Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Lake Wobegon Worlds

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 4, 2012


What does it mean anymore?

Originally, it was the word for long-form heroic poems. The Odyssey, Beowulf, the Iliad, etc.  I say “etc.” because I’m sure there are more, but that’s all I can think of. But the meaning of the word expanded to refer to anything resembling the epics, and then to mean anything “unusually” great, majestic, and/or heroic.

But when everything is unusually great and majestic and heroic, is anything? In computer RPGs, particularly, does saving the world (whichever world we’re talking about) even qualify as epic anymore? Is every CRPG world (and most other video game world, for that matter) an “epic-sized” Lake Wobegon?

It’s a classic formula, of course. You start out as a pathetic nobody who barely has enough skill to tie his own boot, and eventually become somebody of great power and importance. I mean, that is practically the definition of an RPG.

In the early days of the genre – cribbing directly from the dice & paper conventions developed by Gygax and Arneson – you started out as a somewhat competent but run-of-the-mill with enough martial or magical training to have a fighting chance against the common fantasy villains – goblins, orcs, low-level bandits, and the like. Eventually, with several victories under the hero’s belt – assuming he survived – he’d one day become the equivalent of a dozen such warriors or wizards, and capable of facing much scarier monsters from literature and movies, and eventually able to recover some cool-sounding artifact or defeat some powerful-sounding bad guy. The accomplishment of said task was often suggested to be of some great importance in the world, but in those early games the actual threat or value was often left pretty vague.

Nowadays, the threat tends to be better realized and the consequences of inaction much more world-shaking and horrible. The stakes are inevitably raised about as high as they can go – every time.

So now, saving the world is kind of ho-hum.

Many games have tried to make the world-saving stakes much more personal, threatening (or destroying / distorting) characters in the game that you might consider important.

Maybe it’s just me. But I think about Stephen King’s book, “The Talisman.” While young Jack’s mission had some impact and repercussions in the alternate world, the focus of his quest – and his greatest victory – was simply saving the life of his mother. It felt epic. The stakes felt high because they were personal.

I’m pleased that many indie RPGs have bucked the old trend, and have made strides to scale back the formula. You may just be back to saving a single town or escaping a nasty dungeon, but the struggles seem no less worthy. If anything, it makes them feel even bigger, as they are no longer overshadowed by such a major “big bad”, causing you to wonder why you are bothering beating up on such pathetic flunkies when a looming world-destroying darkness is off in the other direction.

So are we overloaded in epic? Or do these smaller exploits of the indie games feel less satisfying?

Filed Under: General - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • TheBuzzSaw said,

    It’s a marketing term now. The word still has meaning in literary circles or with people who just want to speak proper English, but in games/movies, everything is epic. After all, who wants to play a game about a non-epic character? Oh wait, that’s the Sims! XD

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I have played ( a little of ) a game called UnEpic which is kinda funny. 2D side-scrolling action-RPG. 🙂

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Personally, I don’t mind “save the world!” type of plots too much, provided the story explains it appropriately. What I find much worse is when your character is declared the world-saving-chosen-one from the introduction. I much prefer to be just some guy (well, someone with a particular set of skills…), who decides that defeating the big bad would be a good idea (for fame, gold, or perhaps just to be nice).

    Of course a couple of my favourite cRPG series are very much in the “chosen one” camp, so I’m not completely against it (Ultima in particular, but you have to earn your place as Avatar!).

    Even Baldur’s Gate, where you are a chosen one, get around this problem for me by making you one of many. This works for me because it makes it feel like there are others who have the ability to save the world (or rule it!). It also provides you with suitable opponents when you become a god-like level.

    Of course Quest for Glory (another favourite) has a prophecy that you are meant to fulfil, but you actually can complete the game without completing the prophecy, so it doesn’t feel like a straitjacket. After your time saving a valley/town, you do head towards world saving though, so it ramps things up pretty quickly and then kind of plateaus.

  • Corwin said,

    YOU: Hello, I desperately need to get the Golden Hammer of Smiting from you or the mighty FOOZLE will destroy the entire world by tomorrow.

    NPC: Well, if you’ll do these 3 quests for me, I’ll consider selling it to you for only 100 million Gold.

    YOU: But I don’t have 100 million gold and I need to stop FOOZLE NOW!! Don’t you realise the world is about to END?

    NPC: Sorry, but unless you do this for me and PAY me the 100 million, you don’t get the Hammer.

    Sound familiar from your Epic RPG’s!! 🙂

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That was a joke in a Penny Arcade comic a few years back. I totally want to put something like that in FK2 or 3. Again – according to my usual approach, lampshading the whole thing and explaining exactly why this one dude, who sank his entire fortune into the Golden Hammer, was disowned by his parents on account of it, and is only one step away from debtors prison is NOT gonna just hand it off to the first dude who claims to be the Chosen One. Not after that last time, with the Golden Monkeywrench incident five years ago…

  • SniperHF said,

    I can’t think of game like this, maybe one already exists. But what I would like to see is a game in the epic category, but where you are merely a bit player and not the chosen/save the world guy.

    Maybe you work for the chosen one type or are some other relatively minor player. Yeah the world needs saving, but it’s someone elses job 😛

  • Felix said,

    I’ve just read Digger, the second webcomic ever to win a Hugo award. After considering and rejecting the obvious adjective to describe it — mindblowing — I came up with epic. Problem is, the scale of the story is anything but. Most of it happens in a temple and the neighboring village, with some involvement from a tribe of hunter-gatherers. There are a handful of protagonists (with a dozen more characters in the background), and even they admit at some point that the world at large is hardly in any danger. And yet the story still feels epic in scale. Why? Precisely because it’s so up close and personal. You’re looking at an overwhelmingly large world from the height of a humble wombat.

    For that matter, the same thing happens in A Fire Upon the Deep. For all the dizzying scale of the story, it’s made clear that the Great Evil(TM) is but a tiny speck on the galactic map, and will hardly matter in the long term. But for the protagonists, it’s their entire lives, and those of everyone they’ve ever met. So again, it’s a matter of relative scale.

    And that’s probably the best conclusion I can draw. Epic-ness is not absolute. If only RPG writers would learn that for a change.

  • Maklak said,

    Personally I think the “save the world” has been done to death, resurrected and this was repeated several times. I rather got used to it and don’t mind it much, but would prefer for worlds not to be so fragile that any sealed evil in a can or villain of the week can end them. If the quest fails, sure it is going to suck for a region for some time, but eventually the threat is going to be defeated anyway. It will just take more time and orders of magnitude more time and resources. A good example would be a commando squad behind enemy lines, about to sabotage a big warehouse with munitions and fuel. It’s destruction will hurt the enemy, but by itself it won’t decide the outcome of the war. So saving home village from becoming collateral damage in some war can feel better than saving the world from ending… again.

    I guess the game designers want their games to be “epic”, where the player “can make hundreds of decisions that will influence the shape of the world” then package it into a linear story with red, blue and green endings. Sigh.

    Anyway, playing a game where you just stumble upon random dungeons by accident, get rich if you survive long enough and may play some minor role in local politics would be fun. As to the relations of your character to the leaders think how lords in the Game of Thrones would treat a small company of sellswords. Tell them only what they need to know, assign them some tasks, such as “scout this area and kill enemy scouting parties”, pay them and that’s it. For the sellswords the best strategy is to join the side that is going to win. Also, what SniperHF said, but it seems that many people want their character to save the world and don’t agree that RPGs are about watching GMPCS being awesome.

    Frayed Knights has already gone epic with the Lich who almost won the wizard war now having a plan to return, but I really like what Ol’Hosse said. “Don’t bother saving the world. Grab the loot and get out of the harm’s way.” I would like it if FK at least consider that option at some point. I would also like it if adventurer guild leader assigns tasks (offscreen) to other teams and at least some of them are successful. It would give me the feeling that FK are not the only group who can get things done.

    @Felix: Actually in “A fire upon the deep” it was made clear that given time the blight had the potential to consume the transcend and the beyond. It was even hinted that it almost succeeded a very long time ago. Plus it had the ability to go to war with Singularity, Transcendent beings and win. Killing off a Relay that was responsible for much of intergalactic communication was just a diversion and collateral damage to it. It was a hell of a threat. It felt personal to the people involved with countermeasure, but it was much bigger than that. Heck, defeating it in the end reshaped a part of the galaxy. So this is a bad example.