R is not for Role

Lately, my game playing time has been mostly budgeted to games that the industry puts into the general genre of “Role Playing Game” or “RPG”. Before Knights of the Old Republic I had mostly ignored games like these, but since that game I have delved into Mario and Luigi, Disgaea, Shadow Hearts and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. All this exposure has gotten me to thinking about the defining characteristic of this game genre.

If you ask the average dork on the street what an RPG is, he will say “Dungeons and Dragons”. That is, role playing games are about a small group of dorks sitting around a table with a head dork running the game. Each dork takes the “role” of a character in the narrative that the whole dork party is collaborating to create. The dorkmaster provides the general framework within which this narrative evolves, but nothing is in general set in stone.

Of course, I’m being overly mean to people who play these games. But since I have been one of them, I think that’s OK. In addition, I’m being overly kind to the intellectual quality of the games themselves. It’s not really like this. In my time with D&D, the game was mostly about running around, getting kick ass powerful, beating the crap out of stuff, and then getting rich. The rest of it was just edifice on which to hang the fun beating up of things.

Designers of computer and console RPGs have learned this lesson well. Think about the list of games that have been on the top of the RPG heap over the last few years. I think it is pretty clear that they are structured around exactly the above mechanics. Run around, beat stuff up, get rich. Of course, this differs somewhat from the idyllic early days of the tabletop RPG.

Consider that in most cases, your character in the game is provided for you. Some titles make a big show about you being able to pick your race, or skin color, or the clothes you wear, but this is all just surface fluff. Sure you can pick your “class” and whatnot, but this doesn’t really change how the game goes. Narratively speaking, in a state of the art RPG, you no more play your own “role” than you do in Half Life, where you are anyone you want to be, as long as it is Gordon. Also, the structure of the game is generally a fixed linear narrative, with some more open ended optional side branches thrown in. This is because computers are not as smart as human meatbags when it comes to making up narrative on the fly. Having a more open ended and flexible narrative is a holy grail of game design for some people, but I don’t find the notion that compelling. I think basically linear narratives are fun.

So now the question is, what do we give our little avatar to do to reach the end of the game? If this were an FPS, that task would involve running around the world and making things explode until you get to the next cutscene, then repeat. As you play more, you might get better, and the levels can get marginally harder, but for the most part the challenge is in making a relatively repetitive task not get boring.

Traditionally, computer and console RPGs have solved this problem by devising a clever way to appear to mix up the game play while avoiding the requirement that the player have great reflexes. This is good for old guys like me. First, introduce a parameter in the game engine that I will call R. This parameter basically determines how good you, the player, are at the game. Second, arrange so that as you progress through the game, this parameter increases along various dimensions. You can take more damage, cast more spells, buy upgraded weapons, protect yourself with better armor, and so on. Third, have the game make a great show of informing you about exactly how much R has increased lately. As R goes up, you can fight monsters that also have a higher R. If the game does its job, it balances your abilities with the abilities of the enemy so you always get to kick ass in new and more powerful ways, and are never in any real danger of losing. This way, the game keeps you moving forward from cut scene to cut scene and everyone is happy. Once in a while, the game will miss and you have to run around and increase R so that you can get past the next Boss.

Ultimately, this is what a computer RPG is about. You run around, increase R and kick ass. This structure is so enticing that it has wormed its way into various other game genres as well. You can’t open a gaming magazine without reading “with RPG elements” in the advertising copy. So we get golf games “with RPG elements” where your little clubs hit further as you use them more. We get platform/action games where you gain “hearts” as you play more and your weapons get more powerful as you use them. Even the most mainline of mainline sports games do this. In the Franchise Mode in Madden the stats for your players increase as they play well in simulated games, and thus make your team more bad-ass as time goes by. I don’t even know what those stats mean, but I know the team gets better over time.

At this point, old time RPG purists and luddites are probably bemoaning the fact that so much of the “social and collaborative” experience is lost in the translation of the tabletop game to the computer. I don’t see much to mourn. If you really want to do classic role playing, then go buy the books and find a small group of dorks to help you out.

Console and computer RPG fans are also probably mad at me for saying that their games basically boil down to a great quest for increased stats. To them I say, this is a feature, not a bug. I have personally been enjoying these mostly linear romps from cut scene to cut scene. Kicking butt is fun. Doing so while watching R go up steadily is also fun. I think this is a win-win situation.

So anyway, where was that copy of KOTOR II?