The Narrative of the Player Character: The Balancing Act
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.
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.
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.