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The RPG Files: Putting the RP back in RPG

Columns By Christopher Coke on September 30, 2016

Putting the RP back in RPG

Divinity: Original Sin 2, Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, Wasteland, Torment: Tides of NumeneraOld school RPGs are in the midst of a renaissance and nothing could be better. In an age when AAA RPGs often hand you your character, these games break the mold and tell you to not just create your own character, but to be your own character. It’s a lesson AAA needs to re-learn and fast.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably say that the closest I ever came to playing “classic” PC RPGs was Neverwinter Nights. To say that I was late to the CRPG party would be an understatement (though  console RPGs were near and dear to me). So you can say my first experiences with Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity after it were more than a little eye opening.

What stands out to me about these games isn’t how they play, at least not in terms of combat or character progression. Their personal beacon in the night is how they put the spotlight character, really stepping into the shoes of this person you’re playing as. The dialogue options, and how you interact with people big and small, give you the freedom to break from the good and evil mold or thrust headfirst into it as you choose. Listen to a player who has slowed down and actually roleplayed in these games and you’ll hear a whole different tale than what your average Mass Effect player can spin.

It all comes back to the power of the imagination. Modern RPGs insist on voicing everything, even when it strips the player of a better RP experience. Complete voicing has the fresh scent of stacks of money, indelibly marking the game with its triple-A stamp, and so huge releases must, to meet modern expectation include full voiceover. But with the onward march of cinematic experiences, RPGs, and indeed video games as a whole, feel ever more like interactive movies. You don’t have your own character, you just have a different version of theirs.

The dialogue systems in games like Pillars are stripped down affairs of text boxes and numbered responses. They’re not always exact and sometimes imply actions that the rigid characters on screen do not act out. But if you’re even a little bit of a reader, your mind quickly takes over and fills in the blanks. Like any book lover will tell you, what your mind can create will always surpass what happens on the screen. By not spelling things out with VO, you inject little pieces of yourself into the character; you become invested; you play pretend and wish other games would take the hint.

Simplifying the delivery of these interactions (and, if we’re being honest, most of the larger game too) also allows developers to make the options and effects much richer. Sure, Mass Effect and The Witcher will offer up branching paths, but your choices in Divinity or Pillars often have a more profound, game changing impact on your very next steps and the greater path. This seems doubly true in Divinity: Original Sin 2. And because you, as the player, have injected yourself into each dialogue more than Mass Effect or The Witcher, your connection to everything that follows is likely that much stronger too.

All of this ties directly to the quality of the actual roleplay. From the get-go in both Pillars of Eternity and Divinity, I found myself thinking of who my character was in this world. I had never done that in other RPGs (non-Bethesda and sometimes even then) because the developers insist on telling you who you are. But when you’re free to craft a character from scratch, all of those dialogues become interesting choices. How would a dwarf mercenary react to a racist elfling? Would he actually stop a fight in the streets or wait and steal the reward at the end?

Look, there’s nothing wrong with cinematic RPGs. Not even a little bit. I actually adore Mass Effect and The Witcher, but in terms of actual ownership over your character? Not so much. And that’s too bad. This new crop of “classic” RPGs have something important to teach the AAA crowd. Maybe that means less voicing. Probably it just means giving players more freedom to be their own character. Either way, here’s hoping they listen. The entire genre will be better for it.

Quick Hits

While we’re talking classic-style RPGs, InXile Entertainment announced this week that Wasteland 3 is officially in development. We sat down with Brian Fargo to pick his brain on how the game is shaping up and what players can expect. Multiplayer is coming to the game and one of their core goals is to make the game more reactive to the player. Don’t expect anything playable too soon, but since InXile is building with the same tools they’ve used to make Wasteland 2 and Torment, the wait shouldn’t be too long.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided has received its second substantial DLC, System Shock. The addon brings back Frank Pritchard from Human Revolution and adds a new hub area in Prague. The bulk of your time will be spent exploring Blade 1, a new six-story high-security addon to the Palisade Bank. Reviews are scarce currently, but IGN gave it a 7.5, saying it’s good but only offers 2-4 hours of gameplay and feels more like a “tease.”

No Man’s Sky is officially being investigated by the UK Advertising Standards Authority. A number of complaints allege that the images and trailers on the game’s Steam page do not accurately represent the game as delivered. It’s unclear what will come from this, but it’s heartening to see some action being taken to at least investigate the misleading advertising practices running rampant in the game’s industry. *cough* Aliens: Colonial Marines *cough*

PC fans of The Division can now check out massive update 1.4 on the public test realm. Since the current test is focused on progressing between world tiers, interested players will be able to create fresh level 30 characters out of the gate.

Finally, Grim Dawn is teasing its first expansion.This game has an incredible art style and is widely regarded as one of the best indie ARPGs to come out in ages. Give the full post a read for a preview of what’s to come.

That’s all from us! Have you read any RPG news worth sharing this week? Share out in the comments below!

Christopher Coke / Chris has been a fan of MMOs since the mid-1990s when he cut his teeth on MUDs. These days he scours the internet for the latest and greatest multiplayer gaming experiences.