Friday, February 8, 2008

Narrative in RPGs

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.


hcduvall said...

So I think the distinction to be made here is that you’re calling for a return of single player rpgs, and hopefully good ones, and that the current crop haven’t done enough to make themselves immersive.

I don’t know if I think the developers are seeing the transition to 3D and graphics as a conscious tradeoff to emotional content—I think the argument is usually that better graphics puts you there. Then again, I don’t think the appeal of old school rpgs vs new turks is quite books vs movies style, where it leaves the imagination wanting. I think it’s more of a matter that the gameplay changing has changed the look of the rails of the story that the game is telling, and to some degree, the bigger ambitions on display in newer games.

I think we’ve discussed before how in Planescape (holy high watermark of rpgs, esp. since you haven’t played Fallout, you doof) the dialogue never defined the plot, just the character. Set things were going to happen no matter what, dialogue all led to the same place, but each one might indicate a different sentiment. I just finished Jade Empire, and some have been unfortunate in hearing me rant about how the ending pissed me off. It’s after one of those rants that I realized that it doesn’t matter to me what happens (I did get a choice, after all) but that none of dialogue described why I would do any such action (and some specifically used philosophical thinking I’m against). I wasn’t role-playing my character, I was just picking the plot resolution I wanted to see. Pissed me off, that.

But the switch to 3D engines has had a tradeoff on immersiveness, though not exactly the same way for me as you. There’s also the question of difficulty now that rpgs are half-fps or half-action, but with only a quarter hard (or stupid, considering Oblivion’s shit leveling scheme). For me, I’m also extremely annoyed when the the reality of gameplay clashes with the perceived one in dialogue or the like. Say you get offered a chance to cheat in a fight (Jade Empire), or sacrifice someone for a sword (Fable) or even you meet a bunch of antagonists who give you lip. If you’ve beaten everything before silly, it’s just incongruous to get any lip. This comes, I think, from translating old style difficulty ramping (more hit points, et al) with the new gameplay without accounting for the fact that such a method was always about turning fights into marathon runs. The games that pull of difficulty in 3-D aren’t mashers, but puzzles, like Zelda or God of War or Shadow of the Colossus. It was always a bit artificial the way the boss might have a prettier sprite and 18 million more hp or something, but at least you didn’t run through them in half a minute (as I could through the last 3 chapters in Jade Empire).

Anyway, I’m at work and I should stop. I will say that you’re a bit hard on the fetch quest, a proud part of the rpg genre. What jrpgs lack, usually, compared to “western” rpgs is even a half-assed attempt at making game mechanics coherent in their fictional universes. I mean, heal potions?

Also: Rockstar Games.

HoBs said...

heh. yeah. don't play many games anymore, but I did start God of War, and that has decent narrative. and shadow of colossus while I got bored after 5 or 6 bosses, was cinematically breathtaking. that is the extent of games i've played perhaps in the past few years, but did a decent job.

in terms of the golden age though. I still have affection for Betrayal at Krondor. Written by Raymond Feist (Got totally into his books after the game, read all 26 or so before I stopped) but the narrative totally worked as a game as well.

You can download it as freeware now. My brother did. Still a great game, though the ancient graphics are a little frustrating. you do appreciate that the hi-tech really does add something, when you go back to the lo-tech stuff.