Narrative RPGs are arguably all about choices and your power over choices. Choosing a class and a background lays the groundwork for the whole experience of a game and provides a springboard for roleplaying. In the first Mass Effect, for example, you’re given two key choices at the beginning of the game that effectively select which version of Commander Shepard you want to inhabit. You decide the personal history and the psychology of Shepard. You decide whether they grew up as the nomadic child of navy officers or on the streets, and whether they matured into a scarred survivor, renowned war hero or a ruthlessly efficient commander.
Each of these choices does have an impact on how characters initially relate to Shepard. Yet for all the backstory, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Shepard might as well have been dropped into the world at the moment you start the game. It’s hard not to feel like you’re merely guiding Shepard through a world, rather than truly inhabiting the character. The choices are big and can be incredibly satisfying prompts in the hands of a dedicated roleplayer, but the apparent scope of the choices – what was your entire childhood like? – compared to the minimal impact they have on what might be a 100 hour adventure means they can feel a little hollow.
The way in which character and place are crafted in pen-and-paper roleplaying games provides an interesting alternative to this approach.
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