These days, RPG’s are all about player choice. Players want to feel like they can affect the outcome of a game’s story – like the actions they take have stakes. In more and more games, and in more and more ways, players themselves create story and affect the game world rather than traveling a purely linear path to a single story destination. Leaving aside for a future post the benefits and drawbacks of increased player choice, I want to talk a little about what happens when “the player” is actually two.
In my household, Bioware games (and some other such games) are games my fiancé and I play together. We are both the Warden, the Inquisitor, and Commander Shepard. Collectively. By committee. This trend started just a few months into our relationship, and infused a little domesticity into our nascent romance. Long before we shared a bedroom and a bank account, we were making life and death decisions together (Sorry, Ashley) and committing to dog ownership (“Mighty King,” the Mabari Warhound). Together we decided who to sleep with, who to get serious with (Sorry, Alaistair), and who really ought to be ruling the kingdom. These have been fun and exciting decisions (because they have been in the context of awesome games), but they have also sometimes been very hard decisions. This is not only because that’s how they were designed to be, but because on a meta level, they involved some complicated choices about gaming values. Yes, I said it: values.
As our character shifted her weight uncomfortably from foot to foot, and a dialogue menu stared at us unyielding, the boy and I had conversations about how we should be making decisions about and for characters and a world we care for. Did we want to see the most entertaining result? Have the most in-game “success?” Make choices consistent with who we’d decided our character was? Did it matter what the consequences of the choice would be, and if so, (most controversially), should we look up the consequences of a choice on the internet? Would we reload the save? How likely were we to replay this thing anyways?
We proved to each other during these games that we could compromise, that we could be kind in disagreement and that when a decision one of us took the lead on turned out bad – we’d mock, but we wouldn’t be mean. We learned together that creating simple character concepts helped us to ease the challenge of choice and make satisfying decisions. In the second two Mass Effect games, for example, Commander Shepard’s unspoken tagline in our house – almost like “in bed” appended to fortune cookie fortunes — was “There’s a war on!” It ranged from comic to grim to tragic to flirty at each turn of the plot. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age created running gags for us, gave us a passel of mutual friends we still love to gossip about, and offered us a world to explore and dream and speculate about and create together.
So though when I think of traditional social gaming I rarely think of RPG’s, there’s a special kind of gift RPGs offer up when played together: playing house while saving the world.