Roleplaying Video Games (with Cyberpunk 2077 flavor)

Silly people on the Internet have been saying that Cyberpunk 2077 is not a role-playing game, rather that it is an on-rails action-adventure experience. I do not think those people have a clue as to what role-playing is. At the root of it, if a game allows you to play the character you’ve imagined, it is by definition a role-playing experience. As an example the Grand Theft Autos and Red Dead Redemptions of the world are by this definition RPGs, admittedly the latter more than the former. In a video game, a developer wants to tell a story, the quality of that story is very much dependent on the control they have over the narrative, which means that a lot of the main plotlines will develop in a certain way to lead you in a certain direction. It’s the cost you pay for using the medium of video gaming over something like a tabletop experience. In the latter, you create the story collaboratively with your dungeon master and other players which gives a lot of freedom to all of you to act out whatever happens while it’s the role of the DM to keep you relatively on point and guard the consistency of the world. Programming on the level where you have a big budget AAA title that costs tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and is fully voiced over with thousands of hours of audio is simply not possible. Think of it as the difference between theatre and improv. The best improv groups out there have a pretty good structure to their stories – they know the main points they want to hit with a certain performance and have a very good idea about what their characters’ roles are in the main “plotline.” It might seem like everything is invented on the spot, but that’s rarely the case and the underlying structure is already in place when they start asking for prompts from the audience at the beginning of the show. Whereas theatre tells a certain set story. Does that mean that the actors are not playing roles? Does that mean that all Hamlets are the same? While the rigidity of playing a set role is there that never means that a certain actor/director combo won’t have a slightly different take on how it all plays out even if it ultimately ends in the same place.

So where’s the line? As with everything in life it’s all shades of grey – a Super Mario Game is inherently not an RP game, right? Not really, since you can still invent a pacifist character for your Mario that goes around all the denizens of Mushroom Kingdom and only attacks them when all other options are exhausted. All the friendly Italian plumber is interested in is saving princess peach and will not risk his sanity by indiscriminately killing everything in his sight. So, how do we play a role? How do we invent our character? And lastly, how do we take them to Night City?

Alignment as a Crutch

We’ve all seen the DND alignment table but have you ever thought about why it exists? Sticking to a role consistently, in a variety of different situations you’re not prepared for, is hard. Especially if you lack the experience. That’s where alignment comes in – it’s an easy crutch to lean on when you have to decide for your character, without reverting to what the real you would do in that situation. Chaotic Good is generally the easy-mode of alignments – your character is generally good but will do whatever they feel like in a certain situation as long as it’s not murdering innocents. For example, if the decision is “save some children without getting any reward” you will, of course, do it since you’re a decent human being. Further on while doing the quest you have to make up your mind if you want to kill the baddie that abducted the children or incapacitate him and let the authorities deal with the problem. A Chaotic Good alignment lets you do both, whereas a more rigid alignment would force your hand in either direction.

It’s important to note that when talking about alignments it’s more about motivations, feelings, and life goals, rather than sticking to an idolized one-dimensional version of your character. A Lawful Evil is less a mass-murdering mastermind (Dr. Doom) and more a corporate CEO (Lex Luthor). The Good-Evil axis is more about empathy than anything else – is your character thinking about how their actions will affect others or are they only looking to their goals. Whereas the Chaotic-Lawful axis is about how much wiggle room there is in their beliefs. In the above example with the abducted children, your character’s motivations will inform both decisions – whether to get on the quest and further on whether to kill the baddie. Off the cuff, you’d say that only a Good person will get on the quest in the first place, but that’s not true. Is the person you’re doing the task for someone important that can help you down the line? Is the mother of one of the children a journalist that can write up a glowing profile of you as a philanthropist? There’s plenty of scenarios where your character can take up that quest even if they are generally “evil”. Remember – alignment is a crutch not the defining property of your character.

Character Backstory and Personality

What makes a person make a decision? Everything we do is informed by our life up to that point – did you have a sheltered childhood that made you trusting? Did you grow up on the streets only believing in yourself? Did your friend betray your trust at one point souring you on close relationships? What do you hope to achieve in life? What are your goals and motivations? Your character is a living breathing person with years of experience that have shaped them in a certain way. They have hopes and aspirations and are willing (or not) to sacrifice a lot to reach them. Are they smart or average? Are they impulsive or thoughtful? You don’t have to figure everything out up front. I generally have a starting point and let the game shape the character. Think about it as a puzzle where a decision you make helps you fill in a piece of the past and helps you inform further actions to keep yourself as consistent as possible. However, it is important to have the outline and the alignment in place before you get to the character-building phase.

Let’s go back to Cyberpunk for a quick example. The nomad backstory gives you a very rough outline of the people – they love freedom and live outside the city limits, they are generally very tribal and have rough lives scraping for every eddie and living day to day. The default way to build your character would be to follow the letter of the law – make them untrusting of outsiders, especially city dwellers, raging against the corporations and the unfairness they wage upon the honest, salt of the earth people living out in the wasteland. But is it the only way a nomad could feel? Could they not want to scrape and claw their way out of the wasteland and into the city? Use their technical savvy to make a name for themselves as a dependable merc and forget about clan and relatives. Make a life for themselves in the city where opportunity hides behind every corner.

Goals and personality are very important parts of your character to figure out early on. They’re the starting position from which they will develop and evolve. And they will. The events throughout a video game are stressful and life-changing – allow your character to have an arc, to be affected by them, to change. The death of a loved one or the threat of dying themselves on a daily basis will make an imprint on their psyche, give them perspective, allowing them to shift priorities, and live differently. Make use of that.

Character Build

Now we finally get to play a video game. Once you have the basic outline of your character and the way they generally look at life it’s time to express that for the first time by creating them – both visually and within the in-game mechanics. If you’ve done a good job so far, it’ll be easy to create a character that matches what you’ve made so far. As we’ve already noted above – if you see something that strikes your fancy, it’s very much allowed to make corrections to the outline, fill in the puzzle pieces if you will. Don’t let yourself be cornered by the choices you made previously. And make sure you’re not building something you’d hate to play. Want to be a stealthy-hacker chick? Make sure you enjoy being stealthy in games in general. And always keep in mind that most games have some sort of re-specialization mechanic, meaning if what you imagined the game would be, does not match reality, there’s always an option to revert that decision at some point. Having fun is why we’re doing this.

Roleplaying does not Mean Not Playing

This is the part that drives me crazy and why I sat down to write this diatribe of an article. Your electric-pink short-pants are the best piece of pants you have so you’re mandated by a higher power to wear them on your burly, homophobic, wasteland-born brawler? First of all the upgrade by a couple of armor points is not game-breaking. My V has never worn a hat. I don’t think I’ve ever died because of missing armor and stats from that slot. I’ve however found ways to keep the pieces of gear I like – by upgrading, by finding pieces that can slot mods, by finding armor in different places (cyberware for example). Roleplaying does not mean playing the game wrong or not min/maxing your character to the best of your ability. Your build is underpowered? Have V change her sensibilities slightly and re-build the character in a way where you can play the game and enjoy yourself. Or change the difficulty level if you really want to play that way – I promise that the difficulty police has issued a lifelong pardon to anyone on grounds of fun being the reason we play games in the first place.

Journey Before Destination

A video game will generally start and finish the same way. As we discussed previously the way to ensure the quality and consistency of a narrative is to box in the player into, at the very least, some sort of a path. Roleplaying enhances a storyline (be it a major quest or a minor side-gig) by giving context to the events. Play the margins, imagine the whys of your in-game decisions, and don’t dwell on being forced into a situation for narrative reasons. Or as the Bard said – Journey Before Destination.

Let’s try to illustrate everything we spoke about with an example. Take the first major mission – you and Jackie go to do a heist in a corp skyscraper. The job goes belly up and Jackie (V’s closest friend) ends up dying. These are the broad-strokes. These things will happen regardless of what you do and who your character is. Now, let’s do some roleplaying. Does V trust the fixer that gets the job for you? Do they betray them when the opportunity comes up and deal directly with the client? Why are they on the job in the first place – for the eddies, for the prestige, or because Jackie bullied them into it? How do they feel about Jackie dying? Once the shit hits the fan do they try to sneak out or shoot their way out of the building? How does this whole major event shape V? How do they change? Are they nice to Jackie’s girlfriend or do they shade them and never express condolences? Do they show up at the funeral or are they done with that chapter of their life – because they want to bury it and move on, or simply because they never cared? There’s so much potential in this one single mission, albeit an important one, for playing the role you chose for V. 

If you’ve never actually tried roleplaying in a video game, be it an RPG or another open-world offering, I cannot recommend it enough. While it might be somewhat hard in the beginning, always keeping in mind that you’re playing a character and not yourself, I promise you it is extremely satisfying once you get the hang of it. It helps you enhance the story, makes it much more vivid and engaging. Give it a shot, just don’t go overboard with the first try. Do something closer to what’s comfortable. Next time try something uncomfortable, that’s where the real fun is – getting into the head of someone that’s very much not you. 

Roleplaying Video Games (with Cyberpunk 2077 flavor)

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