#ClassStruggles is Nicholas Montegriffo’s column in which he delves into dungeons and battles dragons to find out what makes RPGs tick.
The adventurer has a tough life, traveling the land, fighting monsters, and lugging items around, but I enjoy it. I set my own hours and the money’s actually pretty good. I go where I want, take the jobs that interest me. It’s not a lifestyle for everyone, but it’s the life I chose and I’m happy with that.
That’s often how I imagine my main character feels during the early to mid game in any #RPG. That sweet spot where protagonist and co. have made it out of the tutorial village/dungeon with enough experience and equipment to take on the world, but not quite enough to advance the main plot.
Sadly, that sweet spot between freedom and competence doesn’t last long before all the busybodies and spoilsports in the land start harassing me to get on with saving the world already.
In this column I’ll take a look at why the most satisfying parts of an RPG take place while the main story is out of focus, when the player has the most freedom.
Refusing The Call
It’s that most oppressive of RPG cliches, the grand destiny. Hey, Chosen One, you were born to slay all the dragons/save the world/bring balance to the force, yadda, yadda. I get why this trope is used. It’s the hero’s journey. And it’s fine for books and movies, where the plot goes from A to B, and the reader’s just along for the ride.
But this traditional story structure is linear, following an arc and hitting familiar beats along the way. Video games are an interactive medium and the strength of roleplaying games in particular is to make the player’s actions meaningful.
But it’s different to have your actions made meaningful by being told from the get-go that you’re the most important person in the world. They should be meaningful because they’re meaningful to you.
Skyrim is a good example of this. The open world game is famous for the freedom to roam the lands and make a life on your own terms. Kind of. In actuality, even when you’re simply trying to carve out your own pocket in Tamriel, the Dragonborn will find out that an awful lot of the side quests and areas tie into their special destiny one way or another.
‘Skyrim’ [Credit: Bethesda Softworks]
With all the different options for races, skills, factions etc. in the game, it felt like the Skyrim was a near-perfect vehicle for roleplaying a bunch of different fantasy characters, each with their own goals and experiences. But because of the main story, every single playthrough would basically follow the arc of the Dragonborn, who saved the world from fire-breathing reptiles and did a bunch of not so important stuff on the side.
But, Skyrim being Skyrim, there were mods to fix this issue. The Live Another Life mod freed the player from the whole dragon plot.
Finally able to go off the rails and immerse myself in the world without the annoying prodding to do my duty and get on with the story, I found a joy in Skyrim I hadn’t had since I discovered a certain ancient but awesome video game.
You Are Not A Special Snowflake
Darklands is an obscure RPG from 1992 and its main selling point is the fact that you’re not special. I’ve written about this game before, it’s free to play in your browser, and I highly recommend that you give it a try. Every character is a nobody, anyone can die and so long as there’s someone in the party to carry on, no one gives a damn.
The game world is huge, and you can go anywhere and pursue any kind of career right from the get-go. There’s so much to do, but the game doesn’t hold your hand and tell you But Thou Must! It’s a title for the self motivated gamer, to whom adventure is its own reward.
Even though it looks less then pleasing to the eye nowadays, Darklands still has an important lesson to teach developers: Create a compelling enough world with intuitive gameplay and you don’t need to hold players hands down a predesignated path.
Freedom To Roam
Open-world environments are all the rage even in story-heavy RPGs, but when you’ve got a world saving plot on your to-do list, it’s hard to justify taking all the time off you need to become a guildmaster, engage in mercenary work on the other side of the continent, or spend weeks collecting rare berries.
And yet, because side quests generally provide the experience and loot that make the endgame easier, we do it anyway. Even if it means the hero telling basically shrugging their shoulders and saying that the dragon apocalypse can wait a few months while they focus on becoming leader of the wizard’s guild, saving up to buy a house, or collecting all the world’s rare pets.
Some games recognize this and deliberately narrow down your options as the stakes get higher in the story. In the AD&D-based Baldur’s Gate series, there’s a marked difference between the free-roaming Baldur’s Gate (which largely takes place before the main character discovers their preordained destiny) and the much more linear sequel, Baldur’s Gate 2. As the main character becomes literally godlike, the game becomes less about exploring the world in search of adventure and more about progressing linearly through a series of epic set-pieces.
Earn Your Respect
Respect’s a weird thing in RPGs. We all crave validation from those empty lines of code that make up the peasants and townsfolk of our fantasy worlds, especially as we reach those higher levels.
But it’s one of those seriously immersion-breaking RPG cliches that every random peasant and shopkeeper thinks it’s fine to send the dragon-slaying, god-defying, demonic armor-wearing savior of the world on pretty errands or fetch quests.
But if you’re just playing an average Joe or Jane, then this kind of work makes much more sense. Without an epic destiny to fulfil, an adventurer has to take work where they can get it. Without a reputation for being the Chosen One, the only way to get respect from the people around you is to earn and maintain it.
As a player, I can’t really take a whole lot of pride in completing the story, beating the final boss, and saving the world. I am, however, proud of all the stuff I did in the world like climbing the ranks of a faction (or wiping one out), reaching a secret area, or developing relationships with NPCs. All stuff I did because I wanted to, not because I had to.
Make Your Own Story
The lack of a messiah narrative doesn’t have to mean a lack of any overarching story or mission. Fallout‘s main character isn’t special (although they are S.P.E.C.I.A.L.), but there was still motivation to complete the game’s story in the quest for that vital water chip.
Then there’s Arcanum, Fallout‘s intriguing steampunk cousin, which offered a subversive twist on the whole messiah story by having the player character mistakenly identified as the hero of prophecy.
These games struck a great balance between being your own person and having concrete long term goals. They were more informed by tabletop gaming than movies and understood that they weren’t there so much to tell a story as to enable the player to make up their own.
As much as I love a well-crafted plot, it’s always with a heavy heart that my characters in RPGs embark on endgame content after spending most of the game shirking destiny and ducking responsibility so that I can make the most of the world that’s been built.
Darklands is still the only game that hasn’t forced me down this road at some point, even though there is an endgame plot, somewhere out there, involving the antichrist himself. And maybe I’ll get around to it, when a modern game offers me something like Darklands‘ unbridled freedom in a shiny new graphical package. 25 years since its release, though, I’m not holding my breath.
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a few articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.