If there’s a single sentence that can act as a simple summary for what role-playing games are, it is surely “telling a story from the characters’ points of view”. Any modern table-top role-playing game has this at its core; that the players, with the game-master, are developing a world and a story together as they play.
However, other aspects of the role-playing genre, notably computer role-playing games, have struggled with this aspect. The first game to truly crack this nut will attract the attention of role-playing fans, but would it also capture the attention of gamers in general? Why haven’t computer role-playing games been able to tell stories in the same way that table-top gamers do every week? What will be lost from the genre if they do?The first, most obvious, issue is that with a table-top game, no matter how structured the games-master’s plans might be, the players will do something unexpected. This might be a minor insult to a noble they’re meant to be financed by, or outright killing of a major character in the plot; either way, the games-master must adapt and quickly. The way the other characters respond, and the way the world flexes around this, is a key factor in how involved players are in a game.
Compare this to a computer game where, for the most part, the plots and characters are inflexible. Either the player has boundaries that are obvious (like being unable to attack certain characters) or the world rebounds to maintain the status quo (as when a major character respawns after being killed). World of Warcraft, while incredibly popular, is probably the most glaring example of this failing. There is a very rich world and culture in the game, but everything from the character builder to the quest system is inflexible and predetermined.
Is it possible to tell a compelling story without giving the player flexibility? Of course it is. Examples include Ico, Zelda, and Bioshock. However, is the player involved in telling the story and thus as committed to the world as if they felt they were creating the story? Of course not. While those games are great fun to play through, it is rare for a player to feel truly immersed in the game. Bioshock is perhaps the notable exception as the art, audio and first-person vantage point all combine to make a potent player experience.
Can a game give the player the illusion of flexibility and the ability to change the world around them? Of course it can. Great examples are The Elder Scrolls series of games and the Fable series. There is a question of whether freedom is the same as flexibility, however. I can choose to go off and fish in the corner, buy a house, sit in the tavern all day and completely ignore the main quest, but this is merely freedom. At no point do I feel that I have a way to grow with the world and to really change it as I can in a traditional role-playing game.
So how can a developer bring that feeling to a computer game? One fairly simple option (for me to write about, possibly not for the development team) is to allow multiple routes to the various plot points. This can give rise to emergent gameplay: The player finding a way to play the game in a way not originally intended by the game designer. A lovely example of this that is due to be released later this year is Scribblenauts, a game for the Nintendo DS that encourages the player to think of imaginative solutions to puzzles. The game developers claim that the player’s imagination is the only limit.
Similarly, the MMO EVE Online has seen a great deal of emergent gameplay as players have formed corporations, bands of pirates, and even seen embezzlement of real funds from an in-game bank. However, in both these cases the games have sacrificed something for this: Neither has a strong story. EVE Online has a strong back-story with the races and history of the universe fleshed out to a staggering degree, however this is akin to a campaign setting for a table-top game. It is still up to the players to find the story from that basis. I’m sure there must be some players who have been able to create a story for themselves and act it out, however my experience of the game was one that didn’t allow me to truly live the character and interact with others to see a story develop. Unless that story was of a seriously jaded, lonely and taciturn asteroid miner.
There is a new contender on the horizon for the first MMO RPG with a story-telling root and that is Star Wars: The Old Republic. In this news post, they claim to be developing with story at the centre of the game, alongside progression, exploration and combat. It will be very interesting to see if they can pull it off without taking freedom away from the player.