Recently, I rediscovered a rather half-hearted editorial I wrote for CheatMasters about the evolution of western role-playing games (WRPGs) just after the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on November 11, 2011. I personally favor WRPGs over Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) because they were what I had more fun with growing up. With that in mind, here is a commentary of what I had written in that editorial, pointing out what I had gotten wrong then, and more.
I’ve recently started getting back into playing computer role-playing games (CRPGs) due to a resurgence in enthusiasm, mostly brought on by releases like Shadowrun Returns and the Baldur’s Gate Enhanced Edition titles. Upon seeing this editorial again after two years, I’ve decided to put up a commentary upon it to clear my head on what I think now about CRPGs, how they were enjoyed back in the day, and what we could expect in the future.
NOTE: I’m no expert when it comes to RPGs, but merely a big fan of them. This article merely contains my own opinions and observations, so the information laid out here were compiled to the best of my knowledge and research.
In the advent of Skyrim’s release, it seems appropriate to sum up everything that has happened thus far with role playing games in this editorial. The views expressed in this article are those by a man who stands in between the old and new. While effort has been taken to offer the most balanced opinion possible in the subject, there will still be people who will be keen to point out various mistakes and philosophical complications from sources both mainstream and obscure. Whatever these criticisms are, this article was not written to entertain such notions. What this ultimately tries to express is that we should merely enjoy games as they are and not be caught up by things both old and new. Quality is what counts, and others need not be hindered from enjoying what their counterparts may not prefer.
As far as first paragraphs go, this one is a bit dismal. It’s a big block of text that readers have to squint at in order to read, and they haven’t even started yet. I could have split it in half to make things easier. I knew how RPG fans can be very up-in-arms about this topic, so I went with a middle of the road disclaimer of sorts. However, it was a cop-out at best as I wasn’t decisive with whether I was writing for the casual fans or the more knowledgeable hardcore crowd, and I certainly can’t please them both.
The sight of an enraged nerd pushing up his glasses while talking about how video games are so watered down and catered to casual fans can be pretty funny, but there are some points that count in game development and marketing upon giving the progression of western-style role playing games a closer look. To do so, we must first look at a brief history of computer RPGs, mostly those made in the western hemisphere of the world. There is much history in the making of these vehicles of stories, visualizations, and products of imagination through the power of interactive media.
This is just me being passive-aggressive about the stereotypical bitch nerd who gets way too serious about hating “filthy casuals”, which is a common sight in gaming forums and such. I ascribe to Wil Wheaton’s “don’t be a dick” mantra, even though I tend to whine about the casual crowd sometimes. But then again, no serious gaming enthusiast can avoid doing so in this day and age. Such is the nature of judging subjective experiences.
The good part of such antagonistic behavior towards watered-down and poorly-designed RPGs though is that we get to see popular titles deeper through attention to every single flawed detail. A good example of someone who does this is Noah “Spoony” Antwiler of The Spoony Experiment, who has reviewed titles like the Ultima series, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy XIII (recently) in extraordinary obsessive-compulsiveness.
However, even the best RPG titles tend to have their own share of flaws due to how complex it is to design such games (e.g. Arcanum). Developers are bound to stumble at some point and leave gaffes that range from minuscule to being plot-breaking during the long development cycles that come with making CRPGs of any sort. Most people tend to overlook them, but the more eagle-eyed gamers would question how such mistakes got past playtesting.
It all started with the desire to convert the classic pen-and-paper RPG into a digital experience during the 1970′s. This was achieved mainly with text-based adventure games, the most popular of which is Rogue. While not the first in its genre, Rogue stood out with its clever use of ASCII characters to map out dungeons and the use of movement keys to command your character to a certain direction. The trends set by these games evolved with the advancement of computer technology and role playing games start coming out in other platforms, especially in consoles.
Perhaps a bit of history lesson here, although I myself am not that familiar with it since I wasn’t even born yet during those days. There is a documentary called Get Lamp, which talks about text adventure games and interactive fiction. That genre is an integral part of CRPG history, and there are still some games coming out that hark back to those days. However, younger gamers may look at them with a sugar-glazed look in their eyes.
Nowadays, the storytelling rule-of-thumb “show, don’t tell” is taken so literally these days, to the point that a lot of newer games tend to show too much too soon and don’t give enough room for audiences to figure things out for themselves. RPGs are all about the narrative, and both exposition and showing too much outside of lore tend to drag it down, even if the audience is the really hardcore crowd who would read every bit of flavor text in every game. There has to be pacing and tension, just like with any other story.
Interactive storytelling is the main engine that drives RPGs, upon which decisions affect what happens next. What separates RPGs from other interactive fiction though is the level of control over the assumed character, from his statistics, his equipment, and so on. On the other hand, something like Gone Home (not an RPG) has a set protagonist, but makes use of the same first-person perspective and interaction with environment like in RPGs.
If you want to go a bit further back, you have the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which also work in the same principle of choosing which path to take in every fork you encounter.
There are distinctions between RPGs that most people in the western world would associate with dungeon-crawling and dragon-slaying, and those made in the eastern half of the world. The Japanese were not far behind in influencing modern RPGs. While counted as a separate genre, the JRPGs that were released in Europe and North America did have a sizeable audience. Certain elements like random enemy encounters, turn-based combat, and the party system has crossed over to western RPGs and vice versa. The gameplay elements traded back and forth between the two gaming cultures in terms of their role playing games have been a topic of discussion for decades now, and even new generations of gamers see the convergence between those that are fundamentally different.
The party system in JRPGs didn’t necessarily inspire similar mechanics in WRPGs since that has been a staple in Dungeons and Dragons since ancient history, and it could have actually been the other way around. But perhaps its prevalence in JRPGs did make it stick more as a thing in role-playing games, which made games like Baldur’s Gate and Dragon Age make sense to people outside the DND crowd.
There have been RPGs that show convergence of east and west, like Dragon’s Dogma and Dark Souls. Some games take it a bit further, like Atlantica Online, which reminded me of Suikoden II. Atlantica was developed by NDOORS Corporation, a South Korean company, so it’s not exactly western. But it does illustrate that the MMO boom during the 2000’s paved the way for RPGs with elements from both regions.
I plan to write more about the differences between Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs, or perhaps even a video. To get a crash course on cultural differences in this genre, you can read through this Wikipedia article for starters.
Once graphics had improved to the point of being much less abstract than its predecessors, the attention turned towards the actual gameplay. With better control over the character, actions can now be taken directly through the controls. Blizzard Entertainment had taken in a group of developers who later became known as Blizzard North, and these guys had a simple concept to make RPGs a more hands-on experience, drifting away from the realm of complicated character sheets and various manuals that explain the mechanics. The game that exemplified this was Diablo.
I’m still not sure if this was the correct depiction of the history, especially with other CRPGs like Ultima, Might and Magic, and others being a big part of that development. Citing only Blizzard and their product as the primary was perhaps unfair, not to mention that it was actually the brainchild of the independent company Condor, which later became Blizzard North. It soon paved the way for the Action RPG (ARPG), which focused on real-time combat and simplified character progression. Other ARPGs include Titan Quest and Torchlight.
There are also other games that influenced this genre, such as Legend of Zelda. While not explicitly an RPG, it plays enough like one and was popular enough to be a source of inspiration for most game designers, which then made it influential to CRPGs that soon followed. Everything that came before it was limited by both the technology of the time and the logistical obstacles present during that time.
Reading this now, I realize that I’m not much of a gaming historian. Most of my experience on the “good ol’ days” were during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, but what I played during those days did showcase ongoing development in CRPGs, such as Arcanum and Nox. I do believe that Nox is an underrated title, and was compared to Diablo II during its time. Unfortunately, it was then acquired by Electronic Arts along with Westwood and nothing else came out of it.
Perhaps it wasn’t the first game to take a more direct and automated approach to role playing games, but it surely popularized and innovated this approach. Soon enough, the floodgates were opened and various games of this new hack-and-slash approach came and made RPGs more accessible to new players. As more titles came out with various new additions to the overall gameplay, eyebrows started to rise up as certain groups of people started to notice things that they didn’t really agree with. Most of these debates focused on the choice between top-down and first person perspectives in RPGs.
My mind was focused on the first-person versus top-down argument due to having close friends who expressed dislike for RPGs in first-person. They cite a lot of factors that make first-person RPGs not as good as isometric ones. Most of that negative sentiment was seen during the release of Fallout 3, which was a game that I did enjoy for a while, but then felt to be unsatisfying due to flaws in various areas.
Fallout 3 brought out dissent and dissatisfaction from the old-school fans of the Fallout series. It did quite well in exploration and maybe even narrative, but its character and combat systems were flawed, and fans of the old games could never get past that. Also, its “boss fight” was such a letdown, especially after having faced The Master and Frank Horrigan in Fallout 1 and 2 respectively.
However, I really liked Skyrim when it came out because it gave me the sense of wonderment in exploration that I felt in Arcanum. Of course, it did overhaul the system from previous Elder Scrolls games by removing stats entirely and focusing on skills for character progression. It’s still not perfect since you can “cheat” on leveling certain skills like Smithing, Stealth, and Block.
At least it’s way better than Fallout 3, although I did like Fallout: New Vegas and I’m optimistic for Fallout 4 (if it ever comes out).
To Be Continued
This is gonna get pretty long, and it seems that there will be at least two parts. This first part went past 2,100 words, including the block quotes containing the article being annotated on. You may read the original article here.
If you think anything said here has been erroneous or problematic, then please feel free to leave a comment below. The reason why I post these is to see what you think about role-playing games, as well as the differences between my perspective and yours.