Posted by Rampant Coyote on December 9, 2010
My post Monday was about how the old-and-creaky Might & Magic 1 somehow being more compelling (and, let’s face it, more fun) to me to play after three hours in than Bioware’s recent heir apparent to the Baldur’s Gate legacy, Dragon Age. The discussion around the post was, in my opinion, far more interesting than the post itself. It kept me thinking about why the older game worked for me on a level that Bioware’s title did not. While I grew up on games of that era, I refuse to simply chalk it up as just an artifact of its familiarity.
So here are a few more of my thoughts. This is going to be some weird and fuzzy thinking-out-loud stuff; probably not as fun as Monday’s post. But I wanted to talk about exception-driven gameplay. And X-Com.
The Exceptions Make the Rules- And Make the Fun!
In the early stages of Might & Magic 1, you are barely getting the hang of the basics of the game (assuming you RTFM – a necessity!) when the game starts lobbing surprises at you. It plays with the rules of the game. The rules are still consistent enough to be considered “rules,” but it’s the exceptions that surprise and delight. And they are everywhere.
Walls are walls. Except when they are secret doors. As you are figuring out the best ways to use magic against similar groups of enemies, you hit one of the mercifully-infrequent-and-small anti-magic areas where you must rely on other techniques. The guys in the front of the group face the brunt of the fighting. Until you get into a situation where the bad guys mix it up in the middle of your party.
Then there are trap-door squares that drop you to another level where you have to hunt your way out. There is an “arena” room where you may choose to fight in a gladiatorial death-match to the cheers of an audience. At certain dead ends you are told “Don’t Turn Around,” a warning that, if unheeded, result in a monster attack. Stuff like that. It keeps you hopping, and challenged.
Maybe this all goes away later in the game, and they just packed the early areas with the most interesting stuff. But I don’t think so. But for now, for me, it feels that every time I push a little further forward, ranging a little further from my ‘safe spot’ at the Inn in Scorpigal, I am finding something new and different. That’s what the thrill of exploration is all about.
By contrast, many modern games have much more complex and interesting rulesets, but then so much of the game fits neatly and consistently within that system. They make the experience of opening the door, killing the monsters, and grabbing loot a lot more interesting (well, even that is arguable), and especially the talking-to-people-in-villages part. But it’s too streamlined – not jaggy enough. Notable exceptions and surprises are much more rare. The almost random, nonsensical stuff of the older games (and this includes the approach to dice-and-paper gaming back in the day) were goofy, but exciting.
Naturally, the problem as a game developer is that it’s a lot easier to work with the system than to keep creating exceptions to it. But exception-driven gameplay is just as important as a good story in making an RPG compelling.
The Metagame – The X-Com Connection
Like many PC gamers of the early-to-mid 90s, I fell in love with X-Com: UFO Defense (AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown across the pond). However, there are many games since then that have tried – and failed – to capture my attention the way X-Com did.
You know what would have ruined X-Com for me (or at least weakened its appeal considerably)? If it had a branching storyline with fixed battles (even if I could have chosen to skip some or take them in a a different order). Or if it had a fixed “window” of funding and resource gain throughout the game to make sure things never got too easy or too hard – so that I was always facing an “appropriate” challenge for whatever stage of the game I was in. And if it had fixed team members that couldn’t perma-die.
Gee, sounds a lot like a few modern RPGs, doesn’t it?
The thing that made X-Com so awesome for me was the meta-game. The individual battles across the globe weren’t just obstacles in my path to the shiny door at the end of the level. They were all interconnected via a higher-level strategy game where every ammunition magazine counted (at least to a small degree). Resource management was important. Your discoveries – and progression through the game – hinged upon achieving goals in the mission, but the goals were player-directed, not pre-determined on a mission-by-mission basis. Did you capture a live alien this time? Cool, have your researchers learn more about the enemy, and future battles will go better. You may even open up a whole new level of warfare (psychic)! Do a poor job defending that terror site in Buenos Aires? Or skip it altogether? Fine. But watch your funding from South America dry up. Are you getting too successful in your battles? Expect the aliens prepare a counter-attack. Hopefully you didn’t send all of your squaddies out on missions so there’s nobody left to defend your installation and scientists.
This greater context and interrelation – which the player helped define – for every battle was what made the game for me. It was all about the meta-game. RPG fans talk about “choices and consequences” as a holy grail of RPGs, but it’s not just about the big things, or about whether you choose to act like a douchebag or a saint when a villager asks for your help. All the little things add up. Including the opportunities or problems you didn’t know you missed.
I get some of that from many older RPGs. Obviously, the accumulation of loot and experience points do this in most RPGs. Many older RPGs had much more of a resource-management aspect to them than they do now, as resting outside of an inn was risky business, and you were often burning through other resources (torches, lockpicks, food, potions, magic gems, etc.) that would need to be replenished. Might & Magic games included a money-sink of leveling up that made acquisition of wealth even more critical, and the (annoying) concept of age. Then there were conditions like disease or blindness that could only be healed by higher-level spells or a trip to the nearest temple (and a donation of gold). Discovering new spells and, of course, new magic items. And always, always the matter of how far your hit points and spells would last you between resting periods.
Even just exploring and revealing more of the map on an otherwise uneventful foray could feel like progress. Especially when, as above, there were so many interesting things to explore and discover. It wasn’t just a series of obstacles between point A and point B.
Maybe for many players this all feels like busy, boring make-work, and all they’d rather do is go straight to the “best parts” – fighting, looting, and seducing NPCs. They’d rather just play the soldier, executing orders dictated from above with perfection and style, than be part officer participating in the planning and logistics. But for me, that extra layer of context and control makes the rest of it all the sweeter. And it is the absence that makes “grinding” feel nearly pointless.
It seems that in a lot of RPGs today, that whole meta-game layer has been replaced with, rather than supplemented by story. A strong, compelling story is a virtue, and I’ll be the first to admit (as I have many times before) that traditional storytelling runs counter to the goals of interactive game-playing. But I don’t feel an either / or situation is strictly necessary.
I have praised on the Persona games plenty already, but I think this was why they worked out so well for me. In addition to having an intriguing (and freaky) story, the “meta-game” aspects of relationships, fusing new personas, pushing deeper into levels, fatigue, jobs, and the opportunity costs of all those activities added a layer of play that transformed otherwise pedestrian jRPG game mechanics into classic games.
Please Ration the Exposition
In Might & Magic 1, the entire plot of the game is hidden, to be pieced together via clues and quests. The only reason I know more about it at this point has been because of spoilers. And one cryptic clue (thus far). There’s lots of stuff in the game, but the exposition is doled out slowly (too slowly?) over the course of the game.
A modern trend in RPGs (not just by Bioware) is to drop exposition in HUGE CHUNKS. You feel compelled to talk to an NPC until you exhaust their meticulously scripted options, or until you die of boredom, out of fear that the opportunity to pump them for clues or optional quests will go away forever (when the bad guys destroy everything behind you, or whatever). And since you are in a town or castle full of these talkative folks with deep backstories (that’s a good thing, right?), you spend a whole lot of time trying to digest exposition in massive info-dumps.
I don’t know the solution to this one, sadly. I love multifaceted storylines and deep characters as much as the next RPG fan. Once I have a reason to take an interest in an NPC I have a tendency to probe them mercilessly for personal questions that have nothing to do with the story. Now you can argue that the exposition overload is self-inflicted, I’d counter by saying it is a learned response.
It’s probably hypocritical of me to complain about that last point in a post that’s going on as long as this one. So I guess I’m about done.
I’m not a guy who believes that newer and flashier is better, or that older is somehow better, either. I’ve said many times that I feel that what is sometimes termed the “evolution” of the CRPG genre was really just a push along a presumptive path to bigger and bigger audiences, and as a result has lost some really great ideas of the past that would still be valuable today. This was a problem even back in the heyday of the genre, when every new RPG released tried to mimic its most successful competitor.
My hope is that RPG developers – indie and mainstream – will take the time to look back and feel free to borrow from the things that worked in the past, as well as try new ideas today. Because as I understand evolution, it only comes about through a diversity of competing traits. Lets see more of that!
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