Arts and Culture

Make RPGs Great Again!

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By Lindon Walz

Role Playing Games (RPGs) are perhaps some of the most immersive games because within them the world bends to your will. The people react to your decisions, and your decisions alone, not the ones made by a pre-written character. In RPGs, you can do virtually anything (pun intended), especially in paper-and-pencil RPGs where all the actions are made up by you.

But the past few installments of some of the most popular RPG video games have deviated from their roots. Games like Call of Duty have become more like standard action games. This is truly sad because games like Fallout are fun and unique, but don’t offer many choices anymore. Looking at some of the big games out in the market today, there are a few glaring problems that stand out to players. Issues include: the little effect  players have on the world, the reduction of conversations with non-playable character (NPC), the reliance on action, and the addition of the map marker.

As Youtuber Hbomberguy said, “I thought the future of western RPGs was dark.” He said this because PRGs are slowly fading away, and turning into action “RPGs.” As more and more games are geared toward this way of thinking, the concept of a Dungeons & Dragons like video game will soon fade.

First of all, to clarify, none of the games are bad video games, they are just not well made RPG video games. Furthermore, I am only talking about the AAA games on the market today. Unknown PC exclusives and games released in the early 2000s or earlier are off the table for our topic, considering that most of the RPGs at the time featured actual RPG elements.

Let’s start out with the fact that modern players have little effect on the world. Subsequently, the world feels like a world full of blind people with short-term memory loss and the occasional randomly invincible characters (I’m looking at you, children in Skyrim.) The first example of this is the inability to kill certain characters, who have been dubbed “essentials”. These characters make no sense in the game. Ok, sure, some people might unknowingly kill a quest giver and then miss out on a possibly important quest. But in the third Elder Scrolls game, Morrowind, found a way to balance freedom and a narrative. In the game you can kill every single person in the world until it’s empty, but if you kill a quest giver, the game will tell you and then suggest that you reload the game. This is helpful for people who accidentally kill someone, but it also gives you the choice to kill important people. Games without this balance are probably what the complaints about modern day RPGs can be boiled down to: a lack of choice.

The next point I’d like to make is something that has always bothered me, especially since it was present in older RPGs. Clothings and hostile actions do not matter. For example, in my Dark Brotherhood run of Skyrim, I was stalking a target in my Brotherhood uniform (which, for those of you who don’t know, looks like a ninja assassin outfit) and a guard walked by me. Instead of noticing my clearly shady clothes, he told me not to sneak around. In Fallout 4, if you try to shoot someone and miss, no one cares that you just randomly fired of a gun because you didn’t hit anyone. Taking a look at the original Fallout game, you’ll see that a certain outfit will get you a companion and guards of towns will engage in conversation to tell you to put your gun away if you have it out. At the end of the day the world feels unnatural because of missing components like these. In a genre where so many people strive for immersion, their feeling of immersion is constantly broken.

I could continue on about how little affect you have on the world in RPGs, but for the sake of length, I’ll move on to how the NPC (Non-player Character) interactions are awful these days. Some might bring up the Witcher or Dragon Age series here, pointing out how there are a reasonable amount of things you can say to people in the world. Sometimes, it’s not so much about quantity, as it is about quality. For example, the Witcher 3’s big boss is Eredin, who has twelve lines of dialogue in the game, none of which are in a conversation with the player. Now look at Fallout 1 where in the end the player can actually talk down The Master from his plan, and it is an amazing conversation. Here The Master, who has done horrible things not only explains to you why he did these things, but can see the damage he’s caused. That is something that you will never see in an RPG today. Think about it: in Skyrim, wouldn’t it have been so cool if instead of just shooting him with your arrows, you could talk to Alduin and convince him that Nirn was a place that didn’t need to be destroyed. Or maybe that he didn’t have to follow the path of the Elder Scrolls and can choose his own destiny.

The fact that conversations are going downhill is reinforced when you see that Fallout 4. The only four dialogue options at a time are either a “good guy” answer, an “evil/asshole” answer, a sarcastic answer, or a question. Speech checks in modern games are too structured as well. In the old days, you had to approach each conversation as a human being who had to decide what would be the best thing to say. Nowadays, the game will tell you what option is more convincing, so you no longer have to worry about choosing which dialogue option is the best. These changes can make the players that inhabit these worlds feel stupid or that they aren’t expected to hold a meaningful conversation.

My next point is a small point, but one that still needs to be talked about: the overreliance on action. Although good combat isn’t a bad thing, it does become annoying when it’s put in before the RPG elements, or if it’s overly simple. Fallout 4 is a great example of overly simple combat. Even though the shooting in Fallout 4 is my favorite in the series, it still makes the gun fights seem like something out of Call of Duty if you took out health regeneration. Fallout 2, which has the best combat of the original games, is a great example of how combat was strategy based and overall better for a RPG game. Any encounter was a fight for survival, even if it was against something small like the mantises. You had to make sure you were using your action points effectively and shooting only when you knew the enemy wouldn’t surround you. The new action-oriented gameplay like in Fallout 4 also bleeds over into quests, meaning many of the quests in the game are just like “Go here and shoot some guys”.

My final point about mainstream RPGs has to do with the map marker. Although having a little  blip on your compass to tell you where to go is not a bad idea on paper, it becomes terrible in practice. The complaint I hear the most about this subject is that it makes you lose the feeling that you’re on an adventure because you’re just following a small dot, and I mostly agree with this. Sure, you can get into fun combat experiences along the way, but after you’re done, you turn your character around to find the marker again so you can go back to following it. This is an unnecessary part of the game because when you are traveling, the game shows you where you are going on your normal map. I feel that Batman: Arkham Asylum shows a good way to incorporate the map marker into the game. In this game, the map marker is on the map, but it never appears on your screen while you’re playing. If you’re lost, you can look at the map, and still feel like you’re traversing the asylum while you’re running around. If RPGs experimented with this, they might be slightly better and more immersive.

To conclude, RPG games are amazing, but could use some improvements. I criticize these games because I love them and want them to improve. So if I could wish anything to come out of this article, I hope an AAA game developer reads this and actually listens to my complaints so that they can make better video games (Shout out to Bethesda, and Todd Howard especially, please read this article, you need it.)  

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