The Escapist is an online magazine covering the broader aspects of gaming. In the current issue, number 102, we are treated to an interview with Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series. Now I’ve never played Ultima (or any other online game for that matter) and I didn’t know who Richard Garriott was, but nonetheless he’s got some interesting stuff to say.
He observes that most computer fantasy roleplaying games have the same general plot (i.e. you’re the hero and your job is to kill the bad guy, which you know because you were told so in the introduction). And that the bad guy rarely does anything particularly bad other than to wait for you to come and kill them in the final level. You as the player on the other hand typically pillage, plunder, maim, murder and do whatever is necessary to become sufficiently powerful to defeat the supposed bad guy.
Looked at this way the concept seems somewhat flawed. It’s also a bit like some games of D&D I’ve played in.
Admirably Mr Garriott wants virtual reality to be interesting and relevant, not simply a question of ‘Have I become physically powerful enough to win?’ As per Jospeh Campbell’s Monomyth, Garriott believes the story should be about someone who is forced to face the ultimate challenge when, through lack of personal preparedness, they are ill-equiped to do so. Though the story as a whole is about facing the external challenge, the real story behind the scenes is how the main character must rise above their internal demons, challenges and failings in order to become worthy and capable of meeting that challenge.
So Garriott maintains that we should be asking ‘What have I learned? What wisdom have I gained from the beginning to the end of the journey that really means I’m the appropriate person to solve the problem? Why am I worthy? Not, why am I tough enough?
It all makes a lot of sense.
He goes on to say:
Where and why and how I think [most] games fail has to do with character development. If you look at emotion in a linear narrative, it usually comes first of all from creating characters and situations and places that the player, or the reader has a fondness for or is tied to in some way, and then having a change or catastrophe occur to that person, place or thing. Developing characters that you become invested in is the first step for generating any kind of emotion in my mind. I’m not sure if that is literarily accurate, but that is my personal, perhaps oversimplified take on it.
In a book or a movie you can take the time to dwell on a handful of main characters who not only emerge over and over again in the script, but act precisely as is written. In the case of gaming, you have the additional problem that the person who you might think of as the main character – the reader, or the player in this case – can almost immediately turn 90 degrees, walk away and go somewhere else or hit the space bar and skip past most of their dialogue. So the ways we build personal attachment to characters and places in a game has to be done in a more sophisticated way. I don’t think it’s an impossible way by any means.
A big part of it is some fairly simple steps go a long way. Some things like making sure the bad guy, instead of just waiting for you to come kill him in the final level, gets out into the game and mixes it up with NPCs and even mixes it up with player prior to the finale, to where the player gets to know them personally and gets to know why they might dislike them, or why they’re working against them, or why is that guy worthy of being your opponent, or why is that guy appropriate to be your opponent. The same thing would be true of love interests or comic relief or almost any of the other kinds of emotional strings that you might want to pull. I think that most people creating games are far more worried about the next physical puzzle, the next treasure to loot, the next creature to kill, … than they are about doing something more sophisticated, more difficult, but also more worthwhile, which is to take much more care in your story crafting.
I couldn’t agree more with these sentiments and would add that they apply equally to a fair percentage of the table-top roleplaying I’ve been involved in.
However, from personal experience I would have to observe that, though Mr Garriott’s perspective coincides with mine, it may not be the same for everybody. I say this because, after spending much effort trying to encourage plots, story arcs, character development etc in my last roleplaying group I discovered to my disappointment that from most of the other players’ perspectives this was merely a lot of effort that got in the way of having fun. The majority of the group didn’t want to invest in their characters or to have to think about deep questions of morality, they would rather simply bash monsters each week. At the time I found this rather curious as it was almost the exact opposite of my own motivation for playing but I have come to understand that different people get different things from games; and also that all are equally valid. What I haven’t been able to figure out as yet is whether a game or group can support all these needs in harmony or whether one goal is always doomed to get in the way of another.