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.

SWITCH, PLEASE!

So it turns out that the long-anticipated Nintendo NX console has done a Project Natal on us and changed its name. It’s the Nintendo Switch now, and it was formally announced today with a preview trailer reminiscent of one of those Gap store commercials, the kind that shows a lot of diverse, trendy, non-threatening people playing the game in areas that are statistically proven to be considered cool. Right on, Nintendo. Groovy, baby.

So what is this new creation on offer from March next year? Well, it’s a console… Sort of. And it’s a handheld… Sort of. And it plays games from five years ago… Sort of. Because is it just me, or did Skyrim look a bit more pixelly and unresponsive than I remember it being?

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings on this one. Nintendo never seem to remember that trying to master two things at once means you only end up with something that’s compromised in both aspects. That’s why the Wii U was a handheld device, but only assuming you never felt like leaving the house or playing with a decent screen. And the 3DS was also a handheld device, again making assumptions that your hands were shaped like Doctor Claw’s and you still didn’t want a decent screen. This new device is apparently a hybrid console. I’ve seen hybrids before, you know. I saw a liger on TV once when I was a kid. It was completely infertile, rather sickly and not expected to live very long. Pardon me for not being filled with optimism for this hybrid, either.

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This is the new Nintendo Switch… At least until it suddenly looks like something else.

But with all those developers allegedly behind it, the game library could be pretty tasty. I’m sure the Switch’s battery will agree with me, carrying on that noble Nintendo tradition of gorging itself on energy and lasting the length of the average nose blowing before it needs a recharge. The Wii U controller can’t even maintain four hours of Earthbound from 1994, so I’m a little skeptical about how this new thing will deal with the cutting edge of mainstream gameplay (or rather cutting-edge by Nintendo’s standards, which means some cartooney, non-hardware intensive stuff and a game from half a decade ago).

The big question is whether the third-party support will be enough. Nintendo have often had problems with such relationships, such as demanding they capitulate to unconventional hardware restraints or gimmicks, but the Switch doesn’t appear to have a motion controller or muffin dispenser thrown into the mix, so it should be a little more cooperative to those poor, bullied designers. Apparently there’s a touchscreen in there somewhere, but ideally that should be an optional extra that will only be utilised IF THE THIRD-PARTY CREATORS WANT TO, NINTENDO. After all, the public are so used to touchscreens by now that I doubt it’ll even be considered a selling point. Nintendo might as well try and sell us on the exterior being made out of plastic – it’s just not worth the effort.

The console’s main promotional feature seems to be versatility and adaptability. In the trailer we see people playing it on a TV, on a plane, in a car, in a skate park, whilst ignoring a dog, whilst ignoring an attractive girl, whilst ignoring their friends at a party, and we see the inevitable pathetic capitulation to eSports that must now hound every major gaming product like a sickly relative demanding you bring them more soup, ‘ere they cut you mercilessly from their last Will and Testament. Am I the only person who still doesn’t give a damn about people I don’t know playing games I have no stake in? And am I also the only one who noticed that the crowd for that eSports tournament looked a little… CGI-ish? I’m not saying I’m one hundred percent certain that they’re fake, only that they might want to stop performing the same jerky movements over and over if they want to leave the uncanny valley anytime soon.

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Yep, that certainly looks like a man who’s entranced by what he’s seeing, and not a low-cost actor/model hungrily waiting for a paycheck that’s being dangled over him.

But the big new idea is that the Switch can, rather suitably enough, switch forms. There’s at least five different configurations for this new contraption, including a handheld mode, a TV-slot thing, dual controllers like you’d get with VR tech and a little prop to stand the device up whilst you play.

And I won’t even complain about this aspect. Seriously, none of this is a bad thing. It’s not very exciting and I know that as long as one of the configurations works fine for me I can safely ignore the others, but as long as it doesn’t have a drawback I can’t really see a reason to be sniffy about this news.

Except for this bit – why is Nintendo treating this rather boring feature like their ultimate draw card? In the trailer the games themselves seemed secondary to the promotion of the hardware, with the audience only capturing glimpses of Zelda, Mario and the aforementioned Skyrim. I can’t help but wonder about all the many, many things I’m not seeing, because I honestly don’t care much about Switches’ switchin’ power. That’s just a functional utility tool to allow me to play the games, but you’re not showing me any of those!

And speaking of, I must ask what’s going to happen when it comes to backwards compatibility? The hybrid nature still leaves us confused as to whether this is more of a successor to the 3DS or the Wii U, but the Switch seems to be utilising cartridges more similar to the former, which is annoying to hear if it’s only going to run 3DS games. Because the 3DS library was (and is) pretty rubbish, but there’s still a few niceties gathered around the skirts of the Wii U. The opportunity to play Wind Waker on long plane trips sounds superb, but the opportunity to play MGS3 and Pokémon X does not. Of course, that’s assuming we’re given backwards compatibility at all, which given the current state of the industry seems unlikely. After all, everybody knows that consumers come last in the ridiculous pecking order. We’re just the ugly sods who have to spend the money.

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I genuinely laughed at how the guy on the far right is desperately trying to ignore him playing on that thing. You’re not fooling anyone, Dave.

The online response seems to imply that I’m the only one who feels iffy about this thing. I admit that there isn’t a lot of info to go on yet, but I still feel uncomfortable about it nonetheless. Because my fundamental question, maintained throughout all of this unbridled, unhealthy hype, is this – how is the Switch better than any of the consoles, computers, handhelds, hybrids, tablets, phones and microwave ovens that I own already? It’s not outmatching them in terms of hardware or choice of games, because my laptop runs far superior tech, holds Steam within its mighty clutches and also gives me a lot more options, such as the capacity to write this article and watch porn simultaneously. And if the Switch is selling itself on how easy it is to use, I do already own a smartphone that puts that aspect to shame, much like everyone else on the planet and their dog does.

So that leaves exclusives, which should be disregarded because a) exclusive titles are a nasty, anti-consumer practice, and b) I’m still not sure that Nintendo won’t abuse its third-party developers again and lose the right to all the good exclusives. I do have a memory, Nintendo. Erasing backward compatibility ain’t going to change that, despite everyone’s best efforts.

It should be maintained that this is all first-glance stuff, with very few details to go on at this point. Perhaps future knowledge will make me think more highly of it, but for now I’m approaching with a sense of caution. And with the teaser trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 coming out today, we’re all pretty much in the dark about everything that’s going on, but at least we can ensure that the latter will allow us to shoot buffalo. Something tells me that Mario won’t have the stones for that one.

You can find the Nintendo Switch Teaser Trailer here.