Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Level 20 Gunslinger

Red Dead Redemption may be one of the best RPGs to come out this year.

Stop and think about it for a minute. When it comes to creating a place that feels legitimate and tangible, it's pretty hard to argue with New Austin's expanse. And RDR certainly has characters and dialog in spades (no poker pun intended).

If you really consider it, what differentiates an "RPG" from another kind of game? In days long past, when we were measuring Final Fantasy against Contra, having a large, free-roaming world was a novel and unique feature. Obviously that's no longer the case. Sandbox games may have actually surpassed the majority of RPGs in presenting a large, freely navigable continuous space.

Similarly, nearly all AAA single-player games are character-driven now. It used to be that the only RPGs contained characters that would speak to each other in nothing but the most cursory of fashions. Again, those days are long past. While the stories might not always have been well-crafted, they're certainly prominent in nearly all big-budget titles. Even the notion of player choice (nearly always good vs. evil) has been used in all manner of games.

With world and story no longer domain of the RPG, what remains are mechanical distinctions. The most prominent mechanics, i.e. level, hit points, etc., were inherited from tabletop RPGs. Stat-modifying equipment is a natural consequence of this, but not really a distinct feature by itself. Some RPGs have focused intensely on this portion of the genre, most notably Diablo and its more modern offpsring, Torchlight. Of course, as is evidenced by Modern Warfare (and seemingly every other yet-to-be-released shooter), experience and levels is a system that can easily be co-opted by other genres.

Another large distinction is being able to control a party of characters, rather than just a single one. However, we have seen this diminish as of late (especially in western RPGs) from having full, symmetric control of all the characters to embodying a single character and directing AI companions. Some recent RPGs, like Alpha Protocol and Demon's Souls offer no companions at all.

Having a robust dialog system with many conversation options is part of the western RPG tradition, but rare in Japanese RPGs, so this may only count for half. This quality is shared with adventure games as well.

There is something of a question of content and setting, given that many RPGs skew toward wizards-and-orcs style fantasy. I'd consider this also a result of their tabletop heritage rather than anything intrinsic, especially when some of the best RPGs around explore different territory.

With all that boiled away, what then is the difference between Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption? Is it just statistics and a dialog tree? I think there is one final difference, also inherited from the tabletop ancestry, that's most important: classes. While their specific implementation may vary, the high-level goal of providing distinct playstyles is pretty fundamental to the RPG. The classes may be spread amongst characters (in Japanese RPGs) or a choice offered to the player, but they're almost always there.

I'd say this is really the heart of the RPGs. Playing Red Dead Redemption, the player is always John Marston. When you're placed in a situation where you have to shoot, you shoot. When told to race, you race. When told to mosey and rustle, well, you get the picture. The player has very little choice in how to address a situation. Even with the greater freedom afforded in a game like Just Cause 2, sooner or later, you're going to be blowing things up. It's just a question of whether or not to buy two grenade launchers or steal a helicopter.

I'm not convinced that the low-level mechanical trappings of RPGs are what make them interesting and special. I don't think Morrowind or Arcanum would be poorer games if they didn't have levels. In a single player game, the notion of level is largely illusory anyway (and in the case of Oblivion, barely an illusion). The numbers get bigger, but the game rarely becomes radically more difficult as you advance in level. It works at conveying a sense of progress, but there are other ways to do this. But the choice afford by the best of RPGs is unparalleled.

Are we going to see a convergence of RPGs and sandbox games? Perhaps. Take away the leveling and we're more than halfway there, I'd say. Imagine a game with the playstyle freedom of Deus Ex and the grand, sprawling world of Just Cause 2. Sandbox games with rich, emergent worlds succeed in providing small moments unique to each player. Great RPGs offer the ability to make large scale decisions that fundamentally alter how the player approaches the game. Putting those things together would be quite the challenge, but the payoff would be astounding.

I'm not sure who would make that game, but I cannot dispute that I would play the everliving hell out of it.

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Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

I totally agree that the RPG elements of RDR add a ton - I've finished the story but have found myself surprisingly dedicated to working through the ranks on the various challenges. They give me a nice sense of progress and also push me to see everything the game has to offer.

What's more, the explicit leveling in multiplayer is almost entirely cosmetic, but it's still pretty dang compelling.

If the single-player had something similar (kinda like Borderlands, actually), I would basically never stop playing until I'd maxed everything out.

June 1, 2010 at 11:36 AM  
Blogger Julian said...

You missed the one thing that's core to RPGs, the one facet that defines them as something distinct from other genres: indirect control of your character(s). You don't DO things in RPGs, you give commands. This can be more or less granular, but that is the core in the same way that killing stuff in first person is core to FPSes. All the other things are just there to make that interesting.

I think we're just seeing the scope that's feasible in games broaden. It used to be that only RPGs had "RPG elements" (non-central mechanics traditional associated with RPGs... basically all the points you listed), because the technology and development available could only handle that level of complexity through the abstracted control of RPGs. Now that we have the tech to do these things on the fly, and development teams with the manpower and know-how to make it work properly, it's natural that we're seeing these things in all sorts of other genres.

By the same token, the first sandbox games were RPGs. I mean, Nethack is a bigger and more complex sandbox than GTA and its ilk has ever managed. Or look at Dwarf Fortress. This is just another mechanic that was traditionally associated with RPGs merely because that's where it was easiest to implement, which has been used by action games to great effect.

June 1, 2010 at 1:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post--really enjoyed it.

I think your exactly right for the most part. Rockstar has been flirting with the RPG genre for a quite while now. The first time I really noticed it was in GTA: San Andreas. Not only does that game share many of Red Dead's rpg-like qualities, in some areas it actually goes further. For one, the game actually forces you to eat on a regular basis in order to keep your health and stamina at their peak levels. The game also encourages you to go to the gym regularly. If you do, your character will slowly but surely grow stronger and noticeably more muscular. What is more, these "improvements" to your character are arguably less cosmetic/illusory than those of your average RPG because they provide an actual power boost as that can be negated by newer/harder enemies.

That being said, you're absolutely right to identify meaningful choice as the one thing that's lacking from these sandbox games, including the GTA games.

Granted, one technically has the option to NOT eat regularly or work out in San Andreas. But why would you do that? There is no downside to getting buff and healthy (aside from looking like a Gears of War reject). Conversely, getting fat or excessively skinny has many downsides (e.g. it makes you slower, reduces your stamina and health) but no upside. Hence, this is not so much an example of player choice as it is of "player compliance." (Essentially, the game is coercing you in a passive-aggressive voice, telling you "Hey, I'm not FORCING you to do the activities that I'm asking you to do, but I'll make your life a lot harder if you don't!").

It's odd that Rockstar has yet to attempt an increase player-input over their protagonists, given that they seem so intent on intensifying the sense of freedom in their sandbox environments. I've only played about 6 hours of RDR so far, but already the protagonist seems to be the most sympathetic, earnest, and autonomous Rockstar protagonist yet. This is problematic for at least two reasons:

1) it alienates me from the main-story missions--precisely the ones that are supposed to be the most urgent and compelling. Most missions consist of getting your character out of trouble in one way or another, something that is not so interesting once you realize that you had nothing to do with getting him into trouble in the first place. (Like the last GTA, RDR's Marston keeps getting tricked by shady people that are far weaker than him...after a while, it's easy to resent this naivete, especially when you remember that it is all just an excuse to justify a mission that's being forced upon you.)

2) Maybe it's because I just finished playing Mass Effect 2 the other day, but I really wish it were possible to interact with and develop relationships in the game. So far I've found Marston's relationship with Bonnie both insipid and one-dimensional. If that's going to be the case, then at least have the courtesy to throw me a couple of dialogue options to give the illusion of depth and choice! Better yet, give me actual depth and actual choice!

June 1, 2010 at 4:06 PM  
Blogger JRGBruno said...

"...because they provide an actual power boost as that can be negated by newer/harder enemies."

Sorry, I meant to write "an actual power boost AS OPPOSED to traditional level ups that can be negated by newer or harder enemies"

June 1, 2010 at 4:10 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Kirk Those things are definitely compelling, but I wonder if they're compelling for the wrong reasons. I worry a little about arbitrary progress mechanics in games. It hits something in our lizard brains to be sure, but I'm not sure that's a good thing. It's certainly not in the MMO space, which are basically just digital Skinner boxes. If a game built toward it, like Torchlight or Borderlands, that's alright, I think.

To be clear, I think the progress systems (in the single player at least, haven't done any multiplayer yet) in RDR are real good. What I wonder is if an "RPG" could basically get away with that level of character progression and still be successful. I'd like to think so.

June 1, 2010 at 9:26 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Julian Not totally sure what you mean by indirect control. Maybe in JRPGs where you're control a party rather than being embodied in a single avatar or something more abstract like Dwarf Fortress. But I'd say that in everything from Fallout to Planescape: Torment the player is projected into the protagonist. Maybe you're not driving them via WASD, but that's an implementation detail.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding what you're saying though ...

But it's totally true that it's hard to get more open world than Dwarf Fortress.

@JRGBruno It's very clear that R* isn't trying to make an "RPG," which is probably where a lot of that dissonance you cite it. It's actually the reason why I don't care for the GTA games at all. R* makes very filmic games, as evidenced by their love of mocap and cutscenes.

I can't see them loosening the reins enough to create something with a good degree of player choice, but someone else might. Combining that with the vibrant open worlds akin to those made by R* would be a sight to see, IMHO.

June 1, 2010 at 9:32 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

In Planescape you still click the guy to attack, and then a die is rolled, and then it game determines whether he hits or not. Ultimately it's your character's skill that determines the success or failure of the action, not whether you aimed properly. Even when you're meant to identify or embody a character in an RPG, there's a layer of abstraction between your actions and your skill and the character's skill. This is one reason people don't like the way that shooting feels in Deus Ex or Fallout 3, you may be skilled but if your character is unskilled your actions will fail. This is also the thing that identifies them as action-RPGs, and not just shooters with gear and talking.

This layer of abstraction is so crucial because it exists even when it's unnecessary. In tabletop RPGs, your characters have scores for persuasion, sense motive, intuition. You could substitute yourself for the character and simply attempt to talk the GM into something, with your success based on how convincingly you speak, but instead you talk through that and simultaneously roll a die. Maybe you fumble, but the roll is a success. That's your character's skills shining where yours failed. I mean, I play these games to be somebody else for a while, not because I think I'm actually the best at everything.

Is that making any sense? I feel like I'm getting too wordy and muddying my point. I guess I just feel like it's limiting to other genres to "RPG elemts" with RPGs exclusively, while simultaneously diluting the meaning of an RPG by letting games from every other genre use the label. Those things are good ideas that can and should be used in a wide range of different genres. On the other side of the coin, it's limiting to RPGs to say that they need to have all of those things. Regardless of whether it's successful or not, I'm glad to see experiments like Final Fantasy 13, that strip out the traditional trappings of RPGs (open-ended design, player-driven pacing, and dialogue systems in this case), as well as other experiments that fold those things back into different genres.

June 2, 2010 at 10:25 AM  
Blogger Kirk Hamilton said...

Yeah, that's very true - "compelling" certainly isn't the same thing as "good," despite the word being tossed around a bit willy-nilly these days. As you say, "compelling" can be a pretty mixed thing.

What I like about the SP progressions in RDR is that A) they're finite and B) they're tied to the world, not just to repeating tasks for better stats or a weapon.

So as I complete the challenges, I see and experience more of the game than I would've if left to my own devices. Hunting boar in Tall Trees, gathering feverfrew in the desert, seeking out Hanging Tree while searching for treasure... I was glad that the game used structure to compel me to see a lot of stuff that I'd missed.

The achievements tie in to that, as well. It's kinda what good achievements do, for me anyway - let me know about techniques and tricks that I might miss out on and give me challenges that'll enrich my experience. Valve's games do that really well, too, I think.

But yeah, adding skinner-box type stuff is a dead end. Not that that means folks won't start doing it...

June 3, 2010 at 1:21 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Julian Ah, I understand what you meant. Yeah, it's definitely a hard problem to solve. You don't want to deny the player competency and demonstrating skill of their own, but you don't necessarily want to require the player be as competent as the character they're embodying. It's a bit easier to resolve in tabletop systems, but I still haven't seen a totally clean solution in digital games.

@Kirk Exactly. Systems like that should encourage behaviour like that because it's interesting and you just need to be lured into it a little more. It shouldn't be used to make boring, mundane tasks compelling by giving you diminishing rewards for completing them. RDR definitely does it well, in stark contrast to Alan Wake which has all kinds of grind-y bullshit that actually does harm to the game's pace and tone. But that's a post for another day ;)

June 3, 2010 at 8:53 AM  
Blogger Rainier said...

Quite interesting comparison! Of course, most games nowadays promote personalized stories. Even the simplest of first person shooters let us "create our own story". So in a way, the roleplaying genre has indeed been of much influence to all the other genres. We might even call it the 'supreme genre' of the entire gaming industry, as personalized narratives define gaming's position in the spectrum of entertainment. It that what differentiates 'us' from the movie industry.

I haven't played Red Dead Redemption yet though, but it seems a very interesting game. I share Julian's notion that RPG's are games that disable us to 'do' things ourselves in a direct sense, even though I think that such a statement radically limits the entire genre to long forgotten times. Agency and RPG's are not mutually exclusive of course...

Anyway, interesting remarks! I might write an opinion on this 'genreblurring' myself one day, and I will for sure refer to some of the enlightening comments here.

June 3, 2010 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Rainer The question of personalization is definitely a complicated one. Part of the reason why emergent/procedural gameplay systems are so interesting is they provide experiences that are, by definition, unique. At the end of the day, everyone has the same experience playing Final Fantasy. That's less true with Left 4 Dead or even Red Dead Redemption, and that's tremendously exciting.

June 4, 2010 at 9:11 AM  
Blogger Per Johnson said...

@Julian I agree with you about the indirect control part. Newer games have moved more and more away from this way of controlling the avatar.

Personally I love the indirect control part, it allows more relaxed play, more afterthought. I understand why games are gaining more direct control, it makes it easier to get immersed in the game world.

The avatars skills and the players skills, to accept that the player is good at something which the avatar is bad at. It's an interesting problem which still has many solutions which haven't been used. Having the size of the sight minimize faster (Vampire the Masquerade Bloodlines) or giving the player auto-aim as an skill (Alpha Protocol), both are ways of telling the player that their avatar is skilled with firearms.

I believe in the player creates stories. When you discuss games with other people these are the stories other players seem to be most passionate about. These are the stories they have created themselves, and therefore they are meaningful for them, although they might seem trivial for the other people listening.

Even when it comes to pen & paper roleplaying with friends, it's the same. The focus afterwards is almost never the gamemaster created story, it's the emergent story created by the players. A character they met, an solution they solved, and so on.

All in all, interesting post, it will be interesting to see were the current developers goes with the RPG concept.

June 6, 2010 at 12:19 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Per I think most digital game creators would do well to take that point able tabletop RPGs to heart. No matter how dramatic or well constructed, the designer's story will almost always be secondary to that one created by the players.

June 6, 2010 at 8:59 PM  

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