Constant readers, I must confess that I feel sorry for Justin Beiber and Oliver Motok. Sure, one is a vile blight upon the soul of human culture in general, and the other one is Oliver, but underneath that callous and frightening exterior beats the heart of a gamer, and in that, we are brood. So I shall spare their tender feelings, and instead lambaste a perfect stranger at Kotaku that had the temerity to write a column with which I disagree. Take that, establishment.
As we get older, it is tempting to put on our rose-colored bifocals and lecture the young about how good things were in the old days. Anything new is chintzy, cheap, a symptom of throwaway consumer culture, watered down by the deteriorating cultural expectations of a society increasingly fascinated by its own navel. The old stuff is the good stuff, we muse, because when we were younger, the old stuff was the “cool new stuff” that the preceding generation thought was chintzy and cheap.
When I see articles like this one, about the deterioration of the Western role-playing game (by which of course the author means the computer RPGs of yore, to say nothing of their console-bound brethren), I have to sigh in frustration. While we all may remember Ultima and Wizardry fondly as groundbreakers and trailblazers, are they really better in either style or substance than modern games?
One of the things the author laments is the slow evaporation of the menu-heavy turn-based system. What once was a kludge owing to the limited nature of programming has now become a distillation of nostalgia. We find ourselves too pressured to click a hotbar or (worse) push a button instead of spending a good ten minutes wondering whether “Meteo” (because we cannot have more than 5 characters per spell name, thanks to limited memory!) or “Fire3” is the appropriate nuke spell to use. What absolute drivel.
If a slower, more sedate, chess-like pace of play is what the gamer desires, tactical RPGs abound. If micromanaging the creation and development of a character appeals to players, sandbox-style MMOs provide a far greater chance for depth, customization, and emergent gameplay than any single-player RPG produced.
My concern with RPGs going forward is not that they embrace the quirky conventionalism of stat-crunching, skill-selecting, menu-based mania of years past. That is, regrettably, the technological foible of trying to adapt the Great Western RPG (Dungeons and Dragons) to an electronic medium, initially for personal consumption. As games and gaming have expanded beyond merely a solitary experience, and technology has expanded at an exponential pace, I fear that too much fond remembrances of kludges past may bog us down from innovating.
Ideally, the game experience should reflect as little convention as possible. The recent forays into motion control are the fledgling steps in this direction. If commands can be executed by intuitive gesture rather than button combinations, the game experience becomes more natural. Every “layer” of artifice between the player and the game creates another layer of abstraction away from a truly immersive experience. Playing a role-playing game, in the ideal world, would be no different than playing make-believe as a child. Player choice would be limited only by our imaginations.
This sort of anti-abstracted escapism may never be fully achievable (absent sci-fi or cyberpunk’s total virtual reality worlds), but it is the eidolon to which we, as gamers, ought to ask the industry to strive.
By focusing in on the “good old days” in terms of mechanics and structure, we ignore what was actually good about those days (the stories, the depth) and romanticize what were merely necessary concessions to technological limitations (the game mechanics). It may be annoying to have to aim and shoot like in a first-person shooter to play Mass Effect, but truly, the FPS mechanic is more natural than pressing an arrow key to hover the cursor over our selected baddie (who is probably doing nothing more threatening than running in place), and then spending five minutes digging through somewhat obtuse menus for the perfect command. It eats time; it kills the natural flow of events. Narrative must suffer while I compare whether “Fight” or “Item” sounds better. Of course, aiming a projected target reticule with thumb sticks and then pressing one of a predefined set of buttons to fire a weapon is likewise not the way one would fire a weapon in life, so even the FPS mechanic contains concessions to a decades-old system of game control.
The basic premise of a role-playing game is that the player assume the “role” of a character within a story. Much ado is made about creating an original character (the Dungeons and Dragons model) but this not strictly necessary. Rather, the player must merely be responsible for the actions and choices of the character (something modern “morality” systems are getting better and better at defining). The player assumes, albeit to a limited degree, control over the narrative. In emergent sandbox games (like EVE Online), the players become the totality of the narrative. In other games, those choices may be more limited, but the player must still assume at least partial responsibility for the course of the narrative. The more intuitive and natural the situation of player within the world, the more naturally the narrative will flow from player choices.
The balance therefore needs to be between structure and free-play, not between how many stats are available for customization, or what the spread of potential race/class combinations is. Action-adventure games have become better at the mixture of mission-based story structure interspersed with free-play, while RPGs have suffered a bit (Oblivion stands to mind as an example of a game where players can fritter away and do literally nothing for hours of in-game time without meaningful consequence). Making some quests or missions time-sensitive (e.g., after the triggering event, players have six or seven hours of in-game time to complete the quest or the game resets) would go a long away to instilling a sense of narrative pace into otherwise open-ended games.
An overly structured game can feel on rails; a totally open-world game can feel directionless (much like real life). But a story is an artificial construct placed within a reality; it has devices that are used to advance the plot (sometimes artificially, see MacGuffins) but in true Dickensian fashion, a series of interesting coincidences happens that makes up an entertaining story. The trick with an RPG is to build in just enough coincidences to allow a story to form without forcing them through (too much) artifice. Games should feel destiny and fate without succumbing to fatalism.
One barrier to this still remains technological: despite advances in coding practice, memory storage, graphics and physics engines, and so forth, a game is still a limited computer construct created by humans. But as our technology increases, as our creativity increases and we look for new interfaces between player and game that drop the controllers, keyboards and mice of the past, so does our ability to craft more engaging and immersive stories. But we will not reach gaming nirvana by romanticizing about our favorite memories of “GO LEFT;” we will realize it by transforming what we loved so much about exploring the Great Underground Empire into something that very nearly replicates the experience on a visceral, physical level.