The Game That Wasn’t There

Joel Haddock is not happy with modern role-playing games made in the West. Great things are missing, he argues, in a smart critique of today's Fallouts and Dragon Ages that we are proud to re-print here.

I have had a hankering lately to play a game that does not exist.  Specifically, a Western RPG as they used to be, before Bioware and Bethesda took up the reins of Western RPGdom.  Of course, many of you will say there is nothing wrong with those two being in charge, but I'm afraid that Dragon Age and Fallout 3 just don't scratch that itch for me.

So why?  Why am I dissatisfied with the current crop of Western RPGs?  What are they missing, what are they doing wrong?

Where the Party at?

A lone adventurer taking on all evil is certainly a powerful image.  The original Fallout thrusts you out into the wasteland, completely isolated, and weaves an intricate, interesting tale from there. That said, things can get a lot more interesting when you bring some friends along.  I'm not talking multiplayer here; I'm talking about the days when a single player could manage an entire party of characters.  In Wasteland, the first PC RPG I played and fell in love with, I was in charge of a full squad of four Desert Rangers, supplemented by up to three NPCs I could hire on for the ride.  In the Wizardry games, a full complement of six adventurers was under my control. Ultima VI let me roam across Britannia with no less than eight people in my party (including a mouse!).  More recently, Baldur's Gate kept the party going with a six-person team, though sadly lacking the mouse as an individually playable character.

Compare that to the present, when the magical number for party size appears to be four or less, if there is any party at all.  BioWare certainly seems to see things this way, with Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect using the trio as the party size of choice, and Dragon Age going for the quartet.  Of course, these games aren't limited to three playable characters; they just let you collect party members and keep them sitting around back at camp/on a spaceship doing nothing while you select the two you wish to gallivant around with.  In an assimilation of the JRPG method of party management, the rest just sit around, waiting for their chance to shine/be seduced.

A good party dynamic gives the player a whole new set of options, allowing them to think of ways to build characters that complement each other, or to experiment with building up skills in certain areas in exchange for exposing weaknesses in others.  Was it worth it in Wizardry VII to try to run an all-Ninja party?  Maybe, maybe not; but it sure was fun trying.  When all of a player's new party members are carefully defined by the designers and doled out to me as they see fit, I lose much of that element of choice.  While I have options to affect their growth slightly, they are fundamentally locked into certain paths. The player no longer has the ability to really try exactly what they desire, they can only shuffle around the pieces the game chooses to give them. This leads me to my next point…

More Character Creation Options

As I would set about assembling my initial team in Wasteland, each character I created took a good bit of planning. First, of course, was sorting out base stats, but then I had to pick skills for each party member to focus on. There were no classes in Wasteland, so characters could be whatever hodgepodge of skills you felt you wanted – want a rifle specialist who's also a whiz at cracking safes?  No problem!  Building a party was a careful balance between making each character individually useful, but also making sure they fit well together.

In the Wizardry series, once again I am responsible for building their entire team of six, but the options are a little different from Wasteland. A cornucopia of different races, each with their own strength and weaknesses, start off the process, followed by semi-random stats (based on the character race, plus random bonuses) that then determine what classes are available to the character. After selecting a class, I can then tinker with the skills available to that class to further specialise (or generalise) the character to my liking.  Again, individual focus vs party dynamic comes into play, but with plenty of room open to experimentation.

Now, lest you think I'm being narrow-minded in focusing only on party-based adventures, look at Fallout or Arcanum to see single-player character creation in glorious effect. Fallout is especially notable for the wonderful Perk system, which gave the player wonderful opportunities to develop their character in certain directions, or just to try something out of the blue to see how it went.  Combined with the Advantage/Disadvantage system, the options for different styles of play were humongous.

Contrast that with the more limited character creation options of Fallout 3, or the simple skill trees of Dragon Age.  Of course, what they lack in character creation depth, they more than make up in facial design options.  So, if depth of nose and variety of moustache options are more important to you than actual character skills, maybe this doesn't bother you so much.

Trial by Combat

I have lamented the fading of turn-based gameplay before, but I have to reiterate how galling I find its absence in Western RPGs. I play RPGs when I want a break from fast-action and twitch-reflex dependent gameplay, not to experience more of it. If I have lovingly crafted a party of characters, not being able to take advantage of their individual abilities to the fullest because I'm too busy trying to give orders to them all in the middle of being fireballed, or because my FPS reflexes aren't up to snuff, is a major disappointment.

Bethesda, at least, made some attempts to remedy this with the VATS system in Fallout 3, which was an improvement over Morrowind's pure-FPS combat. BioWare, on the other hand, incurs much of my ire for their copy-paste combat system they use in every one of their games.  Yes, you can pause and issue orders, but the speed with which unexpected things happen means you can often lose a combat in one or two seconds without having a chance to try and salvage the situation.  Controlling one character means you are either sitting in front of the enemies, clicking attack over and over again; waiting for the cooldown on your special moves to keep spamming them out; or sitting in the back waiting for the cooldown on your ranged attacks so you can do the same. Meanwhile, your AI-controlled party members might be doing what you told them to do through their limited scripting system, or they may be running into a wall while being peppered with arrows/lasers/fireballs. Dragon Age gives you the ability to program your compatriots to a degree, but even that is limited by the player's choices in investing points into unlocking the ability to lead them; this is absurd.  Much like it was ridiculous for FFXII to force players to buy Gambits in a system that required them for party members to be useful, it is ridiculous that a player isn't automatically given the option to program their party to their own liking.

When a player has both the time to think strategically as well as the tools to do so, combat can become a far more interesting affair.  In Wizardry, the player can evaluate each round of combat, deciding which attacks will be most useful, which spells most beneficial, and exactly when to bust out specific items. To those designers that say turn-based combats are boring and repetitive, well, try this: have fewer battles, but make the ones that remain more unique.  Of course fighting the same battle twenty times is boring in a turn-based system. It's also boring in real-time, too.

Can it be Fixed?

While that is a somewhat loaded question in that it assumes you agree with me that it's broken, I do think there are ways we can bring back some of the uniqueness of old-school Western RPGs without turning back the clock entirely.  The truth is, much of what has been lost in these new-school Western RPGs has been replaced with elements borrowed from JRPGs, which focus far more on cinematic experiences than the nitty-gritty of roleplaying.

I grew up playing both styles of RPG, and I liked them each on their own merits.  But with the Western shift towards JRPG cliche, I feel we've lost much of what made Western RPGs unique, and finding that type of gaming experience these days is almost impossible.  The issue, as I see it, is not that anyone had a problem with Western RPGs as they were, but that the current crop of commercial designers grew up far more influenced by Final Fantasy than by Wizardry, and thus that is what they emulate, while still operating in what they call the "western tradition."  Top that off with the fact that, classically, old-style Western RPGs just don't play well on consoles, and you've got the recipe for letting them fade.

Obviously, I think this is a bad thing. Much could be done to keep the elements that made Western RPGs special intact, while still using evolving technology and design to not have to step back in time to create the same feel.

Take turn-based battles, for instance.  Yes, I would be happy with a simple player-enemy system, or even an FFVI-esque Active-Time Battle system, but we could do even better with today's technology.  Games could take a cue from Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 to create battles with rich options for a player's party to work together, shift enemies about the battlefield, and use skills in conjunction with each other. It would make combat a far more strategic and interesting affair.

Party gameplay is another issue; designers like being able to control exactly who the player gets in their party because it means they can know exactly what resources the player will always have available, as well as write endless sidequests based around specific party members.  Maybe I am being naive, but I think players are more than capable of infusing personality into their own creations without having the same six voice-actors speaking everything they say.  Or even take a look at Wizardry 8, which let players assign personalities to their party members for a little extra flavour.

At the very least, if you must hand us pre-defined characters, and you must use a real-time combat system, give the player full, unconditional control over how their party AI acts.  Do not make us unlock it, do not make us level up to earn it; just do it.  We paid you the money already, you don't need to keep stringing us along in frustration.

And Yet I Wait…

Now, while I think those are all critical factors to making an RPG I'd want to play, I know that I am fighting against market forces here.  When a formula works, as BioWare has discovered, there's no reason to do anything different.  Perhaps the halcyon days of Western RPGs as I remember them – rich stories with equally rich game mechanics – are gone for good.

I hope I am wrong about that.

Joel Haddock is 31-year-old gamer, writer and fledgling game designer. He founded Spectacle Rock almost three years ago with the goal of taking the long view of gaming. You can follow him on Twitter or check out his recently released game Sanctuary 17.

PIC: Wasteland Cover art.


    It is always interesting to see what different people are looking for when they fire up a game. I have to be really in the mood to play an in-depth rpg like those he describes, but i occasionally do enjoy a foray into the (what i would call) sub-genre. But tkae my brother; I persuaded him to buy a copy of dragon age: orgins as i thouroughly enjoyed it. I dont think he made it past the troll at the top of the tower.

    He said he didnt like having to worry about 4 people at once. Ok, fair enough. i like it but i can see how it wouldnt be everyone's cup of tea, especially those more FPS or fast action orientated.

    I must confess to only really having played Arcanum and Baldur's Gate from the games Joel mentioned, but would count myself among those (few?) who dont want to see the style disappear completely. I just dont see it being a major player, at least not in the near future.

    I've felt this exact same way for a VERY long time. While many of these games were created before myself, or at least before I was old enough to read, I have played through many of them.

    My brother however, who has played through next to nothing PRIOR to Baldurs Gate, is a HUUUUGE Rpg nut, but when I talk to him about the classics, he can understand where I'm coming from but doesn't share the opinion or the high standing I hold them in.

    The opposite is also true when it comes to more recent RPG's and his obsession with them, but I just don't get the same feeling when playing them, nor to I feel the drive to.

    The conclusion I've come to is that it's almost exclusively narrative.

    Old school RPG's allowed us to customize the party however we wanted, and the story was told through the players interaction with the world and it's denizens.

    Today we have party conversations, relationships, side quests scripted progression, that at many times revolves entirely around one of the given party members and not the player character.

    Instead of just controlling someone and their entourage, we're playing the starring role (mostly) and have a supporting cast that all seem to be vying for their own academy award.

    While this adds depth, and most reviewers seem to discuss it at significant length, it detracts from our control, and to an extent pigeon holes us into a more restrictive script then I would personally prefer.

    There is nothing wrong with it, the games sell millions and receive rave reviews. I just don't consider them the same genre.

    The classic RPG's seem to have become more of a 'sub-genre' to the current generation. An interesting evolution.

    It's interesting, while I understand and respect Joel's opinions, I disagree on quite a few of his points.

    Particular when it comes to turn based battles. I understand how once upon a time turn based battles were necessarily to popular illustrate the complexities of battle and give players enough options/time to have enough control over how a fight would turn out.

    But now days with havoc physics and euphoria there is no reason why RPG's can't feature the best of both worlds. Fast past action coupled with complicated party and order systems.

    Turn based combat IMO seems like such an abstract concept these days, that does a great deal to take me out of the world of the game. Which when it comes to a 'Role Playing Game' I want to be immersed as possible.

    That said I am not happy with how most RPG's are anyway they seem like they are trying to retain too much of their turn based nature (Dragon Age: cool down's for spells, being able to pause combat and order characters, simple click on an enemy to aim etc) and trying to mix it with more action type games to get that audience. I reckon the result annoys both audiences.

    I would much prefer straight turn based (maybe X COM style in something like Dragon Age) then the system that's currently in it.

    However more then anything I would like to see RPG's take a heading to a more real time sort of style (an amazing example of this is Mount and Blade; it has complete control over character creation, a nearly limitless cap on party/army size; and the ability to level up in any way you see fit; a game where it is left up to the player to create experiences rather then through cut scenes and plot points that give the player no choice as to what happens).

    I guess a counter point to my arguement may be that this sort of game would no longer be an RPG, however RPG's are probably one of the most diverse genre's anyway, and there is always room for refinement and different takes.

      Have you checked out Silent Storm, and SS2? 3D environments, destructible terrain, physics, ragdoll, and TURN BASED! Squad Level combat like X-Com, but brought up to speed.

      If you missed these games, I highly recommend you seek them out.

        Hey Travis,

        Played SS2 briefly, during a very busy time and never really gave it the time it deserved. I'll take another look at it as I've also had a mate go on about how great it is in length.

        Thanks for the tip!

        Harsh, SS and SS2 aren't on Steam or GOG... :(

    I should probably add this is just the sort of RPG that I'd like to play, not at all saying that the sort of game Joel describes is in someway wrong or uncool.

    "RPG" has become somewhat of an ambiguous term nowadays. It seems that anything which involves distributing stat points, or gives you items to equip can claim the once nerdily regarded acronym.

    I'm ashamed to addmit I forgot how RPG's use to be. This bought back a lot of memories. I agree with alot of what he has said and there are so many of those wonderful elements in the old western RPG's that you just don't see anymore. I personally don't think there's anything wrong with the style RPG's today but there's room for both.

    He's right in the fact that marketing is going to stop the return of the old school. I can see plenty of room on the portable market though. Less focus on the graphical aspects and that type of RPG seems most suited to a portable console these days. Doesn't really suit the regular console market. Maybe on PSN or XBLA

    I really miss good turn based RPG's. Thankfully I've got Puzzle Quest 2 to keep my going these days.

    Wow, at last a sensibly written gaming article lamenting the same things I have been missing for years.

    I fondly remember playing older games like Darklands with it's rich storyline and environment and party based gameplay. I'm a huge fan of what I term Squad Level Turn Based gaming, a genre that includes some stellar classic games like Laser Squad, X-Com, Soldiers at War and the Jagged Alliance series as well as newer forays into the genre such as Silent Storm.

    All these games kept me awake night after night, week after week with engaging and thoughtful gameplay, and often extremely tough opponents. Never boring!

    Recent attempts have missed the mark, the unofficial remake of X-com I saw recently was unpolished and amateur, the games I held high hopes for such as the most recent Fallout and Dragon Age became more of a button mash than a thinking exercise.

    The closest in recent years was the original Neverwinter Nights, that game found the balance (IMHO) between tactics and action. While also presenting strong role playing and character development. We could write our own adventures, play other peoples, run a world of our own designing, play co-operativly online, enjoy persistent worlds, or get together for an adventure with friends on a LAN.

    The focus on consoles seems to me to be what has sped up this decline. I think younger gamers are being trained into a short attention span, button mashing, fast paced gaming world, and it's a great loss.

    I would like to see an increase in party size... but that's about all.

    I see this concept going in two directions.

    Firstly, I see the traditional Western RPG as described above as a gaming style that will go the same way as adventure games.

    That is, it will be pushed out of big business games which vie for market share until it is almost non-existent. At that point it will be picked up by smaller games companies who won't pander to the mainstream and come back with a vengeance.

    Secondly I see a lot of the desired aspects for Western RPGs as possibly being infused into future MMORPGs. It would just take a game brave enough to say "If you play this game you play in character" and your party of 8 traveling around the wasteland would be full of unpredictable characters that truly feel alive.

    I'm waiting for the remakes of Champions/Death Knights/Dark Queen of Krynn series, and I wouldn't mind playing them with Morrowind/Fallout 3 mechanics. The chance to (re)explore in detail those places and towns I loved would be worth it. And interacting with great heroes and villains (like Raistlin and Soth) would be priceless.

      Careful what you wish for, nothing is ever as you remembered it :P

    When thinking about a crossover of good party development mechanics along with a great realtime fighting system (that is basically semi-turnbased), Neverwinter Nights comes to mind. From the post-2000 era of RPG games NWN probably has one of the most useful systems.

    While I do love turnbased, or pause based turn based systems (Temple of Elemental Evil), I'm so sick of the D&D character progression system most of the western CRPGs of old and present hangs on too (levels, no more class and levels, and don't go say TES either as the gameplay is so bad they can't even handle a BRP style progress mechanic in a good way), also no I don't like IWD and its personality void characters, freedom of character development has to be able to be there even when you have fleshed out characters involved and tied up in the story. Planescape Tourment is probably my all time favorit game (along with Fallout and Fallout 2) were you do have that to some degree, PST still with the D&D system but with such interestinting story about all the characters, inter-party interactions, and freedom to lead your (main) character down any road you wish (sure the WIS, INT, CHA ones are more entertaining), much like Fallout; main character is tied up in the story, free to be developed any way you want for the mechanical gaming bits, with interesting story choises for him/her/it, and companions adding flavour to the party dynamic, in way of personality, story, NPC/enviroment-reactions, and with some choises to go, if only for combat by the way of different weapons to hand them in Fallout. I've found out through the years that I play CRPGs for the story and the companions and their development (story and characters), and I get the most out of games were that is 'dynamic' and surprising.

    Wow, just when I thought I had finally gotten over my ~15-year-long hatred of JRPGs, you have to go and point out that they are insidiously infecting CRPGs.

    Even as someone who gets along just fine with the action-based combat of games like Skyrim, now I am kind of nauseated thinking about the console "party members from a set pool and the game telling you the story it wants to tell you, go to hell if you want things to go differently" thing. Ugh.

    Wow, its like this game was made for you guys: (actually, it was, i'm making it). Its called Kenshi, and it focuses on the free party development of old. Theres currently no cap on squad size, and you can even split them up. Its not turn based though, mainly because i want to allow for huge battles unfotunately

    While I prefer Western RPGs over the Japanese variety, I think the RPG genre peaked in the late 90's, even though this was after my hardcore RPG gaming phase. Earlier RPGs could be great (Wasteland, Ultima 5, Bard's Tale) but most of them suffered from too much grinding through the early part of the game. I would hate to see us get back to that.

    I understand what you're trying to say here, even though it doesn't sound like more than misty-eyed nostalgia to me. But when you get to the point where you say there are no RPGs with rich stories and gameplay mechanics these days, now that's just trolling.

    Also, I think you're confusing 'deep gameplay' with 'complex game mechanics'.
    Is being turn-based make a game more complex? Likely, yes.
    Does it make it better? Probably not.

    It simply makes it more appealing to those (the minority, at least nowadays) who prefer turn-based combat. That's it. Arcanum - great game, but has some of the most tedious battles I ever had to endure. Most gamers today don't want to control an entire party one by one and don't want turn-based systems. And that's partly due to the fact that everything is multiplatform. You won't be able to please a console gamer with a slow-paced Western RPG.

    Being over 30, a long-time PC gamer (and a backer of Wasteland 2), I love most of the Western RPGs being released today(mostly by Bethesda, Obsidian and BioWare) and actually prefer to have simpler combat, provided the gameplay and story remain rich enough. And in most cases (the new Fallouts, Knights of the Old Republic or Skyrim), they do. BioWare made and still continues to make some of the best RPG stories ever, and Bethesda has some of the most compelling and expansive game worlds ever created and I don't think too many people would argue with that.

    I'm not a fan of Mass Effect's monotonic TPS battles, but that's not due to the fact that it's shooter combat, it's due to the fact that it's boring shooter combat. I hated ALL the Fallout 3 trailers because all they showed was shooting but once I got to play the game and learned how well it actually works, I loved it. Might be easier if you're a shooter fan, or course. I like good shooters as well as a whole bunch of other genres, graphic adventures, puzzle, strategy, you name it. If you're primarily an RPG fan however and can't stand more action-oriented gameplay, well, these are not the times. There's still the indies and the Kickstarter comebacks though to bring you back the style or RPG you haven't played in 15 years, so I don't think this is the best time to complain.

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