Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Apology for RPGs

My original subtitle for this article was “and for myself,” but it also could be “I’m not sorry for anything.” You choose.

Look at all of this choice and flexi- waitaminute.
I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

I'm glad there are games to role-play being a sex object, totally
new and fresh! 

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

The worst part is, you know you'll get the same answer
and still spend a minute thinking which to choose.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

You're doing it wrong.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!


  1. RPGs lack heart? RPGs are Tolkien and Star Trek? RPGs have always been dead...! Bring out the giant list! are games that focus heavily on narratives to the point of eschewing graphics almost completely. Lots of roleplaying here, my favorite is the latest Geneforge game.

    Lost Odyssey had some great vignettes that did some heavy lifting when it came to worldbuilding. very jRPG, but still full of good storytelling

    Resonance of Fate was a weird kung-fu gunbattle game that took place in a bizarre world. I mean yes it relied heavily on certain jRPG cliches but it wasn't exactly a "cast fire on zombies" type deal.

    Bastion as an action-RPG gave me some fantastic moments.

    Alpha Protocol had some bullshit, but interacting with other characters felt reasonable, which is not something I normally associate with RPGs.

    and obviously, Dwarf Fortress which is all about complex stat tracking, going from weather and geological formations to the birth and history of civilizations to the kind of stones your mayor likes best.

    ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs Deathdark Evilman had some weird, emotional, fucked-up moments that leaned on its mechanics to great effect.

    Not to mention: Deus Ex Human Revolution, which is awesome at not giving you +5 renegade points but subtly changing moments you didn't even realize would be affected by your actions. Contact explored breaking the 4th wall. Baiten Kaitos was nothing if not beautifully creative (although, again, as a jRPG it was not about "roleplaying" as much as stat-mongering). Vampire: The Masquerade also had some bullshit! But it also surprised me more than any other RPG I had played. And I don't know how I got this far without mentioning The World Ends With You & Mother3 (jrpgs both but with exceptional characters and stories). Plus older games like Baldur's Gate 2 remain pretty fantastic, if not supremely flexible. And I'm not even going into IF which I understand is moving in some awesome directions as well.

    So in short RPGs have covered a ton of ground and have a ton of heart and depth. Yes they don't allow limitless variation of story to fit the player's every whim (except for dwarf fortress! kind of!) but as authored experiences I'm pretty satisfied with the state of the genre and the direction it's heading.

    i also think it's hard to have a discussion about WHY RPGs might seem a bit stagnant without mentioning the branching complexity, constant need for rewrites and tweaks, etc. It’s all well and good to say RPGs lack “role-playing” but the underlying issues are as technical and economic as they are creative. There is a future there but it’s slow and hard and no one can really be sure if it’s worth the investment – DF may be pushing boundaries, but the creators are getting by on donations alone which clearly can’t scale.

  2. First let me start off by reiterating my thesis, as it is mushed in there in a quasi-stream of consciousness thing. With the RPG genre becoming navel-gazey around this time because of the many critiques and appropriations of it, I took the chance to formulate my own understanding RPGs and where they are going. Using the origins of RPGs as my inspiration I came up with this: RPGs are games that promote a player's interaction with a narrative. That doesn't mean experiencing a story or creating a story, but having your narrative come from your gameplay. The easiest way to make that less abstract is to think how surface "how this makes me feel" sort of information, such as story, visuals, music (instead of theories associated with them) aspect of art is created from the design. So this would mean the narrative is an echo and/or tool of the game design to reflect upon itself.

    Only one of your games, from what I could tell, I could an example from. All of the others may have been creative, had a good story, or were generally fun, and that's good! But it's not what I'm talking about. There are many stories I have enjoyed in RPGs, but they are topical and are more of an add on for aesthetic quality rather than baked into the game design.

    ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs Deathdark Evilman seems to have at least a part of this right. From what I could get, you are building yourself up to be a superhero who doesn't really have a lot distinct about them. You keep losing, dying, and starting over, but the theme of building yourself up is there as you are rewarded with stat gains even if you die. But other than that, all of the other games you mentioned didn't match up to what I'm talking about. They may have a good focus on narrative and new concepts, but they stick to the traditions when it comes to interacting with the narrative.

    Think of it in the manner of TT RPGs. The quirky things that you're citing wouldn't change the fundamental aspects of a D&D session. You can have a quirky and compelling story, fresh setting, strange battle system, and you barely have changed the game's rules. However TT RPGs have been adapting to new ideas of how to interact with the narrative in a way digital RPGs haven't. It doesn't mean that those ideas will work for this medium, but that we could put more thought on how digital RPGs can uniquely do that.

  3. I can only repeat the first commenter's high praise of Dwarf Fortress. This "little" indie game may well show the way out of your dilemma. DF gives the player a giant, complex procedurally generated world complete with unique history, mythology and geography, all procedurally generated as well.
    DF's ambitious long-term goal is almost ridiculously ambitious, to present you with a realism that is so complex that "real" roleplaying will rely solely on your interactions with this giant sandbox and the results of your actions. (Note: in this comment I refer to DF's "adventurer"-mode, not the more developed "dwar fortress"-simulation mode.)
    What DF still lacks, is a "narration engine", a means to direct the player's actions along the more "traditional" modes of narration. This might be achieved by using narratology's many attempts to systematically break down narration into themes, motifs and atmospheres, but sadly, it's anyone's guess when or indeed if DF's one-man-creator will get to that.
    Presenting a unique, procedurally generated, breathing simulation of a complex world as a playground would go a long way to achieve "true" role-playing. The narrative could then be freed from the branching "choose your own adventure"-style that limits most modern RPG.
    DF is a marvel, one of the most ambitious and fascinating projects in game design ever. Too bad its scope and ambition are not seen as such by the big studios who might learn a lot from it.

  4. "However TT RPGs have been adapting to new ideas of how to interact with the narrative in a way digital RPGs haven't."

    I'm curious about what exactly you're referring to. Every time I've played a TT RPG all I think is "this would be less boring as a video game." The only advantage I can see is that you have a human reacting to you, so there's the possibility of your every uttered word to be significant. If that's what you're looking for, it seems like Rohrer's Sleep is Death did a good job allowing another human to react to your actions through a computer-based medium. Are you hoping that computers will get as good as humans are to reacting to small actions?

  5. @mandaya

    I've looked into DF to see if it matches what I am looking for. It seems to be heading in the right direction in the sense of trying to create a highly flexible world that isn't restrained by one story or one set of experience to play through. However, this isn't really letting you interact with a narrative, you just have a highly flexible world that a love of random events happen to you in. I definitely think DF is interesting, but doesn't do what I'm stating here. My intent isn't to say all games in the RPG category are vapid and lacking, but they aren't following along with my claim about what an RPG is. These new indie emergent worlds are new and exciting, and thus becoming trendy, but they don't give a player that much control. The player is just even less aware of what could possibly happen, but it is programmed to happen. Again, it's not meant to knock DF, but you'd have to come up with how it allows the player to interact with the narrative more than, let's say, Oblivion and Minecraft.


    Let's break up what you're saying here for a moment.

    1. I imagine playing TT RPGs is as much up to someone's tastes as much as playing typical console-RPGs vs PC-RPGs. For example, I played in a murder-mystery LARP and it was amazingly fun, more than lots of video games I've played, though I rarely play any TT RPGs and come from a long line of console-RPGs. You'd have to consider the pros and cons that comes with the digital medium and how 'fun' would factor in. Entertainment value isn't really my concern here (not saying that it isn't important).

    2. The line you quoted argues that we lost interactivity with the narrative crossing over to the digital medium. I think you're being casually dismissive of human-mediated gameplay; there are boundless more things you can do because a person is translating your information that you can't in video games. You are bound by so many more rules, one that you might not realize at first; graphics and controls are rules, and you can't do anything that violates what the graphics and controls can produce. Because TT is only limited to our imaginations, we can do a larger amount, and not only that, we can start off with a large amount of initial scenarios. As well, there are many TT games that don't have as many rules to translate player actions into the game other than straight up storytelling and player negotiation, or situations where a player's goal is to complicate and fulfill another player's story theme. These are things digital games haven't expanded on.

    3. As stated in the article, I don't think video games need to become more like TT games, or the other way around. Rather, I want to encourage RPGs to find how to interact with the narrative that is unique to the medium. My argument in the article is that we haven't really seen many (if any) games that have tried to do as such, while TT games continue to expand.

    My next article, "Ludonarrative Resonance" acts as a sibling piece to show what I think the next step is for narrative in games, so checking that out might clarify a bit :)

  6. Your article brought to mind the old Dark Sun AD&D PC RPGs. Unlike most digital RPGs, it has no limits on who you can attack. This one quirk could actually sway the way the story went drastically.

    Say you were annoyed at a given quest and just didn't want to do it anymore, but you really needed the item you would get as a reward. You could simply (if you had the power) turn around and assassinate the quest giver for it. The game would generally correct for your action, perhaps turning a faction against you or making an opposing faction friendly.

    A somewhat crude example, but given the game setting, not out of line for how life goes in that world. Plus you could actually play out being a chaotic evil homicidal maniac if that's your cup of tea.