Sunday, January 10, 2016

The RPG is dead.


Well I would actually argue that it died a long time ago, but the genre still thrives. It’s not that the role playing game is not relevant or popular, but the core tenants of what made those games unique have been absorbed by other video game genres.
The classic video game RPG was typically about the growth of a character, piloted by the player through the story. These stories involved trials and puzzles that the player overcame, and was rewarded with gear, new abilities, and more tools to deal with future challenges. These games were about some journey, whether that be saving the princess, righting some wrong, or progressing through a narrative arc.
There was a linear progression not only for teaching the player the systems of the game, but also give the player options and open up more strategies to play with. The increase in player power also mirrored the character progression of the protagonist, in something similar to the classic Heroes Journey trope. I want to make a clear distinction between the player and the main character in that they are not the same.
This is how I would bound what an RPG is: starting a player with simple toolset, and giving them different tools and powers in order to guide them through a journey of some sort. In addition to the classic RPG, there were a lot of other games that also had similar bounded definitions: FPS, RTS, Sims, Sports, Platformers, Action etc. All of these genres learned and built upon what worked and didn’t work from the games that came before.
Then things got a little weird. Sometime in the 2000s a lot of cross pollenization started happening between platforms, and the various game styles borrowed elements from each other. Focusing on RPGs in particular, I think these elements got cannibalized by other genres.
When I say that the RPG is dead, what I mean is that modern RPGs are not recognizable or distinct as they once were, because so many games borrow the linear player progression elements to simulate player skill increases instead of the progression of a main character; in fact most games where these systems are present don’t have a protagonist but telegraph that the player themselves are getting more powerful.
The RPG system also is a double edged sword when the story that is being told feels drawn out or impotent. I realize that a story needs to have high and low points, but it needs to keep the player engaged, or present the player with interesting and varied challenges. The Witcher 3 was guilty of not providing the player with interesting story beats, in conjunction with burying a significant amount of player progression with its main story line; I simply stopped playing while trying to find that Dandelion git. Games like Mass Effect provide a healthy balance of variation as well as interesting story to propel the player through the experience. 
As an aside, a lot of the story telling in large modern video games is kinda bullshit, and not especially interesting. I think if you want to find some interesting ideas to chew on, smaller indie games are telling much better stories.
Most big releases, and mobile games of every kind have this built in and are balanced around this telegraphed progression and become an exercise in moving the goalposts. Focusing these progression schedules on the player instead of the character, also means more when games get measured in real time instead of game time. This is where the MMORPG gets a lot of its’ power.
I keep beating my drum for games like Spelunky and Dark Souls series in that people can and do regularly beat those games with the barest of toolsets, and by playing them your ACTUAL skill at the game is increasing rather than the game ramping you up on a reward schedule. Player mastery is real and valuable thing that the modern RPG is missing; though these games are generally about telling a story rather than pose a challenge for the player.
Anyways. RPGs suck because every game is now an RPG.

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