THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE DISHONORED FRANCHISE?

Dishonored (which I will always maintain is spelt wrong, America) was one of those games which has received both too much and too little praise. This first-person stealth game was a critical darling upon release in 2012, achieving a stream of awards and much slobber from the online websites, even BEFORE most of them had been paid to like it.

And though audiences were positive and no real complaints were raised, the game faded in the minds of the public, likely due to the lack of multiplayer, the focus on a complex setting, a sense of genuine challenge and the fact that no gender controversies were made about it. These are all things that make it work in my mind, but that’s me – always bucking the trends to look cool. And people say critics don’t represent the people! To that I say: of course not, who the hell would want to? In the ancient Caddyshack war of Snobs versus Slobs, I stand firmly with Ted Knight against the invading forces of Rodney Dangerfield.

But I’m getting off-message. Dishonored was a good (if somewhat flawed) game, and with a sequel scheduled for release in November, I took it upon myself to consider how a potential follow-up might work. The answer? Well, read on, you lazy goose. I’m not going to do all the work for you.


STORY

Let’s consider things in reverse to what we did for Zelda (where we decided story should inform gameplay), because here we actually do have an excellent template for what a Dishonored sequel should be like: the Boyle Masquarade Ball in the first game. The absolute highlight of the whole affair, and a good blend of gameplay, world-building, organic side-quests, physical and social stealth with multiple solutions to a single problem: how do we work out which of the creepy women in wolf masks is our target, and how do we guarantee that she’s never seen again after this night?

And one of the things that made that mission work was that it was when the game suddenly had a lot more character. Thus, I would make our hero something very different to the silent, staring Corvo Attano in the first game. In this instalment the protagonist (we’ll call him Monty, purely because I like the name), is a charming raconteur and daring wit, the cream of high society… And also an accomplished cat burglar, going under the suitably thrilling name of “The Fox” when it comes to the popular press.

Bam. A solid set-up for a stealth game (yes, I know it’s similar to Thief, but there hasn’t been a good Thief game for ages, so I’mma take it), with bona ride reasons why our hero can sneak around at a professional level, not to mention why he’s breaking into places right from the start. When he’s seen trespassing, his mask covers his face and identity, and when he’s hiding in plain sight, he takes off that mask, and just goes around looking innocent and putting up a façade of endearing buffoonery. Basically, he’s a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman, with all the delightful fun that implies.

Then we need some inciting incident, after a couple of tutorial missions where we just pinch large diamonds and so on. To my mind, two things would happen in tandem – Monty would steal something that’s much more valuable and important than he immediately realises, and simultaneously be visited by the ghost of Edward Cullen (aka, the Outsider), to be given a stack of magic powers to do with as he wishes.

And everything then happens at once. Monty makes a few selfish decisions regarding the mysterious item (i.e., keeping the damn thing), resulting in a friend of his being hurt/killed by somebody who’s intent on taking it back. Monty decides he’s not going to stand for that, and works to discover the true purpose of his new toy whilst looking to get revenge on the faction that seeks to take it from him, a la The Count Of Monte Cristo. Oh, did you see what I did there?

As he does so, he finds that he’s being pursued by a deadly assassin that is more reminiscent of Daud and Corvo from the previous game, a symbol of Dunwall’s grim past that needs to be overcome and left there, in favour of the lighter, more merciful approach that Monty embodies. Along this journey he’ll come to understand that his actions have consequences and that he must learn to think about others… But that doesn’t mean he can’t pinch a couple of rare baubles from blustering nobles now and then. Got to have some fun, right?


SETTING

This one is tricky. Partly because Arkane Studios did such a good job of crafting the city of Dunwall the first time around, that it’s hard to think of specific areas where it can be improved. I know that the main characters in the first game seemed to lack the depth and substance of the world they lived in, but that’s one of those things that you can assume gets fixed for this one, like bringing your car in for a tire change and assuming that the tire will actually be attached to the car when you leave.

The real problem here is one of tone. Corvo’s grim saga of betrayal, revenge and revolution was a good fit for a city where everything seemed to be going wrong on an hourly basis, including an attack of zombie plague and a militant fascistic movement taking people’s liberties like one takes Twiglets from the bowl.

But the initial cheerfulness of The Fox’s life feels like we’re in a far lighter story, especially considering his own attitude. And whilst I suppose the city wouldn’t have to be Dunwall, it does feel cheap to move away from it purely for that reason.

So we’ll stick with the same city, but we’ll approach it in a time of relative prosperity. It’s not perfect – one of the likely themes considered would be the disparity of the poor versus the wealthy – but it’s doing well enough and doesn’t seem to need immediate saving from anything at the time. It’s like Gotham City between issues of Batman, whereas Dunwall previously felt like Gotham City in the third act of a major Batman arc – namely, completely buggered to hell. We navigate bustling cobblestone roads, cane tapping cheerfully as we glide between street urchins and market vendors. Then, when nobody’s looking, we duck into an alleyway, put on the mask of The Fox…


STEALTH AND COMBAT

… And the challenge begins anew! First of all, I should urge that I like the idea of Monty being a legitimate inventor, crafting strange and wonderful devices to help him accomplish his burglaries. To my mind he would make a good descendant of Piero, the brilliant but uncomfortable man in the first game – maybe a grandson? Ah, doesn’t matter too much.

So we have a combination of gadgets, black magic and natural agility working to ensure that the bad guys get bonked, the jewels get jacked and the guards stay unguarded. And the next priority is to clearly categorise these abilities and their purposes.

I’m thinking that black magic and Outsider powers should relate to mobility and interaction with the environment, and be the cornerstone of “I’m stealthing around, and I’m staying that way.” We keep the teleport “blink” power and X-Ray vision because they’re awesome, but we also add powers like levitating objects, sealing certain doors closed, making unconscious bodies invisible and triggering sounds at a distance to distract people.

By the way, hiding bodies is now more important than ever. For Monty is a thief, not a killer, and he does NOT leave a bloody trail behind him. He knows how to use his reinforced cane for self-defence and he knocks people unconscious when he has to, but he doesn’t skewer them like kebabs and doesn’t summon hordes of rats to eat them alive. This might seem discordant after the potentially apocalyptic death count of the first game, but even then you were subtly praised for staying your hand and utilising non-lethal approaches. Besides, this is a new age for Dunwall, and moving past the darkness of what it once was is a key element of the story here. It’s also undeniable that Monty would seem slightly twisted if he kept a sense of humour alongside his blood-stained dagger. Uncharted proved that the lovable hero becomes a lot less lovable when he starts breaking necks like a turkey farmer approaching Thanksgiving.

So you do have to be sure that nobody’s going to find the sleeping guards, because you can’t just turn them into dust when you’ve finished hacking them pieces this time. And It’s going to be harder than ever to keep them hidden, because one very valid criticism of the first game was that the guards were incredibly easy to navigate. They’d walk across a room, pick their nose for a bit, then walk back to where they were and repeat the whole process. No chance of being surprised by somebody taking a long circuitous route, which is usually where the average stealth game is at its most interesting – having to improvise in a heartbeat.

Beyond that, the original game doesn’t need excessive revitalising. The stealth worked then, still works now, and is made more enjoyable by the scope of options given to you. Admittedly, I would like to see more of a use to the environment other than platforming. Maybe killing the lights by finding switches in the basement, or sneaking up behind goons to put sleeping powder in their hip flasks. But Dishonored did that sort of thing fine, so I won’t say that it needs fixing, only emphasising the strong points. And then there’s something that does not need emphasising at all.


COMBAT

Look, I know Dishonored 1 proudly tells you to play it your way, but that leads to a lack of focus and a fundamental problem: if I’m just trying to get to the end of the game without much thought to specific tactics, why wouldn’t I just load up my pistol and grenades (something most enemies drop after being murdered), and hack through everybody who comes into my sight line? Dishonored’s swashbuckling was fun, but ultimately easier to do than sneaking if you were happy to go lethal, especially when certain powers only had capacity for loud, lethal means.

Here that doesn’t fly anymore. I said The Fox was a good fighter, but there’s a reason he doesn’t charge in and turn a burglary into a robbery – the odds of survival rapidly diminish as more enemies get involved. Fighting one dude? Yeah, should be fine as long as he’s not a real expert. Two guys? Bit tricky, but not terrible. Three? Well, now things are getting problematic.

This is where the gadgets and toys come into play – they provide means to escape or to end combat quickly when somebody advances on you with a sword. Tranquilliser darts, smoke bombs, flashbangs, and the steel walking cane for when you need to parry a cutlass strike or smack somebody in the chops. Maybe add some fun toys to that roster, like rope traps that’ll drag an unsuspecting thug into the air, but on the whole your various gadgets are to be used in the event of an emergency.

The reason for this is that combat is going to be a genuine problem, something that you really might not survive, with reinforcements charging in all the time to back up their friend. Anybody would call for back-up after being attacked by a man with a large walking stick and a selection of steampunk James Bond gadgets.


CHOICE

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Dishonored’s original choice system doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. The deceit of “play it your way” means either taking the easy, evil option or the difficult, more merciful path, and that in itself is a problem. It’s well recognised at this point that most “evil endings” equate to a weak-willed game over screen, feeling ultimately cheap and unrewarding after hours spent striving to accomplish something.

But for this game we’ve shifted the focus more firmly onto stealth, and removed the option to slit the throats of people who treat you with disdain. And whilst I’m happy to keep a reactive gameplay experience, it can no longer be to who you kill and who you spare.

No, the game should be altered by your methodology and approach, something the original did do right to a certain degree. Maybe you find the location of a target or rare item by conversing with the chatterboxes in a crowd, or maybe you break into a guard’s office to see where the hired goons seem to have been assigned to, and peak in through the windows to see what’s inside. The approaches you take will affect future missions, with those who decipher your tactics taking steps to prevent them, and those who are on your side trying to support you accordingly. If you kill the power to a building so that you might blend into the shadows, the next one you go for will have the fuse box under lock and key, because they heard about what you’re up to, you rogue. Of course, if you really work hard and take extra risks, you could conceal your approach after everything, and get to use it with hindrance again next time.

The social stuff also has a good template for how to converse and persuade others – the dialogue minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the best means of approaching persuasion in video game history. It would be easy to reimagine reading people as an Outsider power, and the rather terrifying Heart from the first game would actually have a use in the secrets it told you.


CONCLUSION

Like Zelda, Dishonored is a good game that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just recognition of what work and what doesn’t. But whereas Zelda’s problem comes from a distinct reluctance to change or innovate for the better, Dishonored is too young a series to be guilty of that. What it needs is urging on for the stuff that it has already worked out how to do right, and the sense of discipline and focus to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe the sequel next month will be good, maybe it won’t. But Arkane Studios, just remember that I’m happy to do some work for the next game, hmm? I’m the only freelancer who’ll take his hourly rate in Cadbury’s, you know.