It’s almost become a ritual at this stage. Double-click the name of the game on Steam. Watch the intro animation. Click “New Game” on the menu. Go into the character screen — and then fire up a web-browser so I can see the most optimised character creation guide.
It’s happening every time I try and fire up a traditional computer RPG. It’s ruining my experience. So why can’t I just play without risking the bad choices, or the suboptimal builds?
I’ve had Pillars of Eternity sitting on my hard drive since the day it launched. It was one of the few games I was looking forward to this year, having eagerly watched its steady progression from a Kickstarter campaign to a backers-only beta and then the full, critically acclaimed public release.
I have a bit of a soft spot for those kinds of RPGs. I missed out on Baldur’s Gate when it was big in Australia; at that time my PC was barely capable of playing Heroes of Might and Magic 2, so I was more interested in abandonware and things that ran smoothly on a 486.
But as time progressed, I built up my RPG credentials. Knights of the Old Republic remains one of the finest games I’ve ever played. It’s rather good on tablets as well — and, as a fun trick, you can pull your save from the PC or iOS/Android version and copy it over to the other platforms so you can continue your playthrough everywhere.
The original Dragon Age scratched the same itch that I fulfilled with Neverwinter Nights years prior. (I’d considered going back to Baldur’s Gate, something that probably would have served me well now, but I figured the more modern interface of the original NWN had me covered.)
I’ve reconsidered playing all of those in the last week, simply because I’ve had a hankering for fireballs while going through pages of text and searching around for traps. But given that I hadn’t actually gotten around to it yet, I fired up PoE (the same acronym as Path of Exile, another game where min-maxing is a concern of mine) and headed to the character screen.
After two hours, I’d already created five characters. Every single one of them was a Moon Godlike, each with the same portrait, gender and base class. I was going to be a Wizard, dammit, but I had zero certainty about what my starting spells should be, my character alignment, what stat — if any — I should dump, my starting feats, hell, even the choice of colour for my garb.
I changed my primary and secondary colours three times before settling on one.
But the problem really comes down to those starting feats, skills and stats. I always feel like if I’m not optimising things from the start, I’m going to have such a sub-par experience. I know I’ll be denied dialogue options and solutions for encounters if I don’t have the right numbers.
And it doesn’t help when I read things like this: “When it comes to the attributes, Pillars of Eternity is a min-maxing game – to make a real difference, you really need to max the stats out.” That’s a line from one of the more popular PoE guides on Steam.
“Min-maxing is especially important for the main character as the maxed out stats not only make him combat-viable, they also allow him to solve dialogue situations. Without min-maxing, you’ll have only two stats at the level of 17-18 (and that’s what required to solve the really tough challenges). With it, you’ll have three or four such stats – much more solutions available.”
In other words, if you’re not min-maxing, you’re minimising the amount of fun you can have — because a large part of these games is the emergent gameplay that comes from having multiple choices, choices that only emerge if you’ve built your character properly from the outset.
It’s a bit of a paradox — by limiting your diversity from the outset, you maximise the diversity of gameplay going forward.
But let’s go back to the definition of min-maxing, or at least something that’s widely accepted so we have a base reference. The best I’ve seen is where min-maxing is the art, or skill, of optimising the creation of a character so they become as mechanically powerful as the game will allow, without resorting to any third-party trainers, glitches, tools or in-game exploits.
In a technical sense, every game that uses an RPG system as a mechanic has some degree of min-maxing. And anything that allows player agency over the creation of a character’s skills will also result in some form of min-maxing — it’s what players do.
My problem is that thanks to an exposure to plenty of games where proper builds are key (my Divinity: Original Sin playthrough has been , I’m no longer able to simply play through an RPG without feeling like I’m missing out.
I’m torn between whether I should continue my playthrough of Pillars of Eternity, gritting my teeth and just accepting all the failed choices; starting a new playthrough of Neverwinter Nights, because I remember enjoying it so thoroughly; or simply waiting for the Enhanced Edition of Divinity: Original Sin and giving that a whirl, hoping the transition to consoles, the change of environment (my room to my couch) and the inability to easily ALT-TAB for guidance quells my reluctance to proceed unaided.
I want to put points into the stupid abilities again. I want to roll through Divinity: Original Sin teleporting barrels on top of everyone’s heads. I want to not be concerned about the impracticality of having a mage get into melee combat just so I can unleash my jazz hands.
I want to relax and have fun. The urge for efficiency is preventing that — and I don’t know how I can escape it. I have a min-max addiction, and I need help.