There are lots of reasons to love a good role-playing game. The stories are immersive, the worlds are detailed, and most importantly, the player is given a range of control over how they want to play.
Options range from choosing what type of fighting style you like, to customizing a character with a unique look and personality. That personality often comes through over the course of the story, as they interact with the game environment and the characters they encounter.
This is most often done through dialogue options, though in some cases the decisions made during quests, or the deeds you do (or are caught doing) across the game world, influence the way your character is perceived.
With a game genre based entirely around the player assuming the role of the character, there is at least some expectation of choice when it comes to who you want that character to be. It should differ from an action adventure game, for example, where the role you play is that of an already fully developed hero (or villain) on a set path, with a pre-determined motive and personality.
Even in an action RPG with a set linear plot, a player might have the option to be a hero with a bad attitude, or save the world for selfish purposes. The motives and morals of the character are, to some degree, left up to the player.
Games deal with moral choices in different ways, and on different scales. As I mentioned, some may simply allow you to play around with motives and attitudes towards whatever heroic quest the game is setting you out on. In some cases, it may come out in whether or not you choose to help every character that needs to retrieve a family heirloom, or rescue their lost cat.
A good game lays all these types of options out, and lets you decide who your character is through them.
A great game, in my opinion, goes a step beyond that and truly allows a player to develop characters with complex moral standards that influence their personality. I want to focus on two particular ways I have seen this done that I think is effective, using my favorite games as examples. Here in part 1, I will be looking at in-game moral decisions that impact character personality and perception, using BioWare as an example.
As I previously stated, choices in dialogue and quest options are one of the more effective ways to give characters a customizable personality within a game. The best way I have seen this done appears in my favorite BioWare games from their two biggest franchises.
The largest contributing factor in both of my examples is the dialogue wheel. It is a tool used to navigate the direction players want their character to take in conversations. Typically, each selection on the wheel corresponds to a certain tone or personality type.
A number of games use it, but I’m particularly fond of the way it’s done by BioWare. BioWare games are all about storytelling and relationship building. In each of their games I have played, the way your character interacts with others has an effect on those stories and relationships. It’s fun, it’s immersive, and it makes each playthrough a potential for new and interesting experiences. From a morality perspective, it plays out in choices between who lives or dies, making friends or enemies, or siding with one group over another (the great templar vs mage debate). However, that all gets accomplished through dialogue choices.
If I decide I want a character to be angry and impatient at the beginning, then slowly grow and become kinder towards the people around them, I can show that journey through my dialogue wheel selections.
Dragon Age 2 (DA2) takes those choices, and actually has them influence your character’s overall tone throughout the game. For me, this is something that seems simple but is incredibly cool. This is a game all about the player character Hawke, their relationships, and the personal journey the player decides to take them on. If Hawke starts the game as aggressive and rude, the dialogue tone is different than if they were helpful and kind. Certain lines of dialogue will be completely different, depending on Hawke’s selected personality. The more Hawke acts according to that personality, the more the trait stacks. As a result, if you decided to change the dominant personality as the game progressed, it would take significantly more effort. This often plays into the choices I make for each quest. A sarcastic Hawke might be more interested in making money and hanging out with friends. A helpful Hawke works hard to make the city of Kirkwall, where the game takes place, better for the sake of everyone else. Regardless of choices, in the end, it is a story about Hawke. As the game’s narrator, Varric tells the tale of the Champion, but as players, we have written the tale ourselves.
Mass Effect: Andromeda establishes the same tailored personality, but uses a different method of communicating it back to the player. In the same way, dialogue wheel options influence relationships and perception throughout the course of the game. Every decision made, from diplomatic choices to attitude towards companions, contributes to a character profile that updates as the game progresses. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a nice addition with a lot of potential, should they choose to use it again in the future. Within the game, it serves as a convenient record of personality development and moral conduct as the story progresses.
As the player character Ryder navigates Andromeda and establishes what type of Pathfinder they are, there is a confirmation of all those cumulative character choices that outlines what type of leader and friend they become. It is almost like a moral report-card. With relationships, interactions and game decisions determine a companion’s opinion of Ryder, and this is also recorded as the game progresses.
Andromeda is a game focused on discovery and new beginnings. That experience is so much more real, and the story so much easier to get invested in when it extends to the players. Ryder is the only Pathfinder to arrive in a new galaxy, with no training in the role, and no family or friends from the Milky Way to rely on at the start. The future of humanity is entirely up to them, and the game excels in connecting the player to the human experiences Ryder faces as they tackle the overwhelming responsibilities thrust upon them.
Where Dragon Age 2 is a story that takes place in a small setting to focus on creating a story about relationships and found family, Andromeda travels across the universe to the same end.
These are just two examples, using seemingly inconsequential tools to help tell a story. It isn’t just about me as the player living the life of a character. It’s shaping a character that becomes my own. Instead of following one path with the same outcome no matter how I play, I watch the decisions and choices I’ve made play out through a character’s actions, reactions, and growth. What I end up with is something more than just a game. It’s a unique experience that is solely mine to tell, and something as simple as a dialogue wheel is an integral part of how it is told each time I turn the game on.
These games certainly aren’t the only examples of ways moral choices in RPGs allow you to customize your character, they’re simply my favorites. What are some of yours?
You can check out Part 2, where I will discuss how morality fits into the “anything goes” attitude of open world games.