West of House

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

I am generally skeptical about the quality of narrative in video games. For the most part, the games we play don’t provide a literary experience that is much above that of the simplest children’s story. Hero wakes up. Hero kills a lot of shit. Hero saves the world.

For years, people have told me that Planescape:Torment was different. But until recently, I didn’t have the chance to actually find out. I recently obtained a computer that can play the game, and in between my Oblivion sessions I’ve been poking around in The Hive.

I am not far enough into the game to have a full evaluation of the story, but while I was playing the game the other day, I did come to an interesting realization.

Recall that Planescape was released in late 1999 as part of a generation of classic PC Role Playing Games based on D&D; rules. These games all used a similar isometric 2-d rendering system with hand-drawn backgrounds and sprite- based character models. By modern standards, this is not exactly what you would call a “highly immersive” rendering of the world.

Instead of walking around in a grand city like this:

you roam around in a fairly flat world like this:

On the face of it, it seems like Oblivion should completely crush the older game in terms of being able to create an actual sense of place, and atmosphere. And this is to some extent true. But, a funny thing happens when you actually talk to the people in this insanely detailed world. Here is what you get:

At that moment, as the NPC stares at you with those zombie eyes, and her stiff rubber lips start to move slightly out of sync with the dialog, the work that the hundreds of modellers must have done to painstakingly create every little detail in the huge world goes out of your mind, and all you can think is that you are talking to a robot.

The NPCs in Oblivion are horrible. The models are bad. The animation is bad. The dialog is bad. There are only five voice actors for the whole game. You only have to look at two Xbox games to convince yourself of how pathetic this game is. On the Xbox, Knights of the old Republic had repetitive models, but better lip sync and writing. Also on the Xbox, the face models and animations in Half-Life 2 completely destroy anything in the newer game, although the writing is nothing to get excited about.

In contrast, when you talk to a character in Planescape, you get a little text blurb:

The man before you looks to be middle of height and years. He is stout with a thick, bullish neck and his shoulders are hunched, as if a great weight was pressing upon them. He wears an impatient look as he stares at the black monolith in front of him.

Having digested the text, your mind’s eye constructs a character that is decades beyond what the “next generation” will be able to bring us. The result is that it is much easier to let your disbelief suspend itself and stay immersed in the game world. In other words, the text does a better job of creating a world for your imagination than all the technology that Oblivion can bring to bear.

The written text in Planescape is the strongest part of the game. It consistently performs the miracle of making the game world seem real even in the face of relatively primitive graphics and sound design. Also, the deep conversation trees, something I always found pointless in other games, actually serve a purpose in this game. This makes me optimistic about the possibilities for future plot development.

Meanwhile, Oblivion is not really a game that concerns itself with compelling narrative. There are too many compromises made to enable the high level sandbox nature of the world. It just doesn’t work to try and make an involving story if the main character in the tale can leave any time he wants. Instead of compelling you to go out and push the “main” plot forward, the game sits back and lets you find your own way. To its credit, the game is densely packed with things to do, but none of them really serve any narrative purpose. Instead, they are about accumulating power, status, or shiny objects. Any plot elements are an afterthought at best, so the result is that becoming the head of the Mage’s guild and getting that +10 fire ball rocket launcher of death is all just more interesting than saving the world.

In this context, it’s clear why the NPCs in Oblivion are so bad. They really have no purpose other than to push you forward through whatever quest you happen to have chosen at the time. Because of this, it’s not really important for the characters to be at all memorable. Even the Emperor, voiced by Captain Picard himself, doesn’t leave an impression much stronger than a wet kleenex stuck to your shoe.

The evolution of the RPG from games like Planescape to games like Oblivion (or World Of Warcraft for that matter) underscores larger trends in game requirements and design. The trend is toward more immersive presentation, but away from immersive narrative.

I think the trouble began with voiceovers. I guess the argument for voiceovers is rooted in the overall goal of increased “realism.” Games want to be more like movies, and deliver a presentation that tickles all five senses. All I know is the first time I tried to play KOTOR, I had to turn the voice off and just read the dialog, because the voiceover combined with the marginal lip sync was just too jarring. By the time I returned to the game a year later, I had conditioned myself to not mind voice in video games so much. I’d still rather read the game, but I appear to be in a small minority. People don’t like to read games anymore. They want voice, full character models, interactive environments and huge sprawling worlds. More importantly, they want the content fed to them via the graphics card rather than constructed for them one word at a time.

Game designers strive to provide all of this, and we can see the general trend in RPGs from KOTOR to Jade Empire, and Morrowind to Oblivion. Jade Empire had a fairly weak story in comparison to KOTOR (which was no great literary tour de force), but it had a bitchin’ real time combat system. Morrowind and Oblivion share an overall weakness in their narrative, but Oblivion makes up for it by packing the world with even more to do and more to collect. Collecting stuff turns out to be enough to keep people playing the game. Finally, the whole MMORPG phenomenon points out how much people crave the idea of an interactive virtual world full of “real” people.

This move away from strong narrative is probably inevitable, but it is a shame that the market can’t find room for games with stronger narrative and less “shiny”. We can all mourn the loss of the more literary game. Planescape is the first “modern” game I’ve played that evoked the feeling that I had the first time I walked around in the Colossal Cave or when I found myself standing next to that white house. It seems like modern games very rarely dazzle our imaginations as much as our inner technology geek. This is too bad, because it’s the imagination that remembers the game. I can still see that house in Zork, and I haven’t picked up the game in twenty five years. I doubt that any locale in Oblivion will stick with me that long.