If you are one of those people who have somehow avoided being bitten by this particular computer game bug, here we are to poke at you. We’ll start out with intro info that will at least explain my take on some tropes.
Computer Role Playing Games (crpgs) are games in which you play a character (or a team of characters) that progresses through levels of a story, periodically gaining a series of skills and abilities (“leveling up” is when the character has gained enough experience points to assign skill points in the field of your choice). Within the parameters allowed by the game, you get to choose what your character is good at, and how your character interacts with other characters. You take on a role as different from or similar to your real life persona as you like (and as the game provides for). A good crpg includes enough variation in the story telling that playing as different characters means a notable difference in playing the game. If you are a noble-born thief, sneaky and cocky, you would expect a different story line than if you are a lowborn cleric, or an elven warrior, because people would realistically expect different things from you and you would be a different person. (Yes, I used the word “realistically” in the same sentence as “elven warrior”; this is only one of the many perqs of being a science fiction reader and game player.) Frequently this difference is mostly in how the fight mechanics work. Does the game have fights that work for a sword-wielding barbarian–close in and physically strong but susceptible to magic, as well as a wispy elven archer–excellent reflexes and usually smarter, but not as strong, as well as the frail mage–smart and will powery, but physically weak? (And yes, as should be obvious from these examples, most rpgs exist firmly in the realm of tolkienesque mythology, with orcs, dwarves, elves, demons, etc, as well as religious hierarchy. For example clerics are stereotypically healers and magic users.) But in the best games, the difference is also in how you can solve problems – when faced with a recalcitrant body guard, do you steal the key, persuade, threaten, sneak in the window, bribe, or kill? The writing of most games allows for a single distinct fork: one path of good, and the other of naughty, with subtleties in dialogue depending on whether you’re rude good (for example) or polite naughty.
One of the interesting things about playing games in general and these games in particular is what they tell you about yourself. A friend of mine, for example, ruefully admits that it took her years to figure out that she always chooses the skills that go with a thief (sneaky, smart, reflexy, persuasive) but always fights like a warrior–going straight in, using swords, no running, no traps or poisons. (She denies that this has anything to do with her real life.) To the bewilderment of her friends, another person has been known to play the same game multiple times, cheating outrageously through the fights (after the first time). She explains that she is trying to follow all of the dialogue and relationship options to see where they lead. This really highlights crpgs as interactive fiction*, and the similarities between crpgs and books, like stephenson’s cryptonomicon series, like vonnegut’s works (like our lives): each quality crpg has multiple books contained within. If the character or the world or the situation or the humor is compelling enough, then it’s worth the time to follow all the options.
Philosophically, role playing games are all about ambiguity: we can be and are many different people. In real life we are usually not encouraged to explore or even acknowledge the variables that we incorporate. We want to save people, but also to kick their asses for needing to be saved, and then maybe to make fun of them for relying on random saviors. We want to be heroes and to be left alone, to be lauded and to have no expectations put on us. Rpgs allow us to do these things that are normally considered mutually exclusive.
In the context of crpgs, moral ambiguity in particular is the term used to discuss three distinct (but connected) things: a) you’re allowed to make decisions that are seen as bad in real life (kill or abandon the desperate witch); b) you can make that kind of decision and it doesn’t impede the game (you kill the witch and you continue to have as many options to play the game—even if they’re different options—as you would if you’d chosen not to), and c) the level of moral complexity in the choices you’re presented with (the witch needs to be saved from corrupt villagers, but she is also a blackmailer).
This last example was taken from The Witcher, and is a perfect example of one of the main ways this game shines. The story is full of choices that are not easily distill-able to good and evil. You make the choice you do for reasons that are about your own values, which encourages you to think about what your own values are, in a world that is enough like our own to be useful, and enough not like our own to be fun.
In The Witcher you are Geralt–white-haired, un-sleeping, soft-spoken, potion-dependent–part of a small, elite but failing, group of monster-killing mutants. You get drunk, fight in bars, have cheap (or sometimes meaningful) sex, protect princesses and prostitutes, and try to recover your memory, to rediscover who you are. And as a being who exists somewhere between human and not-, at some point you have to choose a side, either with knights or with outcasts. (I haven’t yet played an ally of the knights. I keep trying but I just haven’t been able to force myself. I’m a bad rpg-er.
Here are my problems with the game: occasionally dreadful voice acting; clunky sex scene handling; oddly disconnected cut scenes (Hello? There’s a troop charging you! Walls are collapsing! Monsters are threatening! Why so languid?), and my own preference not to have to play as a guy, much less as a guy who has to choose between two women.
But this is more than made up for by the richness of the world (building on multiple short stories and novels by the author), the depth of the decisions, the consequences you deal with, and by the fighting, which is just twitchy enough to keep you engaged without having to micromanage, realistic enough to make my martial arts friend happy, and pretty to watch.
Games are getting more sophisticated and cynical — the anti-hero is alive and well — but this polish import offers (along with its somewhat unfamiliar mythology) a dark weariness that u.s. games just don’t have. It’s not as simple as the sense that the only choices you have are bad ones – the geneforge series does that more brutally (and is too depressing for me to play anymore) – nor is it that you can choose to be bitter and rageful – since most rpgs offer threads with those components. Perhaps it’s the nuanced choices combined with the music and design (the loading shot is a beautifully bleak landscape with two small dark birds flying by), but the nihilism (for lack of a better word) of this game is very appealing to those of us who, like Geralt, keep acting in the world without expectation that our behavior will have any major effect.
p.s. Throughout this I have used “in real life” as a way to distinguish our characters from the lives that we live where other people can see them. But (as even that description concedes) this is a false dichotomy. Much in the way that we are alive through our imaginations, games are not false. They are differently real. This different realness is increasing in our lives, and it serves us to think about it, to incorporate it into our understanding more quickly than we seem to be doing. (An internet community is not the same as a meatspace one, how are they different? What does safe space mean in a world of anonymity? How does this world of a cyber imagination reflect and differ from the worlds of, for example, religious, spiritual, and/or drug-aided imagination?) But these are questions for a later time: they will be revisited.
*(IF is usually used to refer to games that have no significant graphics, games in which your interaction with the game is through reading and typing text.)