Thursday, 5 March 2020

Video Games - Role Playing versus Just Playing

I have never been a huge video gamer, and I gave up, semi-deliberately, about three years ago to avoid time wasting. But I have played a lot of strategy games over the years - mostly the Civilization, Total War and Paradox Interactive ones - as well as quite a lot of roguelikes. 

In my playing days, I used to watch the occasional YouTube video longplay or keep abreast of 'After Action Reports' at places like the Paradox Interactive forums. What I noticed after a time was:
  • Some people get insanely good at strategy games, mostly by identifying certain loopholes and exploiting them mercilessly;
  • Other people like to play the game in a more immersive way by imagining game play as being something like an unfolding, un-planned story
  • There is nothing wrong with either, because it is entirely a matter of taste, but...
  • I was in the latter of these camps
For example, I am not a great master at any of the Civilization games. I can conquer the world on the lower difficulty settings, but usually get squashed at higher difficulty settings. This I attribute to being more interested in imagining that I am the demigod ruler of a race of minions than I am in getting 'good' at the game. It's more important to me to imagine that I am creating a pleasant city for people to live in than I am in figuring out the precise combination of buildings and resources I need to generate the optimal amount of research or military units (or whatever). I'm more interested in emotional connections to AI civilizations (loyalty, revenge, etc.) than I am in getting what I need from them. I value the experience of narrative more than winning, in other words. 

Put another way, I am probably a romanticist rather than a classicist. I prefer Role Playing to Just Playing. 

(And this extends to other types of game too. In a roguelike, for instance, I'm more interested in playing a halfling demonologist or whatever because it sounds weird and I like to imagine what the character is like, than I am in picking something optimal or working out how to make a certain configuration of race/class work.)

Is this due to me playing RPGs during my formative years and hence valuing that kind of play experience more than the one of getting good at the game? Or am I naturally attracted to RPGs because I am of a romantic sort of disposition? I'll leave that question to the philosophers.


  1. I'm of a similar mindset, but only with single player games. Every Fallout: New Vegas character I've played has been what those of the opposite viewpoint might call "gimmick characters", but I've never understood the emphasis on "builds" in games like that. In Dark Souls I can kind of understand why those kinds of people like optimization because there's PVP (but that whole subsystem has never been very good so I still don't *really* understand the obsession). On the flipside I rarely bother trying to do "serious" characters in competitive games because I feel a lot less immersion in multiplayer spaces by default anyway, especially if there's a chat/microphone feature. I played Bloodborne with the online features entirely turned off (partly by circumstance as my apartment at the time didn't have internet for the first month I lived there) and it really made a difference in terms of tone and immersion.

    In either case min-maxing is still appealing sometimes because-- being a video game with pre-programmed limitations-- it's fun to try and push the boundaries and see how the system reacts.

    It's also interesting to think about how someone can play "in character" in genres that you aren't necessarily intended to (i.e. non-RPGs, like Civilization and other strategy games). XCOM is the game that did it for me. Giving units proper names made me attached to them in non-mechanical ways, such that I was making sub-optimal tactical decisions just to save the lives of my favorite veteran soldiers.

    1. Yeah, I was exactly the same with XCOM.

      I bet there are groups of people out there who play multiplayer video games in character. I bet you that's a thing.

    2. Yeah, all those Bethesda Elder Scrolls / Fallout games really beg to be played with as a doll set rather than a "game". I got heavily into the modding scene for TES: Oblivion, and a lot of the mods I made and used were all about cutting back on the fighting and adding in lots of mundane survival stuff. The reason is simple: the core gameplay in those games is quite bad and repetitive, but they provide an unparalleled simulation of a world full of people going about their lives. So turnnig the dials of TES: Oblivion halfway toward "The Sims" and away from "Dark Souls" actually capitalizes on its strengths and mitigates its weaknesses.

      I think people haven't quite figured out that video "games" are sometimes much more usefully conceived of as "video toys".

  2. I can go either way, depending on the game.

    Age of Wonders 3/Planetfall, Angband, Devil May Cry 3, Shin Megami Tensei 3, or Wizardry 1/4? I'm playing to win, and while I enjoy little flourishes of emergent narrative ("Rando! STRONGEST orc of all! (flex)" remains my most memorable Angband character despite just being a silly RNG name), I have no qualms about shoving it aside to make what I think is the best play mechanically.

    Command & Conquer, Dark Souls, Darkest Dungeon, Devil May Cry 4, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Persona, Ultima 4, or Wizardry 7? I'll let those emergent narratives develop and do clearly suboptimal things to feed into them, even if that means I end up "losing" (Cap'n Homard, my dual-rapier-wielding Dark Souls 2:SotFS honey-bunny, never beat the double King's Pet optional boss).

    I don't think it's strictly a matter of how difficult the game is, though admittedly I'm more likely to be clearly suboptimal for easier games. Some just bring that out of me, and others don't, and I never really thought on it more than that.

    1. It might be something as simple as the graphics and sound evoking a mood.

  3. I could have been a champion Age of Empires player if I had been less worried about arranging my windmills, stables, and castles in an aesthetically pleasing layout.

    1. I was always like that with the Settlers games.

  4. This is 100% me, to the point that when I unexpectedly slip into a gamebreakingly-effective strategy, the game dies a little for me because I can't recapture the immersion very easily: the illusion that this is anything more than "an imperfectly-designed game which can be exploited" has been broken.

  5. Replies
    1. I always liked to go against the grain of my civ - so warmongering Ghandi, freedom-loving Mao, etc.