Posted in General

Finding the roleplay in MMORPGs

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.

2 thoughts on “Finding the roleplay in MMORPGs

  1. I’ve always found this argument disingenuous, as it starts from the false premise of what “roleplaying” actually is. Broken down, roleplaying is playing a role, as in the role of a character, as in acting, as in actors, as in stage and film. Now, do actors get choices? Only if the director lets them.
    Roleplaying games are opposed to non-roleplaying games. So to go back to the “beginning,” DnD vs. wargames (and board games, card games, etc.). In DnD, the player plays a character, which is a role in a story. In wargames, the player is just a player moving things about. You don’t play as Patton, Zhukov, Yamato, etc (at least not back then).
    The player is the actor, the PC’s are stuntmen, the GM is director and writer. I’m sure early on, Gygax et.al. discovered that making the characters’ backgrounds, stats, and so on was fun for them, so it would be fun for the players to do this as well. Thus, the players got to share in the “writer” role with the GM, at least as far as their own characters were concerned. But, to put the “game” back into roleplaying game, there needed to be some way to win, and some way to lose – thus, the combat. Somebody discovered that filling in story details – including characters’ choices – was also fun, so that was added in.
    But all that fun stuff doesn’t add or detract from the roleplaying aspect of it – it just shifts some of the “writing” and “directing” burden from the DM. In video games, that burden is pretty much completely on the devs. So, going from the original definition, a “roleplaying game” is any game where the player takes on the role of a character.
    Does that mean the Mario games are rpgs? Yes. Zelda games (including past 2)? Yes. Resident Evil? Yes.
    Now, you might complain that is a rather broad label, one that isn’t very useful. And I’d agree. So, back in the old days of vidya, some devs made games based on ttrpg’s, since the computer made the dice-rolling stuff real convenient. So, we could say that games descended directly from ttrpg’s are their own “genre”. That’s fair, and more useful. I’d also say that, under this category, simply making stats and xp and level-ups doesn’t make a game an rpg (ie, all the shooters that do this these days).
    What I’m saying here in this long (first) comment, is that saying something isn’t (or less of) an rpg, just because it doesn’t have meaningful story choices, because that sort of “choice” isn’t something inherent to rpg’s. Choice is something that makes them more fun, by making the player more invested in the game, but it’s not a requirement.

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