The glory of the amorphous hero
October 30, 2008
Why do we play RPGs? Why are we drawn to these experiences and what do we derive from them? Clearly, we play these games for all sorts of reasons, and yours may differ from mine; but the defining aspect of the genre - that which separates it from others - is the creative role-playing dimension at the core of the experience.
What we're really talking about is pretending. Make-believe. "Role-playing" may bless the activity with a marginally more acceptable moniker, but when we play RPGs we summon our most primitive urges - the ones we've had since we were children - and we tap into something about the human psyche that inclines toward empathy.
We love pretending because we possess an innate desire to understand (to know and to feel) what it would be like to be *this* man or *that* woman. To mold a character through our own choices and to walk in his shoes, with as many in-world consequences and as few real-world consequences as possible, 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
We know all this, and we've known it for a long time...but sometimes it pays to stop and take a another look. Sometimes we're jolted into knowing something in a better way than we knew it before.
My students have written autobiographies for the characters they created in Fallout 1 and 2. We use this exercise in the theater quite often because it encourages an actor to think about the life of a character outside the bounds of the script, accounting for his or her life experiences beyond the playwright's pen. Constructing such an autobiography can empower an actor in all sorts of useful ways, and it usually results in a more complete and nuanced understanding of the character by the actor.
It never occurred to me that my RPG seminar students would benefit from writing such an autobiography until we began discussing the characters they had created in the Fallout games. The sense of ownership they clearly felt, and their remarkably vivid descriptions of their experiences in the games, made the assignment a no-brainer. I asked for it, and they delivered with a wallop.
Some wrote in diary form; others constructed an interview between a reporter and their character; most simply told their stories in first-person. We read them aloud in class (I asked for 3-5 page essays), and for the better part of 75 minutes yesterday I sat listening, stunned in my seat. As I said before, sometimes we know things, and sometimes we *really* know them.
Lest there be any doubt about the creative freedom and personal investment great RPGs can engender, these students put those doubts firmly to rest. I found myself occupying a room with a collection of characters loosely bound by a defined world and a set of mission objectives, but otherwise radically different from each other in a myriad of ways. A few examples from the essays:
I sat straight up in my bed, covered in a sheen of cold sweat. Tomorrow morning would be the running of the gauntlet, both physically and mentally. ... I had no fear that I would be capable of completing the tasks inside the temple, but the sheer weight of what was at stake was apparent even in the dead of night. This was not some ritual to prove myself a man or any such nonsense; this was to prove my ability to venture out into the world, out of my ancestral home, to try and help my tribe...In whatever way that might entail.
I killed most of the people because Ian ran out of bullets. When we made it to the gate the asshole that had told me to put my weapon away and his girlfriend, the one I had saved from the raiders, were there and attacked us. I took them both out with a single grenade; the explosion was awesome, though the chunks of flesh that flew at us were rather annoying. It felt good to kill all of those idiots.
I stepped into the village to utter shock. My home had been completely destroyed with no one appearing to be left. I searched high and low for signs of survivors but was only met by Haukin, the village shaman. In his last few breaths he told me I must head to a place called Navarro, and there I could find my friends. I must save my people at all costs tomorrow. I just pray that I make it to them before they meet the same fate as Haukin and Sulik.
Q: What's with this Vic character?
A: "Save the Tribe." Bullshit. Vic could save my whole tribe by telling me something, anything about the Vault! And the bastard wouldn't--I realized no one in the whole world gave a shit about anyone.
Q: You didn't meet a single half-way decent person at all?
A: Not until it was too late.
Little did I know my inclination towards stealing would only grow over the ensuing months. At first there always was a reason, a need, but I always seemed to "need" more. As my resolve weakened so did my sense of importance in who I stole from. My selections became less about the righteousness and superfluity of the victim and more about convenience. I realized I was going down a bad road when I found myself one day contemplating stealing from a nearby beggar. What would I even gain from such a person? They would have at most one or two coins, money that unquestionably kept them alive. Still, I was low on cash and I would need a weapon soon...
Heroes with remorse and heroes with none. Heroes seeking honor and heroes seeking blood. Heroes evolving from good to evil, evil to good, and heroes who never deviate. Psychopaths and patriots and everything in between. Everybody takes a journey, and everybody has a different story.
None of this should have surprised me. I know what RPGs are all about. At least I think I do. But something about hearing those voices and those stories - alive in front of me - made me realize anew how absolutely singular a well-crafted RPG experience can be.
Listening to the psychopath chuckle about his violent exploits made us laugh at first, until it grew awkward and oddly disturbing. None of it really happened, of course...but in a way it really did. Similarly, the student who delivered a first-person account of the death and burial of Ian recounted a first-hand experience. He was there. He dug the grave himself. It happened.
This is why we play RPGs. This is why we remember them. This is why they can matter so much.