Joel Haddock is not happy with modern role-playing games made in the West. Great things are missing, he argues, in a smart critique of today's Fallouts and Dragon Ages that we are proud to re-print here.
I have had a hankering lately to play a game that does not exist. Specifically, a Western RPG as they used to be, before Bioware and Bethesda took up the reins of Western RPGdom. Of course, many of you will say there is nothing wrong with those two being in charge, but I'm afraid that Dragon Age and Fallout 3 just don't scratch that itch for me.
So, why? Why am I dissatisfied with the current crop of Western RPGs? What are they missing, what are they doing wrong?
A lone adventurer taking on all evil is certainly a powerful image. The original Fallout thrusts you out into the wasteland, completely isolated, and weaves an intricate, interesting tale from there. That said, things can get a lot more interesting when you bring some friends along. I'm not talking multiplayer here; I'm talking about the days when a single player could manage an entire party of characters. In Wasteland, the first PC RPG I played and fell in love with, I was in charge of a full squad of four Desert Rangers, supplemented by up to three NPCs I could hire on for the ride. In the Wizardry games, a full complement of six adventurers was under my control. Ultima VI let me roam across Britannia with no less than eight people in my party (including a mouse!). More recently, Baldur's Gate kept the party going with a six-person team, though sadly lacking the mouse as an individually playable character.
Compare that to the present, when the magical number for party size appears to be four or less, if there is any party at all. BioWare certainly seems to see things this way, with Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect using the trio as the party size of choice, and Dragon Age going for the quartet. Of course, these games aren't limited to three playable characters; they just let you collect party members and keep them sitting around back at camp/on a spaceship doing nothing while you select the two you wish to gallivant around with. In an assimilation of the JRPG method of party management, the rest just sit around, waiting for their chance to shine/be seduced.
A good party dynamic gives the player a whole new set of options, allowing them to think of ways to build characters that complement each other, or to experiment with building up skills in certain areas in exchange for exposing weaknesses in others. Was it worth it in Wizardry VII to try to run an all-Ninja party? Maybe, maybe not; but it sure was fun trying. When all of a player's new party members are carefully defined by the designers and doled out to me as they see fit, I lose much of that element of choice. While I have options to affect their growth slightly, they are fundamentally locked into certain paths. The player no longer has the ability to really try exactly what they desire, they can only shuffle around the pieces the game chooses to give them. This leads me to my next point…
As I would set about assembling my initial team in Wasteland, each character I created took a good bit of planning. First, of course, was sorting out base stats, but then I had to pick skills for each party member to focus on. There were no classes in Wasteland, so characters could be whatever hodgepodge of skills you felt you wanted – want a rifle specialist who's also a whiz at cracking safes? No problem! Building a party was a careful balance between making each character individually useful, but also making sure they fit well together.
In the Wizardry series, once again I am responsible for building their entire team of six, but the options are a little different from Wasteland. A cornucopia of different races, each with their own strength and weaknesses, start off the process, followed by semi-random stats (based on the character race, plus random bonuses) that then determine what classes are available to the character. After selecting a class, I can then tinker with the skills available to that class to further specialize (or generalize) the character to my liking. Again, individual focus vs. party dynamic comes into play, but with plenty of room open to experimentation.
Now, lest you think I'm being narrow-minded in focusing only on party-based adventures, look at Fallout or Arcanum to see single-player character creation in glorious effect. Fallout is especially notable for the wonderful Perk system, which gave the player wonderful opportunities to develop their character in certain directions, or just to try something out of the blue to see how it went. Combined with the Advantage/Disadvantage system, the options for different styles of play were humongous.
Contrast that with the more limited character creation options of Fallout 3, or the simple skill trees of Dragon Age. Of course, what they lack in character creation depth, they more than make up in facial design options. So, if depth of nose and variety of mustache options are more important to you than actual character skills, maybe this doesn't bother you so much.
I have lamented the fading of turn-based gameplay before, but I have to reiterate how galling I find its absence in Western RPGs. I play RPGs when I want a break from fast-action and twitch-reflex dependent gameplay, not to experience more of it. If I have lovingly crafted a party of characters, not being able to take advantage of their individual abilities to the fullest because I'm too busy trying to give orders to them all in the middle of being fireballed, or because my FPS reflexes aren't up to snuff, is a major disappointment.
Bethesda, at least, made some attempts to remedy this with the VATS system in Fallout 3, which was an improvement over Morrowind's pure-FPS combat. BioWare, on the other hand, incurs much of my ire for their copy-paste combat system they use in every one of their games. Yes, you can pause and issue orders, but the speed with which unexpected things happen means you can often lose a combat in one or two seconds without having a chance to try and salvage the situation. Controlling one character means you are either sitting in front of the enemies, clicking attack over and over again; waiting for the cooldown on your special moves to keep spamming them out; or sitting in the back waiting for the cooldown on your ranged attacks so you can do the same. Meanwhile, your AI-controlled party members might be doing what you told them to do through their limited scripting system, or they may be running into a wall while being peppered with arrows/lasers/fireballs. Dragon Age gives you the ability to program your compatriots to a degree, but even that is limited by the player's choices in investing points into unlocking the ability to lead them; this is absurd. Much like it was ridiculous for FFXII to force players to buy Gambits in a system that required them for party members to be useful, it is ridiculous that a player isn't automatically given the option to program their party to their own liking.
When a player has both the time to think strategically as well as the tools to do so, combat can become a far more interesting affair. In Wizardry, the player can evaluate each round of combat, deciding which attacks will be most useful, which spells most beneficial, and exactly when to bust out specific items. To those designers that say turn-based combats are boring and repetitive, well, try this: have fewer battles, but make the ones that remain more unique. Of course fighting the same battle twenty times is boring in a turn-based system. It's also boring in real-time, too.
While that is a somewhat loaded question in that it assumes you agree with me that it's broken, I do think there are ways we can bring back some of the uniqueness of old-school Western RPGs without turning back the clock entirely. The truth is, much of what has been lost in these new-school Western RPGs has been replaced with elements borrowed from JRPGs, which focus far more on cinematic experiences than the nitty-gritty of roleplaying.
I grew up playing both styles of RPG, and I liked them each on their own merits. But with the Western shift towards JRPG cliche, I feel we've lost much of what made Western RPGs unique, and finding that type of gaming experience these days is almost impossible. The issue, as I see it, is not that anyone had a problem with Western RPGs as they were, but that the current crop of commercial designers grew up far more influenced by Final Fantasy than by Wizardry, and thus that is what they emulate, while still operating in what they call the "western tradition." Top that off with the fact that, classically, old-style Western RPGs just don't play well on consoles, and you've got the recipe for letting them fade.
Obviously, I think this is a bad thing. Much could be done to keep the elements that made Western RPGs special intact, while still using evolving technology and design to not have to step back in time to create the same feel.
Take turn-based battles, for instance. Yes, I would be happy with a simple player-enemy system, or even an FFVI-esque Active-Time Battle system, but we could do even better with today's technology. Games could take a cue from Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 to create battles with rich options for a player's party to work together, shift enemies about the battlefield, and use skills in conjunction with each other. It would make combat a far more strategic and interesting affair.
Party gameplay is another issue; designers like being able to control exactly who the player gets in their party because it means they can know exactly what resources the player will always have available, as well as write endless sidequests based around specific party members. Maybe I am being naive, but I think players are more than capable of infusing personality into their own creations without having the same six voice-actors speaking everything they say. Or even take a look at Wizardry 8, which let players assign personalities to their party members for a little extra flavor.
At the very least, if you must hand us pre-defined characters, and you must use a real-time combat system, give the player full, unconditional control over how their party AI acts. Do not make us unlock it, do not make us level up to earn it; just do it. We paid you the money already, you don't need to keep stringing us along in frustration.
And Yet I Wait…
Now, while I think those are all critical factors to making an RPG I'd want to play, I know that I am fighting against market forces here. When a formula works, as BioWare has discovered, there's no reason to do anything different. Perhaps the halcyon days of Western RPGs as I remember them – rich stories with equally rich game mechanics – are gone for good.
I hope I am wrong about that.
Joel Haddock is 31-year old gamer, writer, and fledgling game designer. He founded Spectacle Rock almost three years ago with the goal of taking the long view of gaming. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his recently released game Sanctuary 17.
PIC: Wasteland Cover art.