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The Narrative of the Player Character: The Balancing Act

June 6, 2011
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Character creation and realization is a central component of role-playing games, but a created character also needs a world in which to exist. In my last post I talked about the ways in which a player character’s narrative exists in WoW, and how the approach in WoW creates a fundamental divide in the story’s centering. Striking the balance of storytelling power between the narrator and player is an evolving process, and WoW’s approach is only one of many. Other games address the tension between the player and narrator differently, with different results in terms of immersion and appeal. There are many games available for analysis, and I’ve chosen a few meant to represent a cross-section of the different types of games available. These amount to three MMORPGs (WoW, EVE Online, and LOTRO), a single-player electronic RPG franchise (Baldur’s Gate I and II), a tabletop RPG (MERPS), and a LARP (World of Darkness, specifically The Camarilla Club).

Player existence and player influence are directly related in a game world. If players don’t exist, they can’t have any lasting effect on the world. However, even when players do exist, the extent of their impact varies. Different games provide different levels of freedom as well as different levels of potential consequence. First up is the extreme of non-existent players.

There are two games listed in the first paragraph in which players, undoubtedly, do not exist. Those are Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Middle-earth Role Playing System (MERPS). Both of these games are rooted in the work of J.R.R Tolkien, so I think it’s pretty reasonable to declare player characters as utterly imaginary in these games. Furthermore Tolkien’s world, though incredibly rich, is for all intents and purposes completely static. There is no better way to illustrate this than to relate the fate of MERPS itself. Published by Iron Crown Enterprises for many years, in 1999 ICE lost their license to Middle-earth for violating the terms of their contract with Middle-earth Enterprises, the company that owns the commercial rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Rumor has it that this violation was the fact that ICE began to expand their source books to include the southern and eastern lands Tolkien alludes to, but never truly describes, within his work. The take-home message: Middle-earth is NOT open to interpretation, thank you! Bummer.*

So where does that leave the players in the game? LOTRO takes place around the same time as the Lord of the Rings books themselves do. In the game, the players are cast as heroes valiantly battling Sauron’s minions who are spreading across the land, as Sauron ramps up his offensive to crush Middle-earth once and for all. The game’s information page spins this as though it is up to the players to safeguard Frodo and company from afar; beating back Sauron’s forces so that the Fellowship can be victorious. From an out-of-character point of view that’s a nice selling point, but in-character the odds are extremely slim that someone would ever be aware of the Fellowship or Frodo’s secret task. Your character would be fighting Sauron most likely simply because Sauron’s goons are getting up in your shit.

Official shot from Turbine, www.turbine.com

Hey! Get out of my shit!

Actually…LOTRO’s approach sounds a lot like WoW’s. In both games, the player characters form this amorphous but supposedly essential group of heroes who basically act as support for non-player characters. Interesting how alike their player characters function in terms of story mechanics, with of course the major caveat being that in WoW, we exist. Blizzard creates plot lines specifically for players, but Tolkien assuredly did not. It’s up to Turbine to work the player characters into the world and give them things to do. Alas, none of these things will ever have any bearing on the actual story of Middle-earth, unlike the actions of WoW’s player characters.

Now we’re into territory where the player characters’ existence is an accepted fact. Once a narrator allows that player characters are going to have some kind of tangible effect on the world, they have to designate the parameters of that effect. Many single player games give you a protagonist to guide, but that person still has a name, a personality, and identity independent of the player and outside the player’s control (e.g., most of the Final Fantasy games).** In Baldur’s Gate I and II you control your character’s gender, appearance, racial heritage, abilities, and there are dialogue options for expressing differing personalities as well. The customization options are just like those of a tabletop RPG (appropriate, as Baldur’s Gate is based in the Forgotten Realms franchise) or MMO, except that you play alone. I find Bioware’s approach here fairly ingenious. In both games, your character is absolutely central to the story and you spend most of each game slowly putting together the puzzle pieces, figuring out what makes you so special and why there are lots of people out to kill you. It turns out that your character happens to be to the child of the now-dead god of murder, Bhaal. This creates all sorts of problems for you, which form the basis for the games’ stories. What’s brilliant about that approach is that your character’s parentage doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on who the character is otherwise. Your character can be female or male, a cleric or a thief, a kind-hearted sap or a cold-blooded jerk. All that matters is dear old dad. Sarevok and Irenicus are coming after you regardless.

As a result, in many ways your freedom as a player in Baldur’s Gate is an illusion. The are a few divergent areas of the games where you have to choose one course of action over another, but ultimately the path laid out for your character only has one way of proceeding. Both games possess a truly staggering amount of side-quests and explorable areas, so the world is very accessible, but if you want to progress though the story there is usually only one way to go. In other words, while the individuality of your character is extremely malleable, your character’s effect upon the world is fixed. This, again, bears similarity to WoW because of the nature of WoW’s quests. Some quests offer you minor choices as a player, but the outcome of every quest is predetermined. Your character’s impact is pretty much entirely in Blizzard’s control.

So that brings me to the last two games in line for this post, the Camarilla Club of World of Darkness, and EVE Online. In these two games players are given not only significant control over character creation, but over the worlds themselves, which is a major departure from the rest of the games discussed in this post. In both Cam Club and EVE Online, all players exist in a single, continuous space.*** When you log into EVE Online there may be 20,000 other players online, on that same server, as you. In Camarilla Club every game venue is ultimately managed on an international scale by the Master Storyteller, and there are certain character attributes that require global approval to play. In both of these games, every single player not only exists, but can potentially have enormous impact on the world itself, whether you are aware of it (both in and out of character) or not.

In Camarilla Club, one of the major themes throughout the game itself is the perception and manipulation of reality. A savvy player could potentially even rewrite history, with his or her personal character narrative pitted against that of the entire community (to an extent). Storytellers have veto power for the sake of game balance, but there are many avenues for a clever player to explore. Currency is transferable and tradeable, and it is possible to orchestrate hits on other player characters, though much of the in-game political structure discourages that kind of behavior.

EVE Online has even achieved a certain degree of notoriety in this respect. Because of the freedom and influence upon the world that players are allowed in EVE, behaviors generally considered “griefing” in other games are not disciplined in EVE. Players can engage in piracy, espionage, protection racketeering, and ransom without interference from Crowd Control Productions (CCP), the game’s developer and publisher. One of EVE’s most infamous incidents occurred in 2005 (an eternity ago, here on the internets) when a group known as the Guiding Hand Social Club assassinated the CEO of Ubiqua Seraph, one of the most powerful corporations in EVE at the time. The hit was a contracted job, and it took the members of GH-SC ten months to infiltrate Ubiqua Seraph and execute their plan. When the dust settled they had made off with ~$30 billion in ISK (EVE’s currency), and because EVE allows in-game currency to be purchased with real-world money, we can put a real-world number on that. GH-SC’s spoils were worth ~16,500 US dollars. For perspective, that is about $1000 more than the annual salary I earned as a graduate student.

Guild bank theft suddenly doesn't seem so bad, does it?

Interestingly, in 2006 CCP bought White Wolf, which publishes World of Darkness. I don’t particularly find it surprising that the company that produced EVE Online would take interest in White Wolf’s products, such as Cam Club, because there seems to be a fairly striking similarity of vision behind their approach to game worlds. The World of Darkness products span a much greater range than just The Camarilla Club, but that concept of a single, unique game world in which each and every player must coexist is a fairly powerful idea.

EVE Online and Camarilla differ from Baldur’s Gate and WoW in how the developers allow the player characters to shape the world. In BG and WoW, player characters have specific storylines available for them to explore and their place in the world is almost entirely predetermined. The parameters of existence for player characters in those games are well defined. In EVE Online and Cam Club a player character’s existence is less prescribed. Players potentially have wider influence, but they also shoulder greater risks. In Camarilla your character can potentially become someone of extreme influence, but your character can also be permanently killed. In EVE player corporations and alliances may control immense tracts of the game world in a way that is impossible in WoW, however your assets can be stolen and redistributed with no recourse for their return, beyond you re-earning them in-game.

Both of these approaches have their drawbacks. For something like Camarilla and EVE Online, obvious drawbacks are the fact that months to years of your hard work can easily blow up in your face. For WoW and Baldur’s Gate, you never truly have any autonomy over your character’s place in the world. Player control versus narrator control is the balancing act here, and all these games strike that balance in different places. Though my character lacks true autonomy in WoW, WoW is also fairly non-committal and friendly to the casual player, and Baldur’s Gate (being a single-player game) is even more so. EVE Online is not, nor is Camarilla, and both require tremendous investments of time and energy in order to see any major dividends from the game. That’s not to say that no one plays these games casually, people do, just as there are people who play WoW very seriously. But the games aren’t necessarily designed with those players in mind to the same extent that games like WoW, and single-player games like Baldur’s Gate, are. Developers are certainly aware of this trade-off too. The more forgiving gameplay market is far more lucrative than the more dangerous market, as subscription rates between WoW and EVE Online will tell you. WoW currently stands at ~13,000,000 subscribers worldwide, whereas EVE Online is ~340,000. WoW has over 38 times the subscribers as EVE.

And in my next post, I’ll be examining this in the context of the evolution of the player character’s role in WoW.

*Shortly after losing this license, ICE went bankrupt, and was later bought out by Aurigus Aldebaron LLC. Fun times!
**Characters such as Commander Shepard and Chell stretch these boundaries somewhat, but that is a subject for a different blog.
***EVE Online actually employes two servers, one for China, and one for everywhere else.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 6, 2011 12:20 pm

    I <3 these tags. Also, I think all posts should henceforth be tagged "Ocular Fortitude" regardless of topic.

    Anyway.

    Someone on Twitter (argh, and I totally forget who it was) was saying that Camarilla is designed with experienced gamers in mind. I'm not sure that "experienced" is necessarily the right word here; like we were chatting about via email earlier, certain aspects of RPGs come more naturally to some players than others, irrelevant of experience. Anyway, I think you really hit the nail on the head with the phrase "shoulder greater risks".

    Not everyone finds that level of accountability to be fun – but conversely, by giving up accountability/autonomy, we also sacrifice ownership of our character, to an extent. I remember talking to Cyn about this in the comments on another post — there's only so much we can do ingame to illustrate what we see as the nature of our PCs as individuals. I have to rely on other (external) means to fully express how I visualize Catulla, and this is something I'll be talking about more in my own posts later. I'm not looking to rewrite Azeroth's "history" in the way someone involved with Camarilla or EVE might be, but I do wish I was able to define my PC more in terms of game mechanics itself (rather than secondary source material such as fanfic, although I'm hardly going to say I don't like WoW fanfic! ;) ).

    (Also, I'd like to know what those conversations were between the Tolkien Estate and ICE specifically, because I think you're right. They don't want people "filling in the gaps",and as someone who enjoys writing about and thinking about unanswered questions in established canon (as I know you are too!) that makes me sad. I want to know what their rationale was.)

    ETA: HOLY PARENTHETICALS IN THIS COMMENT, BATMAN. D: I am tired, forgive me!

  2. Lani permalink*
    June 6, 2011 1:04 pm

    Well, you’ll never know what the conversation between ICE and Tolkien Estate was because the Tolkien Estate does not own the rights to The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. J.R.R sold the film, stage, and merchandising rights of those works to United Artists during his lifetime. UA later sold them to the Saul Zaentz Company, who manages them under the trading name of Middle-earth Enterprises. The Tolkien Estate is managed by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who is notoriously anti-anybody-else-doing-anything-with-Middle-earth-ever. The Tolkien Estate controls the rights to everything except Hobbit/LotR, and this is why we will never see anything from The Silmarillion, or any other Middle-earth lore not in Hobbit/LotR, in terms of games, films, or merchandise.

    WRT your observation about the fragility of the player in certain games–I am absolutely sure that’s the appeal of things like EVE Online and similar games to the people who play them. That kind of uncertainty is its own rush and reward, but again, it’s not as accessible for folks who don’t have, or don’t want to invest, a certain amount of time in the game. I can understand how that’s fun!

  3. June 6, 2011 1:09 pm

    I’m not sure what it says about me that I find this comment entirely unsurprising!

  4. perculia permalink*
    June 7, 2011 6:21 pm

    Looking forward to the next post that examines it in the context of WoW. Growing up, I was fascinated how you could wander through all the different worlds in Myst–and get stuck after hours of playtime and eventually lose the game, trapped in a book. I found it incredibly risky how your character can wander around for hours, and just like that, end up destroyed by characters looming in the background.

    When I started playing WoW, I liked the idea of running around and finding new little things to explore on my own. Of course, that’s a bit ironic as it’s a multiplayer game and the risk element has decreased over the years. (Also the element of confusion–I liked when my toon wasn’t viewed as a hero.) Maybe that’s why I’ve turned to stories more as the game has evolved.

    Anyway, I’m in awe how you can juggle analyzing multiple games.

  5. Lani permalink*
    June 8, 2011 5:21 pm

    I LOVE Myst! It’s one of my all time favorite games. I still have a working copy that I play through from time to time. :3 (You can also download it on Good Old Games for about 5 dollars, if you get the itch!)

    I think Myst is a great example because of its nonlinearity (you can do the Ages in any order) and for the fact that you get dumped on the island with nothing to go on. It’s great for the slow reveal, bit by bit putting the pieces together. When I was a kid I thought the brothers trapped in the books were terrifying. I hated giving them pages, it scared me!

    The decrease of the multiplayer element (or, rather, that element being channeled and focuses more narrowly) in WoW is definitely something I’m going to look at in the next post. This series has been a lot of fun to write.

    Thanks for the compliment. I totally made a spreadsheet to accompany this post. It really helped! :D

  6. June 28, 2011 8:24 pm

    How had I not commented on this post before?

    Someone once described D&D to me as being almost exactly completely unlike Tolkien’s world while still being it. It’s one of the challenges every RPG has faced when adopting a setting from a writer – how can you take something that is defined by a specific story and plot, with specific characters, and turn that into something generic that people can use as a setting to tell their own stories within? Fan fiction writers have to deal with this, too.

    But RPGs are interesting because they require some kind of structure. It doesn’t have to be much, but there have to be some rules, some goals, some victory conditions to separate it from collaborative storytelling. If there are no rules, then it is collaborative storytelling, which is rewarding all on its own – but it’s not a role-playing game.

    D&D, in its various incarnations, provided a way for people to experience the fantasy world that Tolkien helped create through their own characters. Gygax did a great job taking a whole bunch of literary influences, mashing it together into a fantasy paste, and smearing it over miniature tabletop rules. It takes the mythology of the Noldor, Vanyar and Teleri and boils it down to: there are Elves here, they have pointy ears and are cool. It takes the complexities of the dwarves and says: you can play a Dwarf.

    From that genesis, D&D (and later AD&D) rebuilt a mythos around that fantasy mismash, growing it, letting it become rich and textured, but always with an eye towards game design – and moving product.

    One of the reasons I’ve never been able to get into LoTR, in any framework, is because I am too passionate about Tolkien’s mythos. I frothed at the mouth – serious nerdrage, such as WoW has NEVER provoked – over the Peter Jackson movies. It would be one thing to try to write a new story in the setting – then, at least you can judge it on some of its own merits – but to change and reinterpret the canon for the big screen? BLASPHEMY.

    On the other hand, generic but evocative settings really can allow for great roleplaying and great storytelling, where the game setting itself can be changed due to the players’ actions.

    I used to run a 100+ person independent Mind’s Eye Theater LARP in Houston back in the 90s, when such a thing was more common than it is today. We spanned the whole World of Darkness – mostly Vampire and Werewolf, some Changling, a few Hunters to keep things spiced up, an occasional Mage plotline – and it was a blast. The team of Storytellers and Narrators were there to both adjudicate rules and to keep track of the dozens of plot lines going at any one time. Players would create storylines for us through their actions, we just had to amplify them and make them real.

    Lani, you hit it on the head when you talk about how the characters are given greater freedom, with dramatically greater risks. Before I was a Storyteller, I was once the unwitting lynchpin in an Anarch confrontation – I pulled a gun, the Gangrel primogen put one to my head, and then the room exploded as people brought out weapons for a 40 person mexican standoff.

    And I stood there, holding a card to this poor neonate’s chest, this big skinhead with ferocious makeup holding a .50 Desert Eagle to my head, and I knew with absolute certainty that what I did next would matter. Not just to me, not just to the storylines of my friends, but that it would matter to the entire game. The city would not be the same, no matter what I chose to do in that moment.

    An entire room, focused on the interaction of two people. Would the Brujah primogen lose his temper? Would the Gangrel sheriff decide to pick the fight anyways? If they fought, who would win, and how many people would get killed in the crossfire?

    I have yet to have any kind of experience like that in Warcraft.

  7. June 28, 2011 8:46 pm

    Oh oh oh! I got so involved in trotting out old Vampire stories that I completely forgot my final point!

    I both agree and disagree that something like the Camarilla has a high barrier of entry to new players. The game system, once upon a time (1st ed. MET, especially) was extremely easy to pick up and catered to people who didn’t know what a LARP was – mostly because LARPs didn’t really exist yet! But individual characters, indeed, take time to get involved in the system, to work their way through to positions of power and prestige. And that is a barrier to entry to the more advanced portions of the game – a lot of new players complained that they didn’t have things to do, but that’s because they were 1) new and 2) kinda shy (to be blunt). You had to have the courage to walk up to strangers and see what was going on to get involved, and if those strangers happen to be the Prince’s Privy Council, you’re going to get shooed away. Quickly. By armed ghouls.

    There’s are two big differences between a LARP and a MMO that I think need to be called out here, though.

    First: playing a LARP does give you a personal connection to the people who are in the game, including those people in charge. This is, perhaps, a little less true in the Camarilla/OWBN system due to its scope, but certainly on a local level, interpersonal relationships matter. The biggest barrier is being new and unknown, because your character and her stories aren’t a priority yet. Establishing that social network is hugely important.

    Second, LARPs/RPGs are games of the imagination. If you play your neonate well and he dies in a story-driven blaze of gunfire, chances are you can lobby to get a more senior character next time. You’ve been playing Prince of the city (and doing it well) but just got run out of town? I bet you real money that you don’t have to start off with a 13th generation neonate unless you really want a change of pace, and even then – you’re going to be involved in the ins and outs of the game.

    Computer games are NOT like this at all. The only way you can get a powerful character, a character who achieves something, is through the rules of the game. You can’t say, Cyn’s going to come in and play a grizzled old paladin for this raid because his warlock is off fighting in WSG for this other storyline. You can’t say Lani’s druid got killed off last week, so she’s rerolling another one, but this one’s going to be Horde instead of Alliance. That doesn’t work. Computer games are proscribed by the developer’s rules of fairness. Live games are defined by the storyteller’s needs for the story. There’s a huge difference there.

    EVE combines the penalties of MET (you can lose years of work because your actions are final) with the penalties of WoW (only way to get things is through years of work). Mind’s Eye Theater has an easy recourse – the next character you play can be differently powerful, without having taken away anything from anyone else does. You don’t *have* to grind out another 85 levels to play someone else. WoW has another easy recourse – you don’t ever really lose anything other than time. EVE sucks, because there is no recourse.

    Also, it’s interesting that the assumption in RPGs is that your PCs are going to change the world with their actions – “modify the source material to suit your campaign” is a written rule in many AD&D settings. But in an MMO, that assumption hasn’t been there – at least not until phasing came along.

    That’s a whole different problem, though. :-(

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