So, stories in roleplaying games. That’s why we play ’em, yes?
I’ve been following some discussions on random game company forums, and there have been some pretty interesting comments on content versus technical capabilities of modern cRPGs, especially as compared to the er, “classics.”
Which got me thinking on storytelling styles in cRPGs.
I think there can be three different approaches to storytelling, based on the style of the player character:
The first style, I’d say, would be what I call the “sit-on-their-shoulder” style. A good example would be the Witcher. While it’s an interesting story and I did enjoy playing through it, the player character has a set past and a set personality. As the player, you are in control of his growth as far as fighting skills and, to a limited extent, his social interactions, and you do affect some minor elements of the story. Choices result in different approaches to resolve the same problems, and you’re generally railroaded. But the story works because it’s well written. I’m sure that certain people may be turned off by the attitude of the main character. Much like if it were a novel. So, I’d say, it’s the closest I’ve seen to an interactive book.
The second style would be the a preset past which affect the present, with an option to determine the player character’s attitude. Of the recent games I’ve played, Mass Effect’s an example as good as any. Limitations are set from the fact the character is a military officer. If as a player your mindset is to step in the shoes of a military officer (and not, let’s say, a cumbaya monk from the deep forests of some obscure planet past the ass of the Universe), the story works. Because while there is still some separation between character and player, you as the player have a choice to “build” a character that you can relate to.
The third style would be where the background and personality of the player character is entirely left to the discretion of the player. Inexplicable market duds like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Temple of Elemental Evil (ok, the second one’s failure is explicable, I suppose) came close to doing this well in light of their story. The two approached the choice of background differently, but the effect was similar – there was some sense achieved that the player appears in the story as “themselves.”
Now, I can’t really say I have a preference for one of these styles. I think each style has its strengths and weaknesses, and I think the choice of which to use when approaching a game design is entirely dependent on some combination of considerations which include type of story, resources, intended market, competition, etc. etc. For one, with the apparently growing expectations for game cinematics and capacity for environment interaction, style #1 and #2 maybe have a leg-up on #3. Especially #1 predisposes a player to be more forgiving when it comes to railroading, which allows for some major freedom for the developers to flex their graphics and cinematics muscles. Voicing over the player character becomes a viable option, further contributing to the “beauty” of the game. Of course, this also tip-toes away from the full gaming experience and towards the interactive storytelling experience (which is more like a bunch of mini-games strung together to fill the time between cutscenes). Which brings the quality of the story (and the storytelling, which requires a different skillset, I believe) right in the spotlight.
On the other hand, there is the question of when a gamer is looking to be less of a spectator and more of a participant, or even the determining factor in the storyline (let’s face it, we are all well-developed narcissists somewhere deep inside). And that’s where style #1 starts to suffer, style #2 starts facing trade-offs, and style #3 shines.
(I got more to say, but first… lunch!)