Or perhaps the question should be “do your characters have stories”? This came up in conversation last night while I was catching up on my latest alt, and on reflection I actually think my answer to the question is one that I would not have expected of myself. To the copious-amounts-of-explanation-mobile, Batman!
RPGs and character creation
RPGs had no appeal to me before I started playing my first (which is itself the subject of a surprisingly long story). The main reasons for this, if I remember properly, were twofold:
- I saw them as timesinks, pure and simple. They made you spend a lot of time to accomplish simple objectives which had no meaning in the big picture. That is to say, I didn’t think they were fun.
- I didn’t believe that RPG characters could be satisfying on a narrative level.
(2) is obviously the reason why (1) seemed so pointless: if you have no investment in “your character” the actions you are performing have no purpose, unless they are also fun in and of themselves. I couldn’t imagine the RPG “actions” I knew of – datatable-based combat, trudging through endless generic maze-like environments, or having obscure conversations with NPCs trying to give off an air of faux-mystery by means of being a bizarre combination of loquacious and laconic – being “fun”.
(I have, by the way, since met real people who behave like that and they don’t seem even remotely mysterious.)
I can’t tell you exactly where I got these impressions from, but suffice it to say all the RPGs I tried in the early/mid nineties seemed terrible. Adventure games, by contrast, I really enjoyed! There was Hugo’s House of Horrors and Flight of the Amazon Queen and Simon the Sorcerer, and then later on games like Tomb Raider and Half Life (I know it was a shooter but it still did a lot to immerse you in its story). And before any of that there was that odd niche of ASCII-based dungeoneering games epitomised in the present by Dwarf Fortress (which I’ve not played, by the way).
These games, and many like them, I enjoyed because they presented you with a character that the designers had created and shamelessly immersed you in their world, and that was all part of the fun.
RPGs, I felt, gave the illusion of letting you create your “own” character and explore your “own” world, but actually you were creating it within the parameters established by the game’s creators and to fit the world they had made. I guess I thought of it as a sort of giant fallacy of freedom which was, ultimately, entirely unsatisfying.
Actually, that’s a good phrase, let’s use it for the next section heading.
If you think about it, what freedom do we really have in RPGs? We get our character templates mapped out for us with everything they can and cannot do pre-established before we’ve even thought of a name. In WoW, we can maybe choose between one of six ear piercings or one of five different kinds of facial hair, but we’re basically all the exact same models. And we start in the same places and do the exact same quests which tell the exact same story except substituting our character’s name and class in the relevant bits to make it seem personal. Even WoW’s revolutionary quest game is a glorified series of narrative tramlines upon which our characters can ride until they reach max level: a “loremaster” is just someone whose character has basically the exact same story as every other “loremaster”.
Yes, I’m being very cynical here.
This is what I thought about RPGs. Which is why the answer to the titular question surprises me.
My characters do have stories.
I think a huge part of what I got wrong when thinking about RPG characters is my reason number 2, “I didn’t believe that RPG characters could be satisfying on a narrative level”. As y’all remember (come on it was like 3 paragraphs ago, keep up guys), I had no problem with assuming an existing character created by someone else but thought that the character creation offered by RPGs was an illusion.
Put it another way: I have no problem with writing my own stories, or with reading stories others have written. But I do have a problem with Choose Your Own Adventure books. And multiple choice tests, for that matter. So yeah, I saw RPGs as a kind of multiple-choice test, where you fill in a selection of somebody else’s answers when you’d really rather they were your own.
Now I think I see them more along the same lines as I saw adventure games: I am creating an avatar in the world of Warcraft, and that avatar is a part of that world’s story – a story written by someone else, and thus a character ultimately created by someone else. Thus I am playing someone else’s character just as if I was Gordon Freeman blasting his way through Black Mesa or Hugo trying to escape that haunted house. And I’m basically OK with that.
But of course WoW offers a lot more than just watching a character progress through a predetermined plot: we do have a degree of control and determinacy over our avatars. This starts off at the Character Creation screen where we “customise” aspects of our race, gender, looks and of course “role” or “archetype” and it continues as we choose which quests and zones to focus on, the way we complete a tough fight, the outcome of our adventures into dungeons and raids, the factions we “support” through rep and of course the people we gather and interact with. And so on.
I personally find that the moment I’m clicking through options on the character creation screen I’m actually developing a story. Why does my character have that facial expression? – because it says something about his or her personality. Why that race? – it says something about his or her backstory. Why that class? Why that hairstyle? Et cetera.
Then as I move through the world questing, I find myself making decisions based on this vague idea of my character’s personality and story: do I attack that PvP flagged character (or defend one who is being attacked)? do I really want to help the Forsaken develop this new plague? am I willing to kill Horde soldiers for the sake of a few gold? Many of these kind of questions are not supported by the quest engine, but if we read the stories of the quests we’re involved in we have to deal with them in some way on our characters.
And I think on some level all of us must be aware of what’s happening to our characters on their own level even if we choose not to “care”. I hope Chas at Righteous Orbs doesn’t mind, but I’m going to quote him here:
I don’t care how hardcore you are, or how serious, nobody who plays RPGs – any kind of RPGs doesn’t on some level care about what’s supposed to be going on “in character”. If you replaced the world with a featureless white plain, renamed the classes A through J, and all the powers “Class X ability Y”, if instead of fighting dragons and demons we fought floating tables of data which informed us how much damage we were doing, nobody would play the game. On some level everybody who plays WoW plays it because they want to feel like a wizard.
For me it goes deeper than that; I seem to be a rather empathetic person and thus, if once I get drawn into a world, I start to care quite deeply about its inhabitants. I don’t mean I get all gushy and upset about someone killing a bunny in WoW (you monster you), I just mean that as the overall story becomes more involving, the little details as expressed by our characters become more important.
I have a story
So, quite contrary to my expectations and intentions, I find my characters have, over time, become more than just buttons and numbers and chat avatars – they have developed their own personalities, their own motivations, their own reasons for doing things or not doing them (or for being happy/not happy about doing them/not doing them).
My orc hunter – my first alt to reach level 60 – was the first character I think I noticed this on. He was a bit of a nobody, just your typical orc, only he made his living through hunting instead of farming. He got mixed up in various local political things and felt a bit of a need to prove himself to his fellow orcs, but at the end of the day he just wanted to be alone with his cat and hunt dragons for their scales. This was an expression of the fact that he was my “escape alt” and that I didn’t have any grand endgame plans for him. Later on my main character, my druid, began to realise that the discomfort he’d felt with world PvP while levelling was an expression of his druidic identity. Since then all my characters have developed their own unique quirks and preferences.
These aren’t fully-fledged, FlagRSP, scar down one eye and a haunted expression telling of his mysterious past style backstories, but they’re nuances to my characters that make almost as much difference to my conception of them as the basic facts of class and spec. While I don’t get much chance to express them in play with others, I do enjoy exploring this aspect a bit in solo questing or even when standing around Dalaran wondering why I’m not playing a certain alt.
…oh, didn’t you know? My druid isn’t an abandoned main upset with the development in feral tank mechanics, he’s just had his fill of death and adventure and spends most of his time peacefully roaming the continent researching Northrend herb-life, only occasionally dusting off his old armor to help old friends with difficult tasks (like saving the world). My priest isn’t my least favourite healer, he’s just a typical dwarven cleric who’s a bit cynical about being dispatched to Dalaran as a “medic” and spends most of his free time drinking ale and taking things apart with magic (he’d never admit it, but he is fascinated by how things work).
My shaman and paladin actually have fully-fledged backstories which I won’t bore you with now. But more importantly, all my characters find themselves participating in their own kind of constantly developing narrative which is largely determined for them but which they still have an increasingly significant part in shaping. You could say that while the facts remain the same for each and every character, the details and the context changes so much that each character’s story becomes unrecognisably unique.
So do your characters have a story? Do you try and shape their stories or do you just let the game take control? When you find yourself doing something you wouldn’t personally take part in, does your character react against it or do you just laugh at who the avatar you’re playing is becoming and go hunt down the next source of XP?