December 30th, 2011

Nerd Week: On Roleplaying

I was fortunate enough to be able to have the week between Christmas and New Year off work, and I dedicated the entire week to nerdly persuits. I sense a new tradition coming on! One of the things I did this week was start playing Dungeons and Dragons, which sparked off a thought about how I play games.

There are two reasons why I play games. Only two, and almost by definition they’re mutually exclusive:

  1. Because the game is a fun, normally multiplayer, pick-up-and go action/platformer.
  2. Because the game has an involving storyline I can engross myself in.

Part of my personality is that I get way too attached to characters in a good story, especially in films and TV shows. Up? Cried. Twice. At the start. That episode of Bones when Brennan and Booth finally tell each other how they feel, but decide to keep apart because they work together? Floods of tears.

This invariably moves over to video games, when the story is good. Unfortunately, video game writing is, as a rule, pretty bad - I have a pile of games that I’ve started playing and left after a couple of hours as the storyline simply hasn’t drawn me in at all. A couple of notable exceptions in my mind are Blizzard and Rockstar.

Major Spoilers for the endings of Red Dead Redemption and World of Warcraft: Cataclysm Ahead! You can safely skip these if you don’t want the stories of these games spoiled without missing the main point of this post.

The key, in games, is to get the buildup right. Red Dead Redemption does this very well - the entire storyline is about the main character chasing down an outlaw for the Feds in order to be reunited with his family. In the mission where you finally corner the outlaw and are closing in, the music slowly ramps up in intensity as you ascend the hill towards him. When he’s finally down, you’re free - the Feds let you go, and you spend the next few minutes riding your horse through a sunset-lit forest towards your family as a perfect song plays in the background. It’s such a wonderful moment, and since I got far too attached to this guy I was once again in floods of tears as I get reunited with my family and play through a few missions getting back into the swing of normal life.

Then? The Feds betray you. A bit cliché, to be honest, but I guess it’s time to take them down too. Then? BAM. You’re dead. I was so shocked by this that I missed half of the cutscene afterwards, scrabbling around on Google to confirm that the main character just got killed. I mean, they never kill off the main character!

When the game finally ends, I feel kinda hollow. I’ve spent so long with this character, reuniting him with his family, and it was all for nothing? Should I feel betrayed by Rockstar for doing this? I dunno, but it’s damn good storytelling.

Blizzard are another company who can tell an excellent story, and in the case of World of Warcraft, the story is even optional. The buildup to Cataclysm’s ending has been literally a year in the making, and a great example of the optional story. If you don’t care about story, you get:

  • Dragon burns down your capital city, tears up the world, kills your friends.
  • Dragon spends a year or so taunting you while you take down his cronies.
  • You finally kill Dragon. Hooray!

… and the whole thing is thoroughly enjoyable. If you do care about story, though, there’s a huge, deep, subplot involving the dragon forming a cult to infiltrate the upper powers of the land, twisting them to his will.

End Spoilers!

You Play World of Warcraft?!

The interesting thing about enjoying the story in video games is that a lot of people see them as children’s toys or nerd obsessions. It’s completely normal to sit and read about adventures in a fantasy world in a book, but from a game? I actually find that older generations can understand it better than younger generations who grew up in schools where computers were using by “the nerdy kids” while they ran around kicking balls around feeling all masculine.

This mentality is even present in my place of work, which is kinda surprising since I work at a tech company with a very high level of tech-savvy people. We were eating lunch one day when I was discussing Dungeons and Dragons with a friend. I’ve never played it, but I’d love to try, and my friend was the same. Someone else on the table whom I’d never met before cried “Dungeons and Dragons?! Oh my God, you guys are such nerds! Next you’ll be telling me that you play World of Warcraft!”. The rest of the table simply sat there staring at him in stunned silence, partly because it’s the first time we’d heard the word “nerd” used as an insult from one of our own, and partly because they all played either Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, something else similar, or all three.

The Inevitable Happens

I am completely invested in the story of the Warcraft universe and the characters within. I hate Garrosh for killing Cairne. I’m angry at Varian for acting like a complete asshole while his son grows out of him and looks destined to become a greater king than he’ll ever be. I was absolutely devastated with what happened to the Dragon Aspects after we killed Deathwing.

This passion for storytelling and living the story through games is what’s drawing me to Dungeons and Dragons. I was joking around yesterday and started making up a story about a dragon called Sid who was lonely and wanted to make friends with the local villagers, only to be chased out of town after he hiccupped and accidentally burned a family’s house down. After I’d finished telling the stupid story (Sid brought the hungry villagers some sheep he’d been keeping in his cave and won their friendship), I carried on thinking about the world this dragon might live in, the people in there, the geography of the place and so on.

I’d like to think this would make me a good Dungeon Master in D&D - the idea of leading others through a world and stories I help create sounds very appealing. So, the other day I picked up a D&D Starter Kit and started playing through it.

A few friends are also interesting in playing, so hopefully this will amount to something good!