There is an entire side to games that some designers don’t even set out to create, but it’s a major part of video games – role-playing. Yes, the same aspect of Dungeons and Dragons is alive and well in games like Call of Duty. This may not be a complete shock to you, but what might be a surprise to you is how important the aspect is in games.
Role-playing, for those who don’t know, is when someone takes on the role of something else. In video games, you are taking on the role of the character in the game. In books, you become the one going on the journey to destroy the ring and save middle earth. When you close your door, blast your music, and play air guitar while mouthing the words to your favorite song, you are pretending to be the singer of the rock band. This becomes a game in itself – everyone remembers playing house or cops and robbers in kindergarten. It is the same principle.
A lot of what contributes to it is immersion. If you are very immersed in the world around you, the story unfolding before you, you will want to be the protagonist, and will become him/her. The role-playing, through the story, adds extra weight to the game. Your actions have meaning. It becomes a game dynamic, influencing your actions.
Think about a game in which you were not immersed in. You need to rescue the princess to beat the game – to win. Now a game in which you were immersed. You need to rescue the princess. Period. That is all you need to know. You are the protagonist, and his/her agenda becomes yours. Many of the greatest video games include this game dynamic. In Call of Duty, you are the man crouched down in the snow.
When you role-play, the game becomes more fun, because the game becomes more than just a game. You feel tense, hoping to avoid capture. When you are running away from bullets, you are cursing under your breath. This happens when you do not role-play, but when you are role-playing, you are cursing because you are about to die. When you do not role play, you curse because your character is about to die (a pawn in your game).
Even after putting the controller down, you can walk away, still role-playing, coming to a corner and peering your head over, trying to get a glimpse of the other side for any guards. It is a strange phenomenon, humans and pretend, and it is one of the most powerful game dynamics (and one of the most difficult to control). And the game does not even have to be an RPG to inspire role-playing. One of my favorite games that instantly causes me to role-play (it is neither an RPG nor is it in first person) is GTA: San Andreas. I would spend hours in a row, invested in the life of a gangster, doing jobs, making money, participating in drive-bys – all things frowned upon in real life, but perfectly fine in imaginary worlds.
Most games (with the exclusion of some simulation/puzzle/etc. games) involve some degree of role-play in the mind of the player, but the ones that hit this very well always become instant classics. In fact, I believe this is the actual major reason as to why certain genres are popular/unpopular today. Adventure games have dwindled in success, drowned by the profits of action games. Adventure games tend to naturally oppose role-playing. The game tends to be you versus the game – you must use commands and the correct combination of items to solve strangely elaborate, frustratingly unobvious puzzles. I am not shooting down the genre (I love the genre), but I feel that these games cannot offer the dynamic even close to as well as action games.
In action games, it is you versus the enemies. Challenges are more obvious and definitely less subtle (bad guys running at you with machine guns). It is also way easier to put yourself in the character’s shoes, especially in terms of controls and how you solve challenges.
However, some action games like platformers and fighters do not offer as much role-play as others. Platformers, like adventure games, are also more of you versus the game (retrying the same strip of level over and over until you get it right), and fighting games are more of you trying to hit certain strings of buttons and get the timing right. But, wait, these games are still awesome? Yes they are – Super Mario Galaxy 2 is one of the best games of the year, and Street Fighter 4 is still being played by millions. I am in no way putting down any genre of gaming.
Having said that, I think that if these genres could better incorporate the dynamic of role-play, they could reach a higher potential. The Fight Night franchise took fighting games and matched them with more of a role-playing element – you are the fighter (the game was really fun too).
What my theory does not explain well yet is the massive wave of social networking games like Farmville. When you play Farmville, you do not pretend you are an actual farmer (at least normal people don’t do that). So why are these social/simulation games so hot? Well, they feature a completely different set of game dynamics involving social aspects to affect the player (however, role-play could match very well with the social network).
So, tying things up, I think the video game has a major push towards role-play in games, and I think it has been for a long time. In the old NES days, with old-school graphics, players could role-play very easily – Metroid comes to mind. As most players got their first taste of role-play in video games, the dynamic became a type of drug – one that the audience would demand more and more of as games would progress.
But think even farther back to the age of the text adventure – the playable book. Role-play and imagination was at an all-time high – allowing you to progress through the story in a believable way, painting the picture and filling the blanks in your own mind.
This adventure type gameplay continued on its evolution through video games, from Zork to Monkey Island to Myst. But, as action type gameplay developed and better kept the gamer involved within the game, adventure games began to phase out (the challenges broke up any immersion – in fact, the puzzles actually pushed the gamer out of the game). So what are we left with? A market dominated by the new age of Dungeons and Dragons games. The spirit of Dungeons and Dragons is within FPS’s, MMO’s, and RPG’s. These games are becoming the face of the industry. Bottom line – people like to pretend.
So, what do I want you to take away from this article? That all games need to include role-play to be good? NO!
Adventure games are fun in their own, mind-wrenching way. I am only trying to explain their sudden plummet in the game industry. For some reason, whether it is in our nature or a result of our times, gamers want to role-play; the challenges and ways you solve them are not the only way people have fun playing games, and we are beginning to realize this more and more. This fact became clear to me back when Half Life 2 came out. The whole story, immersion, and world sucked me in, and I wanted to be Gordan Freeman, but couldn’t. So I pretended, and the game was way more fun. In fact, I think it was this aspect that made it not only a great game, but a legendary peak in the history of games.
I want you to leave with the realization that game dynamics are extremely powerful, and that they should be taken into account before even the challenges are thought of. Can we do anything to make the game anymore immersive, to allow the player to role-play? Can we include something that makes the gamer want to complete these tasks?
I also want you to realize that imagination is very important in games. You may want to consider easing back a little on the details, to let the player fill in the blanks. Because if a player cannot stop thinking about being a space warrior, he/she is finally going to give in and play Halo some more. And that is the sign of a truly great game – when you can’t stop playing after it is already off.
Dylan Woodbury lives with his family in Southern California. He runs http://dtwgames.com, a game design website that posts intriguing new articles every week, both beginner’s tutorials and theoretical ideas. He also has an interest in writing, and is planning his first novel. His primary goal is to change the world through video games.