Over the last few years, it seems to me, RPGs (and MMOs) have focused less on telling a complete pre-written story and more on customizing your story and protagonist. It’s a good trend, and one that I enjoy a great deal.
Maybe your Geralt is a womanizer, leaving satisfied boob-witches in his wake, or maybe he knows in his heart that Yennefer is his only true love. Perhaps your Shepard was a jerk to his crew, or was a beloved leader who gave uplifting speeches at any available moment. Maybe your Herald hated elves, or your whoever-the-protagonist-is in Undertale was a murder machine! (I still really should play that sometime.)
I’ve been playing a lot of Andromeda lately, and one of the positive features of the game is a change from the old Paragon/Renegade dualism to more nuanced dialog choices. You can be passionate, or logical, or quizzical, or cranky, or a number of different contextual choices. As someone who has a tough time resisting min-maxing schemes, I enjoy the freedom to pick an option that suits my Ryder at that moment.
The era of protagonist customization is great, and yet… in one large way it’s at odds with the fundamental nature of playing an RPG game.
Let’s say you’re playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, and your Herald is an elf who… well, you’re tired of your people being kicked around and at this point you’re a bit of an elf-supremacist. (This interpretation is entirely reasonable in the lore of the game.) So you’re doing your Herald thing, begrudgingly helping to save your world even if you don’t give a toss for most of the people on it, when you encounter a human in a major city who beckons you over. “Herald,” the man says, “my brother was jealous of my happy marriage so he cursed my well and now all it produces is poison. It’s killing my land, and my family has to travel an hour each way for clean water. Can you help me?”
You, the character of the Herald, look at the dude, remember how humans are big jerks, and decline. Later, you, the player of the game, read on Twitter that the well quest opens up a new zone and has a sweet new blingy item at the end of the chain, as well as some good lore points. Do you compromise your vision of your protagonist to participate?
This is the challenge of truly “role playing” in modern RPG games — there’s no incentive to say no, even if that would be in the nature of the character you want to play.
My Ryder in Andromeda happens to be a kid who loves adventure and making people happy, so she has no problem picking up tasks from needy strangers, but others may be RPing as someone more hesitant or weary. But, I love Mass Effect, and I’m playing it because.. I want to play it. I want to travel through space and meet new characters. So even if it would be in character for my protagonist to turn down a quest, it means giving up on whatever fraction of game content lives behind it. (I found this particularly vexing in SWTOR, when I was trying to play more nuanced characters who loved the revenge bit of the dark side but not the “being an asshole for kicks” part.)
Now, there’s an argument that if my elf-supremacist insists on turning down quests from humans, it’s parallel to real life where you give up opportunities when your decisions are motivated by distrust and hate. And that’s true, but somehow doesn’t seem very satisfying in a game context.
I don’t have a good answer to this, but it seems like a challenge for game designers and one that will just become more relevant the further we get into customized protagonists. Sometimes you just want to say “no” for character reasons, and for that choice to open doors to content the same way that a “yes” would.