When you start a new game, what do you hope to get out of it?
Is it a new challenge? A chance to play a story in which you are the hero? An escape from whatever is going on in the real world?
Maybe it’s a combination of a number of those things. If you are like me, and you play a bunch of different game genres, it might change depending on what you need that day. Some days it’s a simple hack and slash game to relax, but other times I want something interesting that really sucks me into another world for a while. On rare occasions, there are games that can serve as both.
When I set out to find a new game to play, what I’m most often looking for is the chance to experience a story that feels personal; one I help create. Great RPGs typically satisfy this by offering a story that isn’t set in stone, and doesn’t feel exactly the same every time. I like being given the pieces, but no picture of what the puzzle should look like.
There are lots of games I enjoy where the gameplay follows a set story, but allows the player to make choices that impact it in some way, and I touched on that a bit in part one. In those games, moral choices impact the player character more than the story itself. Each playthrough still has that personal feel, because each new character can be different. Here I want to look at how moral choices in a game make each playthrough a personal experience by giving the player room to personalize the narrative.
RPGs are a fairly diverse genre. They can range from tightly centered around a single plot, to wide open in terms of where the player can go and what they can do. While the former is the end of the spectrum more relevant to my discussion of morals as part of character development, it’s the wide-open games that I want to focus on when it comes to giving the player room to tell their own story. As an example, I’ll be using a game on the extreme end of the wide open options scale; my absolute favorite game – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
The first thing a game needs, when it comes to personalizing a story, is options. I would describe Skyrim as an extensive open world game, with a skeleton main plot. If you haven’t played Skyrim, what you need to understand is that the entire game can take upwards of 300 hours to complete. Of that 300 hours, it takes around 30 to complete the actual main quest. That extra 270 hours gives a player a LOT of options. None of these quest options have much impact on one another. The player can simply go along, completing quest after quest, choosing which to complete totally at random, if that’s how they want to play. However, if the role-play aspect is what draws you in, the storytelling possibilities with the overwhelming number of options is only limited by your imagination. What you get out of Skyrim is what you are willing to put in.
The game starts the player off with a blank slate character. No background, no motives, no history. The only information you get about your character is what you come up with yourself. You create them, and you are essentially set loose. There is no selection of class that determines weapon restrictions, no mandatory order of events, and no completely overarching plot that everything fits towards. The only aspect of your character that is set in stone is the discovery that they are the Dragonborn, a hero of legend, and the only one can stop the dragon Alduin from destroying the world. Even this is optional, to an extent. Although this is the main quest line and only real set goal, it can be completely ignored. You can complete every other quest before it, if you really want to; It’s all in what you choose. There is a lot to do, and a lot to discover. If you don’t go past what the game gives you, it is still just as fun. The narrative you are given is chopped up to pieces to accommodate this style of play. For any story you may want to tell using your character, the way you piece that narrative together is left up to you. Other games definitely exhibit pieces, if not all, of this optionality. For example, games based heavily on tabletop often leave room for the player to create their own character history. Games with an open setting tend to allow for variability in the order quests are completed. MMORPGs come closest to checking all of the boxes, as they need to account for players grouping and completing short quests together.
With open possibilities achieved through lots of options, the second step in narrative personalization is a broad approach to morals. Morality factors into gameplay in a different way here than what I previously discussed about character development. With so little given to the player regarding their character in Skyrim, there is no real growth to be seen in the game. Morals come out through choices in actions. Skyrim was developed with the idea of an environment where the player could be whatever they want. There is no reward, push, or emotional manipulation to make you do the right thing. The game gives equal potential for good or evil. It’s an open world story that won’t punish you for your choices. Unlike some games, where the “bad” options are often just saying no to someone who asks for help, in Skyrim you can choose to go down a dark (and sometimes disturbing) path…and it is really fun.
It is impossible for me to be lawfully good in Skyrim. That isn’t the case for everyone, as I know a lot of people who only play that way! They help people who need it, work to stop evil, and somehow manage not to steal. It doesn’t always need to be the same, either. The best part about options in games is that each playthrough is a chance to try something different. Drastic moral choices give a game replayability.
Choice between good and evil is everywhere in Skyrim, but some people might say it ends there, in black and white. In a way, that’s true. Trying to be more neutral, or morally complex does lead to choices that might not make sense if you think about them. The game is full of those sorts of possibilities. Siding with the Stormcloaks as an Altmer leads to fighting a war against your own people. Helping a town fight against the demonic influence of the Daedra is a good deed that might later be counteracted by siding with a particularly nasty Daedric Prince (the most powerful of the daedra, often worshipped as gods). You might become an assassin, but refuse to join the Thieves Guild because stealing is wrong. It doesn’t make much narrative sense. That’s still fine! It can be left at that. Those are choices you make, and the game still works.
However, let’s go a bit deeper, and look at how we can develop a complex moral narrative for ourselves using the space and the options that games provide. Let’s take the big choice between good and evil, and complicate it a bit in order to craft a more cohesive plot. Does the character truly enjoy being evil, or is it something they begrudgingly take part in out of necessity? Are they doing good because it is right, or because they want to make allies?
For games that don’t provide one, coming up with a character background is a good starting point. What was their life like before the game starts? In Skyrim, perhaps being an assassin is part of a longstanding family legacy they do not want to abandon, or stealing was their only means of getting by. Those histories can explain a desire to join the Dark Brotherhood or the Thieves Guild for a reason other than just enjoying crime. A character that lives in that complicated middle ground could be trying hard to turn over a new leaf, but often giving in to temptation.
Whatever story you want to come up with, the best place to start is by asking “why”.
Why join the Stormcloaks? Why worship a specific god, or none at all? Why sacrifice Lydia to please the Daedric Prince Boethiah? It can apply to everything that you do in the game; from weapons and skills, to whatever group you choose to inevitably become the leader of. It can also just be used for backstory to give the character an overarching purpose. How does their history affect what paths they take? How do they change as new quests are taken on and completed? Asking and answering these questions is what can create a cohesive narrative from all the otherwise disjointed pieces. In games full of seemingly endless possibilities, (and in the case of Skyrim, no real end game) you are the only factor that ties it all together, and that makes the story entirely yours.
This might sound like a lot of work, when all you want to do is play a game where you can swing a sword at dragons for hours, fight hordes of enemies, or run around collecting achievements. That’s fine. Aimless exploration is just as fun, and sometimes that’s all I want to do, too.
But if you want a great creative outlet for storytelling, in a detailed and ready made setting, RPGs can be that too. In games like this, with the opportunity to really play around and explore morality choice, there is so much creative potential at your disposal.
I suggest you think about it as you look for a new game to play, or maybe as you prepare to settle in for another 300 hours of exploring Skyrim. Maybe you already play this way, or maybe you never will. However you choose to play, the best part about RPGs is that is it truly is up to you.
(Featured image by SKstalker – DeviantArt)