The Game Jar Files: The problem with RPGs


Originally published on The Game Jar – February 10th 2014

With the amount of cross-pollination going on in the games industry, it’s no surprise that genre boundaries are softening. First person shooters are borrowing elements from RPGs, RPGs are borrowing elements from FPS’, and all sorts of other genres are borrowing from both. Whilst the sharing of ideas is nearly always a good thing in my opinion, I do wonder if this process has some unwanted side effects to it, particularly in the case of RPGs. You see, to my mind, RPGs seem to have forgotten how to do the role-playing bit of their name over the years, and I’d like to know why.

Before I go any further, I’d like to set out what the term RPG means to me. Many many years ago, before video games were as ubiquitous as they are now, gaming meant something entirely different to me. Now and again, it meant moving little metal soldiers about on a table, but mostly it involved sitting down with a group of friends, with a sheet of paper and a pencil, and rolling dice. Advance Dungeons & Dragons was my first proper taste of a role-playing game, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. Thanks to the way it’s played, AD&D gives you access to a world that allows the player a tremendous amount of freedom to become their character, thanks largely to the fact that a human being is running the game, and not developer code. This freedom is at the heart of what a true RPG is to me, and it’s also what’s missing from a lot of games.

The Mass Effect series of games is a prime example of what a watered down RPG looks like. Because despite all of it’s choices, Mass Effect is a game that allows the player very little freedom. Instead of being free to take your character in any direction you wish, you’re constantly funnelled in the direction the game wants you to go in. Even the skill system rigidly binds you to the path set by the developer. Of course, being free to simply ignore the story unfolding around you has massive implications, but forcing you to pay attention to it also has its consequences. Knowing that there’s always a hand on your shoulder, constantly guiding you, means that Shepard never completely feels like your character. He or she will always partly belong to someone else, and I don’t think that’s what an RPG is about.

The reason developers are slowly watering down player freedom, is that they have far more control over the quality of our experience. In theory, that sounds like a good thing, but along with that control comes the restriction to fully role-play your character. Going back to AD&D, the very best Dungeon Masters know that part of creating a great gaming session means being brave enough to allow players the freedom to fuck things up by being stupid or reckless. If my Rogue is the kind of guy willing to risk his life by smuggling a dagger into a tavern that doesn’t allow weapons, the DM needs to have the flexibility to allow me to play him that way. The moment he tells me my character wouldn’t do that, he’s not wholly my character. If developers want their players to fully immerse themselves in the character they’re playing, failure – intentional or otherwise – has to be an available option.

Whether we’ve ever had an RPG game that truly offers the same freedom as AD&D, I don’t know, but I do think some have gotten close. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was the last video game I played that came closest to emulating the freedom of a pen-and-paper role-playing game, mainly because of the things I’ve already talked about. Apart from a small section at the very beginning of the game, the story left you alone to get on with things. The moment you left that sewer, you could be anyone you wanted –  a hero, or a villain,  or even a drunkard and a wastrel. And yes, I could even fuck things up by murdering key characters, or intentionally being bad at wielding a sword. I know it sounds counter-productive to suggest developers should allow their players enough scope to go astray and miss out the story they want to tell, but to me that freedom is essential to great role-playing.

To be fair to developers, they have gotten much better at telling us awesome stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, but at the same time they do seem to have lost the ability to tell them without holding our hands all the damn time. They’ve become far too obsessed with the concept of every player being the chosen one with a carefully scripted special destiny. One of my favourite P&P RPG’s of all time is a game called Call of Cthulhu. In that game there are no special snowflakes, only ordinary human beings – human beings likely to wind up either dead or mad. How quickly the player ends up there is entirely in the hands of the player. The creators of the game aren’t obsessed with ensuring players get to see the entirety of everything they’ve created, and the game is better for it.

If we’re to go back to having meaningful role-playing experiences, developers need to be braver, and set us free. They need to accept the fact that abject failure is also a viable option. They need to come to terms with the idea that creating a truly unique character also includes the possibility of making mistakes when creating it. When they narrow the choices down to ‘Correct’ and ‘Slightly less Correct’, when they refuse to allow us to create an average and flawed Commander Shepard, they place an unwelcome limit on how much we the players can develope our characters. In their relentless pursuit of the ‘great gameplay experience’ they’ve taken away our freedom, and that dear readers, is the problem with RPGs today.

The Game Jar Files: A Lookback at Dragon Age Origins

Originally published on The Game – 24/04/2013


Dragon Age: Origins is a curious game. Graphically it’s not very pretty, the storyline is clichéd high fantasy, and mechanically its a hardcore RPG. And yet those that like the game, love it. So much in fact, that it’s sequel is considered to be the inferior game, despite having far more technical polish. So why do gamers love it so?

Considered as somewhat of a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate, DA:O is what I would call a proper, old school rpg game. The kind of game Bioware is seemingly convinced no one wants to play any longer. Every bit of armour and weaponry has stats to pour over and compare. Characters have multiple builds to explore, and stats to tweak. Every enemy corpse is a chest to be looted, and dungeons are full of secrets to find. There’s three different races to play; Human, Dwarf and Elf. Three different classes to play; Warrior, Rogue and Magi, each with their own specializations. Combining the races and classes, there’s six separate Origin stories to explore. If you’re starting to get the impression that DA:O is a big game, you’d be right. It’s chock full of the kind of content that RPG fans love

After you’ve chosen your race and class, your first steps into the world of Ferelden take place during your origin story. Each story, although unique to your heritage, serves to explain the chain of events that lead you to joining the Grey Wardens, and embarking on the main quest proper. Ferelden is facing  another Blight, an event that will see a horde of evil Darkspawn (undead creatures?) unleashed upon the land, and it’s the Grey Warden’s duty to stop it. Unfortunately, the Grey Wardens are lacking in numbers, and rather unpopular, so things are already looking bleak. King Cailan has a far more romantic view of the Grey Wardens, and is eager to join them in battle against the Darkspawn at Ostergar. Teryn Loghain, the kings general and father-in-law, has other plans though. Seeing political gain in the king’s death, Loghain withdraws from the battlefield, leaving Cailan to die and the Grey Wardens to take the blame. You and Alastair somehow survive the battle at Ostergar, and are left with the unenviable task of stopping the Darkspawn, all the while under suspicion of treason.

After the opening stages of the game, you’re left to decide how to proceed next. Your plan is to recruit allies from the three races, but the order in which you do it, is entirely up to you. Also undecided is your choice of companions. I’m not just talking about who you party with, either. Several characters can be left un-recruited, or even expelled from you camp in the future, and it goes some way to bringing a sandbox feel to a game which essentially has a linear story. The game world tries the same sort of thing too, the various locations are fully explorable, but only within their limits. Try to venture out, into the countryside between towns, and you’re automatically taken to a map and asked where you want to go.

One of my other favourite aspects of the game are the various origin stories, and how they tie in together. For example, in Denerim there’s a dwarven weapons merchant called Gorim in the town square. If you talk to him he’s polite, but he won’t reveal how he got there. It’s only by playing the Dwarven Noble origin story that you find out who he really is, and how he became a lowly merchant. If you play the Human Noble origin story, your run in with Arl Rendon Howe later in the main quest has a far more personal edge to it. If your class choice is Mage, a certain prisoner in Redcliffe will have featured in your origin tale. DA:O is full of these little crossovers, and while they’d never be classed as major plots points (within the context of the main quest line), they do add plenty of charm and flavour.

My love for Dragon Age: Origins isn’t complete however, as it does have one or two things I don’t like. There’s a section during the rescue of the mages circle that takes place in the Fade that I suffer through every single time I play the game. I find it repetitive, and in places confusing. Considering that the game is so large anyway, I could happily do without it. Then there’s the colossal amount of DLC to get through, it’s almost overwhelming at times, and I still haven’t finished it all. But those two pale into comparison when compared to venturing in to the Deep Roads. Every time I go in there, I get lost. Every. Single. Time. And I’ve done it multiple times too, so I should know better. The biggest problem is a lot of it looks exactly the same, I’ve lost count  of the amount of times I’ve lost track of which direction I’m going in.

I started off by calling Dragon Age: Origins a curious game, and I stick by that. At the time, I agreed with the reviews that give it a 5 or 6, and yet I played it endlessly. I liked it despite it faults, and I’ve never been able to quite work out why. I rather suspect it’s because (to my mind) it’s the last time Bioware really made a full on RPG. Dragon Age 2 and the Mass Effect games are fine, but they’ve had a lot of the RPG elements stripped out, and I miss those things. It may feel old fashioned by today’s standards, it certainly lacks the technical accomplishment of the later Bioware titles, but Dragon Age: Origins retains a certain level of charm that other games often never have.

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