Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 2, 2012
I tend to rip on modern RPGs a lot here. Yeah, it’s unfair, but it’s my blog. Part of it is my own reaction sycophantic game reviewers and wannabe-journalists who either believe video games weren’t invented until 2000, or who believe that they are doing publishers are a favor by attempting to invalidate anything from prior eras as hopelessly inferior.
Now, maybe I’m just not hitting the right (read: wrong) sites anymore, but I’m not seeing so much of that as I used to. That’s probably helped my blood pressure some. A silly, illogical, hopelessly optimistic side of me wants to believe that maybe, MAYBE, this new generation of gaming cognizati might actually be learning a bit of appreciation of past classics, at least in the same way that I learned appreciation of classical architecture in my college humanities class. Which is to say, I didn’t learn to appreciate the actual architecture personally so much as I learned to appreciate the value of keeping my mouth shut to hide my ignorance.
But in the spirit of giving credit where it’s due, I’d like to point out some things I really do love about modern, mainstream RPGs. Now, this is tough to really do right, because modern RPGs remain a pretty diverse lot. Okay, not quite as diverse as the genre used to be (*coughcough*), but in spite of a noticeable list in a certain direction, these games still have their own take on the genre as a whole. So here are some things that I really feel like they are getting right:
#1 – Graphics. Duh. We can argue styles all day, but the new games sure are pretty. And impressive. It’s pretty obvious to see where their huge budgets go, but I can’t help to be thrilled at how these worlds come to life. Seriously, this was what I was seeing in my head when I was playing those games way back then.
#2 – Ease of Play. While I gripe about frequently losing the depth and breadth of interactions in certain older titles, it’s not like that was a common thing back then, either. We remember the exceptional ones. And there’s a lot to be said about being able to pick up a game and just play, without needing a cardboard keyboard map laying propped up against the bottom of the monitor. Cleaner interfaces, more intuitive (or at least familiar) controls, more gradual introductions to the games – these are generally good things. Maybe I’m just spoiled now by not having to RTFM in order to play a new game now (although at least back then the manuals were actually fun to read!). But learning to play by actually playing is definitely the Right Thing.
#3 – Emphasis on Story and Characters. Sure, don’t sacrifice my game mechanics and interesting choices on the alter of storyline – I’m still here to play a game, not watch a movie – but story and characters are still what turns a good game into a great and memorable experience. That’s really a focus in most modern RPGs, and I’m pretty happy about that. Really, in many older games, as much as I loved the story, like the graphics it was usually the story in my head that I created as I played that I loved, not so much what was there in the game. I think modern games could do a better job outsourcing some of those critical story elements to the player’s imagination – as the old games had to do – but what’s “on the page” has far more depth to it than almost anything created before the era of Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Fallout. I should probably include jRPGs in that list, too, but you know what they are. Bravo, designers. While missteps have taken place and some games may have been made worse by truly crappy stories, this seems to me to be the right direction.
#4 – Strong Game Systems / Mechanics. Okay, while the emphasis on twitchery has me fuming a bit, going back and retro-gaming old favorites and “new-to-me” classics has reminded me that many of these standouts of the genre’s history had pretty crap systems that were frequently poorly-implemented, poorly-balanced, and most likely poorly-tested retreads of some D&D rules variant. Fortunately, the games were often a lot of fun in spite of this. Although as the CRPG Addict keeps rediscovering, some of those games remain quite fun today, but others have not aged well at all.
#5 – Less Grinding. I like some grind. Especially when it’s optional. It’s a great way to make some additional “progress” in the game without taxing the brain or the skills to heavily. But a good portion of older RPGs was grinding. The 50+ hours you’d need to put in to beat it? You weren’t following an epic story all that time. No, much of the time you were hitting the respawns on level 3 of the dungeon so you could get high enough level to cast the spells to keep you alive on level 4 of the dungeon. There was really too much of that. It’s still an artifact in newer games, but it feels like designers are taking an active role in minimizing it. That’s a good thing. Killing the same monsters over and over again just doesn’t scream “epic adventure” to me nowadays.
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