What makes a good computer RPG

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/02/27/what-makes-a-good-computer-rpg.html

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FicklePerkyArchaeopteryx-max-1mb

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“Every pixel is its own square,”

Yes?

“and you can explore it all—”

YES??

“but every step of the way, you’re trapped in a 1991 Amiga RPG.”

Y. . .nnnnooooooooooo!

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Chester Bolingbroke on the three elements that must be well-balanced to make a good computer role-playing game: breadth, depth and immersion.

I present to you the ultimate RPG in all three categories: https://boingboing.net/rob/tinyhack/

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Waiting for an RBG RPG.

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Just go to the definition: a CRPG is a game where the player assumes a “Role”. Specifically, the role of an obsessive-compulsive homicidal kleptomaniac.

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Breadth works against both depth and immersion, and unfortunately breadth (particularly in the sense of maximizing hours of gameplay) has usually been the primary focus of development. Because everyone jumps on a game if it isn’t long enough, but depth and immersion are hard to quantify.

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Is there a downside?

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Which still beats being trapped in a 2019 Trump infused America, but perhaps not by much. Fewer fascists at least.

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See Dragon Age 2.

Damn it, yes, there’s only 12 maps repeated over and over and the enemy wave mechanics are crap, but there’s some damn good story in there!

This is, apparently, the hill I have chosen to die on.

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The thing I loved about the first Ultima game was that you could go behind the counters and steal from the shop keepers.

Of course as soon as you were caught it would trigger the guards to come bash you to death. But even if you were caught you could keep stealing, or try to slip past them.

I learned that there was one town where I could lure the guards in such a way that I could consistently slip out of town without them catching me.

I also forgot to say that there were no level limits on what you could/couldn’t use, and what you could successfully steal from the shops was random, within their categories. And the Armor shop was next to the Weapons shop in this town.

I ended up with some kind of fusion blaster and powered armor, if I remember correctly. At that point I no longer had to run from the guards.

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In Pool of Radiance you could hire NPCs at the adventurers’ guild, then take them somewhere suitably far away, pick a fight with random monsters, then “accidentally” target them, causing them to fight you. Mostly this was of little value, but there was one stock NPC with magical plate mail and a magical two handed sword. Four trips to the Sokol island, and my whole party was outfitted, and more whenever we needed a cash infusion. It helped that, for whatever it mattered in the game, that NPC was flagged as Lawful evil.

There was also a way in Oblivion, if you were a skilled wizard, to construct enough magical items to be fully invisible, after which you just took (and killed) whenever you pleased.

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Okay, this article posits a theory of what makes a good RPG and then uses the following games as examples of where things go wrong:

Skyrim
Bard’s Tale
Myst

To use the author’s words:

anyone who argues that Wizardry or Ultima or Dungeons of Daggorath are bad games because of their graphics is expressing an opinion so out-of-touch with my own values that I’d almost regard it as a character flaw.

You dis Bard’s Tale, you are basically dissing me.

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I feel like his depth part of the conversation is one that bugs me because old CRPGs are almost unplayable to me as an adult because they are incredibly shallow - though I honestly have that complaint across many RPGs. There isn’t lore deep enough to keep me invested in some of the games with the best stories without nostalgia.

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Story and writing. At its heart a good RPG is a novel with some Choose Your Own Adventure elements.
I don’t know how many times that I have been frustrated by games where the focus has been all about the graphics and gameplay, and a story put together by someone who barely understands the basic elements of what a story even is.

And as computers get better and games can be bigger and more complex, it should be stories not story. Give me the sense that my decisions matter. Not just a change in a dialogue line or two. If there’s no difference between my character being a rude asshole and a considerate, helpful person, it breaks immersion. And not just one or two big decisions, let the little ones pile up. If my character slaughters their way through NPCs and gains a reputation as a killer, have other NPCs act appropriately. Not just guards attacking, but maybe the shop closing up when they see me coming, because the shopkeeper is hiding in the basement. Show me the effects my choices have on the world, don’t just tell me.

Give me real choices. I would love to see a game where there is potential to go through the entire game and kill nobody and not have to sacrifice a ton of XP just because you decided to sneak past the guards or fast talk them. One of the best set-ups and uses of choice I have seen in a game is in Iron Bull’s storyline in Dragon Age Inquisition when you are asked to choose between a history-making alliance or saving Bull’s merry band of weirdos. The set-up is that you get a scene prior where you meet them and can talk to them as individuals. You’re not just sacrificing some faceless NPCs if you go that route, but some quirky characters you’ve sat down and had a beer with. It’s not just the consequences (and there are some) but the emotional weight of it that makes it work.

NPCs that aren’t cookie-cutter or stereotypes. Give me the obviously suspicious bastard who just turns out to be a cranky or slimy-seeming personality who doesn’t betray me at the end of the quest. Give me the helpful sidekick who does – and not because they were broken or damaged, but because they had me conned the entire time.

If I choose a character counter to type (e.g. one that would normally be a magic user in heavy armour and s greatsword), let at least one NPC note that it’s odd, or that they expected someone else.

Give me a reason to care.

Tabletop RPGs don’t rely on flash and graphics. A good story doesn’t need horseballs, it needs actions and consequences and emotional resonance. Even leds than bleeding-edge graphics can work with a good story. Less so the other way around.

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It’s interesting that Skyrim came up as a relatively empty game. The Dragon Age art team was about the same size as the entire Skyrim dev team. Skyrim was this awkward, not-quite-AAA development.
And Dragon Age, having put a lot of resources into the first game, had a very short development time for the sequel (about a year, supposedly). So… you end up with fake-breadth through repetition, and an emphasis on story.

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Skyrim was what I was thinking of with one of the immersion breakers. Seriously, a heavy armour high elf joining the Stormcloaks and no one even blinks? Wow, yeah, your OpSec is stunning. We hate Argonians in this town, but sure, random Argonian, let us treat you as we would any honoured guest.

I mean, it’s not a horrible game. I will still play it, but the best RPG elements aren’t really there.

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This definitely what a good CRPG is aiming to be like. The illusion of breadth and depth that makes it feel infinite, with the ability to tell a relatively simple story extremely well with memorable and responsive characters you become invested in.

At least, that where I feel the immersion comes from, that emotional attachment. Even extremely linear experiences can be immersive if you can connect to the characters and their choices.

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