I really like Role Playing Games. RPGs, and most video games for that matter, tell stories in a much different way than other mediums like movies or literature. Although games can be compared to both movies and books, RPGs just have a way of immersing me into their worlds, involving me with their characters, and engaging my brain in a much different way. The main difference between books/movies is involvement. In the case of an RPG I am not only watching a story unfold I am also manipulating the story in a diegetic context. This is to say that my participation in the story comes through my embodiment of a character within that story, and my actions affect the world of the game from within the world of the game. This is opposed to grand-strategy type games where players assume a more omnipresent type role. [side note]
Almost invariably RPGs tell the story of the player character. After spending some time playing I started to wonder where these characters come from and the context of that character’s origin and life as it pertains to the game’s diegesis. How do they effect the game-world/narrative and what’s the game-world/narrative’s affect on them?
What’s going on with the player character prior to the my intervention in the game’s narrative? Did they exist before I showed up? Where did they come from? What’s my role in their lives? What was/is their role in the world?
After some time I realized that there are really only three (well, two and a half) categories for the characters that we play in our RPGs. Sometimes these characters already existed with their own past and attributes, sometimes they are injected into the world generated with our input, and other times they’re a bit of both. I like to refer to these categories as thespians, newcomers, and divinely created characters.
Thespian Player Characters
A Thespian Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate strictly from within the game’s diegesis and the player assumes this role as an actor.
As a thespian the player comes to the game as a character who already exists in the world of the game. These characters have a predetermined history, a set of predetermined abilities, and a predetermined identity. In short, the player has litte to no control over the stats of this character, or this character’s place in the story, and simply takes control at the beginning of the game.
Many adventure-RPGs have thespian player characters: The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007) “tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, who is a witcher – a genetically enhanced and trained human with special powers” where the player acts as Geralt; in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) players act as Link, an orphan boy raised by a tree in the Kokiri Forest and destined to save Hyrule; and in To The Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) players act as Dr Rosalene and Dr. Watts who are “tasked with fulfilling the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles.” In each of these cases the character’s identities and lives have been pre-defined within the game world and the player simply assumes this role like the great William Shatner assumes the role of Shakespeare’s King Henry V.
However, unlike Bill Shatner’s amazingness, the future or destiny of Thespian Characters is not always written in stone. The qualities of a Thespian Character are generally predefined up to the point where the player enters the game world. Depending on how each game works characters can progress and affect the story according to the player’s action. In cases where there are level progression systems or divergent storylines the development of the character is up to the player.
Newcomer Player Characters
The Newcomer Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis and are usually created through some sort of character creation system prior to, or during the early parts, of a game’s narrative.
The character’s back-story and current place in the game’s world is generally as a traveller or passerby or some other type of newcomer with little to no personal ties in the game-world. This serves as a narrative device used to easily inject the character into the world. Here the player comes to the game as a newly generated character who, up to this point, did not exist in the game world.
In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) and Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment, 2015) player characters follow the traveller trope. In these games the player character is simply an outsider/foreigner who is passing through a region and is somehow thrust into the main conflict of the narrative (in Skyrim you are arrested; in Pillars of Eternity you fall mystically ill). In both cases the player selects a very vague history for their character by selecting their sex and race. Pillars of Eternity takes it further by allowing the player to not only select their race but also their sub-race, a class, a culture, and a background.
It should be noted that these don’t affect the game-world in any way. These selections simply mould the character towards a player’s playing style and affect the character and the character alone. In general the character is injected into the game world in isolation from it.
It should also be noted that many party-based RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate (Bioware, 1998) contain both thespians and newcomers in their game-play.
But, like most game design concepts, there are exceptions to the rule and of course characters can exist somewhere between being a Thespian or a Newcomer!
Divinely Created Player Characters
The Divinely Created Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis but who are assumed to have existed inside the games diegesis prior to the player’s involvement and therefore can have a complex history, pre-existing relationships, and pre-determined personality.
These characters are like thespian characters in that they exist in the game-world prior to the player’s arrival. Unlike Thespian characters their attributes originate outside the game-world; they are set by the player during a character creation phase at the beginning of the game like a Newcomer character.
An interesting example of a divinely created player character is in Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009). Here, the player customizes their character by choosing their sex, race, and class but the player also selects an “origin story” for their character. Unlike Skyrim or Pillars of Eternity the generated characters in Dragon Age have histories that are entwined into the game’s diegesis. Not only is their background story already part of the game-world but it drastically affects the player’s (and their character’s) experience at the beginning of the game.
In all these categories the player is embodying a character, immersed into a new world full of adventure and intrigue. Wherever these characters come from; whether we are playing as a thespian, or as a newcomer, or if we are devinely created isn’t always important. It’s not always about where we come from. What really matters of course is where our characters go from here.
Seriously, RPGs are awesome! Do you prefer to play a thespian character? Or maybe you like the newcomer characters? Either way let me know in the comments here or hit me up on Twitter: @adamthegameguy
Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention any of the games in this post. I just really like RPGs!
As a side note: there are instances where the omnipresent player is assumed to exist in the world of the game. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games, 2012) players assume the role of XCOM’s new Commander and from that role players manage assets and coordinate missions. Similarly in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly Ltd., 2006) you assume the role of a nation’s nobility. However, in both these cases the player has an omnipresent perspective where they control characters and elements outside of their own in-world existence. For example: in XCOM all the characters are directed by the player, but not embodied by the player. As the commander, I cannot put on an armour suit and join the squad in battle, nor can I navigate through the world as the embodied commander. In these cases, Commander and King serve as narrative devices connecting the player’s actions to the game world. [back to top]