RPGs have been in what you could charitably call a transitional generation, somewhere between when Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest dominated and a place where role-playing and all that it entails is less a genre in itself and more a set of conventions to be adopted by others. I don’t like it, but it’s true.
Two elements that actual RPGs have been pioneering this gen, though, have been morality and branching. They go hand-in-hand to a certain extent, but for me they’ve become an integral part of the role-playing experience, mainly because they actually entail playing a role. Previously even silent protagonists have been stretching the definition of roles, being that you’re along for the ride and doing nothing to put your mark on the character.
I’ve been playing The Witcher 2 over the last couple of weeks, now that I can play the incredible Xbox 360 port – seriously, there must have been some actual witchcraft involved there – and it puts to shame most games in their attempts to get these new mechanics right. It shouldn’t be so, because this is the RPG where you’re actually playing a defined character with an established personality and back story, but by casting you as a protagonist who is by default a neutral outsider in all conflicts, CD Projekt Red has its cake and eats it, as Geralt, and therefore the player, can do what he likes without breaking character.
Morality in games has only recently become fashionable, and it’s often depressingly childish in how binary it is. Mass Effect is another offender, where your character genuinely starts to look scarred and glow with an eerie red light if you decide not to take the recklessly moral ‘Paragon’ route. The morality in that game is literally reduced to a number, your responses adding a +1 to your Paragon/Renegade bar depending on whether you prefer the recklessly idealistic absolute moral code of ‘good’ Shepard or the cackling villain of the ‘bad’ route, wherein you have to wonder about a galactic society that lets such an unhinged individual be in charge of the fate of everything. The series actually rewards you for picking one extreme over another, suggesting that Shepard is deliberately set up to be either Mary Sue or space Hitler.
But back to The Witcher 2. Almost every exchange in it has different outcomes, and the majority don’t actually do much to affect the overall story. Whether you let the war criminals get away with it, turn them in or hand them over to the vengeful spirit doesn’t get you any closer to catching the regicidal maniac, but all the outcomes are justifiable in a witcher’s morality. More importantly, it makes the way the game will hide major branching points behind seemingly innocuous decisions all the sneakier and more impressive – one quick decision in the first act will decide the fate of a town, and the join is so seamless that you might not even realise that there was an alternative when you pass it.
Such an approach makes sense too. Really, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter if you threaten or punch someone for being a bit of an arse, or if you try to squeeze a few more orens out of your client if you feel a bit vindictive. It doesn’t make you a particularly nice person, but the world of The Witcher is a cut-throat one, and being a bastard doesn’t make your eyes glow and add a few points to your ethereal moral barometer in real life and so shouldn’t in virtual ones. All it does is add depth to your Geralt without stopping him from being the Geralt, providing a valuable demonstration of both how RPGs with blank slate protagonists and actual main characters can handle choice. I don’t know how they did it, but it’s extremely impressive to me.
It’s early days on this aspect of gaming, and it’s no secret that in-game writing could be better, if I’m being charitable. It’s getting better with each generation, though, and some day maybe everything will be up to these standards.