There was a time when the standard sort of storyline in games/ CRPGs involved characters who started off weak and then got stronger over time. (This is the whole point of xp and progression, after all.) Players complained about the whole ‘kill ten rats’ phenomenon where you load up your shiny new game and find that your persona is a smelly goatherd who has to kill rats and clean up goat poop for several hours before they let you do the cool heroic stuff you bought the game for.
Now there is more of a rush on the idea of the player as the big damn hero where you start good and get … well … gooder. Or at least you get shinier, spikier gear. I find this gets tiring.
I still kind of like the idea of the quiet heroism of simply managing to survive in a world where the odds are balanced against you. And not only survive, but also succeed. In A Game of Thrones, for example, you see this in the fan favourite characters of Tyrion (a developmental dwarf) and Arya (a girl who wants to fight like a man). In Lord of the Rings, you see it in Frodo (“I will take the ring although I do not know the way…”)
However, in order to portray that type of character, you also have to experience the oppression and the sense that the whole world is against you. Which is something that computer gamers have not typically been up for. Nick Dinicola wrote an intriguing column in PopMatters titled, “I want to play the victim in Dragon Age 2.” And this was about the fact that in Dragon Age, all the lore talks about how oppressed the mages are. Yet if you play one, no one ever tries to oppress you. They talk about the prejudice but they never dare show any towards the player. From a point of view of games as storytelling devices I think they did the player a disservice, because there is no doubt whatsoever that players would have an emotional reaction to being oppressed, even within a game.
In many ways, sandbox MMOs do a better job here because unlike devs, other players will not hold back. This is not to say that rampant elitism, gearscore-phobia, and griefing are desirable gameplay, but they do offer the opportunity for different types of in-game heroism where the premade storyline fails.
For example, the rags to riches story of a new character who works hard and eventually masters the auction house. The knight errant high level character who nobly stops to help a stranger (Justin calls this not being selfish, I call it ‘white knight syndrome’ :) ). (Or the stranger who dares to ask the strange and powerful knight for help …) The new soldier who is jeered by his comrades but perseveres anyway.
Anyone else out there a fan of playing the underdog?