It's been ages since anyone's written, but Duvall tells me he's got a post coming up. So, in the interest of restarting this thing, I'd like to discuss something that's been on my mind. No, not the election, although a post on that may come soon enough.
No, I've been thinking about RPGs, specifically this roundtable discussion. I never really played the classic computer RPGs like Ultima, becoming engrossed in the genre during Black Isle's heyday of Icewind Dale (ID - only okay), Baldur's Gate (BG - grand and epic, but a little trite), and Planescape: Torment (PT - probably one of the finest examples of narrative).
But, as the roundtable discusses, they just don't make RPGs like they used to. Something has gone out of the narrative and immersion. American cRPGs are beginning - in my mind - to resemble Japanese ones. You're dropped into the middle of events, and you're essentially a glorified gopher. Your tasks focus on picking up the 3, 4, 8 fragments needed to put the magic weapon back together, complete the ingredients to your spell, save the world. But you have little choice in the matter, and your actions don't mean anything as a result. As important, the worlds feel "artificial:" they don't feel lived in, as if they persist both before and after your character.
And I think one of the main reasons for this drop in immersion is technology. Sure, graphics in the past few years have made a tremendous leap. The Infinity engine has nothing on the Aurora engine. But text used to play an enormous role in these games, mostly because the engines couldn’t produce the effects that were needed. Pretty lights? Sure thing. Big explosions? Check. Emotive effect through facial animation that can keep up with your dialogue choices? Uh oh.
But that was okay. Well-written text created immersive environments and effective narrative when combined with the literally thousands of characters that inhabited the BG and PT games.
With the newer technology, designers have opted for fewer characters and fancier graphics, thinking that tech can potentially substitute for the emotional content that came from narrative. But – to cite just one example – when you enter cities in Oblivion, do you notice something missing? That's right: people. The world outside may be vast and fun to explore. But the cities are sparse and lifeless affairs, because there is no background to explain WHY you should become the head of the fighter’s guild, why your choice is meaningful beyond the swag that you receive.
I think the strongest analysis in the roundtable is that RPGs have become, in effect, single player MMORPGs. No real background, no real narrative, no “world.” Which is why I’ve been finding myself getting into shooters. The best – Half-Life 2, Call of Duty 4 – tie your actions into a larger narrative much more effectively than many recent RPGs, and they do it with a variety of content and gameplay (it also helps that guns are just that much better from a first person perspective). They are immersive: nowhere near PT, but better than NWN1. But they don’t set themselves up as needing to create a coherent world.
So, RPG makers, craft a narrative that gives meaning to my choices; make me care about a character’s relationships, not about leveling up; immerse me a rich history. Give me worlds again.