In addition to my normal videogame consumption, for the first time, I am facilitating a tabletop RPG. Being new at game and story creation, I am fearful of making mistakes, cautiously developing a cohesive and welcoming story environment. This has me thinking about character development and what it takes for players to feel comfortable in an alternate persona. Fortunately, this process has been coinciding with my Fallout 3 experience.
Fallout 3 seems to welcome players into a world of nearly endless possibilities. The previous games in the series allow players to do almost anything they want, and Bethesda has put in a good effort in maintaining this trait. Endless options, the game suggests, give players a deeper connection with the avatar they develop. The outcome, theoretically, is a role playing game in which the player feels at home in the body of a Vault 101 resident, immersing the player not just in the game but in their persona.
There are some important character creation tools at a DM’s disposal. Players commonly choose play styles before the game begins. They often have character goals in mind before their persona even has a name. Players may also choose a character alignment (Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Good, etc.) to map out how their avatar may behave in certain situations. DMs will frequently supplement these decisions with a personal history for the player. Not only does the history provide a brief overview of knowledge, but it provides an experience the player can interpret to develop their avatar’s long-term motivations before in-game events transpire.
My Fallout 3 character was created in a similar way. I chose to play “evil”, deciding to blow up megaton as soon as I knew it was an option. But I also wanted to see how complex of a character I could develop, deciding I would contextualize and justify my actions.
As a baby, I needed to assign ability points, divorcing these decisions from my character's motivations. I had no personal history to shape these decisions. I did not invest points into intelligence because my character had a history in the public education system, but because of its mechanical relevance later in the game. This is similar to character creation in tabletop gaming, but without an established personal history or knowledge of the world around me, I could not easily contextualize these early decisions.
Fallout 3 quickly gives the player dialogue choices that color who the character is, rather than a giving the player a sense of who their character is beforehand. Why was I behaving like a little Vault punk, other than the fact it was in line with how future me might behave? An early example of contextually removed choices is the G.O.A.T. exam, a silly test clearly designed for the players benefit, not the avatar’s.The answer to these questions have no in-game effect. The results of the exam determine which skill points the game suggests you tag, not binding you whatsoever to the outcome. Any motivation for choosing one option over another comes from the player alone.
Despite these barriers, I had fleshed out my character to my liking and came out of the vault comfortable with my decisions. My evil actions would be driven by mistrust, paranoia and a desire to find my father. Yet the game design did not facilitate this interpretation. I stole to survive, yet for every Stimpak I would steal, I would lose Karma points. At one point, my negative karma allowed one "shady" gentleman to view my character as a potential compatriot, despite the fact he had never seen me steal or kill. The personality I gave my character was not the personality Fallout seemed to be shepherding me towards.
My character’s desire to find her father also collided with quest decisions. I rarely felt justified setting aside the main quest line to accomplish any of the many side-quests available. Even loathsome acts are committed for the benefit of NPCs I would not normally interact with. When I did finally find my father, my character's story arc was essentially complete, making the rest of the game moot.
At this point my character’s motivations have changed dramatically and I am having an easier time contextualizing my actions. Yet the difference between role playing in a open world tabletop environment and role playing in the confines of an open world videogame are still stark. A role must be created before it can be filled, something endless choices do not facilitate. Despite having significantly less depth than Fallout 3, I found is much easier to play the role of a comically evil villain in Fable II.
Options may not facilitate role playing, but this might not be a bad thing. Character creation and development is an exciting prospect for many players. What this implies however, is that this entire experience could be my fault. Maybe I was playing it wrong. If a game is created in which player interpretation and choice are fundamental to story progression, could the player be to blame when the game does not live up to its narrative potential?