24.4.09

Role-Playing Games

Many golden eras ago, I recounted my first contact with the alluring world of computer games. I was very lucky, for the first two games I encountered, quite by chance, turned out to be famous and critically acclaimed masterpieces of their respective genres: the turn-based strategy Alpha Centauri, and the sword & sorcery role-player Baldur's Gate. My promise to talk about the latter has long gone unfulfilled, now I shall finally turn to it.

But not yet. First, I want to address my experiences with cult classic, and the granddaddy of all RPGs, Diablo II. I got the game off a friend fairly recently, having long been aware of its reputation - it's huge! It's addictive! You're fingertips will have eroded away by the time you complete it! So I was excited.

And I ended up disappointed. The game launched with a long, visually impressive (despite its years), but ultimately incomprehensible cut scene, setting out the story. It's a sequel, and perhaps those who have played Diablo I would understand what was happening, but I was at a loss. Next, you pick one of six possible characters as your avatar, and you're off. Missions are terribly simple: kill everything in your way. This requires little in the way of skill, but great amounts of frenzied clicking at the various hordes of nasties that attack you on sight. Having got through the first area, after much wetwork, I was presented with another incomprehensible cut-scene. On the other side, I found myself in a desert, which called for exactly the same m.o. At that point, I gave up.

The problem I had with Diablo was that the endless repetitive tasks I had to go through were not rewarded with cogent, enticing developments in character, plot or world building. It seems strange to talk about such things in relation to games, but in RPGs they are essential. Diablo gave me one character (a Barbarian) who reacted to his environment in the simplest of terms. He possessed no inwardness, and had no relationship with the identikit mercenaries you are allowed to hire. Moreover, his story was quite detached from the unfolding drama in the incomprehensible cut-scenes. It had no momentum of its own.

I contrast this with Baldur's Gate, where your avatar is the motor for a story that moves into wider world developments and comes to dominate them. You become emotionally involved in what is going on from the very beginning. Most importantly, your character isn't alone. Baldur's Gate provides a score of distinctive personalities that can join your party as you go on your adventures - Clint Eastwood clone Kivian, endless pessimist Xan, nervous wimp Khalid and the incomparable Minsc and his pet hampster Boo (GO FOR THE EYES!). These NPCs have clever scripts and can interact with one another. They have backstories and individual voices. In short, they possess an inwardness. You can work your imagination onto the models provided by the game, and fill in the blanks, You can see them sitting around the campfire, or trading insults, developing relationships. I believe this is the particular appeal of Role-Playing Games outside a computer, although I've never played them. They give you a world and the mechanics to generate plot, and then the players can get to work on imagining and building the characters that walk through it.

I got to the very end of Baldur's Gate, following the engrossing plot and exhausting every side quest along the way. The final battle I found impossible to complete, but it didn't matter. I had hacked the game to unlock the final cut-scene, acquiring the final piece of the story. For me, the gameplay wasn't the thing (although games always have to get that right). I needed to find out what happened next.

This may be why I had less success with Neverwinter Nights. First of all, the game design, like Diablo, was boxy and didn't feel real. More importantly, your party is restricted to you and a mercenary. So while you can overlay this single relationship with whatever your imagination desires, it's ultimately less engrossing than having six personalities to play with, as in Baldur's Gate. I could sustain interest only by hiring each of the available mercenaries in turn, and unlocking every part of their backstory along the way. This wasn't enough. Approaching the second big set-piece battle I lost interest in the main plot and gave up.

I want to end by mentioning the only RPG I have played that has matched, indeed exceeded, Baldur's Gate. I speak of Planescape: Torment, which I borrowed off another friend (it's good to have friends!). Visually, the game is extraordinary. While keeping a medieval tone, the design of the environments and species is awe-inspiringly weird and wonderful. It takes it's fantasy seriously. Next, the NPCs not only hint at an inwardness, they have carefully scripted moral values and philosophies. The plot is immediately gripping (starting with you waking up on a mortuary slab with no memory and a talking skull for company) and constantly surprising and engaging. Finally, the game has actual themes. Don't ask me what they were, I haven't played it in years. But I remember walking away from it amazed.

I guess the point I have been making (perhaps I've already made it) is that brilliant games require more than just addictive tasks and rewards, like say tetris. They need brilliant writing and design. The worlds and characters they create need to engage our imaginations, so that we actively seek to fill in the gaps the creators have left. The best games build worlds which we want to explore, encouraging us to interact with them to a much greater degree than the requirements of simple gameplay.

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