Why do we dive into some RPGs more than others?
Ever felt like being someone else for a while? Most of us have, which is why it’s not a big surprise that role playing has been a staple of games since their earliest possible iteration and then some. Pen-and-paper gaming has always placed a huge emphasis on the RP part of RPGs, and it can do so with great success due to the presence of a human GM who can process, imagine, and improvise in ways that computers still for the most part only approximate. Imagination is a powerful tool for those willing to engage it, but video games rely much more on audio/visual wizardry to immerse the player in a character’s point of view. Multiplayer games tend to have an easier time with this, especially MMOs that can cater to players looking for a more narrative-based experience with servers specifically for this purpose, but single player games have a difference challenge at hand: how do you get a player to engage genuinely in both the narrative and game aspects of a long-running story RPG?
To get to the heart of that question, a good place to look first is at a core mechanic of RPGs: progression. One of the main draws of an RPG is that the player gets to take a journey alongside their character, growing in skill and knowledge as their avatar does. However, the composition of the obstacles that both of them face along the way greatly affects how they perceive the story. There has to be ample challenge without too much frustration for the player; a fine line that games have had trouble walking for years. Difficulty is a personal preference, and frustration a personal threshold. This makes it challenging to appeal to a wide range of players. However, I don’t think there’s too much wrong with focusing in on an audience a little bit. A game where the player must put in time and work to progress creates a more engaging experience simply through the grace of the player’s journey mirroring the protagonist’s. Games that make the player learn by failing generate real stakes and align the player’s interest with that of the protagonist. This tends to lead to greater immersion and a more engaging narrative.
Another way that games get players to invest in both the story and the gameplay is by weaving the two together and utilizing mechanics as metaphor. I feel like I’ve definitely talked about this concept before but essentially it boils down to using gameplay mechanics and the choices a player can make to affect the story in a way that creates an emotional response. Here’ a great breakdown on the concept if you’re unfamiliar. Although it’s a bit easier to pull off in shorter, simpler games, plenty of huge RPGs are very well aware of how to use their mechanics to the benefit of the story. One example is how the Axii sign is used in The Witcher 3. Axii is one of the spells in the game that can be used on enemies to persuade them to fight alongside the protagonist in combat, but this isn’t its only use. In certain situations, the sign can be used in conversation to sway someone’s opinion to a more favorable one. If the player hasn’t upgraded the spell enough or uses it while under too much scrutiny, it may fail and cause a decidedly unfavorable reaction. This perfectly aligns the mechanic with it’s meaning in the story because most people in the world of The Witcher 3 are vastly frightened of magic and witchers in general. Using the spell and having it fail creates what feels like an organic situation based off of the player’s choice to attempt a risky magical maneuver, and the consequences of those decisions may have long term effects.
There are plenty of design tricks and tweaks that allow for developers to tell more compelling stories, the aforementioned tactics are just a few ways. The games that take the time to bind engaging gameplay with story more often than not are the ones that we find ourselves falling into like a good novel. Games where you’ll look around eight hours later, coming up for air from a rich and interesting world where you’ve been someone else for a little while. It’s not something that all of us can afford to spare every day, but a good feeling to cultivate for an experience every now and then. Whats the last RPG that you really dove into headfirst? What parts of the story or gameplay really drew you into the experience? And are there any ways you can think of that an RPG really made you identify with your protagonist?
Feel free to leave a response and be sure to keep an eye out for my Baldur’s Gate playthrough on my youtube channel if you’re interested! Good gaming, folks!