RPGs: How far have we come?

Having recently bought some of the classic RPGs of the ages with my blog prize money (thanks GameRiot!), and then switching over to the modern ones of today, I can’t help but notice that some of these “classics” had to be classics in their own right because any other RPG choices of the time had to be God-awfully terrible. So today, in a rare occasion since I’ve pretty much stopped writing, I’ll be taking a look at the RPG genre; what it means, where we have gone with it, and what to expect out of it.

Back in my day we used to fight rats!

I know for the RPG community that there is a definite sense of nostalgia when RPGers get together to talk about “good” RPG games. Most, if not all, will cite an ancient classic. Maybe Planescape: Torment, or Baldur’s Gate, or TESII: Daggerfall. They’ll maybe even take a punch or a stab at the more current RPGs of today, citing about how “terrible” Oblivion is, or of what little choices you can make in Neverwinter Nights 2. What I can’t help but think after finally being able to play “the classics” is if this group of people can actually hear themselves talking.

In Oblivion, you start off as a prisoner, choosing only your race and appearance from the very start of the game. As you are in your cell the game’s story unfolds before you; right off the bat you have a sense of direction to follow (mostly because there is only one way out of the prison) and you also understand the underlying purposes that something big is unfolding here (you are, after all, in the presence of an Emperor). From the point you exit the sewers to the last Oblivion gate you close, you are never actually confused on what you should do. Of course, a handy compass and a quest directional arrow certainly helps that bit out, but you never actually lose an interest in playing the game because you know what to do at all times.

Our old geezer RPG group would label this as “shallow” and “easy,” undermining the idea behind what an RPG is, citing about how in Baldur’s Gate you can get lost right from the start of the game. Of course, that was the point, wasn’t it? Why Baldur’s Gate is only a cult classic? I mean, scratch the generic and boring plot that unfolds at the beginning of the game that is even a mystery to the player, but after you leave that city you may as well be stumbling around in the dark like Ray Charles. I don’t know about you but that’s not my idea of fun, which is a central theme in games I hear, and, sure enough, I chucked Baldur’s Gate to the side after a half hour into the game, lost, and constantly getting killed. That cryptic journal with zero directions wasn’t “fun” either.

You see, in Oblivion, there IS a sense of adventure. Want to know why? Because the environment is immersive. It’s beautiful. In fact, if Oblivion didn’t have that environment, then I would’ve chucked it to the side with Baldur’s Gate as well. There may be an arrow pointing you in a direction, but that’s about it. It doesn’t tell you HOW to get to point A to Point B. It doesn’t tell you what enemies you will be facing or how deep the dungeon will go. The sense of adventure is still fully there. Besides, Bethesda smartly learned from Morrowind that if they were going to be making games with 16 square miles of explorable land, then they better damn well give some sort of directional indicator if the quest log wasn’t going to give sensible directions (I shudder every time an NPC in Morrowind gives me directions to find someone: “Go outside my house, take a left down the street, take ten paces in a northwest diagonal direction, jump over the small rock, turn around three times, hop on one foot, and you’re there.”) If the scope of the game is large, then be prepared to offer alternatives to methods of travel if the vast majority of feedback is that people are getting lost.

This is why no one should ever cite the “classics” as good examples from people to pull ideas out of when it comes to the underlying design of a game. Planescape: Torment’s UI is TERRIBLE, and there is no way to shake a stick at it. That alone can make the experience of playing that game feel more like a chore than an adventure. Even worse is that Black Isle apparently made no attempt to change that for the next five or ten RPGs they made as well. And people wonder why they went out of business.

Excuse me person I do not know, can you perform this important task for me?

As anyone can tell you, some of the most important features to an RPG happens to be the quests found within the game, and that they can virtually make or break the entire game. I definitely agree on this notion. I do not agree, however, when the oldies get together and talk about how only the “classics” were doing this correctly. You see, in most RPGs, the main storyline is always supposed to be epic in some way. it involves royalty, it involves the fate of all humanity, it involves saving the world. You know, typical plot elements that happen every day. The execution on how to include your character, however, is always the wonder of how to mix plausibility with bullshittery.

Of course, here comes the difficulty to an RPG, however. Most purists will explain how an RPG should allow for any character of any setting to be played in it. Neverwinter Nights tried this pursuit; you can have a Chaotic Evil sorceress in the original campaign, but it doesn’t actually make any sense as to why your character is actually there helping people. Neverwinter Nights tired to offset that little tidbit of information by offering different options through dialogue; evil characters are helping the good guys because they want wealth and power. And rather than offer the idea of ransoming the plot items that you rescue to the good guys for that wealth and power, or even joining the bad guys, the game’s only outlet to pursuing your most evil pursuits come from the side quests in the game. Neverwinter Nights even taunts you with dialogue options when facing bosses, pleading with the boss to join forces with them, or serve under them, or something to that effect, but no matter what your modifier may be in bluff or charisma, the outcome is always the same: “Nope, time to die.”

It is important to realize that in order for an RPG to work in a video game setting, the plot actually has to sensibly involve the character, and that his options through his actions cannot truly influence the game’s plot unless the developers of the game offer that sort of path to take. So this is why the Emperor in Oblivion “sees you in his dreams,” or why in Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark, you are the one to defeat the Valsheeress (even if you betray the rebels and join her for a short moment), or in Dark Messiah of Might and Magic you are the one who is charged to find the dragonskull; it is because the game is built around your character.

The side quests to an RPG, however, always seem to trouble most games. This was most definitely prominent in older games, where people would actually come up to you in the street and ask you to rescue their wife, or reclaim a family heirloom, or save their town from marauding bandits. Despite the lewd amount of quest text Black Isles would include with most of their games, they never seemed to execute the underlying part of character TRUST when it came to dishing out important quest objectives to your character who doesn’t even know the NPC. Yeah, there’s a ringer. And, unsurprisingly, this is at least more well-executed in later RPGs to some degree. Dispositions in Oblivion didn’t allow you to partake in a personal quest unless that NPC “liked” you. Likewise, an NPC that “hated” you didn’t want to talk to you at all. The dynamics of RPG seem to be shaping up as we go along through the years; chalk up another point for modern RPGs.

Your choices are to kill the evil lich, kill the evil lich, or kill the evil lich

Considering we won’t actually be able to play a true role to our liking in an RPG video game, the only offset to this is to provide choices for your character to make. These choices can possibly influence the ending to the game, but, more than likely, they influence each specific quest they are on. However, the question is how many choices do you include so the player feels like he is in control of his character instead of the other way around?

This is why I understand Planescape: Torment is hailed as a great game on this remark. You are offered a number of different choices to pursue and complete quests, including my favorite, completing a quest without the resort to violence. You can talk your way out of things, use your intelligence modifiers to use logic in situations, or even tell white lies to avoid a violent outcome. Of course, Planescape: Torment doesn’t really aim at you playing your character that way. There are plenty of “snap his/her neck” dialogue options in the game as well. And given the setting of the game, where the law is kill or be killed, it’s a bit silly to expect your immortal character with battle scars all over him to resort to peaceful solutions.

This sort of plausibility is more noticeable in other games, such as Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. To spoil the game, you are actually the bastard child of a demon lord, trained by a wizard to prepare you to retrieve the dragonskull, an artifact of power that can free your father from his prison. To help you on your adventure, your wizard tutor has a demon spawn chick bound inside your head who greatly helps you on your quest(of course all of this isn’t revealed to you in full until much later in the game). Of course the big thing to Dark Messiah is that none of it is quest text; it’s all voice acting, and your character has a name as well, so in this respect you are actually playing someone else’s character. And while there are morally good choices you can make in the game, like purge your demon nature and the demon chick in your head and use the skull for good, it’s rather pointless to do so.

To give the full scope of what I’m trying to explain you have to understand what elements this game presents. Your character is quizzical in nature, rather care-free at the beginning of the game, not knowing what’s going on. There is, of course, this chick you meet upon your adventures to retrieve the dragonskull, who is morally good. However, she largely does not help your character except to open a gate for you. The demon spawn chick in your head, however, offers advice, how to solve puzzles, and among other things. When you die at one sequence in the game, it is the demon spawn chick who brings you back to life, using some of her power to tap into your true demon blood. When you meet up with the good chick later, she “senses” that something is amiss with your aura, and wants you to “cleanse” yourself of the “demon taint” at some temple. Your demon spawn chick even explains the logical; how can you even be interested in such a person if they cannot accept you for who you are (and you DO have demon blood inside of you). Sure enough if you choose not to “cleanse” yourself when you later meet up with the good chick, she goes all renegade on you and tries to KILL YOU.

This is where it becomes obvious that while Dark Messiah may offer a number of choices for you to make to influence your character, there is only one obvious choice given your character’s dialogue (when your character turns into the demon form for the first time, the demon spawn chick asks him how it felt, and he takes great pride in saying it felt great). It is important to make sure that the choices your character can make can at least make sense in the scope of the actual character, especially if he as a written-in-stone back story.

A persistently persistent world

It’s inevitable. The ending, that is. It’s an industry standard for a game to have an ending. You are treated to a final cut scene, the credits roll, and you are back to the title screen. And that’s it. There is no life after death for most games. In traditional PnP RPGs, however, the only ending is death (and even then you can be brought back to life or run a campaign in the afterlife). Sure enough all JRPGs have actual endings; you cannot continue afterward. The same thing happens for the rest of the barrel of RPGs as well; there is an ending and you cannot continue afterward. Then The Elder Scrolls series rolled out.

However, Oblivion was not the cat’s pajamas to the full effect just because you could continue to play in the game’s world after you beat the main quest story line. Yes, it is a defining feature of the game, but it certainly doesn’t denote the idea behind a persistent world game environment. What this essentially details is that the actions your character takes influences on how the rest of the world plays out. Such as shutting off a water valve to a city’s water supply; days later in the game people in the city are dying of thirst, or maybe there are water riots. You tell someone in town it was you who did it; now an angry mob is chasing after you. Or maybe you do the opposite; you tell them you can fix the problem and you are the town’s savior.

The only known series that has been known to do this is the Fallout series, although you don’t truly know about it until the ending of the game when Ron Pearlman starts reading the ballad of the wanderer(and even then for Fallout 2 not all of the changes are active). You can kill all the citizens in Neverwinter Nights, but you still save the city. You can spend seven years in-game of your time in Oblivion, but the Oblivion Invasion still hasn’t made any ground. You can fiddle around with side quests in Mass Effect, but Saren makes no progress to his next objective. You can kill Shenk the Overseer many times in Diablo II, but Harrogoth will still remain besieged.

Consider the alternatives to this: the longer you dilly dally in Oblivion, the worse the Oblivion Invasion becomes. Towns are invaded, citizens are slaughtered, the legionnaires from the over provinces are called back, battles and skirmishes take place, until, ultimately, there is an all-out war and the Daedra are besieging the Imperial City. Or how about if you were able to kill the Mythic Dawn agent who ran away with the amulet in the beginning of the game, or were able to steal the amulet when you infiltrated the Mythic Dawn, or were even able to kill Mankar Cameron before he stepped into his portal to Paradise. This is where Oblivion falls short, despite that the game persists after the ending; there is only one way to go through the game, and an attempt at any other way is impossible, especially when plot characters are marked immortal (you cannot kill Martin Septim, despite how many times you may stab him).

I suspect that if developers do not want to spend the time to offering such variety in gameplay, then they should stop boasting that their RPG games offer choices for your character to make. Killing a peasant and letting him live isn’t much of a choice that affects the game. There is, however, a light at the end of this tunnel, and it’s aimed at sandbox gameplay.

Humorously enough, the only game to pull this off with true success is actually Mount & Blade. Despite that there is minimal dialogue in Mount & Blade, the main plot, on the other hand, is what you make of it. Instead of waste time writing numerous outcomes to a complex story, they let you create your own–truly. Perhaps the character background questions when you first start the game aren’t the most graceful, and the entire scope of the game is shallow, but it is what it is. Be a mercenary, join the ranks of one of the many kingdoms, go to war, collect taxes, slaughter peasants, influence poverty, capture lords, and even usurp the throne to legitimate heirs–it’s all possible, and every game is different from the next. Despite how critically panned Mount & Blade is, it is the first RPG game to pull off a persistent world.

A world full of mutes

Gone are the days of silent NPCs. No more shall we be subject to reading oodles and oodles of dialogue text until our eyes are bloodshot. Developers are starting to realize why more people watch the news instead of reading about it. While there are some bouts of soundbites in earlier games, like cheeky one-liners, or in cut scenes in general, most, if not the entire game, is replaced with voice actors. Oblivion boasted that all of their NPC’s dialogue had voice acting to it. This was true enough. Of course, the only problem to having over 1,000 NPCs in the game is when you only have about six or seven voice actors, and only one of them could actually change the pitch in his voice (high five Wes Johnson, or should I say, “You sleep rather soundly for a murderer…”…or is it, “Stop! You’ve violated the law!” ?), then you might see where I’m going with this. The first time I played Oblivion I was very sure that Baurus and Armand were the very same person and was rather puzzled that there was no dialogue option for, “Don’t you work for the Blades?” Either way, I think it’s safe to say that everyone saw a mudcrab a couple of days ago.

Voice dialogue adds to the experience of immersion into an RPG, and without the environment, then you might as well just be playing with the speakers off. While it isn’t necessary to have voice actors, it is, however, rather silly to not expect as much from an industry that bills high profile actors to voice act some of today’s video game characters. I’m sorry, but Jeremy Soule’s music cannot save old Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale from tales of boredom when reading long lists of dialogue, not to mention that you are much more likely to retain what you hear instead of what you read (back to Morrowind quest directions…GAH!). This is why I think Mass Effect gets a definite mention in this department.

I was thoroughly surprised when playing Mass Effect to find that EVERY dialogue option has voice acting to it. What’s more, however, is that even your CHARACTER talks (which is a rarity for most games, RPG or otherwise [Hello mute Gordon Freeman]). The experience to the game changes ten-fold on that lay of the land right there, and it kept me interested in even the most menial of tasks. And here is a game that has a nice variety of voice acting as well, considering they didn’t go the Oblivion route and add 1,000 NPCs you could talk to.

The only downfall to Mass Effect in this department, however, is the dialogue options. The UI offers a wheel in choices, with only a few words to describe what your character will choose to say, and, most of the time, they will be the complete opposite of what you expect them to say. Other times you may see three or four choices to response dialogue, but the truth to it is that every response will make your character say the same soundbite. This was prominently noticeable when I was choosing kind words in the dialogue options for my character to say when speaking to the council, but he was saying less-than-kind words either way. The real variety to this system, however, falls in the category on whether you charm or bluff a character, which is where the voice acting does at least offer new soundbites, which makes up for the more menial ones. Either way, you won’t feel like doing a second play through any time over unless you choose the opposite sex to play the game, and even then the female’s voice dialogue is exactly the same as the male’s (except, of course, one is a male voice and the other is a female’s voice).

We come back again to our oldies like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or Neverwinter Nights, which offered a voice set for your character. Of course, this voice set was limited to the actions you could partake in the world and not the dialogue itself, but it made for a refreshing change when going through another play through in the game. But could you only imagine if you were able to choose from nine or ten different voice actors to voice the entirety of a game’s dialogue instead of just one? I know I can, and it certainly would add to the element of shaping your character.

The good, the bad, and Hellgate: London

While technology certainly has catapulted us into a new area of new images, mechanics, and what not, it certainly has not guaranteed a degree of success to the RPG genre on a whole. Publishers are aware that the video game industry is a top notch contender in today’s market, which means they can lower their standards and still sell successfully (Halo is a hit success after all). While Oblivion, Mass Effect, Neverwinter Nights, and other RPGs of today raise the bar in some standards, they still, however, are missing out on attempting to taking their games to the next step forward (and for some that means polishing the game before launching it). Even successfully sold games like Fallout 3 are direct examples on how to make a garbage RPG game. New does not always mean better, but it should.

Originally written: March 2009

About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

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