Wednesday, January 13, 2010

EXP Podcast #60: Playing With Characters

Put on your robes and wizard hats folks: it's time to do some role-playing. Whether you are playing as a knight, a space marine, or a rogue treasure hunter, video games give the player an opportunity to assume an identity different from their own. However, the increasing complexity of RPGs as well as the inclusion of sophisticated characters in non-RPG games can lead to a conflict between the player and the game: What happens when the player wants to do something that their character would never dream of? Grayson Davis from Beeps and Boops raised this question, inspiring us to explore some possible answers. This is a complicated issue and one that is likely highly influenced by personal taste, so feel free to jump into the comments with your thoughts.

Some discussion starters:

- When playing a game, do you role-play your character? How does this affect your play experience?

- What is the balance between providing individual experiences based on specific characters versus ensuring players see all the game has to offer?

- Are there certain games that you feel walk this line particularly well? Are there games in which role-playing actually decreases your enjoyment?

To listen to the podcast:

- Subscribe to the EXP Podcast via iTunes here. Additionally, here is the stand-alone feed.
- Listen to the podcast in your browser by left-clicking the title. Or, right-click and select "save as link" to download the show in MP3 format.
- Subscribe to this podcast and EXP's written content with the RSS link on the right.

Show notes:

- Run time: 28 min 32 sec
- "The Player's Role," by Grayson Davis, via Beeps and Boops
- Music provided by Brad Sucks


  1. I finally got around to listening, even though I was kind of obliged to :)

    Great discussion, guys. You raised a lot of good questions, even if they're a lot of difficult ones.

    One point I wanted to make, though, is about the "Mass Effect sniper" thing. You guys brought up the point that it's possible for developers to make "easier" or "harder" experiences in the game, and that it can be hard to separate what is hard because it's supposed to be hard and what is hard because the game design falls short.

    In the case of Mass Effect, I think it's worth pointing out that certain classes are pretty explicitly stated to be the "easy" classes. If I remember right, the game outright tells you that the soldier class is the easiest class to play (or something like "best for new players").

    It's an interesting design choice because that raises other questions. For instance, if character class corresponds to game difficulty, then that actually limits player choice to some degree. What if I want to play a soldier, but want the difficulty to be high? I can adjust the difficulty level, but in the end, soldier is probably going to be a significantly easier experience than other classes.

    I'm not sure what the implications here are. Most RPGs have "easy" and "hard" classes, and I think that's an accessibility thing over anything else, as not everybody is good at RPGs or may not be familiar with them. But speaking more generally, the more consequences you attach to choices, the less freedom you give the player, since consequences, in some ways, are just choices made ahead of time for you. But on the other hand, players (especially RPG players) tend to place a high value on consequences in game.

    We like to see the game world react to us, but we also like to have control over that game world. It's a difficult balancing act.

  2. Interesting podcast as always.

    I especially liked the discussion of what to do with Sten in Dragon Age. I started from the idea of saving pretty much everyone I cam across, including Zevran. When it came to Loghain, I had little hesitation in killing him, however. It wasn't until then that I looked back at the choices I had made and realized that throughout the game, I had tried to save people who had "followed the rules" of their situation, and were the worse off for it. Conversely, I specifically did not help, or punished those that I felt had tried to cheat the system to get ahead.

  3. Nobody is ever completely good or completely evil. I can see the appeal of attempting to play such a role but I avoid doing so as it always rings false.

    Don't all of us make excuses in our own lives, for actions we might consider unusual? If we choose to rescue Sten because we want to see what might come of that, isn't that to some extent also a valid reason for our character to rescue Sten. They are on a dangerous mission and finding out this person might help them seems just as logically an approach as any other. Enforcing an "I will be good" or "I will be bad" restriction on all character decisions feels far more artificial than rescuing a potentially dangerous character because they might prove useful.

    Denis Farr has recently posted an interesting piece about roleplay looks at how the act of play can be seen as an exploration of the player character in the same way that an actor explores the confines of their character in a rehearsal.

  4. I once again had to think about the final scene of Prince of Persia on this one.
    That was a weird sort of role playing experience...

    "Dude why are you doing this, are you stupid?"

    'Prince shuts up, probably for the first time in the entire game'

    "Okay, okay, I'm gonna do it, damn those achievements..."

    Since MGS2 I've also always tried to play the MGS games without killing a single person(which can get tricky during Boss fights) but at the same time I wonder, if that's how Snake would have actually done this, since he always seems to be in the role of that tired of killing people kind of guy.

  5. Hi Grayson,

    Thanks for the clarification on Mass Effect. I never played it, but that makes me consider criticisms in a new light.

    That balancing act is especially apparent in the "quicksave" culture that crops up around rpgs like Dragon Age: people want to see dynamic, meaningful long as they can be undone!


    You're like a Dragon Age super hero: helping out the hardworking and the downtrodden!


    Interesting point: if a game gives the player an opportunity to create a morally "grey" character, then perhaps the onus to resolve dissonance lies with the player rather than the game design.

    Denis' thoughts on games as plays and rehearsals have been great to read, especially since I never really put much thought into role-playing when I play games.


    That Prince of Persia has really been a gold mine for game criticism, hasn't it? Surprising, as I didn't really expect anything from it before it came out.

    Your comment about MGS resonated with me: I could never really tell if Snake was tired of killing people or just tired of being in situations in which he had to kill people. He definitely wanted to ice Liquid, though.