On a fundamental level, role-playing games imitate real life better than most simulation and story-based games. Although the activities that you do in them are usually truncated for the sake of pacing, it still feels satisfying to clear out a bunch of quests in a game and be rewarded with a shiny new axe or a plot revelation. The comparisons to real life go a whole lot deeper than that though. In an average RPG, you play a character that is brought into a strange world with your only tools being what you find or are given. You head out with a goal in mind, and there are various obstacles standing or crawling in your way.
The protagonist wakes up, picks up their sword, equips their best armor, and opens up the quest log to begin a day of adventuring and experience. A businessman wakes up, dresses in his finest and most comfortable suit, and drives to work to build on what he has done the previous day, and hopefully come out of it with a paycheck at the end of the week. The warrior’s reward is dependent on the player’s investment and skill at combat or whatever it is the game asks of them to pass the obstacles. The businessman ideally is improving his work with the hopes of a larger paycheck, but he ultimately does not take that many risks for fear of his steady income ending. Allowing the player to control a character even when there isn’t a crucial conflict going on makes the story feel more believable, and the more dramatic moments exponentially more impressive.
For example, one of my favorite games of all time is Jade Empire. It’s a Bioware game from 2005 where you play as a customizable protagonist making his or her way through an ancient Chinese landscape with a group of allies. Essentially, it’s Star Wars: Knights of the Republic with a more active yet simple combat system, and a more original world. Besides the fact that martial arts and the physical manifestation of each fighting style is a fascinating concept to me, the reason I was obsessed with Jade Empire when I played it was because it was the first game I played that simulated both the most fascinating and mundane aspects of your character’s life. Not every day in my life is full of twists and adventure, but each one is important, and adds up to a cohesive whole. In the same way, not every quest in Jade Empire was about saving the world, but they all provided context and detailed the world. After questioning the townsfolk and collecting evidence, you can return to her with the name of whoever you think committed the crime. I never picked the correct person when I first played it for whatever reason, but the game didn’t penalize you for being wrong. The wrong person was sent to jail, and you were rewarded just as much as you would have been if you had selected the actual killer. Since it’s a game that is supposed to be fun and not unfair, you can always reload an old save and try the quest again, or just look up a guide and beat it without any risk. But doing so robs you of this brief glimpse into this small town and some of its charms. Everybody you question is a liar, the law enforcement is useless, and the woman trusted a few strangers walking into town with a homicide investigation. Just like in real life, I played Jade Empire without reloading my save.
The worst part of any game is the breaking of immersion due to a bug or overlooked design flaw. Sticking with Jade Empire, the trip to that same town is played out as a top-down shooter where you control a hang glider soaring above the forest and fending off corrupt warriors. The reason it doesn’t work or gel with the rest of the game is how easy it is to fail. In the rest of the game, failure is clearly forewarned because of the prominent health bar that is only shown or being depleted in battle. In this awkward, brutally difficult act break, the enemies don’t seem to follow any sort of pattern. The player’s only penalty for failure is their time, but it’s clearly meant to be tried over and over again. Since it’s supposed to be a short diversion, there aren’t any checkpoints in this mission to keep the player from getting frustrated. One could argue that that’s the point, and that they want to show the journey in one fluid series of events, but that just doesn’t work when the game becomes so reliant on reflexes and memorization. By making it easy to fail and annoying to restart, the immersion is broken either way. Even though there are some magic elements to the story, they can’t explain this hang glider miraculously recovering itself at the starting position over and over again. In life, decisions have weight because they are irrevocable.
The argument then becomes: Do I want a game that breaks immersion for the sake of fairness and momentum, or do I want to traipse through a game, making mistakes left and right without stopping? My personal answer lies somewhat closer to the second option. Developers sometimes feel afraid to put failable quests in their games because that supposedly goes against the power fantasy that so many games strive for. But my argument is that, to truly make me feel like I’m controlling a hero, I need to see and control their greatest victories, their most tragic defeats, and the moments in between. A quick trip into town to buy equipment, a failed attempt to woo the local brothel girls, even just a hint that all of the senseless violence committed in the average game has consequences are a few things that make the journey feel believable. By showing me what my character had to do when he or she wasn’t skinning monsters for pelts or watching their home be burned down by a dragon, moments like the murder quest in Jade Empire make me feel less like I’m seeing the highlights of my character’s life, and more like I’m an integral part of it from start to finish.