Thursday, April 26, 2007
Can CRPGs Age Gracefully?
Martin posted an interesting question in the RPG Forum. It's made me think a bit. I'll refer you to the thread itself for his words. But it's the old retrogaming question with an RPG twist.
Is it possible to enjoy an older (meaning... technologically obsolete) computer RPG? He's not talking about one you've already played in the past (Scorpia's already weighed in on the question of replaying old favorites) - but maybe those old games sitting on the shelf that you keep telling yourself you are going to finish "someday." Even though it's been ... well, even though those games now require DOSBox to run.
I think the question largely has to do with the player. I mean, I'm a retrogamer. And an indie gamer. Old-school graphics don't scare me much. I mean, Aveyond, Fallout, and Avernum 4 all have nowhere near state-of-the-art graphics, but I have enjoyed all of them recently / currently. But maybe some people have a tough time conceiving of an ogre as a deadly (and entertaining) opponent unless it appears in full Oblivion-esque majesty with full shader effects, dynamic lighting, and voice acting.
One thing that does drive me nuts nowadays, however, is poor UI and control design. We've really learned a lot in the past two decades about designing an interface that doesn't blow chunks. Remember the old days of Ultima, when every single key on the keyboard was mapped to a command, and you had to figure out if (L)ooking at an object was sufficient, or maybe you should (I)nspect it? Or that you couldn't just use a lock, you had to (J)immy it? Or how about the early Wizardry games, where (I guess as a copy-protection technique) you had to type in the exact name of these nonsense-word spells? I think we learned some positive lessons from the advent of the game consoles here.
While protoyping the controls for Frayed Knights several weeks ago, I had this "awesome" idea to try to use Ultima Underworld's mouse control system. I thought, "Wow, you could do everything in that game with the mouse, none of this WASD nonsense! I wonder why nobody has done that ever since? I should try that!"
I tried it. It was horrible. I found it almost unplayable. Obviously, I'd done something wrong. So I booted up DOSBox, and played Ultima Underworld again. In fact, as I'd never finished Ultima Underworld 2: Labyrinth of Worlds, I wondered if I could get hooked all over again and finally finish the sequel, only 14 years after it's release. So off I went!
It was horrible.
Well, okay. After a little bit of effort I started to get used to it. Still bouncing into walls and falling off bridges and stuff, but I was at least generally going in the direction I intended to go. Apparently, once upon a time many years ago I managed to get proficient enough at it that I actually enjoyed it. But after twenty minutes, I wasn't finding it to be quite like riding a bicycle. I wasn't feeling particularly inspired to jump into UU2 and see what I'd been missing all these years.
I recall loading up Bloodstone: A Dwarven Tale - already an antique when I purchased it a massive discount in the early 90's- and being dismayed that character names were limited to five characters. Come on! Even the Apple and C-64 could do better than that, years earlier!
And there are similar gripes and irritations for many of these older games. Assuming I can even get them to run. Sure, graphics can be an issue - if they are BAD. Meaning, they do not perform their function of clearly presenting the player with the information about the state of the game he needs to play. But there are legions of players for whom NetHack is perfectly reasonable (if not particularly pretty) graphics.
There are some modern games with cool, semi-cutting-edge graphics that can't say that. Say, when you get attacked while your camera is stuck in some corner, so you can't actually look at and properly target your opponent.
One thing that has (traditionally) set RPGs apart from other types of games is their independence from graphics. They've typically lagged behind the cutting edge, substituting sheer scope and depth of the game worlds for the latest eye candy. At least, this was true up through and including Diablo 2 and Baldur's Gate 2. So many of the "retro" RPGs weren't even intended to be cutting edge for the era in which they were released. To some degree, I think this worked to their advantage - the artists were able to focus on simplicity, elegance, and functionality rather than making compromises to appease the technology gods of the latest bells and whistles (which have now long since become obsolete).
So what do you think? Have you tried playing an RPG recently that was more than 7 years old? Have you FINISHED an RPG that was more than 7 years old? Can you enjoy the a new, old game?
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