Greetings! This is our weekly GameSided Roundtable feature, where our writers converge to provide their opinions, wishes, statements or critical thought on one general topic centered around video games. Sometimes it can be funny, sometimes it can be serious. Contemporary, classic; we hope to cover a wide variety of things in this segment as a group. If you wish to submit an idea for a GameSided Roundtable discussion topic, you can leave me an email at: email@example.com. We’ll totally give you (and your Twitter account, if applicable) a shoutout!
This week’s topic: What theme, motif or gaming archetype deserves to be brought back? (Essentially, what story or narrative aspect, that was prevalent or done well in the games of years past, needs to come back into focus for developers of the new generation?)
It’s easy to forget, in our modern era of high tech single player RPGs like Skyrim, MMORPGs like WoW, and RPG-esque action games like Dark Souls, that there was a time in RPG history when graphics and epic, linear storytelling necessarily had to take a back seat. This was largely because the best many companies could do graphically was to throw armies of graphically simple sprites at the players, and because linear storytelling actually required too many constraints on the player’s identity, and thus, were actually a barrier to immersion.
As such, the theory underlying storytelling in earlier RPGs was generally more similar to the theory of the hypothetical optimist who, upon being put in a room full of horse dung, immediately starts shoveling through it under the apprehension that “there must be a pony in here somewhere.” Similarly, earlier RPGs like the Might and Magic or Wizardry series effectively dropped their players into the middle of literally a world full of distractions and seemingly unconnected quests and dared them to shovel through them under the theory that “there must be a plot in here somewhere.” And even if you couldn’t find the plot, you generally left satisfied.
Of course, games like Skyrim mimic this kind of gameplay semi-effectively, but they’re always weighed down in the effort by an excess of backstory for the character. To use the Skyrim example, one has trouble believing that a prisoner who is miraculously saved from his own execution due to the appearance of a dragon for the first time in a millennium is really just your standard, run-of-the-mill adventurer. The expectation of being “the chosen one” is practically baked into the story.
So how do we recapture a style of RPG in which players really feel like their level of greatness or mediocrity as adventurers falls squarely in their hands, rather than being predetermined for them by the developer? One answer might be to mimic the character creation process that one found in games like Might and Magic and Wizardry — namely, to create an entire adventuring party rather than just a single character. It’s easy to come up with a backstory that sets one character up as “the chosen one,” but three or four random strangers thrown into the thick of an epic story are less easily Skywalker-ized.
Contrast the backstory given to the protagonist of Oblivion, in which the player is literally saved from prison because the Emperor of Tamriel has been seeing his/her face in dreams, with the opening of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor, in which the four player characters are simply mercenaries invited to a scavenger hunt run by the dissolute noble Lord Markham. Which of these makes the world feel more open-ended, and one’s own fate feel more undefined?
What’s more, creating multiple characters at the outset, rather than acquiring new, pre-made party members as one does in, say, Dragon Age, recreates in single player the messy feeling of having multiple disparate personalities thrown together by fate into a single community that one finds in most tabletop RPGs. Given that character customization options are so much more sophisticated today, it surely would not be impossible to make this feeling of controlling a random band of misfits feel that much more real and entertaining than was done in the past, when usually all one got were a few portraits at the bottom of the screen that only ever gave stock reactions to combat and otherwise never interacted.
In short, it’s time to make RPGs less about acting out someone else’s story and more about discovering one’s own, no matter how messy or nonsensical or disjointed it might be. Step one in that process? Bring back the creation of multiple characters, and let the player’s imagination do most of the work of deciding how they came together. Two heads are better than one, and given the market for games, millions of heads will probably be better by far.