RPGs have come a long way since isometric CRPGs ruled the PC gaming landscape. Roleplaying games today are cinematic, action-packed, and feature more mechanical hooks than any two other genres combined. In Mass Effect: Andromeda, you can connect with NPCs in full relationships off-ship on far flung planets. Getting it on is now a selling point! But for all of their advancements, there’s still something CRPGs do better and it’s important.
That something is story. It’s how you experience it and the role you play in it. Now, wait a second. Hear me out.
I grew up on console RPGs. I didn’t discover PC RPGs until the early 2000s with Neverwinter Nights, but even then, most isometric RPGs felt antiquated to me. I remember asking a friend why you couldn’t zoom in more. They felt alien. I didn’t give them a fair shot. It wasn’t until Divinity: Original Sin that I really gave them the chance they deserved. I know… late to the party. But at least you can believe me when I say that I’m not viewing things through rose colored glasses. I fell in love with modern RPGs, but it’s CRPGs that continue to show me what this genre is all about and what I was missing all those years.
Every good RPG tries to tell a good story. That’s a hallmark of the genre regardless of how the game is designed, and none of this article is to take anything away from other games who pull it off well. But again and again, I come back to the presentation. I come back to text.
I know. It sounds silly but it’s true. Ask any fan and they’ll tell you the same. CRPGs for a multitude of reasons rely very heavily on text. When you’re talking with an NPC, the world pauses and you’re given over to a written sequence with a set of responses, usually leading to more written interactions. Sometimes there is voice over and almost universally the game is worse for it. The reason is that, because they are so text rich, they rely on the imagination.
Image courtesy of Pixel Crushers
It’s a bit like reading a book. Since these RPG devs don’t have to worry about animating and voicing every interaction, they write these sequences with more depth and description than virtually anything in the modern RPG space. You don’t see the facial ticks or the guard’s hand move slowly to their sword hilt, but you read it, and in your mind create a better mental image than anything the developers could have animated anyway. In presenting their stories with such a heavy written element, the developers leverage the power of the imagination in ways that just aren’t done in cinematic roleplaying games.
The difference between CRPG presentation and cinematic games is tantamount to become active in a story versus being a passive observer. You fill in the blanks and are therefore in the story in ways that you just couldn’t be if it was all animated out before you. When you choose the dialogue option, it’s with a sense of ownership that lends itself more naturally to the roleplaying experience. It feels, frankly, more like RPGs were probably meant to be when they made the jump from the tabletop to the computer hard drive.
All of this is predicated on three key things, of course. First, that you like reading. If you don’t, or would rather your RPGs be more brisk, then story-based CRPGs probably aren’t your cup of tea. Second, they actually have to be well written. If it’s boring, nobody cares. And finally, there needs to be a balance between all of this exposition and actual gameplay. The game I’m playing now (which I’m not allowed to name yet) spends most of its first hour making you read with very little actual gameplay. Even though it’s good, it’s a bit much. All of this is a balance CRPG devs need to pull off. Thankfully, most of them have been doing this for years and are very good at it.
CRPGs don’t have a monopoly on good storytelling, but they can certainly draw you in in ways that cinematic games struggle to. It’s ironic that these games of so little detail, comparatively, can wind up presenting so much more just by leveraging the power of the imagination. As a reader, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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