Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Computer Is Your GM

An opinion piece in the July 2011 issue of GameInformer laments the fading of the traditional role-playing game as a video game genre, lapsing from its Japanese foundations and no, I can't go on, this is just too much wharrgarbl.

Does anyone have something for an acid stomach?

Apologies to Joe Juba, the gentleman who wrote this article, for what I'm going to say here. It's rare that an article gives me a headache in the first two paragraphs, not just from the lightweight white type on a black background, but muscle strain from the eye-roll.

His contention is that "many years ago" was the heyday, the—dare I say it?—golden age of the console-based role-playing game. The PlayStation was the go-to system for the JRPG.

His statement has considerable truth in it: if you sought a particular type of game, then the platform he cited was most likely the best place to go for that action. But then, among other things, he went on to say...

The phrase "role-playing game" doesn't even mean the same thing; successful titles from North American developers like BioWare and Bethesda have become the term's standard-bearers, and genre boundaries have blurred as traditional RPG elements work their way into shooters, platformers, and fighters.

That was about where I fired up my own editor to write my response. Yes, I was only two paragraphs into an article that spanned half a page. I found that much to argue with that fast.

The Role-Playing Community Frowns On Your Shenanigans

Mostly, what bugs me about that lofty statement is that the genre known mostly now as the "JRPG," or "Japanese Role-Playing Game," is the ultimate expression of the genre as opposed to the grafting of role-playing elements into those other genres.

In reality, they're both pale imitators.

I'd also like to argue what was grafted onto which, but that'll come a little later.

A history lesson?? Again?!

'Fraid so, Billy.

As the story goes, "role-playing" got its start as a viable genre of game not from video games—since this was in the era of Pong and pinball machines with number-reel scoring—but from tabletop wargames. Someone had the great idea of taking unit tactics down to its lowest level, using each chit on the map to represent one person with unique abilities, and taking it from there.

Enough people at the time saw it was good, and even tried to cook up variations. For specific games, they wanted different character options like classes and special abilities. For different games, some wanted different settings, so science-fiction became a viable genre alongside fantasy. The developments came fast and furious.

But what does any of this have to do with video and computer games?

Like I said, a lot of people were trying a lot of different things with that exciting new concept of the role-playing game, the dungeon adventure, or whatever else you want to call it. And one of the things some people tried was to turn it into a one-player experience.

And it didn't just spawn the turn-based group RPG, either. The first thing it spawned was the text adventure, and this was the "Dungeon" game that started circulating around college campuses starting in the late 1970s. From that spawned a whole branch of computer literature, with Infocom at its vanguard (check out the excellent documentary Get Lamp for more details)

With computer graphics and the minimal use of text came those adventures where you had to maneuver around and avoid threats until you got the items you needed to open the doors, deal with the threats, etc.

Note that this was not on the Nintendo Entertainment System, which didn't come out until 1985. It may also sound like I'm talking about one of those "point-and-click" adventures that became popular when computers started using "windows" and "icons" and "mice" (oh my!), but the first of those didn't come out until 1984.

Nope, the first of those "action adventure" things was actually called "Adventure" and came out for a quirky little platform called the "Sears Tele-Games 2600". And if that 2600 sounds familiar, yes, that's the name of the original Atari 2600 when it was sold by Sears.

And you know what that means: that game "Adventure" was the one in which you wandered a maze looking for blocky looking keys until you could find the sword that looked like a straight line and use it to slay the dragon that looked like a duck that choked on a donut.

NOTICE: RECURRING THEME AHEAD

How did we get from the text adventure to three-color eight-bit adventure where you could actually see your character moving around? The technology improved. At the time, the original Dungeon was more likely to be played on a printing terminal than a VT-100 video terminal, so continuous action was out of the question. The console that was hooked to a television, now that could show action.

How did we get from a graphic adventure where the main villain looks like the puddle of vomit that missed the trash can to one where the things you manipulated actually looked like the things described in the game? The technology improved. Computer graphics at the time—and I'm citing the original Macintosh, for which the first point-and-click adventures were developed—were black-and-white, but the pixels were small enough you could use dithering to simulate halftones.

How did we get from black-and-white static images to a plurality of animated characters that could fight simultaneously? The technology improved... and someone tried to more accurately reproduce the vibe of a group going into battle by having the player's side represent a whole bunch of characters. To manage combat, they applied the "point and click" sensibilities and gave the characters a menu of options to use when fighting.

Finally, how did we go from a party of 4-6 adventurers tromping through a landscape and playing through turn-based combat to a single person doing a lot of running and gunning? The technology improved. The games increased in sophistication, sporting buzzwords like "physics engine," to the point where the character's weapon could be tracked and damage assessed "on the fly." The controls became a bit more flexible as people started thinking about things like "user interface" and "user experience" with regards to how combat was run. The game took on those attributes because it could.

The Grail

If this whole class of game can be said to have a "holy grail," it would be the creation of a seamless event, one where there are no modes to switch back and forth between or loading screens or sit through. Just a whole, complete, immersive experience that will do its part to lift your disbelief so you don't have to suspend it yourself.

And while nobody's achieved it yet, there have been a few rather close passes. There is perhaps a grain of irony in the fact that it took the Atari 2600 to raise the bar for later games: it was the first to incorporate action. It was a blocky three-color nightmare action, but the parts were in motion and you actually had to deal with the threats that also moved in order to win.

The key elements are action, interaction, and setting. From there, one could draw parallels to a certain triumvirate of "game, narrative, and simulation," but that's a rant for another time. And a very long and involved rant at that.

Mechanic Grafts

It's time to address that other point. Mr. Juba talked about how "traditional RPG elements" worked their way "into the shooters, platformers, and fighters."

Did it happen that way? Remember that "Adventure" was an action-adventure a decade before the JRPG was "perfected" (sneer-quotes) as a form.

I could just as easily argue that it was the elements of the first-person shooter, HTH combat simulator, and platformer that were shoehorned into that whole notion of "action-adventure game," the point of which was to cast the player as a character trying to get to some ultimate goal.

Consider the games that followed. Super Mario Bros. was an action-adventure game in which the main mechanic was the platforming. Doom, Quake, and the dozen-plus that followed were action-adventure games in which the main mechanic was shooting, though some of the later games included platforming and exploration elements in order to find new weapons and caches of ammo. That first point-and-click adventure, Deja Vu (that game for the Mac in 1984) was admittedly less action and more puzzle game, but still most definitely an adventure. Of fighting action-adventure games, admittedly there have been few worth mentioning (unless we're talking about market failures, and I'm certainly not).

But that was then. Now, Mr. Juba specifically mentioned two developers, BioWare and Bethesda.

The games from those developers that fit the action-adventure mold? The Dragon Age series and Fallout 3. Each has elements of first-person shooter or fighter, but also a fairly robust reaction matrix. It's still fairly limited to topical discussion, but each has the element of interaction that the JRPG tends to lack.

And here's another knife-twist. You know how in a JRPG one player would have control of a group of characters, and have to manage them individually in combat? I present to you the concept of "networked cooperative play." This was one of the many features touted in Borderlands, a first-person-shooter action-adventure game with vehicular combat. Yes, you can play through the story by yourself, but it's also possible for other people to play alongside you if you let them. Rather than manage a group by yourself, cooperative play between two or more people will be simulated by cooperative play between two or more people. Wotta concept, right?

I will say, though, that there is a genre of game, out of Japan no less, which is a kind of an adventure game with a lot of possible endings. It's called a "dating simulator." I would dismiss it out of hand, but it actually comes closer to the ideal of "roleplaying" than most action-adventures do. This could be the seed of inspiration for another article.

We Gotta Get Out Of This Place

Here's another way to look at it. Squaresoft and later Square-Enix ("Squeenix" to the contraction-enhanced) are known for producing some of the most famous, well-recognized, iconic members of the "JRPG" set.

But starting in Final Fantasy XI and moreso in XII and XIII, remember that turn-based combat system that the earlier games had? Cast aside in favor of a real-time system. Why would they betray the sacred trust that took them to the heights of the genre and throw out a system that worked so well for them in the past?

Because the technology improved. They could do more, so they tried to do more. The success of what they tried to accomplish could be debated, but that they tried to advance the state of their game and swing closer to the "holy grail" is incontrovertible.

And now you try to get back on-topic??!?!

Yeah. I'll admit it. I just spent a lot of time—in a tabletop RPG blog—discussing the state of computer games. Like I said, it was an impulse brought on by a columnist in a gaming magazine. And while I have a console (or five), I'm still buying tabletop RPGs.

Here's a little thought experiment for you. Say you've got a console and game disc/cartridge on the one hand, and a stack of RPG books on the other.

The computer game, as discussed above, has a lot of exciting things going for it like immersive, active play in any of a number of styles. Meanwhile, the tabletop RPG has words which you have to use to describe the scene to other people and a turn-based system. Depending where you got each and which system you're playing with, you might even have spent more on the books than the electronic thingie.

Now write an adventure using each for your friends.

There, the computer game has issues. Unless you're playing with Neverwinter Nights, development costs could get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and take months. And even if you're working in Neverwinter Nights, you've got one and only one genre to work with.

The tabletop RPG? A single afternoon, and less than 25¢ for ink and paper. Two dollars if you throw in a large cup of coffee.

Part of TinyTIM's universal appeal is that it does not require any special hardware from a given machine except for the eventual ability to telnet or connect to another machine that can telnet. A real plus is an 80x24 character screen, but this isn't entirely necessary. What this means is that you can sneak onto a crappy dumb terminal somewhere in the basement of a college and connect to TinyTIM and get the same great TIM experience that someone is getting with a $5,000 workstation hooked via a T-1 line from somewhere else in the world. This levels the field, and stops some of the Bad Things From Happening.

...

The goal of TinyTIM is communication, and in a smaller way, a feeling of welcoming and comradeship in having fun with the weird clump of goo that we call life. The printed word is one of the basic forms of communication, and it serves the goals of TIM better than any other current medium.

If that sounded a bit stuffy, it is. Here's the nutshell:

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but we like the thousand words.

Excerpt from Help Graphics, TinyTIM MUSH

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