Peasant’s Perspective: RPG’s
Part of the reason I am a console peasant is because I simply don’t have the time or money required to get into (and maintain) a proper gaming PC. But, that doesn’t mean I have always been a console peasant. In fact, I am a recent console owner (2015!) and I originally began my gaming life exclusively on the PC. Heck, the first “gaming” capable thing I had in my life was Commodore 64. I remember when my father purchased our family’s first proper computer: a Pentium 256. Wow. Life changing event. DOS was my first window into gaming, and I still have a huge amount of affinity for old DOS games.
I am also an avid (obsessed?) open-world RPG fan. I’ve recently been sinking hours (100+) into the Witcher 3, and it has made me think about the things I value in a quality, open-world RPG. When I think about my open-world RPG history, there are a few games that stand out as perfect examples of what I value in a good open-world RPG. Allow me to present a console peasant’s 3 Keys to Good RPGs
KEY 1: Interesting world (which doesn’t necessarily mean high-end graphics)
I didn’t necessarily play ZORK first, but it is easily the earliest made, open-world RPG I’ve played that I can think of. It is also one that has made the largest impact on me. Perhaps it doesn’t have the most amazing mechanics, and it most certainly does not win any prizes for visuals, however playing ZORK alone, in a dark basement, can induce visions. I promise you. This game really allows your imagine to soar. Warning, spoilers ahead (though, if the game has been out for 39 years are they really spoilers?)
I can remember distinctly having trudged up from the depths of the Kingdom of Zork at 3am on a school night. I took an IRL sigh of relief for having made it out of the clutches of the lurking grue and headed off towards the waterfall nearby. I had previously acquired an Egyptian scepter from some dungeon tomb and had an inkling that the crystal atop it, along with the engraved depiction of a waterfall that adorned it, meant they were related. I clambered down the cliff side that left me at the bottom of the waterfall and brandished the scepter. To my great surprise, and utter relief…. I’ll let you figure out the rest.
Now, let’s be real here: all I actually saw were white words on a black background, like any other DOS screen you’d ever see. But in that moment it was as vivid as any UHD display. And this is what I want you, the reader, to remember about this game: graphics be damned, if you build an interesting enough world then you’ll be able to engross players completely. I recognize that it wouldn’t be the case for everyone, but ZORK does this to me. It is a completely stripped down, open-world adventure, and one that I can’t praise enough. It has amazingly complicated puzzles, a great premise, and it successfully creates a mysterious world in which everything (even the sound of birds chirping above: pro tip) matters.
KEY 2: Complex storylines, and complex environments in which to tell them
If ZORK wasn’t necessarily the first open-world RPG I became obsessed with, Little Big Adventure is. People who have known me since childhood know how much I loved this game. I have beaten it over 100 times and wrote the game’s creator, Frederick Raynal, to tell him about it way back in the 90s (I don’t recall him ever answering). This game was DOS based, but was 3D. Which, at the time, was mind-blowing. Even more mind-blowing, was the fact that the world was huge. This game encompassed a whole planet, and you could travel to every isle on it, including the mountain range that ringed the planet, dividing the northern and southern hemisphere.
Childish graphics aside, the storyline was very adult: through a complex network of teleportation devices and advanced cloning, a ruthless dictator had risen up to control the entirety of the planet Twinsun, turning it into an oppressive police state. He forcefully expelled the planets inhabitants from the northern hemisphere, where his cloning and teleportation hubs are located, and imprisoned anyone who speaks against his regime. The hero happens to be one of these imprisoned voices. He simply had a dream wherein the goddess of the planet called to him. Word got out, and the hero finds himself in the slammer. He’ll have to hunt down pirates treasure, ancient family heirlooms, join forces with the global rebellion, traffic in stolen goods, uncover the conspiracy of the dictator, destroy his cloning and teleportation capabilities and unearth (literally) a huge power to free the planet from the dictator’s clutches. This game had it all, and puzzles to boot.
If the point of me mentioning ZORK was to say that a quality RPG has a well-built world, one that engrosses the player, then the point about Little Big Adventure is to make sure that the main story line is complex. Lots of developers these days seem to shy away from complexity. I imagine it is because everything is about making those dolla dolla billz, and the masses don’t buy games with complex story lines. Instead, they want story lines where it is clear from the very beginning that you are the Dovahkiin, you are the chosen one, and you will save the world. By contrast, Little Big Adventure is a huge adventure, and the guy who undertakes that adventure is basically a schmuck, tossed in jail for having weird dreams. For the first part of the game he is motivated simply by finding his wife (also tossed in jail for giving asylum to a fugitive). But, as he goes along he finds out all these horrible things going on that he had no clue about in his otherwise suburban life. He gets pissed and starts to try changing the world he is in.
A lot of the game is silly, and I believe that it is a strength. It could so easily have been made as a dark game to match its dark subject matter. However, the frivolity of the atmosphere, mixed with the gravity of what is going on mix really well, adding another layer of complexity that makes this game less straight forward than it seems at first glance. Having that complex environment is as important as the complexity of the story line. If a game’s story line is deep and convoluted, but the environment is straightforward, then a game risks becoming Far Cry 4: that environment wasn’t nearly complex enough to hold my attention through to the end of the game; when I breached the northern bridge to discover that that zone looked identical to the rest of the map I threw up my hands and exclaimed, out loud, “why am I doing this?”. Little Big Adventure was wacky enough that even when the story line lulled, there was enough crazy stuff going on around me (flying dinosaurs?!) that I couldn’t help but explore.
Is it aged now? Of course. It is a DOS game for heaven’s sake. But it is 100% worth playing if you’re a retro gamer, or if you simply don’t let old mechanics get in the way of a good time.
KEY 3: Purposefulness
Quality open-world RPGs aren’t procedurally generated. Or generated at all. They’re worlds, and everything in a good world is meaningful.
Again, anyone who knows me knows that I love the Elder Scrolls. Or, more recently, I at least strive to love the Elder Scrolls despite how far they’ve fallen. Morrowind has a million mechanical and visual flaws, I know, but it has one thing that none of the other Elder Scrolls have: purposefulness in everything. Every scene in that game was hand crafted. It was so difficult for Bethesda to do, and took so much manpower, that they vowed to never do it again. All their other games have suffered because of it. When you walk into a home in Morrowind, that home was made unique from every other home in the whole world: the people in it, the stuff in the boxes, the dialogue options therein. Every dungeon is different, and there are items that can only be found in one place or another. Nothing feels generated. Nothing feels generic. Nearly every character has something to share at some point, and killing people at random would often break the game. Every time you stumbled upon a cave, or tomb, or random roadside hut, it mattered. Maybe not right then, but it will matter at some point, so you better remember it.
By contrast, head into an Elvin ruin in Oblivion. Looks a lot like the last one, doesn’t it? Loot in it is just generic, leveled, randomly generated crap, isn’t it? There’s gonna be eighty more just like it, aren’t there? Yes to all these questions. Skyrim suffered from much the same. Far Cry 3 and 4! Don’t get me started. How many outposts do you liberate before realizing that they’re all going to be the same but with one more dude every time, and a few more alarms to make it “interesting”? These games all feel like one single idea that is built on, added to, and ballooned until it was big enough for the developers to say “There! A game!”
Open world RPG’s don’t just need more of the same repeated with minor tweaks to make the world seem full. In fact, that’s exactly how you end up with an open-world RPG that feels empty. If I can see an icon for a place on a map, and judging by the icon alone know exactly what is going to be there, then that is boring.
Witcher 3 runs the risk of this: if you’ve seen one monster nest then you’ve seen them all. But Witcher 3 still has purposefulness. Walk through Novigrad: it looks like a real city, with street corners that you begin to recognize as you wander through the city because they’re all distinct. The road lined with hanged men is memorable, and even though there are at least two other roads with a similar amount of hanged men, they’re different because someone put them there. Not here, but there, and exactly there. I was 86 hours into the game before I found the recipe for vampire oil because, despite being a low-level item, I hadn’t gone to one of the handful of places it is available.
Things matter in Wither 3. Places mean something. After a decade or so of gaming without feeling like individual locations mattered, it feels wonderful to feel like they do again. Where I can look at a dungeon’s entrance and say to myself “It will be worth it to go in there. NOT for the randomly generated, levelled loot, but because there is something in that dungeon that will matter to some storyline, or some item I will eventually want to craft, or to some random guy who calls me over on the street and ends up giving me a spontaneous quest.” Purposefulness of this kind keeps a player going when the storyline is over. It means that there are things to actually explore.
If you want to build a straight up RPG then none of these elements are a must. But if you want an open-world RPG, where the premise is exploration, then you need these three key elements.
1) An interesting world, or else why the hell would I explore it?
2) A complex story line, with a complex environment to boot, or else there’s little motivation to explore and the lack of complexity means exploration only yields expected results.
3) Purposefulness, or else exploring feels more like grinding. I don’t want to go to a dungeon simply because it is there and I should explore it to say that I did it; I want to explore it because the game is built well enough that I am confident my time exploring will matter.
Since I love a good DOS game, here are some other notable open-world RPGs from this wonderful era of gaming (made even more wonderful by the fact that my crappy laptop can still run these suckers).
Little Big Adventure 2
Solar Winds: The Escape
Wing Commander: Privateer
Any of the Avernum games