While various installments of the Civilization series have held the mantle of “my favorite game”, my favorite genre was solidly RPGs for many years. Then, slowly over time, it changed. I found myself clicking on the Strategy tab of the Steam store before RPG. I still clicked on RPG, forlornly wading through the sea of JRPG’s and clicky action games with RPG elements.
Every once in a while an old favorite would get a sequel and I’d eagerly pre-order and call in sick on launch day. I’d have fun for a while, seeing how my favorite character (fantasy me, sci-fi me, post-apocalyptic me) fared in the new world but then the magic would abruptly end.
Witcher 3, a game that I would easily score above 85 were I reviewing it, had the spell broken half way through when White-haired Monster Hunting Me sat on his horse outside of a town, enjoying the sunset and organizing ingredients in his backpack. A few farmers tilled the fields. Birds squawked and twirled above. A group of town guards idly chatted near by. It was a gorgeous moment, far removed from the crude sprites I spent so much time with as a child.
Then a Drowner crawled from the muck and raked a farmer. She shrieked and ran away. The drowner raked another farmer who ran away from town further into the swamp. The first lady farmer, apparently satisfied the drowner had a new target resumed farming a few feet away. The second farmer woke up other drowners who chased him back. Within moments the pastoral scene turned into a bloody game of tag. Farmers ran and shrieked and farmed and drowners swiped and growled but failed to bring anyone down. All the while the town guards continued their conversation, and the town continued to bustle a stone’s throw away.
I don’t know why that made me stop playing the game and I’m sure I’m poorer for not experiencing the second half. But that’s what happened. The suspension of disbelief, which I find crucial to enjoying RPG games, should have held given the game’s stellar production values and writing.
Maybe those modern production values are part of the problem. Ultima 6, a game I poured hundreds of hours into, could also have wandering monsters immediately outside of town. But because of the limitations of the engine, that mean one tile outside of town on a grid map. Without a clear scale your imagination assumed it’s a reasonable distance out. Without tile interactions there was no chance for the monster to attack a farmer. While I’d never want to go back to ascii graphics, our mind is capable of full immersion regardless of graphics (or any graphics as in the case of a book).
Pillars of Eternity should have been a salve but it broke for the same reason as Witcher. I was walking on a road between two towns, somewhere normal and trafficked. Stepping just a few feet to the south triggered a Troll, a fairly challenging enemy for my low level part. A few feet more triggered another. There was no story element to it. Just some trolls presumably eating caravans without notice. I didn’t feel like exploring the countryside anymore. Exploration in games is a funny thing. Just the sights have never been enough for me (although I understand that many people do enjoy exploring for its own sake); I would never explore a purely procedurally generated landscape. It’s only fun for me if it feels like a real world, with the chance for meaningful discovery.
The Pillars experience left me wondering if I’m just getting older and harder to please. Pillars is a modern throwback, designed specifically to slake our old-RPG nostalgia. Did the Gold Series, Baldur’s Gate, Wizardry and my other classics all commit the same sins, now erased from memory by the fondness of youth? I intend to find out by replaying Baldur’s Gate (albeit in enhanced form). <edit – Baldur’s Gate does handle this better. There were some encounters close to the road but NPC’s talked about how dangerous the roads have become and that “Traveling nowadays appears to be the domain of either the desperate or deranged”. The areas are bigger and less full of stuff with only a single wolf in the northern quarter of the map. And the monsters are less jarring than Trolls.>
Divinity Original Sin II I bounced off of even faster. I played the first all the way through and while I can’t exactly remember it I do remember enjoying it. Here other modern improvements conspired to snap my disbelief; time based power activates and environmental interactions. Why can’t my warrior do another overhand strike for 5 rounds? If he’s tired, why can he do an even more tiring but different move this round? It’s an arbitrary complaint, as gamers we put up with all manner of abstractions and mechanics but this one irks me every action.
And why is everything in the environment exploding and leaking liquids? Not just the environment, but the characters themselves. Everything is flaming or shimmering. Where’s the joy of just sinking cold steel into an eye socket? This issue has crawled into the strategy genre as well. The Total War: Warhammer 2 trailer looks like the final battle in Harry Potter, full of fireballs and overt magic.
Sometimes it’s the combined weight of modern features which are individually improvements that break the spell. Fast travel is handy. Automatically healing after battle saves time. Downed characters only being incapacitated for a single engagement cuts down on save scumming (which we’d do anyway). But each of those features chips away at potential emergent gameplay. My most memorable moments from old RPGs were rarely the boss battles; they were tales of a ragged party, low on healing and slow from encumbrance trying to crawl out of the dungeon to sell their loot. Too afraid to rest for fear of wandering encounters they’d scrape along making difficult decisions like dropping the last of their rations to make room for a tiny bit more treasure. Good times.
<edit – as I am replaying Baldur’s gate I am already experiencing pleasant decisions arising from the game’s greater devotion to realism. In the first hour of play my two starting characters were damaged after a few wolf encounters. Neither had access to healing magic. I had two healing potions but I’m stingy with magic so I didn’t want to use them yet. I met two other NPC’s on the road and even though they seemed shady as fuck I let them join my party because I genuinely needed the backup to get to the first quest, still some distance away. Shortly after I considered stopping exploring and heading straight to the quest area because we still had no healing and everyone was hurt. I decided to keep going, the fog of war just begging to be cleared, met a wolf and promptly lost both the new NPC’s. When the wolf was finally put down my new frienemies stayed down. Their equipment spilled out on the ground, letting you know in game terms that they are in fact dead. I collected their gear and headed to the Friendly Arms Inn directly, very carefully clicking only on road tiles when moving. I was able to “Raise Dead” at the temple near the Inn, but it cost me 2/3rds of the money I had collected so far. Choice, consequence, emergent gameplay and I’m really just walking to the start of the game proper.>
Other modern conventions seem wholly inferior to me, leaving me perplexed as to who prefers them. What should I feel other than my time wasted when XP and loot is no longer given for random encounters but only when completing goals and quests? Or stripped down, binary level up decisions so all my warriors act and fight the same way.
Level scaling, where the world adjusts to your character so every encounter is a challenge broke The Elder Scrolls 4:Oblivion for me. Late in the game the world was starting to get strange but I didn’t really notice until I returned from a long adventuring session in a demonic dimension. I had gained a number of levels and when I was beset on the road by two lowly bandits they were decked out in full daedric gear. Why were they banditing? Just the dagger one carried could buy them wenches and krff for a dozen years.
Respeccing at will I find annoying while grudgingly admitting to sheer rage in the past when half way through a difficult RPG I realized my character was gimped and it made more sense to start over. A worse culprit is the newest concession to flexibility; NPC’s who completely change archetypes at your request turning from mage to warrior with a few dialogue options. Again, I understand the utility while hating the affect on my belief that my character inhabits a sensible world.
I haven’t finished either new X-Com games despite finishing all the previous generation’s incarnation of the series. The need to use powerups and the way moving a single tile too far woke up entire legions of enemies made me feel like I’m playing a puzzle game, not a squad based tactical one.
Some of the conventions I dislike have always existed in a parallel RPG universe from Japan; Weird relationships between characters that bare no semblance to how I know humans hook up in real life, characters sporting massive weapons that take off tiny slivers of hp’s (despite doing hundreds of units of damage). Stupid hair. I’ve tried to appreciate the sub-genre over the years without a glimmer of success although truthfully the last determined attempt was when FF7, so long awaited on the PC and so beloved by its fans crushed my optimism with juvenile writing and cute graphics.
I don’t fault the games. Critics and players love all of these titles. It’s obviously my problem. But I don’t think I’m alone. Some games seem to specifically eschew these modern conventions and I sense game designers as irked by it as I am.
Expeditions: Vikings was so refreshingly grounded that I joyfully ploughed through to the end. Its low healing, historical setting provided motivations and tactics grounded in reality. Fighters chopped and hewed each other in a satisfying way that fit what my imagination felt a battle should look like. And while my warriors popped back up after each battle regardless of how mangled, they at least sported debilitating injuries that carried forward.
I sunk a hundred hours into the Battle Brothers beta despite the lack of real narrative or decision making just because I so enjoyed playing in a rational world where characters travel across a map and winning depended on real battlefield tactics and not power usage efficiency. I relished the pain of losing a warrior I spent months in-game cultivating to an errant bad RNG arrow from a lowly goblin.
In some ways the rise of survival/crafting games have filled some of the void. They provide me with the logical worlds I enjoy and the great ones (e.g. Rimworld) make up for their lack of narrative choice with amazing emergent decisions that create equally compelling stories. But they lack the greatest gaming moment possible, the moment you walk away from your computer, mouse cursor hovering over a dialogue choice that you care so much about that you need to have a smoke and a good think before committing. For that moment to happen I have to be fully immersed, as concerned about my virtual pixels as I am about living things. Before Vikings the last time that happened was in Mass Effects 2 and that seems like too long to wait.
I finished the review of Baldur’s Gate 1. I have to grudgingly admit that the immersion breaking things I talk about above might be arbitrary. BG1 had a dozen equally “unrealistic” features, they just happen to annoy me less than the ones I complained about. I can’t exactly defend the position. All I can say is that for me BG1 felt more “real” than Witcher. Expeditions: Vikings feels more real than either.