One could design a reverse RPG, where a character begins at level 99 and gradually becomes disempowered throughout the game. This “progression” could be put into context by the gameworld, such as beginning the game at the “end” of a previous game, the character’s disillusionment as he finds that his sole reason for becoming level 99 in the first place was to “kill the dragon” and save the world, then realizing that killing the dragon isn’t really the point, then he slowly loses his power and his prior motivation while learning about a new version of the gameworld. The game is about a transition in how the main character (and the player) views the gameworld itself. Or better yet, a choice whereby a player can also play the game as a traditional RPG, becoming level 199 in order to kill a Mega Dragon and really, really, for reals, save the world this time.
A problem with heroism and standard RPG design is that the “hero” begins as a “normal person”, level 1 and thus considered useless and pathetic, well, good for growing wheat maybe, and through a magical journey filled with bravery and heroism becomes able to kill a dragon, finally becomes useful, not like those 99.999% of “normal people” with their cowardice, uselessness, and meaty bodies for dragon dinners.
So the “hero” leaves the people behind, transcending their meager lives, and does what they aren’t willing to do, murder thousands of creatures in order to become strong enough to murder a very tough creature. The game assumes this process is completely fine, there’s no challenge to the underlying assumptions.
In an era of Facebook and Twitter, where to some extent billions of people are connected and are finding that they are more similar to each other than they ever previously thought, the role of the “heroic individual” or “small band of heroes” saving the world to benefit the masses is as ludicrous as believing that killing a single creature, regardless of how odious he is, saves the world.
Blowing up the Death Star is useful, and bands of people all over the world take up arms to defend their locality – some of them are quite heroic although almost all of them are faceless to the wider world and are never featured in a heroic RPG. Blowing up the corporate towers (in Fight Club) is not useful, except to provide a fantasy of triumph amid a wreckage of despair.
Real life doesn’t have any Death Stars – no magical places where a single weapon shot, merely with pinpoint accuracy, destroys a super-key military installation. There are no magic bullets in real life and complex systems of power produce and reproduce military installations.
RPGs aren’t about heroism, they are about triumph. They make sure the player triumphs through the reload function and giving him superpowers not available to “monsters”. The only hope that monsters have to avoid death is for the player to become too bored to continue playing the game.
A solution may be not destruction, as RPGs tell us time and again, but re-construction – altering those complex systems of power to produce better results. We’ll have to give up our Fight Club and Star Wars fantasies of destruction and power over life and death to achieve such a thing.