Thursday, June 17, 2010

I Have Seen the Face of the Enemy

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. The video game my wife loves so much we bought it twice.

It's actually four years old at this point. I first got it for the PC, despite barely being able to run it  on mine (see all that grass, and reflections, and such? I had to turn that off). We both played it in frightening amounts, then eventually moved on.

Then I got a better computer with a giant monitor, and we installed it again. And again, we played scary marathon sessions that eventually tapered off.

The we got a Xbox 360, which means playing with a controller, on a HUGE tv, in HD, with graphics better than my computer could handle. And I'm wondering how I'll ever convince her to come roll dice and imagine killing goblins, instead.

Really, this just challenges me to be a better GM. I now have to focus on those things RPGs can do that video games cannot, like adapt to any decision, encourage any action, and allow for more complex and deep problem-solving than "I march around killing random things until I level up enough to kill the bigger thing."

I also have to content with "video game thinking." That is, I have to make my wife realize she can make any decision, take any action, and come up with more complex solutions. Oblivion (named after what it does to your social life) is a great, complex game with a ton of choices to make in it. But ultimately, you can still only do what the programmers expected and allowed for. Walk as far as you can in any possible direction, and you eventually get a message: "Turn back. You can go no further."

We all know the philosophical exercise of contemplating whether the world exists when it's not being observed. In both video and role-playing games, it really doesn't - "reality" is an island in a sea of non-being. The key difference is that the island has already been defined for you in a video game - the world may be big, even huge, but it has borders and there is nothing beyond them.

In an RPG, the world is more amorphous. It's a shared fantasy existing in the minds of the participants, with the GM feeding out the info required to generate and maintain the image. All that exists is whatever the group is currently thinking and doing. But once they start to leave that small strip of solid ground, new ground rises up to meet their feet. Nothing exists behind the door in the dungeon... until it's opened and the GM states what's behind it. Walk as far as you can in any possible direction, and the GM can just keep creating new places, new events, new ground to walk on and air to breath.

Or an ocean or a giant wall or The End of The World or something if she gets sick of you walking endlessly just to prove a point.

The exact same thing is going on with decision-making, but it's harder to perceive. Basically, the same terms apply - there are solid borders to what you can do in a video game. Even the most celebrated, open-ended games in the world cannot encompass the full range of human ingenuity, not even by a measurable fraction.

In Oblivion: There's a shop-keep you are hired to investigate. He's undercutting prices and running the other shops out of business, and they think he's buying stolen goods. By investigating, you learn he's buying from a shady character, who turns out to be robbing graves. The shop-keep has no idea and helps you bring the grave-robber down, and reforms.

You basically have two options: complete the quest as described and get the reward, or ignore it.

Now let's pretend this is DnD. Maybe the players do ignore the situation, the other shops go out of business, and then the dishonest keep jacks all his prices sky high (that doesn't happen in Oblivion). Maybe the players use a charm, read minds, or other spell to get the truth from him, rather than following him around at night like in Oblivion. Maybe they beat him up to get the info. Same applies to the grave-robber - there's a million ways the find out how he's getting such cheap goods besides the one option Oblivion allows for.

And what do you do once you know he's robbing graves? In Oblivion you pretty much have to ignore the quest, or confront and kill him. But in DnD, maybe you find another way. Maybe you capture him alive. Maybe you convince him to sell YOU his stuff instead. Maybe you force him to cut you in on his profits.

Maybe you blackmail the shop-keep. Maybe you don't give him the chance to "make good" but rather let the other shops prosecute him.

Maybe you leave it alone, knowing he's a good place to unload "questionable" items.

Of course, these are all less ethical choices, but there are plenty of quests in Oblivion that work the opposite way - the only in-game solutions (sometimes there is more that one, actually, but never more than two or three) are unethical or even downright evil, and in DnD there'd be a million other ways to deal with it. And of course, in Oblivion the repercussions of your choices have limits. In DnD, though, that grave-robber could be party of a much, much larger gang that won't appreciate your interference - or you could join them. Or your conflict could get the attention of a rival gang that wants to help, for a price. Or to join you have to wipe out that rival gang. Or you choose to infiltrate one and destroy it from the inside. Maybe it turns out the core of the gang is more than it seems, and dark and powerful forces are at work...

But you get it. DnD, and roleplaying as a whole, have been around damn near 40 years for a reason. There are DMs that have been running ongoing campaigns for nearly as long - one ongoing story built-to-order, one brick at a time.

Video games just can't say that. I'm not arguing they are inherently worse for this - there are plenty of reasons to play them and mostly it's a matter of what will be more fun to you at the moment.

But they are very different and both are worth exploring. I will beat you, Oblivion. I don't mean your quests... I mean I'll win my wife back with the seductive power of free will.

Don't mind me. I'll just be hanging out in this tree, warming my scales in the sun a while.


  1. Biblical references from an atheist? Ah, irony.

    Don't worry, I will play DnD again for exactly the reasons you gave. It's an entirely different universe from Oblivion. But unlike Oblivion, I can't just save it and quit after 20 minutes if I get bored. Well, technically I could, but you'd get annoyed, and the Xbox doesn't. Pretty, pretty Xbox.

  2. Atheists are the only people who bother reading the Bible front-to-back.