Wikipedia would have us believe that RPGs are defined by a player taking on the role of a character, usually in a detailed world, and we are to accept that the hallmarks of the genre include “developed story-telling [sic] and narrative elements, player character development, complexity, as well as replayability and immersion.” One glaring issue with this description: Wikipedia doesn’t even really provide a definition. Rather, it describes the kind of things one tends to find in RPGs, not necessarily what they are. Furthermore, some have argued that “RPG,” as a genre, might not even exist. With all of this in mind, this article is less concerned with what RPGs are than it is with what RPGs do. This article seeks to explain how Papers, Please, L.A. Noire, and Crusader Kings II manage to do the work of RPGs–immersing players in a compelling role–without exhibiting the traits we traditionally associate with the RPG genre.
Papers, Please is probably the most unusual entry on this list, and it truly relies on interactivity to sell its concept. The player takes on the role of a border security official, inspecting documents and deciding whether immigrants and refugees may pass into glorious Arstotzka. Two things that stand out to the observer: one, that this is giving off some serious Cold War vibes–down to an East-West Berlin analogue–and two, that the role of the player sounds dreadfully boring. But the creator, Lucas Pope, uses mechanics and choice to create compelling, thematic dilemmas.
One decision as an example: do you separate a married couple because the wife is missing her entry permit? The morality may seem obvious until you come to the end of the day, when citations could cause pay docks, taking heating, food, and medical attention away from you and your family. Can you trust every sob story you hear? Can you act compassionately without being thrown in prison? Papers, Please immerses players in a totalitarian world, not by casting them as some freedom fighter or some soldier, but by casting them as a regular person trying to navigate an oppressive, dangerous situation. Papers, Please is an acute emotional experience, capturing the vital essence of life under a totalitarian regime.
Another entry which tries to capture the mood and aesthetic of another time period is L.A. Noire. However, while Papers, Please is concerned with the propaganda of Soviet-esque nation states–Glory to Arstotzka!–L.A. Noire seeks to emulate particular filmic depictions of 1940s L.A. Chinatown comes across as a distinct influence, and themes explored in that movie make an appearance in Noire; both pieces of media deal with corruption, abuses of power, and even the complicity (and sometimes direct participation) of the police in those abuses of power.
Unlike Papers, Please, L.A. Noire opts to put players in the shoes of a particular character: Cole Phelps. Early on, Phelps bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain America, and the likeness doesn’t stop with the fact that Aaron Staton is basically a normal-person version of Chris Evans. Phelps also served in World War II, albeit in the Pacific Theater, and other characters have a tendency to comment on his strict adherence to the rules. The audience is meant to understand that Phelps is an upstanding police officer stuck in the mire of a corrupt, violent city. Mechanically, this is reflected in the scoring system. Infractions are punished, and efforts to go above and beyond the call of duty are rewarded. Initially, this seems to reflect a desire to do the job by the books and earn praise and commendation on the part of Phelps. A desire which is then imparted to the player.
With this kind of structured role-play, players are incentivized to discover every clue, to suss out every lie, and even to obey the rules of the road. Phelps’s woke ideology (compared to his peers, anyway) also keeps his reactions to various events roughly in line with the reaction of players. Then, as we peel back the layers of Cole’s backstory, we discover that he’s not the all-American hero we’ve come to imagine. Somewhat ironically, by becoming alienated from our own character, we can relate to him better. We feel the same disillusionment Phelps does when we confront the seedy underbelly of L.A. together. Additionally, we understand Phelps’s career as a detective; he’s not motivated by commendation, but by atonement. But like Chinatown, L.A. Noire realizes that the world doesn’t always reward people who try to do right. That things can be horrifically unfair, and there’s no meaning to any of it. We’re left with a familiar sentiment, playing this role: “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
In discussing abuses of power in video games, Crusader Kings II must eventually rear its head. This game is insidious. It’s probably one of the most immersive experiences of Realpolitik one can find in video games. In one of his videos, hbomberguy (now famous for championing trans rights on his Donkey Kong 64 stream with AOC herself appearing) describes the way Darkest Dungeon dehumanizes its characters by reducing their quirks and traits to statistics on a page–thereby rendering them disposable in order to prosecute a war against unspeakable evil. Crusader Kings II, on the other hand, dehumanizes its cast of (often historical) characters in order to establish a game board. A board on which thousands of people will die, but you won’t care, so long as your dynasty amasses the power it needs to survive and thrive in the callous cruelty of the middle ages.
This is great storytelling, and great role-playing, and it’s purely systems-driven. While CK II utilizes statistics and character development in ways comparable to RPGs, it opts out of complex, set-in-stone narratives. Rather, it forces players to create their own stories, to carve out a legacy in a fictionalized version of the historical medieval world. And unlike many RPGs, the choices you make are not contextualized personally. You don’t really have to confront the emotional fallout of your actions. People are represented by portraits, statistics, and sparse descriptions. And because your primary drive is to expand and consolidate power, these collections of portraits and statistics become a means to an end.
Marriages become pretenses for power grabs. Obstacles within the line of succession–even infants–may be removed, provided one has the power and influence to execute such plots. Unthinkable acts of cruelty are merely factors in a grim arithmetic, and one begins to see glimpses of characters like Tywin Lannister in their own machinations (one can also play as Tywin, with the right mod). Like Papers, Please, CK II conveys an emotional experience which, in all likelihood, bears resemblance to the experiences of real people. After all, if real kings didn’t necessarily need to see the consequences of their actions, if the results of their decisions were often conveyed to them via letters and missives, what were they capable of, provided it benefited them and their family? This game takes that question a step further; what are we capable of, placed in similar circumstances?
This is one of the fundamental strengths of good role-playing. While role-playing can be something the player does, it can also be something the developers build their game to facilitate. They can even push roles onto the player that they might not have chosen otherwise. It can cause us to reflect, to ask (sometimes uncomfortable) questions of ourselves. Furthermore, these games show that such role-playing need not be found in the RPG genre in particular. Papers, Please is a self-proclaimed dystopian document thriller, while L.A. Noire is an open-world action puzzler, and Crusader Kings II is a strategy game with simulation elements. It is worth interrogating genre conventions. Further than that, it is worth exploring whether compelling narrative experiences like role-playing can be accomplished in ways we have yet to imagine.