Sunday, July 28, 2013

The 64-Square RPG


[The following is from a blog entry I did for my Chess.com blog.  Seeing how it is about a year old, I am surprised that my feelings on the current (dismal) state of CRPGs has not changed (I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I think Crusader Kings II is the only true CRPG out there at the moment!)  I am posting it here because the criticisms contained in this post are as valid as ever.]


I realized something interesting recently: even though I have played my fair share of computer role playing games, I rarely blog about them. Oh sure, occasionally I will have a post about how RPG X has really impressed me with some facet of its gameplay, but rarely do I find myself drawn into an ongoing narrative as I have been wont to do with other genres. This is strange when you stop and think about it. I mean, RPGs by definition are designed to weave an engaging story that should be readily tailored into not just a single blog posting, but multiple posts. Yet, despite playing a series of expensively produced, high profile RPGs over the years, none have had sufficient merit for me to make more than one or two drive-by postings. What is going on here?

I think there are a few things that I find wanting in most contemporary RPGs:

First off, the story: it’s usually a bizarre recipe for trite convolution. That is, the story is inevitably one we’ve been exposed to countless times before: you know, the hero and his plucky band that must stave off a cartoonish evil that has been unleashed upon the land – of course, ‘the land’ being a superficial medieval setting that lacks any of the actual depth of that period. But because this is such a trite tale, game devs can’t resist muddying the waters by painting on a thick coating of their own concocted chrome, something that adds nothing to the story but does succeed in making the whole plot seem like the fevered dream of an adolescent boy who had read a bit too much Tolkien before hitting the sheets. I think Dragon Age: Origins, my favorite RPG, is a good example of this. I mean, that game’s lore was so convoluted that I couldn’t make sense out of its calendar’s various epochs, let alone the story!

Not that the details of the story matter anyway, because the player is usually so busy questing that the plot fades into the background. This syndrome is made worse if, like me, you are not the type of player who powers through the entire game in a few sittings. Usually by the time I complete a game – which is a rarity when it comes to these multi-hour epics - I have completely lost the narrative thread and just work my way through the campaign one quest at a time until it ends. I have always found it very telling that with just about every RPG it is entirely possible to continue playing without having the faintest clue about what it going on. Sort of begs the question: if you can play without understanding the story…do you even need a story? (It is entirely possible that Aterdux Entertainment, devs of the forthcoming RPG Legends of Eisenwald, might be the first fellows to realize the needlessness of an intricate plot for a CRPG. Quote: “Heroes of our legends are not saving the world and are not participating in the wars between gods. Rather, they are directed by human motivations: by a desire to find glory (and wealth), by blood feud, revenge and even by unrequited love.”)

Second problem: just where is the role playing in these role playing games, anyway? With the exception of some superficial choices – gender, race, stats, and order of quest acceptance – the player is almost always tied to the pre-conceived game mechanics favored by the devs from the conception phase. In other words, no matter what the player does, he still is dancing to a tune called by the coding dungeon master. Once you realize this it becomes clear that most RPGs aren’t, but rather are just as rigid as any other genre in the player freedom department. And when you get right down to it, for RPGs that means that they are all little more than elaborate arenas for slaying monsters and gathering loot, the preferred dominant game mechanic for this genre (have to hand it to Blizzard, their Diablo franchise cut to this chase long before anyone else did). Not a lot of opportunities for role playing there….

Then there is the problem of death. Rather, I suppose the problem isn’t one of death, but of infinite rebirth. By that I mean most RPGs allow a save and restore mechanic, something understandable considering the ferocious nature of these games. But if the player can cheat death by an external mechanic, is he really role playing at the point? When a dragon turns your level 12 elf into a pile of ash time and again, but each time you simply restore from a saved game and start the battle anew…well, where’s the role playing in that? In real life, dead is dead, after all. I think this is the biggest flaw of the contemporary RPG market – the lack of perma-death. Nothing, in my opinion, sucks the epic out of a heroic tale as knowing that, in effect, the player’s character is immortal by way of a programmed cheat. When you are immortal, every fight is already won, every dragon already slain. After all, they are mortal and you are not. Oh sure, it may take twenty restores to win a final victory over Snaggle Tooth, but it will be done eventually. Hence, every fight that should be memorable, that should inspire the bard to song, is reduced to a mere battle of attrition. You won…but who cares? With immortality, who wouldn’t eventually win just by sheer exhaustion on the part of your foe? That is why no bard sings of “Brave Eric, the Save and Restore Knight”.

Which brings us to the final problem: most RPG experiences become extremely repetitive really fast. I think this is why I blog so infrequently on the latest RPG to catch my fancy. After the newness of the setting and mechanics wear off, I inevitably become quickly bored. All the promises of epic questing, of bloody triumphs by sword and shield, of dark tragedies involving fiendish monsters and maidens in distress, all of these promises quickly become reduced to ‘left click’ and ‘right click’, save and restore. Yawn. And it’s all made the more pointless by the knowledge that there are thousands of other players out there experiencing almost the same thing, if in a different order.

Ultimately this is why I so rarely find myself sufficiently excited by a RPG to blog about it on a regular basis. All too quickly it becomes clear to me that most RPGs have the gameplay depth of Space Invaders. Heck, if we could give our little cannon a few tweakable stats and include some loot drops from the aliens, it would probably qualify as a RPG by today’s standard!

Interestingly, whenever the latest RPG begins to wear thin, I always find myself rebounding back into Chess. In many ways Chess manages to capture the role playing essence better than most other contemporary RPGs. Sure, there is no real story to chess, just a superficial medieval graphical theme (albeit, it must always be pointed out that unlike other posers, Chess is an actual medieval game!), but as I wrote above, that is probably for the best when all things are considered.

I suppose the RPG part of the game is best captured by the player’s Elo. Like a character’s “level”, a Chess player’s Elo score is a great snapshot of skill, one earned point by point just like ”XP” in a traditional CRPG. However, unlike the frivolous way a player can earns scads of XP by slaying tons of generic monsters over a relatively short period of time, Elo points require a real investment of time, doubly-so if the player prefers correspondence Chess. It can literally take years to amass a respectable sum. And unlike the frenetic action of most RPGs, Elo points are won one (er…1?) battle at a time where every move needs to be carefully considered and fit into an overall battle plan to defeat the opponent’s king. I have played many a RPG that has taxed my trigger finger to the point of breaking, but only Chess has gotten me to sweat blood over each and every move. And Chess, like real battle, is emotionally exhausting. It is for this reason that each Chess game, nay, each Chess battle, leaves a powerful memory in its wake. Unlike my faceless and pointless CRPGs victories, a victory in Chess is something that is truly worth celebrating. Likewise, every defeat leaves a very real emotional blemish. There’s no “save and restore” in Chess, after all.

Unfortunately, there are no “loot drops” in Chess. However, we do get to level up our pawns when they reach the back rank (getting a shiny new piece is a type of loot!)  What is more, every Chess player gets a trophy at the conclusion of the battle – the PGN score. So that is something, at least....

+++++++

[Interestingly, after I originally posted this blog entry, the militant feminists over at Rock, Paper, Gloria Steinem...er, I mean Shotgun, had this to say about Diablo 3:

"I digress. Diablo III is certainly stupid on many levels, but its calculating heart is anything but. It’s computer chess writ at lightning pace and with countless bolt-on new pieces. That is to say, it’s always and forever the same thing. You can change the look of the board and you can raise the challenge of the opponenents [SIC], but the game itself is reliably unchanging no matter how far through it you play, no matter how many times you play it. What can and likely will change is you – your skill."  

Here, the chess-comparison is interesting, if faulty.  The truth is: most CRPGs would be far more interesting if they DID resemble chess in the ways I explain above.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.  If Diablo 3 does resemble chess, it is only with its medieval theme and little else.]

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