RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.RF Generation.  The Classic and Modern Gaming Databases.

Posted on Jan 12th 2016 at 08:00:00 AM by (SirPsycho)
Posted under RPG, rant, stuff, old man, get off my lawn

One of the biggest reasons I got into role playing games on PC is because of how open they were. Many of them are so open, that you might never get around to playing the entirety of the main story. Having these games really come of age in the third dimension was one of the best things about having a decent PC in the early-mid 2000s. Now I can't help but feel they've stagnated nearly to the point of being the opposite of fun and rewarding. I believe one of the biggest reasons for this is the industry's total shift to fully-voiced scripts, especially in the AAA development scene. This staunches writing freedom and limits player options--effects that game designers should be against! I can only hope this is a AAA trend that dies out, and seeing all these conflicting opinions could lead to Fallout 4 being the landmark title that starts the reversal of this trend.

While I don't own Fallout 4 yet, I have seen the introduction and a bit of the world through exploration, and I have to say that the way Bethesda sets up their main stories in the Fallout games they've developed is the complete opposite of this idea of total freedom in a completely open world that they themselves helped to popularize. They've been railroading Fallout fans into making the traditional good guy trope, while still giving evil options. Why would an evil madman even be remotely interested in purifying water for the betterment of mankind? Are the seeds of daddy issues sown that deeply?

Compare the beginning of Fallout 4 to the beginning of Morrowind and you'll see a huge contrast in role playing style. Morrowind gives you a bare bones backstory (only knowing that you're a prisoner born on a certain day to uncertain parents) and that is a critical line of one of the Dunmer's greatest prophecies. You put in your information, build your character, pick a class, grab some newbie junk on the way out, and you're completely free. The final window of the basic tutorial even says, "You're on your own now," and the game only gives you hints within the world.

In Fallout 4 you have a wife, a kid, and are essentially forced into a Vault where bad things start to happen. You witness a horrific scene before your very eyes, and watch as your son is taken from the safety of the Vault for reasons you cannot possibly comprehend at the beginning. My character is built for me. I have no say whatsoever in his backstory, there is no wiggle room at all. Everybody tells you where you have to go, but they never mention detailed directions of how to get there! An arrow magically appears out of the ether to give you instant knowledge of exactly where you should go. Morrowind gave you directions. There was no magic arrow. The only real option for role playing in a set up like this is whether I want to play as a giant knob, or an angel of justice. Sounds like most AAA morality systems for over a decade now doesn't it?

While this is hardly the only example, and there is more than a decade and different writers between the release of Morrowind and Fallout 4, this is hardly new. Fallout 3 was much the same way, with you playing as a seemingly abandoned son instead of Liam Neeson in the entire Taken series. Instead, Liam Neeson is your father in Fallout 3, and he leaves you all alone in the vault! All the history behind the main character is made for the player, and their only choices come within the world after the game has already started.

This leads to my next point: having a pre-determined backstory is a limit to believable events in the emergent story of the player's world. I'll go back to Fallout 3 where you spend your entire childhood being raised in a rather loving, stable, and caring environment overall within the Vault. Of course its not that simple, but would somebody growing up in that kind of environment decide to nuke an innocent town less than 10 minutes after discovering it, or blatantly assassinate its sheriff in open daylight? From a narrative perspective, this makes no sense, especially since some form of insanity or propensity to violence is not added to the already detailed backstory.

Obsidan handled Fallout: New Vegas' backstory quite well even if it seems like its limiting on the surface. You're a courier who delivers packages. How long you've been in the Nevada Wasteland is undetermined, and any previous connections you have are unknown at the start of the game. Your character's childhood and growth is not even hinted at, so whatever personality Courier 6 had before Benny shot him would still be there. Violent insanity, pacifism, and anything in between would continue to exist as it had before.

This type of gritty, dark setting is what Fallout is really supposed to be.

One of my favorite lesser known examples of a good role playing game introduction is the first game in the Gothic series. Like Morrowind, you're a prisoner, but you have even less information about your backstory since the game doesn't shove a prophecy in your face right from the beginning. As soon as the first conversation is over, you're completely free to discover the Penal Colony of Khorinis at your leisure--in theory. Stay close to the road early on though, you can't even hurt wolves with a crappy rusty pickax. From there the prisoner finds three main factions vying for power in the Colony, and you can take your pick while noting the strengths and weaknesses of all factions.

Gothic II continues right where Gothic I leaves off, but it does spoil the ending of the first game a bit. A powerful wizard finds that you're still alive after stone collapsed on you, and summons the Prisoner to a tower he erected outside the Penal Colony. He could not summon your super powerful armor from the first game though, so you're pretty much naked once again, and you've been under stone for so long that your body has weakened. After your first conversation with this wizard, the world is, once again, completely open in theory.

To this day, I believe there is no stronger video gaming experience, purely from the perspective of role playing, than Planescape: Torment. How fitting that my 100th blog post would also make reference to a game I lauded in my very first one as seen here: http://www.rfgeneration.c...ay-this-Volume-1-1752.php

Wow its ugly.

Anyway, Torment does not give you any character customization options outside of stats. Instead, the player is given an amnesiac immortal who can 'die' but merely sits up later in the day with his memories wiped out. You find quite a few hints to the character's past misdeeds just trying to escape the Crypt where you start the game. It's not just the scale of the story, the discovery of The Nameless One's past, and how many members of the game's party have deep histories with this immortal that really sets this game apart, it's the role playing options. There are conversations where you will have the exact same line of dialogue; only one option is a bluff, and another one is serious, like a threat of physical violence for example. Modern games can kind of give you this option, but its not really hard coded. These options could also double the amount of voices in the game. In the modern Fallout or Elder Scrolls games, I can tell somebody that I promise to help them, then immediately murder them if I so desire, but there's much fewer chances for stat based deception in these newer games.

Going further back than the great RPG Revival starting around Diablo and Fallout's release just leads to games that are so open as to be completely cryptic. Many old RPGs cannot be played without a manual, since the story itself resides in that tome! Often times, the mechanics and keyboard shortcuts are all over the place, so you'll need the manual open to the 'Controls' pages for hours until you have all the commands memorized; some aren't even documented! It would be hard to pick games that are the best in this era to check out their world design, but I think The Elder Scrolls Part II: Daggerfall and Betrayal at Krondor are good places to start.

It's not just the design of the characters that is leading this trend, but also the desire to make these games in a more action focused style. Mass Effect went from a fairly heavy RPG with basic third person shooter elements in the first game, to a complete reversal in the second game. Bioware, a company long respected for RPGs, heard more than an earful from long time fans who have followed the company because they like Bioware role playing games. These ideas have also seeped into the series that was supposed to be Bioware's homage to their own older games like Baldur's Gate, the Dragon Age series, but quickly started down this limiting path after only the first game. What's kept Bioware afloat during this period of attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator is that their companions are almost ubiquitously good if not completely great.

Fallout 3 to Fallout 4 has a similar jump. The focus in Fallout 3 was basically turning the old turn-based games into a first person action experience, but left a high percentage of old features. New Vegas polished the shooting mechanics by simply adding iron sights and customization options. They kept the game balanced in a way that still made going into VATS extremely useful. Fallout 4 seems to have taken a step too far in the action direction, with tying all the old skills into SPECIAL stats instead of giving the player custom options. Just because my character is really smart does not mean he automatically learns how to mend broken bones in the middle of the Wasteland after popping a mentat. How would that ever possibly work? Osmosis? Mysterious Stranger telepathic communications?

This leads into my final point. All this simplification has lead to gigantic holes in basic logic. I'm not saying the game should be 100% realistic, but there should be some actual realism to certain mechanics and design decisions. Learning skills because you have a raw stat makes as much sense as knowing how to make a lemon meringue pie because you have access to lemons, eggs, grain, and are relatively intelligent. You might be able to figure it out after a few tries, but the knowledge is not automatic. In the case of setting broken bones, failure is usually much worse than simply doing nothing.

This also leads to less thought from the player when it comes to the direction of their character, which can spill into other areas of the game. You'll spend less time thinking about the world as a whole, and merely run around doing whatever you think is cool, which leads to a disconnect with the possible consequences of your actions. Everybody goes on rampages in these kinds of games, but you rarely save your game after one. The player is supposed to be careful building and planning to make a powerful enough character to go on complete murder sprees if they so choose, that's the reward to good role playing progression. A lot of recent indie and Kickstarter RPGs are not pursuing an open world design, and instead move along more linear lines, so you cannot scratch the itch for truly open world role playing in these games either. Pillars of Eternity is an excellent consolation prize though, and I'm anxiously looking forward to the new Torment.

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Nice article. There's definitely conflict between design and writing in modern game scene. Where they should be complementing each other, they're often at odds with one another. Not to mention the whole role playing genre has changed from allowing players to put themselves in the setting and let things unfold in a way that they create to being given a pre-scripted character and working through very limited options to create a relatable  or believable character.

I think this Youtube video points to the same complaints. https://youtu.be/NLIq4ceXZAw?t=7m12s

I remember watching a Brian Fargo interview and he detailed Interplay's development style when it came to RPGs going back to at least the first Wasteland. They worked much like RPG B in the video you linked, with the writers working first, then the designers building the world and rules around the characters, locations, and events.
Wow.  Totally with you on this one, SP.  While it is not across the board, I feel many AAA WRPG games have been homogenized to the point of hilarity, all in the name of widespread appeal.  It's not to say that I don't find these games fun, but I like my WRPG games to be WRPG games.  I play Just Cause to blow stuff up, not to develop the character as the savior of the poor in South America.

Great call on the Krondor games.  They are among the best of the EGA and early VGA-era WRPG games, along with Siege of Avalon (and Torment, as you mentioned).  I also hear that Ultima V-VII features some great story telling.  I also love to nod to the Spiderweb Studios games, as they have always put D&D-style story telling in their games above visual flash.
I'm rather deep into Fallout 4, and closing in on the end. While some of your complaints are valid, the simplification of the morality of your character is not one of them. While the story seems to start out in a manner to railroad you into a certain way of thinking, there is a twist that you run on that really makes you question your actions and how you wish to proceed. There are no simple black and white choices at this point, just making hard choices and following through on the consequences.

I do have a bit to say about the mechanics, but that will have to wait for the next podcast episode...
@Duke.Togo: The worst crime Bethesda committed was removing the ability to say "No." No means no. I don't want your quest yet. Stop following me around you stupid ghoul kid. We accidentally bugged that quest out so he never went away.

Another thing that bugs me is how Obsidian not only made more quests, but multiple paths in most quests in New Vegas and they did it in less than two years. How many years did Bethesda work on this game for? 5?

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