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Monday, March 01, 2010

Bioware and the Evolution of RPGs?

In the past few weeks I have journeyed into tales of epic proportions. It was almost a kind of grand opera of which I was in the centre of. For this moment, Bioware is ascendent; for no other developer at this time has captured my admiration so. Rarely has story elements in game been as good while keeping you the centre of it still.

Mass Effect 2 is a streamlined space grand opera of a game where actions from the previous game are carried over to the present and leaves you wondering what your actions in this present one will affect in the next installment of the Mass Effect series. It has to be said that they certainly have set up Mass Effect 3 to be quite epic in scale and I do hope they can pull it off. Additionally, the supporting characters in ME2 also deserves praise as they are represented in depth and is overall interesting enough to want you to get to know them better, save for one or two perhaps.

Dragon Age: Origins, another title from Bioware released some few months earlier than ME2 is also given a slight new lease with the recent Return to Ostagar DLC. Dragon Age, whilst older and still adhering more to the 'traditional' RPG mold is still a well written tale and an enjoyable experience in its own right. Whilst characters in ME2 were given depth, overall the experience was quite Shepard-centric. In Dragon Age however it does give the impression that more is going on in the world besides what the Player Character is doing. (Among other things the chats between your followers)

Firstly I'd like to get one thing off. Probably (or not) due to the contreversy with the media or such, sex scenes in Dragon Age has been numbed down a level and even more so for ME2. While there are more 'suggestions' towards sex in both games than ME1, I dare say the actual scenes itself is rather tame.

Having said that, I will get on with the main business of the day.

There has been comparisons between these two latest Bioware release. While Dragon Age is seemingly a polished work based on traditional RPG context (spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate, so they say) Mass Effect 2 is seen as a streamlined evolution of the genre into something rather new. Both sides of the ideal has generated its own haters and supporters. Dragon Age is seen as either moving towards the perfection of the RPG ideal or as the last of a dying genre of stale old RPG. On the other hand Mass Effect 2 is either seen as the future of RPG or as a game leaving the ideal of what RPG is suppose to be.

I would like it known beforehand that I personally enjoyed the games immensely and view Dragon Age as an expansive adventure game, whilst Mass Effect 2 as a streamlined, epic interactive movie-like experience. For me these two are different experience of game storytelling and as far as they are concerned, truly fun to play.

But I do have concerns regarding both. Dialogues in ME2 seems more fluid and believable, for the lack of a better word in mind right now. This is not just because the PC (Player character) is given a voice during conversations, (unlike in Dragon Age where the PC voice is just the occasional shouts and response while doing things in the game) but also the ability to interrupt or add a context of physical element to the typically verbal/textual part of the game element. To that end, Dragon Age conversation mechanic does feel a little... dated. Fortunately, Dragon Age for me, has more humor and definitely seems like a more light hearted thing than ME2s. which still has some humor to it, just not as much as Dragon Age's.

Of course that still does not answer the bigger question of which is a proper RPG. Dealing with ME2 primarily, (since it is regarded as the more revolutionary one as opposed to the more traditional path of Dragon Age) among the two most prominent issue regarding that with ME2 is that of the inventory/monetary system as well as the level up/character stats issue.

In the first matter, I would say I like that it is not the cluttered, extremely large and disorganized inventory of ME1, but I do feel it is too minimalized. Don't get me wrong, while I like lots of guns, but the 2-3 choices per weapon type is sufficient, provided that each weapon gets a personal customization option (like ME1). True, now the ammo-types are an in game skill rather than an item based- upgrade, but I still think its good to be able to mod a gun further. You might think hat its enough to have 2-3 gun types, each of different strengths and weakness, but I still think it should go more than that. For example, the most power assault rifle has the strongest firepower but lacks long range accuracy. If I want accuracy some might say I should switch to the other gun with better accuracy but less damage. But what if I want more damage and scarfice accuracy even more or other stats? Such was the degree of customization allowed in the first game. I'd also rather like it if each gun-type is not made into an overall blueprint for anyone in your party to use and requires you to hunt down these guns not just for you but also for your team mates, individually (also like ME1). Another aspect of that of course is the ability to make money out of your finds/loots. ME2 economy is too tight, streamlined and controlled. I think the the ability to be rich is an RPG element that should not be outmodded. In this context I do think Dragon Age did it rather well. It certainly makes you capable of being quite rich, but not if you keep spending your money at item shops like a girl would in a mall.

Mass Effect 2 also has a very basic level up system in which you gain a portion of health and other stuff per level up but mainly you just choose to invest skill points in a choice of skills that don't usually number more than your fingers. In contrast, Dragon Age has a whole lot more abilities to gain, as is ME1 where there are a lot of skills to be upgraded, bit by bit if I may add. I look at this in a context that is connected to the combat system (which is usually where this skills are to be applied anyhow). I don't find it a fault to have either more or less amount of skills, but specifically I take offense if this makes combat less-RPG and more... say... FPS. I still hate Quake 3 and Counterstrike. Ahem, let me explain. This is an RPG, yes? Role Playing Game. That mean its a game where I can imagine myself in a role, any role, in which I am typically unable to fulfill outside the game (and not just the fact I can carry big weapons or use magic powers-sense). Specifically, as a ROLE PLAYing experience, I should be able to imagine myself in the game, or thus create a character from imagination and into the game, that can be charming, a master marksmen, or an elite swordsman regardless of the fact that in real life I am awkward, have fidgety fingers or extremely numbed down reflexes. In FPS, yes, its plausible to make low reflex and bad hand eye to affect your playing, but in RPG, there should be an escapism that allows this. RPGs is more about creativity, persona and thinking, not mindless twitching. Mass Effect 2 is ok enough in its balance of this that I still say it is RPG, but it threads close to becoming a shooter. The combat is good enough, Bioware should focus on the RPG elements if anything else. I pray this series will not end up as a new Shooter-bastion. Enough already with all you braindead twitch gamers!

The counter argument to a more skill/stat-based development is the grind. Yes, that favourite past time of Asians like Koreans and some Japanese. Mindlessly whacking small creeps for XP to get the character to ridiculous high levels that they become solopwnmobiles. I do not wish further elaboration than to point out that there are some RPGs that are already trying to make levelling up still relevent to the game experience, but not always a prequisite. They strive to allow some lower level characters still able to stand up or alongside higher level characters and still play their part. This argument is on my opinion a moot point and is likely only valid in games like Ragnarok, where I recall people have bot-programmes to automatically do grinding for them; an unspoken admission to the stupidity and boringness of the grind.

Therefore, as I understand it, the questions do seemingly have a root in the inherent complexity of the genre and how it affects the players. Of course people with more simple, shooter based mindset might say do away with the complex skill sets and micromanagement and focus on the players hand-eye skill in combat, as much as more complex, probably nerdy folks say the need for such skill sets is the inherent joy of exploring the system and finding out how to use your creativity to make it work for you. I do believe a game shouldn't be too complex. Too much of it distracts from the overall experience, you will lose sight of the story, of the urgentness of the plot and be too much absorbed in your own megalomania of creating that god-like representation of you. But in reverse, 'dumbing down' the complexity does ruin the game experience, making it into something else that it was not originally. Differing genres have their own individual appeal and dumbing down a game type because some would enjoy it more is not the way to go. What if I, because I am not able to or understand it, demand that football be dumbed down so that it suits my preference more? It wouldn't be the game that you know and love anymore would it?

In conclusion for those who missed my point, RPGs should be more the thinking man's game than shooters or its like. The ascendency of a player or character in RPGs should be reflected in the player's thinking, not by the speed of his nervous systems nor his endurance to do repetitive tasks greater than anybody else. Streamlined or heavy on skill stats, storybased or open-world, I believe RPGs can work regardless as long as it does not fall into the traps I mentioned.

P/s-- Also apologizes for constant bashing of FPS/Twitch gamers but seriously a lot of you people try to make it out as if only your type matters and you are like some god or something...