There’s a quest in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that requires you to enter a sewer and locate someone at the other end. Most players confronted with that task probably didn’t think twice about sending their avatar into a filth-encrusted maze crawling with drug-addled beggars they’ll cut down as casually as they’d tell Pac-Man to eat an apple. Meanwhile there’ll be a subset of players who judge the quest not merely on its mechanical merits, e.g. the button prompts required and the material gain of potential loot, but as a proposal with logical consequences to be considered through the lens of a persona. One Dragonborn may blunder into the sewer, but another may refuse the offer on the grounds of having better things to do than crawl through excrement and murder homeless people.
This is the world of videogame roleplaying, the logical conclusion for any gaming enthusiast who longs to immerse themselves fully in a virtual world. It’s about using the imagination to skirt around a game’s inability to perfectly simulate a fictional universe, treating a game not as a pure mechanical challenge but as a world where actions would have plausible reactions. So the systems at work under Skyrim’s hood may make it possible to stick a bucket on a merchant’s head and rob them blind, but if the land of the Nords was an actual place not constrained by limitations of technology and man-hours, trying to pull the same trick would have a more realistic outcome.
More than that, those who dabble in roleplay often adopt elaborate personas with backstories, traits, skills, even hopes and dreams. Skyrim’s mechanics arguably encourage a jack-of-all-trades approach to problem-solving, since there’s little reason not to use both warhammers and fireballs if the opportunity arises, but a roleplayer usually gives their avatar realistic skillsets based on their history. The key to an interesting story is conflict, after all, and there’s not much room for conflict if your protagonist has no real weaknesses. So roleplayers tend to give their characters some sort of Achilles’ heel, ranging from being scared of the dark to secretly sympathising with an unpopular faction, using the game as stimulus to create organic little stories. On a purely mechanical level, Skyrim’s quests tend to boil down to killing things and exhausting dialogue bins, but if you make the effort to apply a bit of real-world logic it can add a whole new layer to the experience.
That the concept seems so alien and counter-intuitive to a lot of gamers kind of suggests just how irrationally people’s avatars tend to behave, as per the psychotic kleptomaniac mentioned above. The mere fact that games present no real danger to the player, since the worst that could ever happen if you get your character killed is having to replay the section you failed, immediately creates a huge barrier between the experience of a player, and that which their avatar would logically have within the context of a world that, from their perspective, would be no less real than we find ours. Roleplaying can thus be summarised as the following: “How would a character from within this universe act if presented with this situation?”
My own sheepish forays into the world of roleplay really made me acknowledge how artificial the powergaming mindset is, particularly when applied to fleshed-out worlds such as that of The Elder Scrolls; if I loved the universe Skyrim presented and wanted to fool myself into thinking I was part of it, then why did I routinely murder any passer-by who might be carrying at least fifty gold? I seriously think anyone who considers videogames a medium with potential for narrative should conduct their own experiments, be it with Skyrim or anything else, and see if it makes them look at games from a fresh angle.
Play games long enough and you develop blind spots for events that, in any kind of rational world, make no dang sense whatsoever. Roleplaying forces those illogical occurrences into the spotlight. I consider Dark Souls a far better game than Skyrim from a mechanical sense, but the latter’s open-ended layout makes it easily the richer pool for roleplay. The fact that roleplay is something which can turn a mechanically inferior game into something truly special is, I think, already proof enough that it deserves more critical attention than it gets.