It’s been over 18 months since the last one of these and, despite the ‘issue 1’ of the title, I’d never really planned on doing another. Still it’s a useful feature title for a rambling game design analysis post, providing the usual disclaimer is in place.
The Usual Disclaimer: I’ve neither designed a game nor spent time dissecting game design and, as such, am not claiming any expert knowledge into the secrets of making better games. The ‘Let’s Improve Gaming’ moniker appended to this post is just as facetious a self-mockery as reading the post will make you hope it is. And with that in place, I’m going to talk shit about RPGs for a bit.
There are a series of missions in Dragon Age: Origins that aren’t about killing or collecting or fetching. They’re given by a ‘fence’ in the city of Denerim and they are about stealing.
My first thought on uncovering these missions went along the lines of, “Holy fucking fuck yes! Stealth based rogue-specific quest line all up in my RPG!” Then I found out they were just another set of generic quests available to anyone.
- Mission 1: Pick a lock.
- Mission 2: Kill some dudes in a warehouse.
- Mission – ah, who the fuck even cares?
This isn’t a story about inevitably disappointing RPG quest lines; it’s a story about my excitement at the possibility of unusual RPG quest lines. It surprised even me, and I spent some time analysing just why the prospect of a game I was enjoying doing an about-turn in style brought about such an outbreak of hope. I found two possible reasons.
Reason 1: Divergence
One of the biggest problems with playing a massive 40+ hour RPG is that it requires you to play it for 40+ hours. That’s a lot of time to spend in the same world, fighting the same enemies with the same combat system. It’s no wonder that one of Oblivion’s most praised sections is the Dark Brotherhood quests.* They were an attempt to do something different, to deliberately stand out in a game primarily about getting into a bunch of scraps with some monsters. It didn’t even matter that they were a bit clumsy, attempting to do things that the game’s mechanics weren’t designed to accommodate. That they were trying was enough.
*Obviously Oblivion’s most praised section – and rightly so – is the bit with the raining dogs on fire, which similarly perverted the main game into something that was more akin to an adventure puzzle.
In My Official Favourite RPG Of All Time Baldur’s Gate there were a couple of thief-only stealth missions you could complete within the eponymous city. Despite being a pretty small quest line, it remains a large part of what I loved about the game. Not that this is an observation restricted to RPGs. People will happily tout Bioshock’s Fort Frolic or Thief: Deadly Shadow’s Cradle levels as highlights because of the way they twisted the structure and tone of their parent games to offer self-contained experiences.
It would be nice to see game developers taking more risks within the confines of their own games to provide a bit more variety.
Reason 2: Stealth!
After the critical box-office success of early 00s titles like Metal Gear Solid 2 and Splinter Cell, stealth became the game mechanic du jour for headline grabbing back-of-the-box features. It was crudely shoehorned into so many releases that within a few years it became synonymous with unoriginal, mediocre action games. Fuck that noise. Stealth games – good ones, at least – comprise some of my favourite titles. God knows, I didn’t play through all the MGS series for its plot.
When given the choice it’s a play style I’ll gravitate towards. Take the Hitman series. I’m sure it’s still a good game when played in a more traditional ‘run about killing fuckers’ approach but that’s never stopped me from painstakingly completing every level having killed only the man I’d been contracted to snuff out. Give me a dark corner and an excruciating amount of time to sit observing guard patrol patterns and I’m the happiest person with a gamepad, assuming I’m not playing a corridor shooter’s gimmicky stealth level.
The chance for stealthy stabby fun was the reason I was playing a rogue in the first place, despite many Internet warnings that it was Dragon Age’s most difficult class, and in hindsight I should have realised it was never going to break with tradition. Stealth in the game is a binary talent; you’re either fully cloaked or you’re not. There’s no skill or chance for error, if you’ve levelled the ability high enough you can happily wonder around guards nicking what you like.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t work. In fact I think an RPG structure – the peculiar mix of adventure, action, tactical planning and inventory/skill management that defines the genre – would be perfect for a stealth game. While dedicating the length of a cup of tea to imagining the form such a game could take, I arrived at an espionage based RPG. Proper espionage too, not the James Bond shoot and fuck-a-thon that game developers tend to gravitate toward when making anything about spies. For example, playing as a spy posing as a low level employee for a security firm and working out the methods for stealing data from a secure room. That way each level would be about gathering information, bribing the right people, cloning access keys, even levelling up RPG-like skills like speech, lying and technical abilities.
But that’s just one example born of a desire to see the RPG break out of its narrowly defined shell. I’m sure there are plenty of others, so I’ll finish by asking: what changes or improvements would you like to see RPGs take?