In Dungeons and Dragons, there is a set of expectations that together create an optimistic experience. The challenges the party faces will be appropriately difficult, and they will be rewarded with loot and experience for overcoming. If the party is inexperienced, death is unlikely, so long as the dungeon master is good; rerolling characters or forcing friends to sit out isn’t fun, even if it’s the consequence of a “fair” game. Similar grace is given in digital role playing games with the ability to reload saves, and sometimes features likes automated difficulty scaling. Given these rules, the experience is one of growth and accomplishment, yet the genre is also known for its story telling. Often the worlds are bleak, and the party or lone player character must overcome some looming threat and save the world. It’s serious business.
The problem is that these two things—gameplay about growth and story about the end of the world—don’t line up. If we want to tell a story of some bleak post-apocalypse, or pseudo-medieval feudalism, the player needs to have different expectations. It’s easy to imagine an alternative game: accomplishing the quest may have no effect on the greater problem, the dungeon may be a trap, the party or player character may suffer permanent wounds, and the only loot may be rusted beyond value. That could still be a role playing game, but those rules create a different experience. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and—to a lesser extent—Dark Souls are close examples. Because those games’ rules create a bleak experience, the narrative fits.
On the other side are games like Skyrim. Due to the way external rules (such as saving and automated difficulty scaling) combine with the internal rules of experience and skill trees, the game creates an enjoyable experience. The player knows that if an encounter is too difficult, by spending some time gaining experience elsewhere, anything will become possible. Short of a level limit, the player’s potential power exceeds that of any non-playable character or monster, making the player a hero in the mythic sense.
This choice of rules in Elder Scrolls games is not a problem on its own until these games try to tell an epic story. Dragons may be returning, or gates to oblivion opening, or gods reincarnating, but none of these threats are real within their game’s rules. By the time the player faces the final enemy, the player character is so strong that the whole conflict becomes a joke, and the non-playable characters telling you to hurry clearly don’t understand the way the world works. There was never a serious risk; the end of the world will wait until the player is ready.
Now, there are exceptions. Although I would include Bioware games (from Baldur’s Gate onward) in this category of optimistic role playing games due to their design, the drama of their stories feels somewhat more honest because their worlds have more consequence. Characters can, and often do, die. Mass Effect 3 created such a strong sense of narrative urgency, I ignored almost all of the side quests. That said, there is still a limit on this when dialogue is separate from the role-playing gameplay about growth and power. The same story might be told more powerfully, or more honestly, with the structure of a game like The Walking Dead.
That said, most fantasy games try to imitate Tolkien, Jordan, or Martin. To various extents, all of them wrote bleak stories that thrive on uncertainty. At their lightest, they suggest the existence of some positive force of fate that will make things right. At their darkest, “good” and “evil” become indistinguishable, and the triumph of one over the other becomes meaningless. Unlike a player character in a role playing game, these heroes suffer wounds, age, and die. At best, their power over time follows a parabola. If role playing games want to tell these stories, their rules need to change.
There is another alternative though. I like the playful optimism allowed by many role playing games. There is an agency in those worlds that extends to my view of reality; I feel happy knowing that it only takes practice to become better at programming or writing or so on. The world is not always as bleak as the stories we write about it. Instead of changing the rules of these optimistic games, we could change the stories. They could emulate mythology or embrace child-like absurdity. The rules of Skyrim’s world have more in common with Adventure Time than Middle Earth, so why not treat it that way? In short, many of our games are already optimistic and silly by design; if we want their stories to improve, we should either accept the honesty of their silliness, or change the games themselves.