The Draw of Role-Playing

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 at 5:30 pm
The allure of RPGs: why do I love to put on my robe and wizard hat so much?
Sometimes your own biases surprise you. The other night I was talking at length to a friend about games I was playing and the new releases I was most anticipating, and I thought I was covering pretty much everything imaginable. My buddy listened politely and then said, nonchalantly, "So, you're pretty much only into RPGs these days, huh?"

"No!" I wasn't that narrow in my gaming interests, I thought. "No, like, for instance..."

What? I cycled through all of my mainstays of the past month.  Skyrim. The RPG of all RPGs. All of the Mass Effect games. Nope, definitely role-playing. Fallout: New Vegas, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, both certainly RPGs. Even Borderlands, which has been the game I play when I need a breather from all that role-playing, is an RPG.

And then I realized that my friend had a point. I was borderline addicted to role-playing games.

Before I go any further, I want to emphasize to any government agency tracking keywords such as "RPG" that I mean this:

Not this:

I also want to make it very clear that I have not always been such a staunch devotee of RPGs. In fact, when I was a kid just discovering his love of electronic gaming, I often viewed RPGs with open hostility.

In RPGs of old, there were certain restrictions you came to expect. For one, in a lot of them, you couldn't run or jump. This really pissed me off as a kid. Video games, though they necessitated sitting on your ass, were all about the physical prowess of your character. Being a character who is incapable of moving at even a modest jog takes some of the fun out of things. Plus, it really messed up your suspension of disbelief when your character, hurrying to save an imperiled teammate or recover a powerful artifact, sauntered around lazily like they just went overboard at a taco bar. The first couple times I played these kinds of RPGs, I held the "B" button down for a solid five minutes of gameplay, just hoping that a dash function would magically engage.

And then there was the combat.

I guess I missed again.
In my favorite games as a kid, combat was about reflexes. It was quick and immediate and exciting. In The Legend of Zelda: a Link to the Past I would even intentionally bang my blade against the guards' weapons to create the illusion of tense sword-fighting.

RPG combat was the antithesis of this. If action game combat was a close basketball game, RPG combat was a baseball game where all the players were dippied in molasses before taking the field. It was slow and technical, all about levels and armor classes. The only way to get better at it was by killing scores of lesser bad guys. Your reaction time could be flawless and you could still get your ass kicked if you didn't spend enough time summarily executing the weak enemies in a previous portion of the game.

When these common RPG mechanics were subverted, I enjoyed the resulting games. Chrono Trigger had a timer system that kept the battles fast-paced. Secret of Mana eschewed battle screens in favor of fluid, real-time environments while keeping the basic RPG formulas. And Earthbound had such a lovely, innocent tone and such a wry, off-beat sensibility that I couldn't help but fall in love with it.

But my real love of RPGs came with character customization.

This started out with Baldur's Gate and the other isometric RPGs like it. In these games, your character build was up to you, and the changes in armor and weaponry you made in the inventory screen were reflected during regular gameplay as you trolled around the countryside looking for kobolds to fuck up. For some reason, having this effect on how rad your character looked (which is the virtual equivalent of playing dress up with your dollies, and I admit that) really hooked me on RPGs.

But as games got more advanced, this became a staple of RPG gaming, and we've reached a point now, as has been noted many times over the past months, that a major studio has developed a game where you can not only craft exactly what your character's face looks like, but exactly how much grime is caked onto your character's face (thanks, Bethesda!). And as it stands now I am devouring these types of games ravenously -- anything where you create a guy and then decide exactly how he reacts to the world. I can't get enough of it.

When I'm not writing for JD or working my day job, I'm an actor in real life. And as much as I enjoy sucking up all attention from a room and meeting stupidly attractive people (two major reasons to get into the business), the real reason I act is because the basic activity of becoming another person appeals to me on a basic level. Expanding my experience of the world to include, even in little, artificial ways, the morals and challenges and emotions of other people is something that has always and will always intrigue me. RPGs tap into this same basic desire to live more than one life.

I've always scoffed at the title of Second Life (pictured above). The breadth of it always impressed me, but the idea that this open-world game (and, often, awkward sex simulator) is a whole other life always seemed a little dumb to me. No doubt people enjoy it, but is it really on par with actual, real life?

I doubt we'll ever quite get to the point where video games can totally match the experience of actuality (nor would we want to, really!  Did you see Surrogates? You didn't? Okay, never mind!). But as electronic role-playing becomes both increasingly advanced and increasingly mainstream, we may eventually see games that actually offer something close to a "second life." And I'll be outside waiting to buy it, thinking about what hardass facial scars I'm going to give my guy.

Aaron Matteson writes a weekly column for Joystick Division. It is called Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000.

You can follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.
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