Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

How Do You Roleplay in a CRPG?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on January 5, 2011

According to the CRPG Addict,

… it works something like this.

If I were to boil it all down, it would come down to this: You use your imagination, and invest yourself into the game. Although as he suggests, a lot of that depends upon how well the game allows you to do that. I might suggest, alternatively, is you get out of it what you put into it, with a multiplier provided by the game. A good game has a high multiplier value. A crappy game approaches zero.

I read Scott McCloud’s acclaimed book, Understanding Comics, a few years ago and it really opened my eyes to things. The most powerful concept I learned was how more abstract art can be more compelling, as it allows the reader / viewer to project themselves onto the page. A detailed, more realistic character comes with baggage. A more abstract, cartoony character is more of a blank slate, compelling the reader to fill in the details – usually on a subconscious level.

I think that applies equally to games. Thus the continued success of the “silent hero” archetype in RPGs.

And I think it was easier in some older games than in the newer ones. Especially now with near photo-realistic graphics where designers are so focused on making everything visual. In the old days, we could see plain ol’ tile graphics and imagine that we’re in the middle of a busy, bustling town, streets clogged with vendors and townspeople. We understood the graphics to be as much symbolic as literal. Now, however, we’re led to believe that if it’s not on the screen, it’s not in the scene. It’s a more passive way to play, and as cool as the graphics are today (we were, after all, waiting decades for them to get to this level), they can’t compare to a vivid imagination.

That’s what those fans of ASCII roguelikes keep trying to tell us, after all… 😉

And that’s not to say I’m willing to dump my video card anytime soon, either. Or that I’m going to start playing RPGs with quite the intensity of “creating my own narrative” as the CRPG Addict.

But I’m definitely keen on the core idea here: A good RPG should allow for this, and allow for “non-optimal” play. It should make you feel (relatively) safe to explore, that a single wrong thing said to an NPC won’t cripple their hope of completing the game successfully.  There should be room to “fill in the blanks” with your imagination. And in the rush to streamline the interface, don’t go quite so nuts with optimizing out so many of the player’s options.

As commenters  wanted to remind me on Monday, there’s more than one way to play a game.

Filed Under: Design, General - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • sascha/hdrs said,

    That’s what I’m trying to preach all the time already! Simple graphics allow your mind to fill in the rest, which is great … IF your mind has enough fantasy to offer, which in turn I find is a priceless talent!
    For this reason I am glad that I grew up during the home computer era and could experience all these stages of visual abstraction in early games. I doubt most kids today who get to instantly play on a soul-less PC box with multi-GHz CPU and near-perfect 3D graphics (or on a comparable console) get to know this level of abstraction in games much.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    This brings back found memories of playing the SSI Gold Box games.

    I would create and name my party members after my friends and myself. I was the bookish nerd, so I was naturally a mage, my athletic football playing friend became the party fighter, my best friend who constantly defied teachers and parents to land himself in detention became the group’s thief. One of the girls in my circle of friends, or my current girlfriend, always was made the party cleric (sexist, I know!).

    I would imagine we had been magically transported “Kid in King Arthur’s Court”-style to this fantasy world and had to complete our assigned quest to return home. Some of the games, like “Curse of the Azure Bonds”, were particularly suited to this.

    With the simplistic graphics, it was easy to imagine the little figures on screen really were my friends and myself.

    Occasionally I would be playing while my friends where over at my house, only to have them look over my shoulder and ask indignantly why I had let “them” die and hadn’t shelled out the thousands of gold pieces for resurrection yet!

    Growing up with games like that, I have no problem playing a game with poor graphics and abstracting a wonderful environment or story in my mind. However, being a game artist . . . well, I am something of a “graphics whore” in the gaming parlance.

    I love making old TV sets and lovingly painting in dirt and grime and peeling stickers, or getting the shine and cracks on a floor of bathroom tiles JUST right.

    Likewise, I love walking around in a game world and being able to draw inferences about the world, environment, and story by observation alone. It is one thing to play a game like Fallout and being told in text “The bed is filthy. You’d be afraid to sleep on it.”, and something completely different to play Fallout 3 and look at a detailed bed and SEE just how filthy it is and think to yourself “I’m NOT sleeping on THAT!”.

    There are benefits and drawbacks to the advances in graphics. A good game doesn’t need good graphics, but I’d say they don’t hurt. Sometimes they can even support your own narrative. Think of the advanced character editors of the Sims or Mass Effect and my earlier story of making a party of my friends. Sure, I could imagine those 2 pixel blob faces of my characters looked like my friends (and there was nothing to contradict me), but wouldn’t my personal narrative have been enhanced if I could look at my party in game and SEE that they looked exactly like my friends in medieval armor with swords?


    I do agree that kids and young gamers today are handicapped by never knowing anything less than photo-real graphics. I worked at Game Crazy for a couple of years and one day a kid of 11 or so asked for a game recommendation based on certain criteria he gave me.

    His criteria perfectly fit a particular game from my youth (I forget which one), and a version was available for this kid’s game system. I described it to him and he got excited, saying that it sounded perfect. I gave him the box and he flipped it over to look at the pictures on the back and immediately frowned.

    “It’s not 3D?”, he exclaimed indignantly. “Who would want to play a game that isn’t 3D?”

    And this whole time, the kid was wearing a T-shirt with an NES controller on it that said “Old School”.

    The kid tossed the box back at me and said I obviously didn’t know what good games are. As he left to go browse the isles himself, I called after him – “You don’t deserve to wear that shirt!” To which the kid merely rolled his eyes and I felt old. Very old.

  • McTeddy said,

    I don’t know how I feel about good graphics.

    Part of my issue is that everything in media today is graphical. Whether its the special effects that plague modern film-making or the photo-realistic graphics in games… I find my imagination being neglected. Where I once was creative by nature, I now must work to maintain it.

    That aside, I can’t argue with the point that looking at the grimy bed can be more effective. I don’t think I’ve ever actually wanted graphics to degrade back to the godawful PS1 era.

    Fancy graphics can add alot of a game… but when everything is realistic… its easy to forget what our brains are capable of.

    Oh and on a side note, LateWhiteRabbit… I’ve decided that when I have a kid he’ll have to earn the privileged of playing new systems by enjoying the old ones. Any spawn of mine will at least know enough “old school” to wear the shirt… though with my luck he’ll still be a halo fan 🙁

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,


    I don’t think there is anything to be gained from forcing appreciation or acceptance of something in kids, like making them play old games first.

    Each generation has themes and technologies that are uniquely their own.

    I think the best thing to do is just make sure that kids are EXPOSED to the old games. If they don’t take to them immediately or at all, just shrug and let it be. Just them knowing such things exist and what they look like will be enough to spur interest and a possible re-examining of the old games when they get older and more mature.

    As an example I think most of us can relate to, I hated black and white movies as a kid. I thought they were stupid. “Who’d want to watch a movie with no color?”, I could be heard to exclaim. Future annoying children would similarly employ karma to punch me in the face for such remarks, as you can read above.

    But I was exposed to B&W movies as a kid by my grandparents. I hated them and would leave the room. But I knew they existed.

    Later, when I was more mature and realized movies should be embraced or rejected on a lot more varied grounds and reasons than lack of color, I started watching black and white movies. Like all movies, some I disliked, others I hated, and some I loved.

    Now my movie collection is probably at least a quarter B&W.

    Similarly, and on a slight embarrassing note, I used to see clips of Shirley Temple, and thought she was so saccharine I could vomit. Then, a few years ago, I had a project where I had to design and model a little girl character that was supposed to be a parody of Shirley Temple. Some artists might have half-assed this by relying on the multitude of pop culture parodies of Shirley that already exist (and are usually the source of the only things most people today know about the child starlet). I, however, being a nerd and loving research for its own merits, had to do it the proper way with research, and that meant watching Shirley Temple shorts and movies. And I . . . shudder . . . LIKED them.

    So, I am a former Marine, and now my movie collection includes every Shirley Temple movie and short. Life is full of weirdness.

    Back to the kids, I guess I’m trying to say “The kids are OK.” Lead them to the water of old school gaming goodness, but let them decide whether or not to drink. And don’t get worked up if they refuse, because they’ll remember the path to that old pond, and someday when they are bored, curious, or introspective, they may return and drink it in gulps.

    But not if you scare them away with a traumatic memory of having their head held under the water.

  • McTeddy said,

    You know… you have a point. Sometimes I forget I was young and poor in taste too.

    There was a time when I thought special effects made a movie great… though I am ashamed to admit it. It took me a long time to realize that my elders were right about good old movies.

    I’ll just keep my collection of classics around to encourage it… though if I find out my kid is one of those CoD obsessed players I just might still have to disown him.

    I have to maintain some standards 🙂

  • adorna said,

    as an arist and passionate computergame player I’ve thought about this, too. I know some SNES RPGs gave me a feeling of immersion modern games hardly ever reach. And lets just not start on how multiplayer games work as opposed to the way you had to share decisions and tasks when gaming with a friend (or brother)a simple singleplayer game.

    From an artists perspective what I’d love to be able to do is rendering diffrent parts of a game with differenet detail, much like you do with a single piece of artwork. I don’t have any clue how that would be possible from the technical side sadly, but thats how you would build up a paining for example, you lay down colors and textures so the mind has something to work with, and then you add points of interest, rendered with lots of details.

  • Tesh said,

    No game can truly compare to a vivid imagination… though a great game can complement one and even feed one.

    Tangentially, I think this is one reason why WoW still rates highly and LOTRO puts people off. Chasing photorealism is a fool’s errand. (coughTronLegacycough)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    What, you are saying Young Flynn creeped you out too? (That was fine for CLU 2.0, but in the real world… uncanny valley!)