Ever since the beginning, RPGs have had a few weird little details about them that give them a strong sense of personality. Like many other genres - the FPS tends to do things a specific way, the platformer does things a specific way, and the RPG, yes, does things a specific way.
But as time has gone on, these details have gotten more and more exaggerated. I guess it's true in every genre: does it really make any sense for a man to carry ten guns, be healed by walking across a box labeled with a red cross, and for every building to be full of exploding barrels and crates?
But RPGs are what I'm noticing now. And the reason I'm noticing them is because Mass Effect takes all those little details and punches them up to levels of ridiculosity I've rarely seen.
Now, Mass Effect certainly isn't a bad game. And most people didn't even appear to notice these bits. But let me discuss them with you.
Adventure-Centric World Design
First and most obviously: why is every container full of guns? Search the trash compactor, it's full of sniper rifles. The bin full of slime has pistols inside. The med-bay has lockers full of shotguns. Every long-range space probe is, for some reason, full of assault rifles.
Anything that isn't full of weapons is full of armor or mil-spec mods. Is that any better? Does that make any more sense?
I remember Bard's Tale made fun of this right off the bat: kill a wolf and out comes fountains of gold coins and magic equipment. But Bard's Tale was making fun of you, Mass Effect. Even though you didn't exist yet.
Why does a hermit studying the writings of
One hermit? Yeah, I can see that, there's a plot point there. Every hermit in the game?
There's also the fun fact that if you kill someone, you get gold and stuff off them even if you shoot them with a sniper rifle from a thousand meters away with ammo that makes them disintegrate. BLAM, foom! Bing - $10,000 and a health kit!
This flaw, which I'll name "adventure-centric world design", is a big one for me. I really don't like it, especially when everything levels at the same rate I do. The hermit I discovered at level 3 has four really crappy sniper rifles, the hermit I discover at level 50 has four really shiny sniper rifles. Because the universe is only inhabited by people of my level.
I find that games with a universe that feels a bit more lived-in are more to my taste. In some games, this means you very rarely stumble across objects, but instead find a lot of color. In other games, this means you stumble across a lot of really useless objects.
Another aspect of this is the "HOW DO THEY LIVE HERE?" problem. For example, most people who live on hostile worlds live in little one-room shacks. The front door is not an airlock and just vwooshes open whenever anyone goes in. I suppose sufficiently advanced technology could keep the 10,000 degree heat outside, but there's no bathroom. I guess we evolved past that.
This is a problem in every location. Your ship has no place for marines to sleep. You have a bedroom, though, which makes me curious as to sleeping arrangements... similarly, there's no place to get food, no lounge.
Theoretically, it could all be hidden off somewhere - maybe the slow freaking elevator goes to other floors. But this assumption - that every NPC in the game exists only to talk or die - I don't like it much. Even though it's common.
"Dost thou love me? But thou must! Dost thou love me?"
These days it's becoming very popular to give the player choice as to his disposition. A dialog tree is no longer simply a source of information, it's also a way to define your character's personality.
But, classically, dialog trees are for letting the player mine for pre-scripted information. This means that expanding them to include personality simply means the player now mines for pre-scripted personality. It's not a particularly good way to do things.
What makes it worse is that, especially in Bioware games, the player is given a choice that literally does not matter, but is presented as if it did.
For example, I'm given the option of helping someone snarkily or kindly. It doesn't matter! It has no game effect other than giving you a point of snark or wuss.
It's just a modern version of the "Will you help? Yes/No - No. But you must! Will you help? Yes/No..."
These "pointless choices" are a relic, and a really poor smoke-and-mirror trick that I wish would go out of style. Especially since the way they implement "personality" is to... always, universally, every time... let you decide between being a total pussy or a murdering psychotic.
I especially like in Mass Effect that regardless of how paragonny you are (paragon: the Path of the Pussy) you still end up committing treason against both your governments, conspiracy to commit treason against both your governments, and stealing the most advanced ship in the fleet to invade another government in an act of war. Yeah, after you spend the whole game saying things like "calm down, we can work this out". (Because the alternative is "kill the bastard".)
This particular trick ("pointless choices") is bad not only because it is transparent, but because it builds up an expectation that the writers universally fail to fulfill. It's like shooting yourself in the foot.
Step by Step, Row by Row, Time to Make this Warrior Grow...
The third of the three typical RPG elements that I dislike today is the fact that RPGs are largely spreadsheet gaming. Every level-up, every new weapon is a few points better on a given axis.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with this, it is rather excessive. To distract you from the story (you know, the ROLE PLAY), they give you ten thousand fights with a hundred thousand different stats. In the best of situations, the way you set up your capabilities will change your options in the story. That's pretty damn rare, though: your role is generally completely unrelated to your play.
I actually found Ico and Shadows of the Colossus to be more role play than any of the so-called "RPG"s out on the market.
Anyhow, those are the three things I notice most when I look at how insular RPGs have gotten these days.
All three have upsides, mostly in terms of efficiently immersing the player in the world. But I sure could do with some innovation.
What are your opinions?