We’re inhabiting a role and exerting our will in this virtual setting. So to roleplay is to define and change the game world with our characters versus having the world shape and define us.
Again, where do we find that? There are a few answers here:
- Our lengthy attachment to characters lends itself to a flexible “head canon” that layers in our imagination into the events of the game, even if any changes or developments only happen in our mind
- Engaging in roleplaying activities and sessions with other player characters, whom we can influence and be influenced
- Having the game offer narrative choices that pay out in observable effects
- Having the game offer adventuring choices that let us tackle problems in a variety of ways according to our own or our character’s preferences and abilities
- Establishing morality meters that track our choices and show an overview of our character’s inner arc
- Having NPCs “remember” your character and develop a virtual relationship with you that changes over time
- Providing ways for players to interact and modify the game world (housing, mission creation, book creation) that can be observed and enjoyed by others
We’ve seen how different MMOs have taken stabs at injecting more roleplay elements into their game design to various levels of success. Guild Wars 2 offered an intriguing start that let players make choices as to their characters’ backgrounds that would have an impact on the early levels of gameplay. SWTOR put a lot of effort into branching dialogue and choices with (sometimes lasting) consequences. DDO and ESO both offer in-quest choices and options.
It should be noted that while some MMOs are better about giving roleplay tools and spaces to its players, they’re almost all severely lacking. These sorts of things are afterthoughts, if at all.
But I’m left wondering how much more roleplay could be designed into games if developers put a premium on it. We’re still lightyears behind a good old-fashioned tabletop D&D session in that regard, and perhaps we’ve been too conditioned to see our character as nothing but a moving pile of stats to relearn — or learn for the first time — how to roleplay.