RPG Ponderings

Earlier I was thinking about the games we’ve got lined up this year, and I got thinking some more…and then I figured I’d write down these useless thoughts:

The all-knowing Wikipedia defines RPG video games upon the originals like Dungeons and Dragons, noting that it’s mechanics and style has often been simply re-skinned, with a few minor differences, forming the basis of the traditional Role-Playing Game. I’m sure many have pondered the classics over and over: Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate to Zelda: Ocarina of Time, so on and so forth, but I’m no expert, especially on the more retro and Japanese titles, so I’ll stick to discussing the future and present of this genre, remarkable though those classics may be. So what sets RPGs apart, for me personally, in light of games like Mass Effect, which almost defies the genre, is their ability to let the player control more than one simple aspect or role. In Call of Duty you run around, shooting and blowing stuff up – nothing wrong with that I might add, but Fallout 3 for example, lets me create weapons, pickup random objects, or trade, as well as unleashing my real life-induced anger.

The genre itself is inexorably drenched in ambiguity, and this, I feel, is a fantastic thing, to be cherished, for the loosely defined guidelines allow and encourage innovation where other games might be afraid to stray off the path of what’s known to work. Of course, there’s a tried and tested stereotype RPG that many love, just look at the hordes (literally) of gamers indulging in World of Warcraft night after night, but RPG’s lend themselves to originality if the developer chooses to follow that path because, as I discussed before, they allow you to explore any aspect of the role you’re taking on, and they are often closer to problems and choices we face in real life than other genres; For instance, I know for a fact that choosing whether I help someone with a problem, or take advantage of them is a decision I more often come across than deciding whether an M16 might be more accurate with a laser sight on it or not.

Another feature many would argue is paramount in RPGs is choice and decision. The ability to choose one’s own path is held dear by many, and while it needn’t be forced arbitrarily into every game, it’s something that gives certain games that real personalisation of an experience. One matter in particular seems to perplex and annoy certain reviewers over and over, and this is the mother Theresa/Hitler problem, meaning when the game only allows you to follow one of two very clichéd and predictable paths of extremity – it’s either unquestioningly helping, without thought of self preservation or slaughtering all involved then defecating on their corpses…well not quite that but the issue still remains. Shades of grey is where it’s at…No, not the 1986 EP from Christian rock ban The Choir; I’m talking about exploring the options in between the two extremes. It is perhaps more time consuming to create a story with such subtleties, but infinitely more rewarding. Dragon Age: Origins had a good crack at this, and the original Mass Effect, with it’s new approach to the morality system (Paragon and Renegade), not only made things a little more interesting, but redefined they way your character would be judged. Indeed, all the time the leading RPG developers: Bioware, Obsidian, Bethesda etc, fortunately for us, are looking at new ways to improve this mechanic. Obsidian’s upcoming Fallout: New Vegas has both a Karma system to reflect your character’s morality and a reputation system, in order to distinguish how people perceive you and how much of bastard you really are – other genres just don’t get this kind of attention to innovating such specific game mechanics.

Then there’s the setting – Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, commented recently in a review of Dragon Age: Origins that it’s amazing how our society is so bent on escapism that the words “standard fantasy setting” can be taken seriously. The generic world with elves and dwarves that Tolkein essentially created is tried and tested but it’s nice to see new RPGs deviate a bit – obviously there’s your space setting (KOTOR/Mass Effect) but a previously untapped era is that of the Victorians/Industrial Revolution. Lionhead Studios’ Fable 3 is taking this route, and I commend them, though certain usual RPG elements have been stripped from this sequel – It’ll probably fall a great deal short of what any of us would hope for; Nevertheless this period was pivotal in the real world’s history, and the dark, dirty streets haven’t ceased to fascinate modern fiction fans yet. Alpha Protocol is doing it’s bit to spice up the RPG landscape as well, and I think, if implemented correctly, with enough significant choices, and obviously, solid gameplay (Mass Effect’s improvements in the sequel showed us that shooter RPGs need serious groundwork on gameplay as well as the rest of the frills) it could give us something fresh and fancy to chew on.

Now I know I’ve rambled on a lot about Bioware games already, but they really do stand out, particularly as they’re one of the only developers who attempt to add a true love mechanic with at least a little choice. Undoubtedly this goes hand in hand with they’re ability to convey cinematic and narrative brilliance, but it doesn’t mean other designers couldn’t learn a thing or two. As they say, “love changes everything” and if you do, at least on some level, feel involved (and you’re more likely to with choice), it reinforces and enhances the story and the gravity of decisions; and if you don’t buy that, it’s always nice to have the fairer species to brighten up the place, as it were.

The difficulty with the genre lies in what it’s trying to achieve; it is by nature ambitious – to create something of a real life for the chosen character and setting without it becoming mundane, yet making customisable and diverse enough for it to be fleshed out sufficiently. In this sense the developers of these games bear the heaviest weight on their shoulders, and some of what we’d love to see (bigger worlds, more characters, more customisation and objects) is simply constrained by time, which in turn is controlled by money – the very reason they exist. I’d gladly welcome any technological advancement that can improve this situation, but bigger isn’t always better, as for example, Mass Effect 2 showed us. Some complain that they can’t do anything they want when they become Shepard, that they have to save the universe, and are forbade becoming a Janitor or whatever. I can understand where they’re coming from, but Shepard’s mission is predefined in some senses and it’s the way it plays out where the choice comes, and they relationships with different characters. Only by partly pre-defining the story and character can Bioware possibly offer the same fantastic, narrative-rich, experience.

So if RPGs, and other games too, can be related to sophisticated narrative adventure, like all literature, why does the debate about games as art still rage on? Interactivity I suppose is the key; whether or not the viewer/admirer should have input. There are countless examples of installation and modern art that have allowed, encouraged and required audience participation, and we could get all deep about it, but honestly, I don’t understand how anyone could argue that certain games aren’t art or artistic. The very art that makes up character models and world design constitutes art, let alone story, lighting and intriguing themes – it’s the player’s individual experience of the game combined that makes it art, for art, as I think many would argue can be a very personal thing – it’s how your brain reacts to visual imagery, feelings and sound – simple as that.

Role-playing games let you see how you might handle a certain role, whether that be a specific king or hero or a loosely defined wanderer in any world you can imagine. It is truly ingenious that we are able to carve out our own paths, and if nothing else, to boast to others how got rid of Zaeed in the suicide mission on purpose. It’s the personalisation, and how it affects the outcome, and this is why developers often get lost in the possibilities and neglect the gameplay. At least, this year, the worst we can expect are new settings, stories and characters and the best we can hope for is innovation and originality, that will, with any luck, push the industry, so rabid and grasping for the money in our pockets, forward, allowing it to hold itself up. Thanks for reading my thoughts on some admittedly, quite basic stuff, that I find very interesting to ponder upon – weekly news round up sunday!

March 4th, 2010
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