Thursday, 29 October 2009

Playing the Role of Role Player.

Back around 2008 when a new Star Wars game was announced, I was ecstatic. I love the Star Wars universe. In October that year, when it was announced this new game would be an MMO I entirely lost my interest in it, while everyone seems as excited as before. I’ve been one of the few persons I know to not have the slightest interest, not even fleeting, in Aion, Warhammer Online, WoW, or whatever your MMO-flavor of the week is.

One could argue that role playing is just “not my thing”, and for a while I thought so myself, but then I realized that’s just not true. Role playing is defined as (“duh”, I know) taking on a character’s role. Pretending to be someone else, usually part of the universe you’re exploring in your book, party, game… etc. Now, while I admit dressing in cardboard and pretend-fighting someone is just not my thing, I like to immerse myself in the game I’m playing. When I transverse the Capital Wasteland, I am a wanderer trying to survive a post-apocalyptic world on his own. When I load up Assassin’s Creed, I take on the Creed’s mantle as my own. Hell, when I play TF2 I’m an Australian assassin (Not a crazed gunman dad…). I don’t even look at it as something abnormal or “extra”. To my mind that’s part of the game. That’s part of letting the game tell you a story properly. And I’m more than willing to let it do its work… If it lets me.

And that is my issue with MMORPGs, and even RPGs in general. Ironically, some characteristics inherent to the genre just keep me from immersing myself in the game. So many of the things that define an RPG are exactly the sort of things that yank me out of my game experience faster than being set on fire. In order to try and keep this from being filed under “ignorant hate speech”, allow me to try to elaborate.

It mostly comes down to leveling systems. I don’t think I remember a single RPG of any kind without one of these, and more often than not they’re an exercise in frustration more than anything. If there’s one thing that yanks me out of an experience faster than anything else is a random warning telling me “hey, you just grew up! Congratulations!”. There are very few things that feel quite as fake as having a random number define your skill.

I realize why these systems appeared though. Back in the D&D days, which to my knowledge were the cradle of this sort of thing, role playing was considerably more limited, particularly in its interactions. How would you fight a paper drawing? I think you’d quickly run out of friends if you were to fight them every time you had an encounter… And so the leveling system was created to add some form of strategy to fights that would otherwise be determined entirely on dice rolls and “who hit first”. But nowadays, do we really need that? Don’t we have perfectly good fighting systems that can create an interesting interactive experience? In today’s gaming world experience already IS a factor. Put a seasoned veteran in TF2, UT3, Counter Strike, CoD4, or any other FPS you care to pick, against a new comer and tell me experience isn’t a factor. We don’t need an arbitrary number telling us “Oh, you’re now better than that guy!”, “Why?”, “Because you’ve played longer basically.”, “But I’ve been on auto-pilot basically… I haven’t learnt jack squat.”, “Well, you’re still starting with an advantage because you’ve played longer!”.

It’s fake. It’s fake and to my mind it’s just bad game design. Even with games that emphasize “character building” is there a reason we need levels? Is there a reason we can’t just pick the abilities we want, and change them if we feel like after? The answer seems to be, because it’s easy. It’s easier for developers to slap a leveling system in and copy paste more of the same monsters with different models and variables for power than it is to create different and more challenging opponents. It’s easier to make all weapons work nearly the same with different visuals and base your performance on “which specialization did you pick” than it is to make weapons behave differently and force the player to learn the weapons.

This leads us to another mechanic that often tags along with the leveling: Loot. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against loot. We all love picking up a brand new machine gun that shoots rockets on fire, but can you make it at least somewhat credible? I reckon I’m no hunter, but I don’t think animals drop coins and entire armories when they cease to be… It seems pretty reasonable that you’d scavenge a dead outlaw for his weapons and pocket change, but I’m not entirely sure where a reanimated skeleton would hide a whole broad sword, and I shudder to think where in heaven’s name would a boar get (or hide) coins and ammo…

And finally there are quests. This is mostly a MMORPG thing but most quests immediately catapult me out of the game experience for their completely inappropriate nature. Why exactly am *I* the village’s only hope against this threat? I’m level 13, there’s a level 76 right over there! And they seem to be doing fine without me, regardless of how long I take. Also there are 3 other guys standing around this same NPC completing this same quest to save the village... Again… See, most developers forget the “multiplayer” part, and go on creating long and heavily romanticized stories that completely ignore the fact that you’re NOT the special one-of-kind savior they babble on about. You’re just another guy (or girl), in the increasingly bigger population of guys and girls doing the same you are.

There are a few more (albeit less relevant) things, but this article is already enormous as is so I leave it at that.

The bottom line here is that all these things that throughout the years have come to define the role-playing genre, a genre which should be defined by its openness to creativity and imagination, are the very things that keep my creativity from playing its part in the game. The game seems so afraid I won’t play my role properly that it defines all parameters for me, becoming more rigid than most other games. Consequently the whole thing becomes so fake that the game itself constantly reminds me I’m not really that character I made, I’m just playing a game pretending to be that character. The result is that these RPGs end up feeling less like role playing, and more like “role-playing a role-player”. Like pretending you’re pretending.

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