The Prisoner's Dilemma

Back in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, players began as they step off a ship, having been released from prison and shipped to a colony off the mainland by special order of the emperor. In Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the protagonist begins in a cell in the dungeon under the imperial capital, and is released by the fleeing emperor, who needs to use a secret exit hidden in the cell, and who has seen the prisoner in his dreams. Even the story of the original Elder Scrolls I: Arena begins with the protagonist regaining consciousness in a prison cell. Now in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, we begin on a cart with fellow prisoners, being brought to our execution.

Either as a blessing or as a curse, there seem to be no in-world clues. Nobody runs up to you asking how you've been, or how you escaped. No relatives welcome you back home. I once thought that someone was coming up to me, remembering me from before my imprisonment and demanding recompense for my transgression, but that turned out to be something different. Still, it made me think about what it means to play a game where I know my character had previously been arrested, but where the game world is entirely new.

The Elder Scrolls team has made no secret of their love for starting players off as prisoners. Starting the player as a prisoner not only explains starting without any loot, but also sets up the narrative trajectory from pariah to messiah. Sure, we all know that our characters are heroes of prophesy who will rapidly rise from their lowly beginnings to be praised by commoners and lavished with gifts from quest-giving nobles. We will rise from rags to riches, from scavenged daggers to enchanted blades crafted from foreign dimensions and gifted to us by the gods themselves. We will be masters of the realm, shaping the world through our choices. It's that hopeful expectation that hooks us in with the narrative and progression of loot and skills. Or at least, that's the idea.

A fair number of role-playing-oriented players find themselves distracted by the hook, though. How did I find myself here? After all, the various forms of punishment we start under in Elder Scrolls games tend to imply that we are being punished for something. What did we do to deserve banishment, imprisonment, or beheading — or do we deserve this punishment at all?

Not only that, but imprisonment conjures an adversarial relationship. Whatever we did or didn't do, we either actively chose to break the law, or we are being punished for an accident (or for a crime we didn't commit). At some point, we chose to cross the Empire, or the Empire chose to cross us. In the case of Skyrim, the punishment for that crossing is death.

The protagonist in Skyrim does not show marks of their past life, though you can choose to add scars or other distinguishing marks as part of the character-creation process. The player, inasmuch as the player is concerned with role-play, must here decide what the character was doing on the wrong side of the law.

Every role-player in any game needs to develop an understanding of "Who am I?" and "How did I get here?" (The beautiful house comes later, thanks partly to Quintin Stone or any number of other modders in this case.)

Of course plenty of games go the easy route, starting the protagonist with amnesia as an excuse to dictate the character's identity for the player. When a game allows the player to shape the character, to build a personality as well as a set of skills, a fantastic amount of restraint must be employed by the developers.

Choosing appearance and skills in any RPG partly chooses the character's background. How did you get those skills, those scars? Why do you wear that face-paint, and what does it mean? What does it mean that you have lived your life as that species and race, as that gender? In Skyrim, players don't choose a class or skills. Rather, all characters begin from a common baseline. You are unskilled — devoid of previous experience or training. Whatever you had been before your arrest, it didn't amount to any form of skilled labor, or even exerting enough labor to show up in your muscles.

So the roleplayer is tasked with figuring out a story that jives with these facts. You were arrested and sentenced to death. You have no skills. Nobody knows you. Your destiny is pre-ordained (though you may choose to avoid it); you can only choose the direction from which you approach it. The future is known, it's your past that is in question.

Comments

While I'm a bit bored with the "blank slate" beginnings as well, I don't really see an attractive alternative. The more a game tries to define "prior" for a player in an RPG, the more many of the genre's fans seem to get angry. For example, the final DLC for Fallout: New Vegas involved a character with a past history with the player and even though that past history was relatively vague and undefined, there were still people mad it had been forced upon them because now they had to reconcile that with their own imagination created backgrounds.

Now you can get away with some rough outlines, depending on the setting, of course. Mass Effect has a vague generic Shepherd background. And Dragon Age (#1) offered a bunch of alternative backgrounds that largely satisfied the fanbase. But the alternatives to yet another prisoner with no past or amnesia are pretty limited.

The best RPG I've ever seen handle this issue was Darklands. You pick a starting societal strata (rich, middle-class, poor) and location (city or country) and then start choosing vocations starting at age 15, each vocation lasting five years. Each vocation raises or lowers certain stats and, depending on your beginning choices, certain vocations are or are not available to you. You can do this as long as you like (until your character is too old to adventure, perhaps 70 if I recall correctly) but certain skills start to diminish with age. The point is that you make your character's background. You know what your background was and why you have the stats you do. You know why you know certain things and why you have your starting equipment. I've never seen anything else quite like it and I wish more RPGs would do this sort of thing.

tboon wrote:

The best RPG I've ever seen handle this issue was Darklands. You pick a starting societal strata (rich, middle-class, poor) and location (city or country) and then start choosing vocations starting at age 15, each vocation lasting five years. Each vocation raises or lowers certain stats and, depending on your beginning choices, certain vocations are or are not available to you. You can do this as long as you like (until your character is too old to adventure, perhaps 70 if I recall correctly) but certain skills start to diminish with age. The point is that you make your character's background. You know what your background was and why you have the stats you do. You know why you know certain things and why you have your starting equipment. I've never seen anything else quite like it and I wish more RPGs would do this sort of thing.

Mount & Blade has a limited version of this. You pick the kind of family you came from, how you spent your childhood, then your adult (up until now) years, and finally, your reason for starting a new journey. Each time you're given a set of choices, and each choice adds different things to the base attributes/skills/proficiencies/equipment.

Maybe CRPG's should just start letting you choose your favorite the tabula rasa:

1, Prisoner
2. Amnesiac
3. Orphan
4. Narrative hangover victim. Wake up later in the story. Sort of like amnesia, only short term. "How did I get here?"

These are all tropes I'd never feel comfortable exploiting in a tabletop RPG, but I can understand why developers feel compelled to use them.

I'd love it if the next Elder Scrolls game tossed the prisoner trope out the window.

My favorite tabula rasa game: Shadowrun on the Sega Genesis. You move from ( I think) a hospital to running errands to hacking to progressing through the steam pink story. Pretty archetypal but this was in the mid-90s and put together well. Like wordsmythe said, though, I think we're all tired of it now.

tboon wrote:

The best RPG I've ever seen handle this issue was Darklands. You pick a starting societal strata (rich, middle-class, poor) and location (city or country) and then start choosing vocations starting at age 15, each vocation lasting five years. Each vocation raises or lowers certain stats and, depending on your beginning choices, certain vocations are or are not available to you. You can do this as long as you like (until your character is too old to adventure, perhaps 70 if I recall correctly) but certain skills start to diminish with age. The point is that you make your character's background. You know what your background was and why you have the stats you do. You know why you know certain things and why you have your starting equipment. I've never seen anything else quite like it and I wish more RPGs would do this sort of thing.

That approach started in pen and paper RPGs, actually. Traveller and Twilight:2000 both had that mechanism. As did their CRPG versions back in the early 90s. I'm not sure why the idea hasn't been embraced more, though what Dragon Age did was somewhat along those lines. I'm guessing it has something to do with the idea that everything in a CRPG costs money to make and nobody wants to spend it on something not everyone will have access to in a given playthrough. Of course you could do it in a more simplified (and thus cheaper) manner, but whether modern gamers would accept such an approach is hard to say.

I suspect the primary reason games have poorly explored this is that designers don't begin with story. They focus on setting, because setting determines the graphical look, and setting gives the beta testers/game journalists something to see before the game is done.

It's hard to create a narrative if you don't define the character. If you leave it open like in Skyrim, the story floats a bit, with no real sense of how the main character is involved or why they are doing the things they're doing. There is less impetus for the character to experience growth or change. And that growth/change is separated from the game world. Mechanics often impede switching role-playing styles, much less game play styles.

If you go from more of a bottom-up approach, like in Mount and Blade, or Masters of Magic, there's no ending, or the ending becomes inappropriate to the climax of the story. We want to see the light sabre battle against the emperor against the crucial battle for control of the galaxy. We don't want to see the slow, brutal and increasingly mundane clean-up of Imperial forces from system after system. I don't think I've seen any of the open world games get it quite right. (caveat: a lot of times Civilization will pull this off, no matter what version you're playing.)

And I've never quite understood the push for the blank slate character. Sure, you can come up with a rich background for your character, but a lot of times that background is superceded by things that the character does or events in the gameworld. I understand the appeal of "owning" your own character. But once you start having to make regular retcons, I just don't get it.

There is definately a tension. On the one hand, a strong character is integral to a good story. On the other hand, a blank slate can make it easier to feel that you yourself are in the story. I think in Skyrim, it really is the player's story, while in Mass Effect, it really is Shepard's story.

Traveller was notable for being one of the only games in which your character could die during the creation process. That was kind of cool, actually.

I recently re-started Skyrim and wanted a little more back-story for my character. So I used the console to give him a start on a number of skills. Effectively beginning the game as a penniless but very experienced character. I ramped myself up to level 30ish with some basic skills in place, it was hard to estimate where everything would be.

The cool thing was leaving Helgen and heading to Riverwood I came across a frost-troll. The troll promptly killed me because, while I was very skilled, I only had crappy iron weapons and shoddy armor -fine if everyone is level 1, but extremely challenging if you're in garbage gear. It's been a really fun way to approach the game.

Consider this: even murder is not punishable by death in Skyrim. Merely pay the 1,000 gold fine or spend some time in jail.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

Consider this: even murder is not punishable by death in Skyrim. Merely pay the 1,000 gold fine or spend some time in jail.

This would be much easier to explain if I were part of one of the major insurgent-y groups. Meanwhile, isn't there also a petty thief with you on the Last Train to Chopsville?

A horse-thief from Rorikstead. Though the only reason he and you were sentenced to death was that the Imperial officer in charge of the executions had a "kill 'em all" attitude.

wordsmythe wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

Consider this: even murder is not punishable by death in Skyrim. Merely pay the 1,000 gold fine or spend some time in jail.

This would be much easier to explain if I were part of one of the major insurgent-y groups. Meanwhile, isn't there also a petty thief with you on the Last Train to Chopsville?

If I can use my broad brush here, in medieval times committing murder would probably just mean paying a weregild to the family (to prevent them from killing you in revenge), or maybe exile from your village. Theft of almost any sort would be punishable by hanging. Property was very very important. But for the horse-thief from Rorikstead, and why your character will only be fined for theft, I think he was either mistaken for or just conveniently rounded up with the Stormcloaks (an explanation you can choose to adopt for your character too).

Note also that's medieval times, not Medieval Times. If you commit murder or theft at the latter, modern law will probably be applicable.

No scars or dirt for my characters: they were all convicted of white-collar crimes. Disgraced former employees of the East Empire Company, arrested for irregularities in the pension fund.

While I do like the way Darklands works as tboon describes it, or PnP RPGs that use priority systems including class like Riddle of Steel, I like the prisoner beginning in TES. It works for me because TES has never been about who I am (let alone who I was), but what I'm doing. Every moment is outward-focused, and my character is just an avatar, my way of reaching into and interacting with the world.

The prisoner thing is a nice gesture by the game—"So you're playing this dude, and he's got this shred of backstory"—and I say thank you to the game and we both sort of wink at each other, and then when character creation is complete we forget about it and carry on our merry way.

tboon wrote:

The best RPG I've ever seen handle this issue was Darklands. You pick a starting societal strata (rich, middle-class, poor) and location (city or country) and then start choosing vocations starting at age 15, each vocation lasting five years. Each vocation raises or lowers certain stats and, depending on your beginning choices, certain vocations are or are not available to you. You can do this as long as you like (until your character is too old to adventure, perhaps 70 if I recall correctly) but certain skills start to diminish with age. The point is that you make your character's background. You know what your background was and why you have the stats you do. You know why you know certain things and why you have your starting equipment. I've never seen anything else quite like it and I wish more RPGs would do this sort of thing.

It's a pen and paper RPG, but that's the premise behind character creation in Burning Wheel

Sarkus wrote:

... The more a game tries to define "prior" for a player in an RPG, the more many of the genre's fans seem to get angry. For example, the final DLC for Fallout: New Vegas involved a character with a past history with the player and even though that past history was relatively vague and undefined, there were still people mad it had been forced upon them because now they had to reconcile that with their own imagination created backgrounds.

I'm curious if these angry fans are the unavoidable complainers or the honest bulk of consumers. Having not played New Vegas (I think the review here turned me away), is it also possible that gamers dislike BAD backstory that is significantly worse than what you'd come up with in your own imagination?