Saturday, May 29, 2010

Spare Me Your Overquest

So, I have been playing more Dragon Age since that post a few weeks ago—I play games at a glacial pace, sorry—and I love the game, but you know what? I'm just about over main quests.

Seriously. Every time I play a game that has any sort of overworld to roam around in or any kind of exploratory element whatsoever, I find myself just wanting to tell all those NPCs to sit down and shut their yaps for a while. Let me go mess around in the wilderness and fight some goblins and find some gold and stuff. The end of the world will still be there when I get back. kthxbye.

I've noticed this before, but I think it really pulled me all the way out of the game experience for the first time when I played Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. I realized that the game was pulling me in two directions at the same time: on the one hand, I was supposed to cough up some serious rupees, rupees I didn't yet have, to pay Tingle to interpret my Triforce charts, and at the same time, the King of the Red Lions kept yelling at me to get a move on and get on with the quest.¹ Didn't I realize how desperate things were getting?!

Anyway, I had to go off the main path and collect tons and tons of money before I could advance, which, amusingly enough, the best way to do this was to solve lots of sliding puzzles in my personal cabana. Although this money was integral to completing the main quest, the game didn't think that making rupees should be my priority. As much as I love that game, and I do truly love Wind Waker, that contradiction really pulled me out of the experience, to say nothing of the fact that there were tons of other side-quests I could have been working on that were far more flippant.

In Dragon Age, I want to explore the Wilds, not leave immediately and save the world from the Blight. Yet the game is absolutely railroading me. I know, I know, at some point the game is going to open up and let me play, but it's not like I'm ever going to be free of the insistent demands of preventing the damn demon apocalypse for everybody else. Oh, also, Bioware should have picked a different word for the demonic blood infections that afflict people and animals in the game. All these warnings that it's crucial to "master your taint" are just too much for me, and I can hardly be the only one.

I guess what I'm saying is, what happened to the Baldur's Gate model? If I remember correctly, and I think I do, where you went and what you did was limited only by your character's abilities, which is perfectly acceptable to me: I don't expect to sneak in the back door right off the bat and kill the final boss; if the game wants to punish me for that kind of hubris, then that's okay. Also, the quest in BG, and this is important too, the quest in BG felt so much less pressing. I mean, there was important stuff going on, but you sort of had to find it out for yourself, and the game didn't condescendingly make you feel like everything you did was either "advancing the quest" or "worthless tomfoolery." Just don't make me feel like I have ADD just because I want to explore a little.

I've played precious little Morrowind, but so far it feels pretty gentle in this regard. The goals at least at the very beginning are kind of vague enough that you can go off the beaten path without feeling like a jerk. The game drops you in this new world with no real responsibilities, and if you don't do what people suggest you do, so what? I can't say the same for Oblivion or Fallout 3, though. It feels like a cold thing to do to let those people in the one town suck it while the demons pour out of the gate to hell while I run off and find lettuce for a statue—which is literally one thing you might be asked to do in that game—and what was the point of breaking out of the vault if you're not going to track down your father after all? Again, going off the reservation feels like a thing you'd have to be selfish, crazy, or very easily distracted to do.

If you're going to call these roleplaying games, please don't force me to break character just because I want to enjoy the other 80% of the game! It's there, isn't it? Why, then, can't I access it without feeling like I'm doing something wrong? Seriously, "Western" publishers proudly stick to this "Western" RPG tradition that's supposed to give us more freedom, but I feel less constrained in some ways by freaking Dragon Quest (pick one) than I do by Dragon Age!² That's just not the way it's supposed to be.

Oh, and in case you think I'm suggesting that everything become a sandbox game, don't worry. I've got a few complaints for those guys, too. The GTA games, for instance, have done a good job of giving space and scope for messing around, and in fact, their "main quests" are generally segmented into such poorly differentiated missions that I can't imagine wanting to stick around long enough to finish them. How many people can I chase down in a car and shoot? I realize that that's pretty much about all that GTA's controls and mechanics are good for, but jeez!³

Also, side quests in RPGs still tend to be a bit on the fetchy side. Tracking down X item to give to Y character in return for Z item to give to whomever else for whatever else, ad infinitum, is not original or interesting, Zelda games. When we tolerate these kinds of quests, it is because we love the world the games create, and we are happy to spend our time in those worlds doing just about anything, but make no mistake: most of us, I think, are performing these tasks in spite of the quests' limited nature.

So why not make a game with, I don't know, several tracks for questing? I don't mind fetch quests here and there if they're in the service of something greater, but in isolation, they're just not compelling to me. At the same time, I don't want to feel like there's one thing I should be doing in the game and that's it. These are supposed to be living worlds we're stepping into; why is it that they're so limited that all they feel like are locations for the (mostly not brilliant) narratives our game designers want us to experience? There's nothing wrong with putting the story first, but let's just break it up a little bit. Every game doesn't have to be about saving the world, and frankly, I'm finding my ability to suspend disbelief sorely tested after all these years of constant from-nobody-to-savior-of-existence narratives. Every once in a while those main quests should be, well, just a little pettier. Not every death cult is summoning the destroyer of reality; sometimes they're just causing problems for the local populace. Not every orc tribe serves the incarnation of evil himself; some of them just get a little rowdy now and then. Just make a few big quests, have them stack up a little bit, let us feel that progression from level 1 to level 20 or whatever. It's not that I don't want to save the world every now and then, I just don't want to save it to the exclusion of everything else. And I'm sorry if that sounds horribly selfish of me.

¹There is absolutely nothing wrong with you if you have no idea what I'm talking about here.

²If you're not sure what I mean here, I do have a post that touches on the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs.

³I admit, GTA: San Andreas broke the mold a few times—stealing cars all the time gets boring, but stealing a combine is something else entirely—but Rockstar did a great job with Bully, which had missions that really did feel different from each other, at least enough to hold my interest. Maybe it was because you couldn't kill people!

EDIT: I forgot to add a link to this hilarious comic strip that shows the King of the Red Lions being the King of the Red Lions. Enjoy.

That nifty King of the Red Lions screenshot comes from

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Smart Game: Building the Perfect NPCs

Pretention alert! Here comes a Descartes quote, in Latin no less.

Quid autem video praeter pileos & vestes, sub quibus latere possent automata? Sed judico homines esse.
(Meditations on First Philosophy 2.13)
"But what do I see apart from hats and cloaks, under which machines may hide? Yet I think that they are men."

There aren't many things I enjoy in games quite as much as cool towns with good NPC interactions. Something about going into a town and finding people there who are living their lives and will take a minute or two out of their day to talk with you, or maybe—heavens to Betsy—go on a quest with you, just really appeals to me. I want to enter a world when I play a game, and with the obvious exception of games like Metroid, where the overwhelming sense of isolation is part of the point, I'd like that world to be populated, thanks very much.

Twenty years ago, we were all younger and newer to gaming, and gaming itself was newer to us, so game designers often used NPCs as if they were walking bulletin boards. Think of a game like Zelda II or Simon's Quest: the other characters you meet say something simple and straightforward that advances the plot, for instance. Sometimes they'll sell you something or, as in Zelda II, they'll take you into their abodes and through some invisible, possibly dubious process, they'll restore your health. These are, in other words, NPCs who are simply means to various ends.

I don't know about you, but I was always taught to treat other people as ends in themselves. So much more interesting to me are the NPCs who have something going on that isn't just mechanical in nature. For instance, there's the crazy old man who lives all by himself in the final town before Dracula's castle in Simon's Quest. He doesn't do anything in the game except set the mood, but he does a great job of that. Here's this abandoned town where the last inhabitant has cracked just from living too close to the castle. And he wants you to stay and keep him company. Forever!


By and large, though, NPCs are vehicles. They don't set the scene, they propel the game. This is why it's both funny and true when, in Series 2 of the Penny Arcade/PVP D&D podcast (featuring Wil Wheaton!), Scott Kurtz talks to an NPC, finds himself rebuffed, and says, "Oh, this NPC has no quests for me at this time." That's what they are, usually: vending machines for quests. And sometimes stuff.

I have this theory that I'll explain some other time that the best way to create a really great game would be to teach the game how things work in the real world. Let's call it a Smart Game. The idea here is to bring computer games as close as possible to the wonderfully creative options available to players of pen-and-paper RPGs. The beauty of D&D and old school games like it is that players can opt to have their characters solve problems any way that ought to work, not just some way that the game's designers thought out in advance. I remember searching all over the worlds of games like King's Quest for simple tools to accomplish simple tasks when any damn old stick or rock would have
done the trick in real life. But see, in those games, you don't have the option of using damn old sticks and rocks. You have to look around endlessly and find the one knife in the entire game before you can solve the puzzle.

Anyway, that's mostly another story, but one element of the Smart Game that is relevant is the way I think it should treat NPCs. Again, the comparison to pen-and-paper RPGs is useful. The cool thing about NPCs in those games is that they're dynamic; the DM gets to create their responses to things that happen in the game, and even (if it's a creative DM) the kinds of lives they're leading while the PCs aren't around, and that makes for some interesting, realistic NPCs. So, I'd love to see NPCs who live in real-time in an in-game world just as they would in the real world. If you leave town and, I don't know, go kill dragons for five years, those townspeople should be up to something else when you get back. They should have died or had children or left on their own journeys. In other words, the NPCs would have their own little personalities and wants and dreams, and they'd follow courses of lives that weren't pre-scripted but were created as the game unfolded using a mixture of algorithms and random number generators. There would be tiny little NPC stories crawling all under the surface of the Smart Game, and it might be just as interesting to visit a single town over the course of a game and see what the NPCs ended up deciding to do with their lives. Maybe, maybe one of them could even turn into some sort of town slumlord whose empire of crappy properties you had to bring down, or maybe one could even amass power and become a horrible tyrant by the end of the game. Some NPCs' stories could grow beyond the scope of the main quest and become the main quest themselves.

Like I say, I love towns in games, and I want to love the people that inhabit them. What if those NPCs could live their lives for themselves and change over the course of a game? It sounds good to me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

And That's Why I Never Play Dwarves

So, an experience with a recent RPG the other day, and a session of the class I teach the night after, got me thinking about how I roleplay and how I might do it better. I try so hard to play a variety of ways to get, you know, the maximum experience, but there are just limits, I guess, to my ability to do everything convincingly. The thing is that there are two parts of my brain—let's call them Evil Genius and Softy—that vie for governance of my actions in any given situation, and frankly I have kind of a hard time following through with evil or even basically amoral actions in video games. In other words, Softy wins most of the time.

The other day I managed to get in my first few minutes of Dragon Age (yes, lttp), and I decided to play as a dwarf. I almost never play dwarves. Evil Genius said, "Let's play a dwarf. We never do that. It'll be fun. New horizons." Softy said, "I concur."

Well, there happen to be two kinds of dwarves to play in DA, nobles and commoners, and I thought the dwarven noble was a better fit for the Thorin Oakenshield (okay, Binwin Bronzebottom) flavor I was looking for. As it happens, there's a lot of room in the dwarven noble's life for arrogant, elitist ugliness. Evil Genius thought, "Awesome! This'll really let us stretch our legs!" Softy said, "Hmmmm."

There were, by my count, two major crossroads in my short play session where I made a real impact on what my character will become. At one, I was given the opportunity to chastise, punish, kill (I think), or praise a dwarven scholar writing a book questioning the authenticity of a rival house's founder. At the other, I had to decide whether to go along with a dwarven lord's seemingly magnanimous plan to restore noble rights and privileges to surface-dwelling dwarf expats. That's a big thing, I guess, because the dwarves in this game interpret moving to the surface as a fundamental rejection of the dwarven way of doing things.

My inner professor won out big-time in the first quandary, and Softy's belief that "The truth should always be known!" didn't really conflict with Evil Genius' opinion, which was "The only power this scholar's research undermines is that rival house's, and screw those guys." The scholar got a hearty clap on the back, and the angered member of the other house got a giant middle finger. Everybody won. Except the member of the rival house.

The second decision, um, turned out weird, frankly. Evil Genius' totally reasonable protests that I was playing against character in voting to help out the surface-dwellers, because that was the decision I started out making, were drowned out by Softy's whole "just think of those poor surface dwarves and the pain they must be feeling! Oh, the humanity!" thing. But THEN another dwarf pulled me aside and warned me that I was playing right into the hands of our mutual enemies—i.e., houses who'd never lost members to the surface world and stood nothing to lose if the expats' rights were restored. Our houses, she pointed out, would by contrast end up losing an awful lot of money on this thing. In other words, the lord who'd petitioned me for help was really just trying to advance his house at the expense of my house's coffers.

Well, I did what any reasonable noble dwarf would do: I marched right back to that Lord Dace and told him I was on to his paltry scheme. He basically said, "Oh, whatever. Welcome to politics, kid." So I told him his little tricks were an insult to my house. Here he was pulling this crap at my debutant ball, after all.

If this happened in real life, probably I'd challenge someone's honor, and that would be the end of it. But regardless of how dishonorable they act, nobility—like white-suited, revolver-carrying Southern gentlemen—want to appear honorable, so calling this guy out committed me to a fight to the death with his son! Evil Genius crowed victoriously! Softy collapsed in a heap on the floor.

I won the fight, because pretty much every other dwarf in town sucks at fighting, and the other lord hung his head and said something like, "My machinations have led to the death of my own son." "That's right! Suck it!" exulted Evil Genius. Softy twitched imperceptibly from his place on the floor.

As I told my students the other night, I usually can't act well enough and/or distance myself from those computer-generated NPCs enough to really start acting like a monster. I got the teensiest little ways down the path on the Temple of Shadows initiation quests in Fable II before I felt horrible and couldn't go any further. Hell, I felt awful when Sheriff Simms and I busted in on Mr. Burke in Moriarty's bar in my first game of Fallout 3 and the sheriff ended up dead. The twist of the knife came when I ran into his orphaned son later and realized this poor little guy was all alone in the world. All alone in this computer-generated, fictional world. Yeah, Softy tends to run the show.

I don't know if it's my upbringing or not, but I think I have almost as hard a time treating NPCs like trash as I do people in RL. My inner lawman just down't let me play it otherwise. Oh, except in DA, apparently. I'm interested to see how my little duelin' Dalton (see what I did there) turns out.

The picture of the angry dwarf above comes from