Worlds Apart

There has been much talk lately about the future of computer role-playing games. Some say that they are in the middle of a popularity resurgence, while others cry that CRPG’s in the “classic” sense are dead. Yet the argument is not necessarily a binary thing–there are some people who feel the classic CRPG has simply been scattered finely throughout computer gaming and that it has evolved away from its roots. I think proponents of the latter opinion have a good point. You could make the argument that the RPG has been one of the most influential forces on computer games of all types, having permeated every other genre to such a degree that it is no longer even noticeable. Think about all the adventure games and action games that have RPG-like inventory systems. Think about the origin of the fictional settings for games like Master of Magic, Myth or Warcraft. Think about all the terminology that has crept into other non-RPG games. Even “character” itself is used in a fashion that has more in common with paper RPG’s than with fiction in the context of computer games. It’s not “a” character, it’s “your” character. And just as the effects of RPG’s have been scattered throughout the culture, the very term RPG has come to have a widely spread meaning. The term itself is no longer focused enough to be as meaningful as it once was.

Regardless of which side they’re on, people tend to have pretty strong opinions about the issues. Much more so than outsiders to the gaming subculture would think. Why is that? Why do gamers get so worked up about things like, “The future of CRPG’s?” When I’m in an optimistic mood, I believe it’s because people are extremely passionate about the experiences they have while playing great games. They have come to value the intrigue they feel when exploring some new virtual place or the adrenaline that comes upon them as they close upon a helpless foe in a shooter. They get attached to the characters in the games they play, whether they are real people, in the case of online games like FireTeam, or AI-driven, as in the case of games like Fallout. Gamers are passionate. When I’m in a pessimistic mood I think it’s because some gamers are fascists who immediately get defensive if anyone ever tries to offer them anything new or challenging.

Part of the problem in deciding whether CRPG’s are currently in good shape or bad is that people define the term RPG differently. So what is an RPG? Is it a game in which you create a party of adventurers, use them to freely interact with that world, meet and converse with secondary characters (NPC’s), fight monsters, collect treasure and gain “levels?” What if you take away the party and make the player manipulate a single character? Does it cease to be an RPG? Some purists have screamed loudly about this for years, bashing games that do away with the concept of the “party of followers.” What if there is a party, but the player does not get to create the characters;their identities are pre-scripted? Does it cease to be an RPG then, even if it has all of the other elements? Again, some have said that a game without these elements is not an RPG. These definitions are restrictive, which is bad from a creativity standpoint, and if all game developers did stick to them then the genre would never grow; most RPG’s would feel the same.

So–since so many great games have emerged over the last few years that bent a few of the rules or otherwise departed from tradition–the definition of RPG must be somewhat more flexible. The term seems to be in a state of flux. Is an RPG simply a game in which you “play a role” while exploring a fictional world? Is an RPG defined by the fact that the point of the game is to escape the real world, to immerse yourself in a fictional setting and participate in an unfolding plot beyond the scope of your normal life; to shape that plot by your actions? The camp more concerned with the immersive elements of the experience than with numeric systems would say that a game that combines a few components of the classic RPG with this sort of exploration and immersion is a role-playing game in its modern incarnation. That the genre has evolved.

Those on this side of the argument say that stopping to manipulate stats pulls the player out of an otherwise immersive experience by moving the emphasis away from interacting with and reacting to the game environment. This group would say that stats are thus counter to what an immersive reality sim tries to do–pull you into the experience. Advocates of such games claim that heavy reliance on stats is a throw-back to the days before we had more sophisticated means of conveying feedback information to the player, and that if a developer is making a game with the focus on immersing the player in a living, breathing world and if he can find a way to convey advancement, successes, failures and effects to the player in some subtler way, he should. (For instance: instead of my ‘exhaustion stat’ dropping from 50 to 20 when my character is tired, my character literally begins to make a panting sounds when he is tired and moves a bit slower.)

The immersive adventure sim is emerging as a new, participatory techno-artform and it is leaving stats behind because they do not serve it. (When silent movies became “talkies,” the text at the bottom of the screen was dropped.)

The other side of the debate says that stats are great fun and highly useful for tracking progress and game character powers. People love to track stats. (Look at the heuristic insanity of the sports world.) Stats are a simple, classic way to tell people how a given unit (or player) compares to others, to that unit’s previous performance and its advancement. Games that are not as concerned with ‘world immersion’ (i.e., their primary goal is something else) can be tons of fun because the stats let you track your progress finely, chart your moves with precision and micromanage the game systems. Stats are also useful in firming up the concept behind a given character. When rolling up a character for a Rifts (paper) game recently, I allocated his highest attribute to his Physical Endurance because I had already decided, in concept, that this character was first and foremost a survivor, someone who could take a lot of pain and keep on moving.

I’d say that both camps are right in ways and that the terminology itself is what has failed us. Now that both halves of the world are flaming me for being on the Wrong Side ™, let me explain this opinion by first bringing up a parallel from the paper RPG world. The way I see it, there are two key types of RPG enthusiasts–those in love with the game systems, character statistics and mechanics, and those in love with the places, characters and stories.

When I first started playing paper RPG’s (20 years ago, on the night of my 11th birthday), I played with a mixed group of people. In those early days, it was nothing but chaos and fun. However, as we continued to play together over the years, certain critical differences began to assert themselves. It seemed that some people in the group wanted to spend more and more time interacting with interesting NPC’s (through the voice of the referee, of course) and slowly piecing together the exotic nature of the campaign world. These same players began to create characters with more quirks, deeper histories and more crisply defined personas. Other players in the group found this type of role-playing tedious.

Eventually, our gaming group split up–the role-playing purist played with people who wanted to focus on verbal interaction, character portrayal, world exploration and complicated plot turns. The other group, made up of people who loved the game systems themselves, played games that focused on exploiting the mechanics to gain power in the game. (Most of the latter group eventually switched to combat/tactical games like Warhammer 40K.)

I see a version of this division in computer RPG fans today.

The parallel seems strong to me. If you personally had to decide on one of the following preferences, would you say that you enjoy games more that allow you to master a tactical system, manipulating the game-world and its pieces through distinct unit qualities and lots of tweak-able mechanics? Or do you prefer games that allow you to visit an unusual place, explore forgotten, alien or haunted worlds? Which of these two aspects of the RPG is more important to you? (Though both of these games shared both aspects in some proportions, Wizardry VII was mostly an example of the former and System Shock was mostly an example of the latter.) How you answer these questions probably says something about your opinion on the current state of the CRPG.

Looking over the games coming soon, it seems to me that many future CRPG’s will cater to either one crowd or the other. Others will attempt to function as a hybrid, satisfying both groups. Again, I think it is the terminology that has failed us, not the games; I think that the term RPG means too much, to too many people. Perhaps some new terminology would better serve to categorize the experiential specifics of a given game, depending on whether it is technically a stats-based CRPG or an immersive adventure sim. This division is not a bad thing–the split is only there, as it always has been, because of differences in the tastes of gamers who love RPG’s. Players should keep this in mind when they finally get their hands on Ultima Ascension, Thief: the Dark Project, Baldur’s Gate and Swords & Sorcery. For developers, understanding where their games sit along this spectrum is even more critical.

Deus Ex, the game I am currently working on (with Warren Spector and a really talented team of people at ION Storm Austin), is a hybrid. We are going to try to please both camps by creating an immersive RPG, filled with dynamic characters and an interesting story line. But we’re also allowing for skill-based character generation and advancement, a party of allies, lots of non-plot-related areas to explore, a conversation system and multiple (non-violent) solutions to problems based on your character’s skills and inventory. It’s an ambitious effort, trying to make a game that people from both sides will like. In the end, regardless of philosophical quibbles (that may cause Warren to hit me repeatedly over the head with a giant rubber ‘Toon mallet), we’ll do our best to make Deus Ex *fun* above all else.

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