I’ve always assumed I’m a better person than David. It’s not because of anything he does in real life. In the real world, David makes his friends strawberry cupcakes and takes them to see David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing for their birthday. But whenever he plays RPGs, he’s like a cross between Stalin, Ming the Merciless and John Wayne Gacy. In Knights of the Old Republic, he didn’t so much turn to the dark side as leap joyfully into its arms.
I’m not like that at all. Within about five minutes of starting to play the first Fable, I was surrounded by butterflies and rainbows, whereas David had red glowing eyes, horns and a fatal attraction for blowflies. Moral choices are all the rage in games today, and I just can’t bring myself to make the bad ones. In BioShock, I saved all the Little Sisters. I mean, of course I did: they’re helpless little girls. What kind of monster wouldn’t? And I’ve always thought this must be because the way I play RPGs – the self I choose to project within them – is the essential me. And let’s be honest, I’m clearly pretty damn lovely.
But this week I was reading the interviews with the Valve crew about Portal 2, and one of them said something which grabbed me. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that GLaDOS gets resurrected in the sequel, and the problem Valve had was how to motivate the player to bring her back. When they test-ran the game, they realised that while players definitely wanted GLaDOS to return, they also knew that the central character, Chell, didn't - possibly due to that whole the-cake-is-a-lie-I-actually-want-to-incinerate-you thing GLaDOS had going on in Portal. And so when players were Chell, they resisted pushing the on switch.
This got me thinking about who I really am in a game, and about the fact that playing an RPG is as much about acting a character as being her. This is pretty obvious stuff, I know, but the trouble is that most RPGs make it very hard for me to perform the central role. Maybe it’s because I’m such a shit actor. In an attempt to brush up my scriptwriting, I once took a couple of acting courses at the City Lit. Whether it improved by work is debatable, but it conclusively proved that however much I might be tempted to give the world my Hamlet, I should never, ever be allowed to.
So David’s almost certainly a better actor than me, but I think it’s more than that. I don’t think most RPGs give you enough hooks to hang your performance on. Obviously this is difficult, as the point of an RPG is also to leave the player free to be who they want to be. But even the most free-roaming game, something like the Elder Scrolls, still has a story. And even if you don’t choose to pursue that, all the side quests have stories of their own. The trouble is, they mostly suck enormous cock. Or to put it in a way I could repeat to my mother, they’re at best intellectually and very rarely emotionally engaging. (I kid. My mother watched Happiness with me and barely batted an eyelid at all the jizz.)
Anyway, Dragon Age: Origins was a bit of an exception. It wasn’t Terms of Endearment, but it was at least Turner and Hooch. I played a City Elf character, so my starting story was about me and my friends getting rounded up by a bunch of loathsome human nobles so they could take us away and rape us. There’s a whole other conversation to be had about the overuse of rape as a character motivational device in genre fiction, but this did at least serve to make me really want to kill the bastards. And even after the opening section, I found myself choosing the more confrontational dialogue options when dealing with humans, whereas normally – much like in my real life – I’d be on a pitiful and ultimately doomed quest to make everyone like me.
That origin story, and the solidity of the portrayal of my companions, let me inhabit my character in a way most RPGs don’t allow me. As I moved through the world, I thought about what she wanted and felt, not what I did. BioShock is the only other game I can think of that managed a similar thing. After its famous narrative twist, I was quite epically pissed off with Fontaine. I got a visceral satisfaction out of killing him quite different from the warm glow that mowing down battalions of henchmen usually gives me.
So I guess this is my way of saying sorry to David. Not all of us are Jeremy Irons. He might have been able to find the profound inner truth in Profion, but then he’s got an Oscar. The rest of us need something better than the Dungeons and Dragons script to work with.
Having said all that, David, that still doesn’t excuse you killing cute little Connor just because you couldn’t be arsed to go into the Fade to save his soul. That’s just wrong.