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Posted on Jan 16th 2016 at 08:00:00 AM by (slackur)
Posted under Role Playing, and yet, Wasteland 2, Fallout, Mass Effect, and yet


And now I want a Mega Man vs. Fallout game.  Pic from Fallout4.com.

In an interesting sequencing of events, I was planning on writing an article on role playing and Fallout 4 when our own SirPsycho wrote a well-thought out and researched article of his own.
http://www.rfgeneration.c...-of-Role-Playing-3202.php
 
And first, let me say I like the article and it has many points with which I agree, and my own article is not to argue or counter-point.  Rather, I'd like to explore my own thoughts on the matter, some of which parallels SirPsycho and some that go in another direction.

But first please allow me to drone on for a bit in the name of context. Cheesy



Role playing games and I, we go way, way back.  EA's The Standing Stones on C64 in '84 for the video game variants, and MechWarrior (second edition) around '91 was my first true pen-and-paper introduction. 

Graphics by imagination.  Image from gamebase64.com.

Like many a gamer my age, I grew up with the Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior series, though I didn't make it back to PC RPGs until many years later.  I've always considered the genre one of my favorites even as adult responsibilities began restricting the time these games require.  (A familiar lament, as has been recorded here countless times by many others.)  However, I've also continued playing pen-and-paper RPGs since middle school, and for over a decade my Beloved and I have routinely played with another couple who are also enthusiasts, as well as a few other friends.  Many of our pen-and-paper games have had campaigns lasting over a year and a half with the most recent one wrapping up just last month.  (For her birthday, my wife asked to get babysitting so we could get together with said friends and spend several hours finishing up the last epic battle.)  All this to say role-playing games, in many forms, have been a staple of my life since childhood.  That doesn't make my opinions about them more valid than anyone else's.  But it does mean I've got some "old timer" credentials, for whatever they're worth. (Mainly it just means I'm old.)

Currently, my take on the state of the RPG gaming world is much more upbeat than my colleague and fellow staff writer SirPsycho.  I personally think it is a matter of perspective. While I can certainly understand why there is criticism (which is itself a good and healthy thing to have in gaming) I have a different take to offer.

First an order of semantic clarification, because otherwise we can just dance around the specific meaning of words.  After all, if we leave role-playing as its most basic definition, something like Rock Band would be video game role-playing in its most pure form.  The player is literally playing the role of a virtual musician, pretend instrument and everything!  The vast majority of video game play is inherently role playing by nature; we're playing the role of whatever the game gives us.

Of course for the sake of reference when gamers mention RPGs, we're referring to the loose gaming paradigm of progress-able character stats, often-but-not-necessarily turn-based combat, and change-able gear and equipment.  These are thought to be best exemplified from early efforts such as Ultima and Wizardry to recent examples like Xenoblade Chronicles X and Pillars of Eternity.  That may be inherently obvious and an unnecessarily clarification.  Yet it comes into play because, for example, some will claim the recent Fallout games are instead first person shooters with RPG elements instead of 'real' RPGs (like the first two in the series.)  It really comes down to presumptions; as mentioned before, almost every video game is some form of role-play. The moniker of 'RPG' is more a matter of assumed traits, some of which have and will always be argued over.  This will factor greatly as we continue the discussion.

As a side note, I wanted to address the contention with morality systems and gameplay.  When it comes to 'rigid' versus 'flexible' morality systems, my personal take is that games are trying to emulate a concept mankind itself has been exploring since before the invention of media.  Is there such a thing as a 'grey area' (and if you think so, are you absolute on that? Wink ) Is there a system of doing good that cancels out doing bad?  And how do extremes come into play?  We as players may want to argue with a game about 'virtual' morality.  What we're really doing is arguing with a game designer (or design team) about how they, and their game, represent a concept no two people tend to completely agree upon.  That games even have underlying systems of moral codes means that a dialogue is opened up between player and game designer(s).  And I've certainly disagreed with many a games' take on morality.  Still, to fault a game because it doesn't follow or present options in line with my personal beliefs and standards, real or imaginary, is rather strange to me.  If I worked my ideas of moral choices into a game, I know for certain it would not connect with the way many people think or believe, but I would hope it would allow opportunities to reflect on other ways of thinking and believing.  Thus, I enjoy exploring the conversation a game gives about moral concepts, with the known caveat that I'm likely going to view the real and virtual world rather differently.

Anyway.  What SirPsycho's article examines is how many early computer RPGs such as Betrayal at Krondor and Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall featured far more open gameplay designs than their more modern counterparts.   And then, pondering if recent design decisions such as voice-acting and rigid morality systems are responsible for essentially putting rails on a genre once popular for open-endedness. 

I can see how that can be applicable in some aspects.  What SirPsycho champions as critical to a good RPG, such as a blank-slate main character to write our own story upon, world-altering gameplay choices, and a sort of sandbox openness, has been staples of some of the best examples of RPGs, and indeed video gaming.  Having a game that writes its story around what your avatar decides, and does so while weaving a tale worth telling, is a feat few games, even RPGs, have attained.

And yet...

While I do greatly appreciate such games, I don't think that all RPGs, or even most RPGs, benefit from such design.  There are so, so many design methods a game can facilitate.  And I love it when an RPG, particularly one in a serial series, takes steps to be a different experience from its predecessors.  Some notable examples include many of the most popular series:

Though linear by design, every Final Fantasy title has revised or overhauled main game mechanics.  And while many fans think the series is long past its glory days, each lauded entry, be it the NES, SNES, PSX, or PS2 entries, feature very different mechanics from one to the next.  While I haven't liked each change, I've always been impressed with the series' commitment to changing things up and experimenting with every entry.

Many have faulted the Mass Effect (and for that matter, Dragon Age, and Fallout) series for starting as more 'RPGish' and ending more 'action-y.' (Yes, yes, other complaints too, but out of the scope of this article.)  I can't say much about the Dragon Age games as I haven't finished the series.  But after replaying the Mass Effect games and the latter Fallouts (3, NV, 4) what I've noticed is that the clunky parts were streamlined and the already-present action components were refined and much more playable.  (Seriously, as much as I love the first Mass Effect, that inventory system is terrible and the action far more stilted.  Still fun, but the later games just play much more fluidly.)  For as great as Fallout 3 still is, any combat outside of V.A.T.S. is very awkward compared to 4 or even New Vegas.  What I'm saying is, while other factors like factions, companions, and story made each game memorable for different reasons, the series didn't necessarily become more action focused.  Each successive title just refined those same action elements in later games.  And it may feel like there is less 'RPG' content because of that, even if later games have larger maps, more items, less filler and more content.  Presentation is everything, as they say, and if a game sells itself as one thing, that is usually how we will view it.  So, an RPG with a more visibly refined action element feels more like an action game, even as the other elements fit squarely into a more traditional RPG.  A good reference is how I've heard some folks gripe that though they liked Fallout 3, Fallout 4 is now more of an FPS and that makes it less desirable. Yet, I have yet hear anyone asking to go back to 3's more clunky shooting mechanics instead!

As for those who don't like the direction Fallout went after 2, I understand, honestly.  But last yeaathefferentent game was released and changed my thoughts on the Fallout series: Wasteland 2.  In many ways, it represents to me what a modern Fallout would be if the series hadn't received the notorious Bethesda Elder Scrolls IV overhaul.  The original Wasteland came out almost a decade before the first Fallout, and the later owes much of its development from the former.  Wasteland 2 has many mechanics and design decisions directly in the spirit of its predecessor and the first two Fallout games.  It's great!  I really like it. 


Wasteland 2, a.k.a. The Fallout 3 game for people who didn't like Fallout 3.  Pic from http://blog.us.playstation.com

And yet...

I have found that the recent take on Fallout 4 really has given me something new, fresh, and now desirable.  It's not for everyone, certainly, and not for some of the older-school Fallout fans.  But, the new game design really works for what the new game is, and for what it is trying to be.

I'll now address the larger complaint about the lack of player agency, which I think is the biggest issue with many modern RPGs.  I think in many cases, the differences are more a matter of how a game masks its design elements and presents itself. 

The older PC games that supported such open-ended choice and design were awesome, but at a cost.  As any pen-and-paper Game Master or AD&D Dungeon Master can attest, you can only give your players so much choice and still have a cohesive game world.  All that choice is fantastic, but in many cases the more a player explores it, the more the rigid nature of a story and game-design start to rear up.  The best, such as Planescape: Torment, gives many options of how to progress and shape the story.  Often the implied choices are, as in many games, veiled railroads that lead down similar or even the same paths.  You can choose how to proceed, but it doesn't rewrite the gameworld, the gameworld is written to adjust to player options.  It can take multiple playthroughs to see them all, sure.  Such design decisions make for a fascinating experience, as the game is a ton of fun and very interesting.  But with modern media developments in gaming, some of those veils hiding the constraints of open-ended game design are more visible, and we feel the pushback a little more.

I think the reason that the Fallout series is exemplary in this examination is that it perfectly captures these developments like time capsules of the last two decades of gaming.  The early games on PC were full of options and openness.  What is sometimes forgotten, though, is how much such agency would render the game unable to be finished or incredibly difficult while being explored.  As the series progressed and the 3D worlds developed with character AI and 'living' game worlds advanced, what I think happened is that the illusion of player agency was lifted.  Thus, the gameplay was refined so that there were less frustrating dead-ends.  I'm not saying there weren't literally more options in older games, but I am saying that the tools were simpler, more nimble, but not necessarily better.  More player options to write the narrative of their choosing is certainly one way to instill player agency and interest, but it isn't the only, or I'd argue, always the best way.
 
Let me give an example.  One way Fallout 4 has really drawn me in is the optional path to develop settlements, to slowly rebuild civilization in the Boston area.  Sure, the game's tools to do so are super-clunky and at times tedious, but this optional task of basically rebuilding a chunk of the wasteland is, for me, very much in the spirit of what the Fallout universe has offered in the past.  Instead of running between factions and progressing quests, or brute forcing your way through encounters, or sneaking or out-talking your way through, your character can literally rebuild humanity from the ashes of the Great War, scavenging and defending and building.  Now, using components I found or made, I could in part reshape the land, make a community, and create something larger than my character.  If ghouls attacked a farm on the outskirts of my settlements, it was more than just random NPCs.  I built that place. I recruited those people.  I gave each person a job and purpose.  I even armed them personally and with automated turrets.  How dare these feral things attack my people!  Or when raiders would kidnap a settler (sometimes named personalities) and demanded ransom, no matter how many caps I had, my Sole Survivor (Bartholomew's the name) would hunt them down relentlessly and rescue each of my own. 

Fallout 4 doesn't make you do any of this, and the quests simply fail if you don't follow them up.  But even if I was in the middle of story stuff, I roleplayed a soldier who remade a city from scraps, and defended it and its people at all costs.  I could stop playing today and feel like I had a great experience, and I haven't even finished the main quest yet.  It isn't just about a huge optional list of sidequests, but a method of offering opportunities for personal investment, systems in place for us to write our own story and make up our own details.  That kind of thoughtful addition is a hallmark of great RPG design.  And Fallout 4 allows me to use altruism, force, manipulation, or other devices to shape a part of the future.  Making a difference, for better or/and worse in a fallen world.  And aside from a few starter (tutorial) elements, most things are optional.  You can ignore most things completely and just play a different way, a different path.  It's an impressive bit of agency that really invested me as a player.  And I was not surprised upon learning that a buddy of mine ignored all of the settlement stuff completely and finished the game his own way.
 
Another angle about player agency is having a character's backstory pre-written.  As a design choice, and admittedly at times a poor one, most of the time it is used for character motivation or story development.  It gives history to Mass Effect's driven Shephard.  It is used for epic story reveals in Knights of the Old Republic.  It can, when used properly, be a tool to actually role-play with a known motivation or agenda.  Even Fallout 4 writes your Sole Survivor as a war veteran, giving context to his/her proficiency as we decide what to become proficient at: from peacekeeping to violence, subterfuge to sharpshooting.  That a man trained in war would have a family, lose said family, and wake up in a desperate situation, gives all sorts of (player) options to play.  You can run all-out as a ruthless mercenary in a kill-or-be-killed world, share the best of a good-natured father, be a suppressed robot liberator, or use force to rule a new civilization.

 Or just wander through radio-active water in your undies.  Probably somewhere in-between.



Those aren't ghouls chasing him.  He shouted that Brotherhood of Steel was the best Fallout game, and he was wearing Power Armor when he said it.  From http://kotaku.com/man-run...ompletely-nake-1751005119

Let me give a final example of how to invest player agency beyond more options and come at it from a little left field with a quarter century (ouch, I'm getting old) of pen-and-paper GMing (Game Mastering.)  The best games I've run have always run the risk of 'going off the rails.'  It is a fear many a GM/DM has had; when the players just divert from the carefully planned path you've set and go off to do something you hadn't anticipated.  There is always a sort of veil between the GM and players about just how much the GM has pre-designed versus how much is made-up on the spot, and then sold as if that was part of the story all along.  Sure, the party knows they are *supposed* to listen to the wise old mage, the cyberpunks know the corporate suit has their info, the group of vaguely-spheroid automatons can't travel too far from the mechanic before shutting down.  But players will always, ALWAYS find a way to trip-up even the most carefully laid plans and make the GM raise his eyes as he thinks to himself, 'uh, wow, I didn't think of that... uh...'       

While there is only so much that can be done beforehand to address this in a pen-and-paper RPG, I guided players by giving them more agency in the game world in other ways.  For example, I gave each player's character some extra experience points if the player wrote a brief journal page from their character's perspective that reflected on their previous game session.  Each week, I'd collect said papers from the players, dole out some bonus XP, and find myself delighted at not only each player's different perspective, but in the extra details they started writing in.  I'd include these added details of their design as we continued playing, mentioning in passing some of the details the players had written.  Sometimes it was a new creature or flora superfluously mentioned in their writing, or extra dialogue that fit in with the characters and their backgrounds.  Sometimes it would be legends the players made up that their characters had heard, or lost locations never seen.  As a GM, I got to pick and choose what to add and how to add it, and the authenticity of it, and incorporate it naturally into the gameworld.  Very rarely would I have to 'put the foot down' and tell the players the additions just didn't work with what I'd already written.  Sometimes I'd even secretly rewrite or alter something I had previously written, because what they had worked better!  (And after the end of the game, I'd be sure to tell them, just so I wouldn't take credit for another's neat ideas.)  All of this meant that the players were more interested in progressing the story because they each had a certain investment in it's development and wanted to see its progression.  By the end of the game, it felt like all of our story, and not just a story I wrote and they survived a few dice roles to see through.

And this is why I don't think a complete open-endedness is necessary for an excellent roleplaying game, as long as it has other successful methods to invest the player in its progression.  Choice and consequence in gaming is only as good as the context and constraints the experience is shared under.  The best RPG stories are a dance between player and game design, letting the imagination do the heavy lifting, grounded in the world the game is presenting, and capturing the flow of where the game creator is wanting to lead us. In a way, that feels like it was where we knew we were going, and as if the story were both followed and created at the same time.  The stage upon which the story is set has to frame, and not intrude or disappear.  It is, like the screen of a video game or the numbers on a character sheet, that which captures and guides our attention and affections.  Sometimes it does this with endless options, sometimes with guided development, and other times with spectacle and imagination.  Ideally, it's a deft mix of it all.  It is the relationship, the dance, between these components that make roleplaying an experience like no other.

Smiley


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Comments
 
Brilliant article and breakdown man. As on older D&D guy myself, you bring up some good points about the evolution of RPGs and how some of these old elements still exist.
 
Oh, I just wish there were more examples of both ends of the spectrum, I think.  I loved the open-ended chaos that is Morrowind (and to some extent, Ultima 4), but I love me some Infinity Engine games as well.  I remember grinning with excitment in Blades of Avernum when a text box popped up describing the sound of a low growling, and the suddenly hearing it through the other ambient noise.  Man, good stuff. 

I was discussing this article today at work with a friend and he kindly informed me that I need to play Fallout 3, Fallout NV, Skyrim, and Witcher 2 if I really want to understand...  things, I guess.  He didn't come right out and say I was playing too many Golden-age RPGs, but he did suggest I not forsake the new for the old, especially of I want a clearer picture of the of the genre as a whole.
 
Thanks, Naner! Smiley

Yeah, the older I get, the more I have to consciously keep my mind open and not assume my preferences are the better preferences. These type of discussions and examinations certainly help me enjoy an entire spectrum rather than a specific design.
 
@slackur:  Come on man we're old. If our parents taught us anything, it's that older people are always right. Cheesy
 
I think we've got the best of all worlds now with RPGs, as there are so many different types being released.

There are the more action heavy ones like Witcher and Mass Effect. In games like these, the character is more defined by the developers than by the player. Geralt and Shepard have a set backstory and the roleplaying comes in when making decisions. I personally find these games do decision making right - in Witcher there is usually never a right or wrong answer, just varying shades of grey and you often get bit when you think you're doing the right thing. In Mass Effect, there's no good or evil, Shepard is trying to save the galaxy and she can be pragmatic about it or more idealistic. I think by having a character that's already shaped a bit more, there's a lot more room for telling interesting stories through sidequests and things because they don't have to be written for so many different permutations of a character.

Isometric CRPGs often give you much more room to shape your character's history and actions as you like, but many never were that good about decision making or morality. You can be a saint, you can do good deeds for money, or you can go around kicking puppies and making babies cry. Obviously, this doesn't apply to all of them, but I often find many of these games get bogged down in good vs evil and there's very little motivation to be evil. I've been really happy that isometric CRPGs are making a comback though, because I love them! Super excited for the new Torment, and I loved Pillars of Eternity and the new Divinity. In these games the roleplaying aspect that I most enjoy is building my character's stats, abilities, and party and interacting with different groups within the game world. Plus I love turn based combat.

Then there are the more sandboxy RPGs, like Elder Scrolls or Fallout. These games let you do a bunch of random shit that may or may not be related to the story of the game. While your character may be shaped at the beginning, I feel these are the most free-roaming, least focused of the RPGs (can you tell which type is my least favourite?). For me, exploration is the big draw of these games, and I particularly like Fallout's focus on location-based storytelling.

And then there are JRPGs...which all seem to be on handhelds now so I don't play them. Come back to consoles JRPGs!

Anyway, my point is that it's nice that there are so many different types of RPGs around right now, I like them all to some extent and each offers a little something different.
 
Well written article that I wish I had more context of, since I haven't played ANY of the Fallout games, or for that matter, many modern western RPG's outside of Mass Effect for the somewhat recent RFGen play through.

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