I consider myself an enthusiast of role-playing games, particularly classic, dense, story-heavy western ones. I regard Baldur’s Gate one of the most defining games of the western RPG genre, and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is one of my favorite games of all time. Being exposed to the genre quite strongly, I would say I have a pretty decent understanding of the composition of a typical game of this kind. But even with lesser experience, one can probably distinguish some of the common elements in role-playing games with ease.
Western role-playing games – especially ones with high fantasy settings – tend to focus their gameplay on evolving the main character, who would eventually find themselves in the center of massive events, often with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. The main story of many RPGs is commonly built on this basic idea; however, players have grown hungry for freedom of choice, and the ability to dictate the direction of their character’s adventure. Thus, it can be difficult to put a player-created hero on the desired path, through which the greater story would begin to unfold.
Developers have come up with a number of solutions for the “reluctant hero” dilemma, none more common than the “prophecy” – whether an actual prophecy or just the destiny of the character that has been already written into the cosmic tapestry, the game establishes that whether or not the player wishes it, their character’s role in the events to come has been decided, and they would eventually end up fulfilling what has been anticipated.
This obviously ties the character to the main story quite easily, but it risks restricting the imagination and the freedom of the player if not done properly. In many games, the significance of “destiny” is either too intrusive or too specific, which at the very least breaks immersion and makes the player feel silly for trying to choose another direction for their character.
The Intrusive Solution
The first example of a poorly executed fate element that I can think of is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. While the hero isn’t exactly an unique, messiah-type individual, they still become the Dragonborn which apparently is a big enough deal for the residents of the Nord homeland that it’s all they will ever see in them. Granted, the Dragonborn storyline is avoidable in the game, as long as you steer clear of an early quest where you’re supposed to fight your first dragon, but that would mean that you’ll have to entirely ignore the fact that you’re one of the few survivors that survived the attack of the dragon Alduin, and that you’re supposed to deliver a message of warning to someone about it. Doesn’t really help the immersion break, now does it?
Like I mentioned, after killing your first dragon, everyone hails you as “Dragonborn”. The way the game likely initially goes for most players, this happens very early in the game, basically as a starting point. So whatever you may have imagined your character to be, they’re now Dragonborn, and most NPCs around Skyrim will constantly remind you of it. There’s nothing you can do about the fact that you’re the one chosen to deliver the land from an impending doom – either you’ll have to give in to your “destiny”, or pretend none of the early events of the game actually happened. Either way, you’re robbed of your character’s identity.
It’s commonly understood that being the “chosen one” is a recurring theme in The Elder Scrolls series. While that’s partly true, Skyrim is the first time that Bethesda sort of just smacked you over the head with it. The previous game, Oblivion, actually had quite the opposite role for the main character – the Emperor had a dream about them, but the only significance the hero would have is that their cell happened to be where a secret passage was hidden. Beyond that, it’s simply chance – you were there when the Emperor was assassinated within the secret passage, so you were tasked with taking his amulet to a priory. If not earlier, that’s when you’re free to say, “this doesn’t concern me anymore”, and just walk away. You’re free, and there’s no fate or prophecy pressuring you into a specific course of action. While I consider Skyrim a better game than Oblivion, the latter was much better in setting up the player for some free-form enjoyment of the (sadly uninspired) fantasy land of Cyrodiil.
Going further back in the series, Morrowind (which I’ve mentioned is one of my favorite games) did feature a story where the main character is a “chosen one” of sorts. What’s more, they’re not simply someone with unusual powers, but a reincarnation of a national hero and saint, and destined to do overwhelmingly great things to unite the land and defeat an evil demigod. Sounds like a disaster, but Morrowind is actually one of the only games where something like this was done in a way that doesn’t bother me.
The first thing that distinguishes the Nerevarine (the reincarnated hero) story of Morrowind from the Dragonborn trainwreck of Skyrim is that in the latter, as I said, you barely have enough time to finish creating your character, when you’re already stamped a hero of legends – unless of course you take conscious steps to evade the main plot. In Morrowind, by the time you learn about your significance in the story, you’re likely already dozens of hours into the game. You’re given a chance to familiarize yourself with the world, and the main plot is actually structured so that you first learn about the legends and prophecies and the history of the land, before it’s directly hinted that you have anything to do with it all.
In other words, Morrowind makes it much easier to just avoid the main story altogether, and even if you don’t, it gives you plenty of time to form an idea of what your character is all about, before labeling them something as specific as a “chosen one”. By the time it turns out the prophecy was about your character, there’s already an actual character there, who will only gain another property in addition to what exists before that, both in the player’s imagination and the effects the character has brought about in the game world.
Baldur’s Gate also does something similar. The main character is unquestionably an unique and significant individual, although the nature of their uniqueness isn’t revealed until much later. The player isn’t forced into thinking there’s anything special about the character – maybe these evil assailants have the wrong person, or maybe they’re just following some subjective superstition that they have deduced to be about the main character. Again, by the time the truth is revealed, the hero has already made a mark in the world and worked their way through numerous character interactions, which have brought them to life and generated an authentic personality for them. They’re not just the Bhaalspawn – they’re a person with a number of characteristics, one of which happens to be their infernal origin.
Going back to Skyrim in contrast to these examples, it really gives you no room to develop and define your character. Rather than allowing you to let them evolve naturally through interaction with the world, it declares: “You’re Dragonborn. That’s what you’re all about.” You can then go on to dabble in various activities across the game world, but in the end your path will take you to fight Alduin, and that’s what really matters. Trying to imagine there’s anything unique about your character feels like childish make-believe, like doing voice-over when playing Super Mario Bros. or Mega Man as a kid.
Speaking of the “chosen one” concept, it would be odd to overlook the classic Fallout games, even if they’re not high fantasy games; regarding the second game’s story, the main character is in fact literally called “Chosen One”. What’s curious about that game, though, is that despite the moniker, the hero is actually just an ordinary person. There’s nothing intrinsically special or unique about them, and there is no cosmic destiny that they will inevitably fulfill. The “Chosen One” name is given to them by their tribe, and the title is subjective to that tribe alone. No one else sees anything unusual about them, and no mysterious forces aid them in reaching their goals – rather, they make their mark on the world the old-fashioned way. The fact that some crazy old lady in a hut calls them a “Chosen One” makes no real difference – it’s simply superstition, which at best is the hero’s motivation for pressing on in the depressing post-apocalyptic wasteland.
The first Fallout is, in my opinion, a master class in character creation freedom. The hero is selected to carry out a vital task to save the population of their home Vault – and that’s the entire extent of the premise. There is no definition of why they were chosen – whether they’re the strongest person in the Vault, or the least popular one so that everyone wants them dead, or the smartest one, or maybe there’s a culture of “passing rites” in the Vault that requires everyone coming of age to carry out a challenging assignment. No one’s there to dictate why the main character was chosen for this mission. Therefore there are no restrictions to what the character is like.
Our Own Kind of Destiny
It’s worth mentioning that not all fantasy games employ a mysterious fate to force the main character into the story. Take Dragon Age: Origins, for example – the extent of forced progression is that the main character must join the Grey Wardens, but even that is engineered in a very organic way: depending on which one of the six possible origin stories the player chooses, the hero generally ends up in a desperate situation where joining the Wardens is basically the only sane thing to do, whether to escape certain death or to gain new direction after losing everything.
Dragon Age II, while in no way an example of a great game, does pick a curious alternative for a pre-defined fate. The hero is dropped into a situation where they must first survive, and then try to rebuild the life they have lost – no prophecies involved, although there is quite a lot of context provided for the character, such as their family and a lot of their interaction with the game world, which I find unfortunate. Still, it’s refreshing that this series kept going another direction instead of the “chosen one” concept. Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t have a cosmic imperative either, but from the beginning made the hero unique and significant, even if it was because of being at the right place at the right time and surviving where others didn’t, instead of something (moreso) mystical.
While I can’t claim to be an expert on the series in general, I love Might & Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, which I consider another example of an alternative narrative choice in terms of incorporating the hero (or in this case, heroes) into the plot. The game puts little weight on social aspects of role-playing, namely character personalities and the such, but it does involve the heroes with the narrative in a very organic way. They start out as hopeful participants in a contest where the main prize is lordship over a tranquil little hamlet; they win the contest, not due to any unexplained phenomena or pre-determined fate, but because they best the other competitors and win the contest, simple as that. From that point on, the story progresses through the heroes’ endeavors to get their stronghold up-and-running and taking care of their domain, and eventually they end up involved in something much bigger – such as space aliens. Yeah.
Even when the basics of the hero’s involvement in the story are right or at least in the ballpark, there’s still room for error. It’s deceivingly easy to wreck it by pushing it, and pressuring the player with too much involvement from the story or the mystical forces that bind the main character into the narrative, as I explained using Skyrim as an example. Pillars of Eternity is actually a good comparison for Skyrim in that regard – in that game, you’re a Watcher, with a power to see people’s souls, which is an ability not unlike that of the Dragonborn in relative context. The difference is, unless you bring it up yourself, very few inhabitants of the game world in Pillars of Eternity ever notice or acknowledge your special ability. It’s not even a prominent gameplay feature, but rather a narrative device that surfaces once in a while to progress the story. It never makes you feel like you have “Watcher” tattooed on your forehead, like it would in Skyrim, with the world “Dragonborn”.
It’s a challenging task, to attach the hero to the main plot in a way that feels organic and believable, but doesn’t restrict or force the character too much. Sadly, most games either give the player too much context for the hero, limiting what kind of background or personality can be imagined for them, or strong-arm them into following the story which generates a feeling of powerlessness and lack of choice. Leaving the main plot too loose, however, can end up losing players and making them feel disoriented and overwhelmed, unable to proceed because of a lack of structure. Somewhere in the middle of these three unsuccessful extremes, there’s a balance that’s satisfying in every way; there’s not a lot of games that get it right.