Monday, February 01, 2016

"Well, ACTUALLY..."

Of the few YouTube channels that I subscribe to, MrBtongue is among the least prolific. It isn't unusual for him to go about a year between updates. Those updates are always very welcome, though. Like me, he has a deep appreciation for Western-style RPGs, and also enjoys digging deep to try and understand what makes them succeed or fail. He typically develops a thesis, gradually explores it, building up his case through a multitude of examples, and then synthesizes it, offering his unasked opinion about what other developers can learn from the topic in question. He's one of those excellent people who believes that video games can be important and worthy of discussion and analysis; but at the same time, he doesn't take himself too seriously, and has a great dry self-deprecating wit that periodically crops up before he makes a grand pronouncement. (He typically labels his videos with one of two acronyms: TUN, for Tasteful Understated Nerdrage, and CON, for Creepy Obsessive Nerdlove.)

One of his most recent videos touches on a subject very dear to my heart: the legacy of the Infinity Engine games (Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and Icewind Dale) and the recent wave of new games that invoke this classic isometric Western roleplaying style. The video mostly focused on Wasteland 2 (which I'm currently playing) and Pillars of Eternity (which is probably next on my list), with brief shouts-out to Shadowrun Returns (yay!) and the upcoming Planescape: Tides of Numenara (probably my most-anticipated game of this year).

Like me, MrBtongue adores the classic Infinity games. He's been excited for the new games, and has enjoyed playing them, but also feels like something is missing, and they're not as special as the original games.

At this point, I practically started yelling at my monitor: "That's because you're older now, dude!" Seriously, I think that the bulk of analysis about why X is worse now than it was in the past is really just a way for us to justify our subjective feelings of decay. MrBtongue is probably around the same age as me, and probably first encountered the Infinity games at a crucial formative period in his life, when the brain is eagerly molding itself around new experiences. Every game you encounter is one of the first games you've played, and will forever be special to you. Later games might exceed those games in a variety of ways, and younger people will embrace them in turn, while you and I are left grumbling at our Steam library about how this latest RPG we bought just doesn't surprise us as much as the RPGs we played as teenagers. It's the same sort of dynamic that powers intergenerational debates over music or cinema or comics or any other form of art. Which, I guess, is actually a really good thing, since it reinforces my games-as-art hobbyhorse. I do think that we would be better off remembering the message of Planescape: Torment and embracing change rather than clinging to the past.

BUT, all of that being said, I also think that MrBtongue's arguments definitely hold water and are worth discussing. Here's what I think!

He ascribes the shortcomings of the modern renaissance RPGs to two seemingly-good things: balanced gameplay and player choice. Balance is a really interesting point, and one I've been thinking about a lot lately. It isn't exclusively a concern for RPGs; someone at work is a serious player of Super Smash Brothers Melee, and pointed me towards this fascinating article and chart depicting the relative popularity/power of the different characters in this fighting game over time. As a Gamecube game, Melee couldn't be updated after it shipped, and players have spent well over a decade grappling with its mechanics. It's so interesting that, after all this time, players are still finding new uses for characters, new styles of play, and the understanding of who is "good" and who is "bad" continues to evolve. If Nintendo had rebalanced the game after it was first released, it would have buffed characters who later on became good in their own right, and nerfed once-hot characters that later became also-rans. The many devotees of Melee, compared to the later incarnations of Super Smash Brothers, will argue that it's this messiness that makes the game so great: the later games try harder to achieve parity, but paradoxically end up both less balanced and less fun.

There's a lot to be said for the value of messiness (complex, unintuitive, interesting). There are two ways to play games: the way the designers intended, and the way players end up discovering. Earlier games can feel a little rough in the first department, but that same roughness makes the second department tons more funs. Think of speedruns, that modern sport where people compete to see who can most quickly beat a classic game (Super Mario Brothers, or Mario 64, or Ultima V, or Morrowind, just about any game). These often rely on glitches and exploits which were not discovered until the games had existed for more than a decade, the discovery of which has added entirely new dimensions to these games. In contrast, modern games like Super Mario Galaxy are basically speedrun-proof. The entire game is designed to gently force the player to follow their critical path for the entire duration, seeing all the sights the designer wants them to see. The fundamental game code no longer allows for shortcuts or clever solutions, just a bumpered lane to travel down.

My all-time favorite game is Baldur's Gate 2, which definitely falls into the category of brilliant game with messy and hopelessly unbalanced design. I'm not an outlier in loving this game: BG2 is so beloved that a new company was formed just to refresh the game for modern hardware, and many vibrant communities continue to discuss the story and strategy. It isn't at all unusual to find people who have beaten the game eight, twelve, twenty or more times. The story helps a little with this - there are several good branching plots, multiple solutions to most problems, and a vast array of memorable characters. Among the most hard-core players, though, it's the scrappy unbalanced design that gives them the opportunity to try something new and keep having fun. Sometimes they'll exploit overpowered character types in order to complete a personal challenge like a solo run or a no-reload game; other times they'll deliberately select an inferior class (Jester, Wizard Slayer) for the challenge. All of this variability adds immense depth to the game, which is a huge part of the reason why people like me and MrBtongue love it so much.

The thing is, though, modern gamers demand balance. Balance is really hard, and if there's a perception that a certain character type or strategy is more powerful than others, players will complain loudly and angrily to the developers. Even for non-competitive, single-player games, there's a deep-seated assumption that, if the game offers multiple choices in who you play as or what tools you can use, they should either be fundamentally equivalent or else clearly labeled in difficulty. If this isn't the case, an angry mob will declare the developers incompetent or malicious or both.

I think that the Internet is ultimately to blame for the shift towards a hyper-sensitive devotion to balance. Back in 2000, there were message boards and forums and fan sites, but they were places you might go to after beating the game or running into a gamebreaking problem, and were generally populated only by superfans like yourself. When you played a game, it was really just about you and your experience. If you wanted to play Baldur's Gate 2 as a single-classed cleric, that seemed totally fine! You would have a fun game. You wouldn't worry about whether you were underpowered or overpowered for the job. Now, however, there are reams and reams of FAQs explaining how you SHOULD play the game: how many points to put into CON (remembering that you will pick up the Tome during the game), what level to dual your Kensage (you ARE playing a Kensage, right?), and which companions you should pick up. Those same FAQs will also helpfully explain why CHA is a useless stat that you should dump, and why an Illusionist is better than a straight Mage, and that 2-Handed Swords are better than Halberds. Playing this game now, in 2016, all of this information is at our fingertips. It's just as broken now as it was when it was released, but it feels more broken, because we already know everything that's broken about it. BG2 got grandfathered in because everyone played it and loves it, but if a similarly sprawling and mis-matched game was released today, people would certainly complain about it.

The other aspect that MrBtongue gets at is the sheer complexity of BG2: there's a truly ridiculous range of kits and specializations and spells and companions. Modern RPGs have sanded all of these down to a more manageable amount that can be properly playtested and balanced. You can't have one without the other, and between balance and range, developers (both independent and AAA) have settled on balance. And can you really blame them? If you were to ask gamers, "Would you rather have a few things done well or many things done poorly?", they would probably prefer the former. That's what we've gotten. As much as I would love to see the pendulum swing in the other direction, I don't see how that can happen.

On to the next major point MrBtongue explores: Choice! He leans heavily on Wasteland 2 in this section of the video, which is very convenient for me, since I'd just recently passed the point in question. There is a point, early in the game, where you are asked to choose between saving two mutually exclusive groups of people. Like MrBtongue, this choice fell very flat for me. It felt like there was no context to making the decision: you haven't met any of these people, your party members don't have any opinions, and even your commanding officer basically shrugs and says, "Eh, they're basically the same, I can't tell you which to pick." Your choice ends up feeling essentially random, and it's hard to feel too invested in the outcome (despite some of the best voice acting in the game).

It ends up feeling like choice for choice's own sake, which is one of my least favorite trends in western RPGs. It doesn't fall into the trap of manichaeism that pollutes games like BioShock and Fable and Fallout 3, but the end effect is basically the same: you make a decision early on, and if you replay the game later, you'll pick the other one, just so you can see what content it unlocks. The choice is more of a mechanical device to serve up branching content, rather than a powerful part of the story.

I started contrasting this with some of my favorite choices in RPGs. The gold standard may be deciding what to do with Caridin's Forge in Dragon Age: Origins. That choice felt impossible to make, and I spent nearly half an hour staring at the screen just because I couldn't reconcile all of my conflicting opinions. I had to weigh the existential threat that the Darkspawn posed towards the dwarves against my desire to end suffering, and weigh the passionate arguments that my companions had made for one side or another. I finally picked a lane, and was decently happy with it, but it was a key turning point in my story, and now I can't imagine having picked the other direction.

As a side note - fortunately, most of the other choices in Wasteland 2 have been better: the stakes feel more significant and relatable, especially after you've gotten more immersed in the world. I recently got upset at the lack of a choice: in one non-interactive cutscene, you witness a woman get caught in an explosion who falls to the ground in pain. When you reach her, she explains that her legs have been blown off, and begs you to kill her. This is a really popular situation in this game, for whatever reason. I refused, since that's not how I roll. Shortly after, I met a doctor who specializes in making artificial limbs. Hey, perfect! She can make some new legs for that poor woman! Except, she can't. There's no dialogue choice available to say "Hey, there's this person right outside your complex who could really use your help. In fact, you are uniquely qualified to address the specific problem she has!" So, that was annoying... but, I realized upon further reflection, the reason I was annoyed was because the game has generally been so good about providing multiple, non-obvious solutions to dilemmas, and so I'd been trained to look for those answers outside the box. That's actually a good thing; it's exactly this kind of sprawling reactivity that's missing from many marquee AAA games that get labeled "RPGs" but contain little to no role-playing.

Anyways - unlike balance, I think that choice is an area where modern game companies absolutely can make improvements. Not everyone will care if a game's choices are organically tied to the stories they tell, but I don't think players will actually get upset if they are, and story junkies like me will absolutely eat that up. There are a lot of different ways this could go... I would love to see the types of choices Failbetter Games offers infect more mainstream games, particularly their beloved trope of "Here is an awful option that you should absolutely not select, we're seriously warning you not to do it." And, unlike mechanical balance, I think there's more leeway for plot choices to yield asymmetric results, so long as it's communicated in-game. You can choose to rescue the scouts, but it will mean a tougher battle ahead; you can head straight for the Capitol, but you'll miss out on some side-quests.

So, yeah. Fortunately, I think there's already been a significant improvement in the quantity and quality of player choices over the past several years, thanks in large part to the renaissance Kickstarted neo-Infinity games. It isn't perfect, and probably never will be, but things seem to be moving in the right direction, and the market seems to be responding. Unbalanced games will probably remain a relic of the past, for better or for worse, but the best days of player choice may still lie ahead of us.

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