Warning: Minor, vague spoilers for Fallout: New Vegas and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Despite conventional wisdom, role playing is at the very core of all video games. Unlike all other media, where the audience passively watches as characters live their lives, make decisions, and complete narrative arcs, video games require the player to act. In that action, all gamers are forced to assume the role of something outside themselves. From Pong to Doom to Skyrim, the player must learn to be someone, something else for a brief period of time. Those of us who know the power of that consciousness transference have learned to take full advantage of it by a process called “role play” in an effort to maximize immersion.
The common use of the word immersion is as a gauge of how much importance a developer places on maintaining continuity and establishing lore, setting and character. While this is certainly an important factor in a game’s critical acclaim and lasting prestige, it’s moot if the player doesn’t meet the developer half way. Role playing is the key, taking a game like Fallout: New Vegas from middling shooter with a ton of talking to an unrepeatable, unforgettable, entirely personal and solipsistic experience.
Like any acquired skill, there are tiers of role playing proficiency. At the bottom, there are those foolish enough to play New Vegas as a mindless shooter, blowing away everything that moves for the sheer visceral pleasure of watching heads explode. These mindless brutes are so disengaged from the experience that they can’t be bothered to care about plot or faction status. As you would expect, when asked what they thought of the game, the common response is something like, “It’s a shitty shooter. I didn’t really get the point. Call of Duty is more fun.”
At the next (and probably most common) tier we have the follower. This is the equivalent of watching a movie; the player will participate in dialogue and follow the story, but they always choose the responses that they think the developers want them to choose, usually the “good” responses. These players aren’t actively choosing a role, they are just filling the role they think they should, acting as little more than the mechanical hand of fate pushing a hero along a pre-determined track. Even if this type of player plays through a game twice, it will usually be at the extremes, always picking the “saintly” or “evil incarnate” choices. While this is a more enjoyable method of role play than none at all, it still lacks the element that video games champion: player input.
The final tier of immersion mastery is player-generated story. Fallout: New Vegas begins with your character tied up, about to be shot in the head. Yes, the game eventually provides a backstory of why you, a simple courier, ended up in that unfortunate circumstance, but only to a point, only as much as the narrative needs. It doesn’t explain why you are a courier in the first place, where and how you grew up, why you are, even at the beginning of the game, a decent shot with energy weapons in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or even how you feel about your current predicament. All of that can, and I argue should, come from the player.
When you create this narrative in your head, everything that happens in the game takes on a whole new meaning. When asked to make simple moral choices, it’s no longer “I’m a good/evil guy so I will choose A/B.” Now, it’s all about context; if you learned about energy weapons because you’ve decided that you’re a former Brotherhood of Steel Knight that left the order because you grew tired of their dogmatic principles, each encounter with new factions or characters becomes its own little vignette. You no longer ask yourself, “What’s the ‘best’ dialogue choice here?” Instead, you ask, “What would my character really say here?” and as long as you stay true to the principles that you’ve bestowed on him/her, the choice will always be both obvious, and refreshing. Suddenly, you’re talking to others like a real person, with a real, setting-specific point of view and getting reciprocal responses that make sense. It allows for your otherwise good-natured former Brotherhood Knight to violently explode (either verbally or physically) at a random NCR soldier because, ignorant of who you used to be, he bragged about killing your friends at the battle of Helios One. That kind of event would never happen to someone who followed the generic “good guy” script, and thus, he will forever miss out on those unique memories that anchor certain video games into our memories.
When given the tools, a dedicated role player can stitch together a deeper character than anything movies or TV ever could. And the best part is that it’s all yours; no one will ever play the exact same character and make the same choices you did, even if they started from the same imagined background. When you think back on your time playing, you don’t remember it as a game with fun shooting mechanics or outlandish set pieces. You remember it as that other life you briefly lived.
Of course, as I stated earlier, some games and developers make all of this role play easier by providing a plethora of decision points and dialogue (it’s the reason I’ve relied so heavily on Fallout: New Vegas as illustration). But, to varying degrees, you can apply this level of role play to almost any game out there as long as you care more about immersion than power gaming. Rico, from Just Cause 2, is tasked with blowing up everything owned by the evil government regime of Panau in order to generate “chaos points.” But if you were actually Rico, a one man army invading this small island nation, presumably in an effort to help the citizens free themselves from tyranny, does it make sense to destroy every last civilian gas station on the island? Yes, you get points for doing so, but what would the context-specific consequence of that be? This strange white guy from America arrives and destroys the infrastructure that you, a destitute local factory worker, depend on to get to your job and feed your family. By ignoring role play and mindlessly racking up chaos points, Rico has suddenly turned from liberator to terrorist in an already oppressed and starving nation.
Obviously very few (probably no) players ever stop to think about it that way. Indeed, in a game as silly as Just Cause 2, it probably isn’t worth the effort to role play. But the point is, it’s possible even in the most unlikely of games, and that can have a profound impact on how one approaches all games. Why exactly are you using non-lethal means to take down every enemy in Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Yes, you get a worthless Steam achievement for doing so, but is that really the best reason? Isn’t it far more interesting to imagine that Adam Jensen, witnessing the brutal murder of his ex girlfriend, solemnly decides that despite sharing the same augmented limbs of his enemies, he will never become a robotic homicidal monsters like they have? And then, at the end, when he learns who is really behind it all and the frivolous rationale for why so many people were made to suffer, does Adam snap? Does he kill this depraved mass-murdering architect? And if he does, if Adam destroys this pathetic, physically feeble, utterly defenseless man in the name of justice, of vengeance, or in a simple rage, what does that, then, make him?
These questions, and the circumstances that lead up to them, can only be experienced by someone truly inhabiting their video game roles. It’s such an extreme difference in experiences, that I would argue that those not role playing, at least to some degree, aren’t even really playing their games, they’re just mindlessly ambling through them.
You often hear gamers ask each other, “What do you play (what genre of games, which consoles)?” or “How do you play (what skills do you pick upon level up, are you thorough or do you rush)?” Those questions, and their answers, bore me. Instead, I want to know: who do you play?