It’s often tempting to look back on the past and pine for better days as we wallow in the realization of just how shitty things have become. For example; in 1980 you could get an entire candy bar for a quarter; having sex with random strangers wouldn’t kill you (okay, it could, but no one knew it yet); Johnny Carson was alive and yucking it up on NBC for an hour and a half every night (which in September of that year would be scaled back to an hour at Carson’s request, a sure sign that the end, if not extremely nigh, was somewhat blurry yet still mostly visible from a great distance). Disco wasn’t quite dead yet, but it was sleeping a lot and wouldn’t come out of its room; gas was only about $1 per gallon in most places; and you could purchase the entire album that contained the song title of this post on LP or cassette for $6 or $7, respectively. Good times. Except for rewinding. Rewinding sucked.
Certainly the past must hold some sort of credible nostalgic merit beyond the value of a cheap sugar rush, tawdry coital liaisons, frivolous entertainments, and inexpensive carbon emissions? Surely we’ve grown as a global community and from our reflection on days gone by we’ve learned to empower ourselves through the appreciation of life’s higher sensibilities, which include but are not limited to the practice of love, duty, faith, hope, and charity, without debasing ourselves with the lower concerns of human existence, namely production, profit, and the volitional exchange of goods and services? Maybe just a little?
The past is a bastard. Every nostalgic syllable that falls out of its metaphorical mouth is half a lie, but in 1980 the words “role-playing game” had exactly one meaning: a bunch of nerds sitting around a dining room table on a Saturday afternoon engaging in an activity that upon casual observation more closely resembled a tax audit than any sort of recreational endeavor. Sure, there aren’t as many half-eaten bags of Cheetos at an audit, and there’s usually fewer vehement exhortations to “get that crap off my table before supper or you’ll be sorry, Mister,” but to the layman the differences are nearly indistinguishable.
Since the advent of sophisticated video games (basically anything post-Atari 2600), the term “role-playing” has been used to describe any game that includes experience points and a leveling system, regardless of whether that system actually enables the player to “play a role.” If experience points and leveling are not used as a means to player choice, that is, the player-directed customization of their character (and by extension the story), or if the game determines which character skills to improve or which statistics to upgrade, then by definition it cannot be a role-playing game.
Role-playing in any medium requires an initial and ongoing system of player agency; the original pen-and-paper RPGs were designed to be a form of collaborative and interactive storytelling, wherein each player helped to fashion the narrative through individual decisions as events unfolded. Video games that do not permit players to choose their gender, or their class, or to allocate their own skill points deny access to the customization mechanic that is essential to any role-playing experience, and as such remove themselves from consideration as role-playing games. Fable comes immediately to mind as a game that employed a leveling system, permitted players to allocate their own skill points, and offered a wide array of avatar customization options, but which cannot properly be called a role-playing game because of one simple omission — the option to choose the player character’s gender. Fable was a good game with many fine qualities, but RPPs (role-playing purists) were justifiably disappointed in that seemingly arbitrary decision. (Fable II changed this small but crucial oversight and stands as an example of the one of the best role-playing games ever made in terms of player customization and investment in the narrative.)
A more recent example of a game that shuns its role-playing heritage in exchange for a little accessibility to the button-mashing masses is Diablo III, which was released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 last week. It’s a very good action game, but its role-playing elements are cosmetic at best; although gender selection is available for all five character classes, skills and attributes are allocated automatically upon leveling up. This denies the player access to the most crucial customization option — the ongoing process of character creation — which informs the player-authored narrative more effectively than any other gameplay mechanic.
It is this aspect of customization in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that makes you feel like a badass when you pick someone’s pocket and disappear into the night with nary an utterance spared for your larceny, or in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (technically not a role-playing game) when you sneak past a passel of guards and slip undetected through a series of laser tripwires using the Cloak augmentation; it’s not merely that the game allows you to do this, it’s that you choose to do it and develop the skills that make it not only possible, but damned satisfying.
Similarly in pen-and-paper RPGs, that satisfaction comes from the well-crafted illusion that you have helped to create the narrative with your decisions. It represents the very essence of the role-playing experience, and is a direct result of player agency; it cannot be achieved in any game or activity that makes your decisions for you, or orders you around like a chain-gang boss.
In order for a game to properly claim to be a role-playing game, it must have enough respect for you to get the hell out of your way and allow you to craft your own narrative within its larger story. Are you the thief? The assassin? The brawler? The pacifist who gets the job done in spite of your misguided refusal to use a weapon when some slack-jawed brute is trying to dismember you with a machete?
The best games let you answer these questions not only before you start playing, but as you play, from the creation of your character to the last step along the way. It’s not leveling alone that defines a role-playing video game, but the individual decisions that you are able to make as a result of that leveling — isolating a single out-of-context element and elevating it to a primary characteristic is like romanticizing the past; it might keep you entertained for a while, but you’re really only getting half the story.