Tag Archives: RPG

Opinion – World building is tough

A little bit of sugar helps the ridiculously complex narrative go down.

World building is tough.  Adding something on to the tasks video games must complete (controls, gameplay, graphics, sound, art design, etc) seems cruel when many games can’t even get the basics right.  Even so, if a game wants to draw the player into the world of the game, that world needs support.  The player must appreciate its intricacies and be intrigued by its mysteries which requires considerable support throughout the entire game.  The variety of gameplay types compounds the difficulty of world building.  One size does not fit all.  Depending on the type of game, the developer must approach world building in a different way.

RPGs and open world games

In many ways, RPGs and open world games have it easiest.  These styles of game, regardless of genre, tend to have a slower pace, more time to explore locations, and a greater emphasis on story telling.  This allows developers to give the player time to actually walk around the world and interact with its inhabitants.  Through conversations, exploration, ambient noise, and questing, developers can overtly and subtly interweave information about their world into every facet of the game.  Even with all of the available opportunities, some prefer to shove exposition dumps down the player’s throats.  This should be resisted.  With the many ways to draw the player into the world, developers should limit lectures on history, culture, or any other aspect of the game world to sideshows for interested players or only when the situation absolutely necessitates it.  Exposition dumps only appeal to the devoted while even casually interested players tire of reading when they should be playing.  Where possible, the developer should work world building in a way that works with gameplay rather than conflicts with it.

FPS

The pace of a first person shooter often dictates the way it builds its world.  For the fast paced shooters, the developer can’t let the player stop and investigate their surroundings.  The narrative of the environment must be told primarily through the visual elements because the player won’t have the time to stop and absorb text or conversation.  Even the visual cues lose subtlety for every second of gameplay devoted to speed.  FPS players may only appreciate the world in the corners of their vision or through stand out moments that temporarily pause the action.  Players can’t appreciate small details if the game moves too quickly for them to absorb putting a premium on blunt delivery mechanisms such as cutscenes or large visual elements.  Alternatively, some FPS’ take a slower pace allowing for more nuanced world building.  Audio logs detailing story can provide rich context for visual and aural cues, provided the player has time to listen to them.  Even a slow FPS tends to focus on visual cues due to the first person view, but it can augment those cues with the RPGs rich armory of tools.

RTS

The real time strategy game suffers from a decidedly different problem than the FPS.  Yes, RTS games are fast paced making nuanced approaches to world building difficult, but their real problem is that they, by necessity, must take place on a battlefield.  Whereas other games have gameplay justified reasons to explore peaceful areas, RTS games are defined by their combat.  If a player isn’t directing armies, then they aren’t playing the game.  World building in an RTS must rely on the same visual cues of the FPS, but also with a heavy dose of cutscenes.  Since the peacetime version of the game world is always off screen, the RTS must use the story breaks to fill in the non-fighting bits that it can’t communicate otherwise.

Action platformer

Action platformers are also severely limited by their style of gameplay.  In games about movement and action, there really isn’t much time to focus on the areas where those things are not.  Unlike RTS’, an action platformer developer can turn more peaceful aspects of the game into a world for the player to explore.  Hub worlds allow the player to absorb lore and engage with characters taking the load off of the environment.  A player can explore a ruined castle and then hear about the terrible battles that occurred there from a small town where they restock on items.  Developers never get the same level of depth that an RPG or open world game might, but they still have time to add in elements that engage the player with the world.

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Review – Darkest Dungeon Early Access

Meh, I’ve seen darker.

The early access version of Darkest Dungeon isn’t subtle.  From the very start, it covers the screen with shadows, decaying mass, and long gravely speeches about horror and madness.  Underneath the squalor is a team management rogue-like with mechanics to match its flair.  While it still has a few rough edges to work out, Darkest Dungeon is solid fun that is absolutely worth its 20 dollar asking price.

The gameplay is a delightful mix of rogue-like, RPG, and squad based management elements.  The player controls a group of mercenaries tasked with exploring the corrupted grounds of his ancestral home.  Mercenaries come from a wide variety of classes with an interesting array of abilities.  Once the team is set and provisioned, it’s time to explore a dungeon.  Dungeons are randomly generated maps with monsters, loot, and traps populating rooms and hallways.  While this is all standard for the genre, Darkest Dungeons differs substantially when it comes to the fights and party management.  During fights, the two sides are lined up in single file.  Attacks are restricted based on where in the line a character and their opponent is.  A skeleton archer can fire devastating arrows from the back to positions, but must use far weaker attacks in the front two.  This opens up considerable strategic gameplay as the player must manage both the position of their characters and their opponents.  The difference between an overwhelming victory and total defeat often hinge on position management.

The other major combat mechanic is stress.  Darkest Dungeon is a frightening place and the mercenaries feel it.  Each has a stress meter that reflects their mental state.  Should the stress meter reach 100, the mercenary has a psychotic break and engages in self-destructive behavior.  Stress can be managed on the battlefield, but the only way to truly address it is in town.  This creates a tension between continuing on to the next fight and pulling an otherwise healthy party before they go crazy.  Fortunately, the starting hamlet that acts as a home base and has plenty of ways to address the mental decline of its denizens.  Mercenaries can engage in gambling, prayer, and flagellation to heal their minds…and empty the player’s coffers.  Money is tight in Darkest Dungeon, as are other resources.  Heirlooms found in the dungeons are used to upgrade facilities such as a blacksmith to improve weaponry or a wagon to improve recruits.  The constant tension between available resources and need make for tough decisions during the game.

Beyond the gameplay, Darkest Dungeon invests heavily in a Lovecratian mood.  The opening cinematic sets up a story of greed, ambition, and eldritch horror.  The player takes the reins of the last scion of a once noble family line who has been summoned to his ancestral manner to rid it of the corruption that has taken hold.  And the corruption is quite evident.  The home base, a hamlet outside of your dungeons, is a collapsing ruin covered in darkness, even during the day.  The town is populated by dark manifestations of traditional townsfolk including a maddened caretaker who indulges his vices in hopes of dealing with his suffering.  When dungeon crawling, the setting is similarly decrepit with rot infused into every wall and tree.  Enemies are gruesome manifestations of popular tropes.  They don’t often show creativity in their design, but the rotting skeleton and bloodthirsty demon fit right in among the horror themed setting.  The game drops in periodic bits of story about how the player’s family corrupted the land, but it isn’t the focus.  Darkest Dungeon cares more about its aesthetics and creating a feeling of decay and dread than it does setting out a complex narrative.

Sadly, the atmosphere the game works so hard to inspire is undermined by the very nature of the genre.  Rogue-likes encourage repeated death which numbs the player to its existence.  The lovingly crafted dungeons become less horrific with each passing and the brief mercenary monologues express anguish or hope quickly become frustrating delays in gameplay.  Between mercenaries missing attacks and cries of fear, Darkest Dungeon can prevent the player from effecting the gamestate for tens of seconds.  It’s frustrating to watch the game play without the player’s input, particularly during a tough battle.  There are a few other issues, such as an unwieldy mercenary menu and difficulty spikes, but they are forgivable.

Darkest Dungeon delivers on its promise.  From the tense battles to the moody setting, this is a balanced rogue-like with tons of fun to be had.  There are certainly some areas to improve, but this early access title is a worthy purchase now.  Go get it.

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Review – Grim Dawn – PC – Steam Review #2

Now with a fresh coat of grim.

In 2006, Iron Lore Entertainment released a fun little Diablo clone called Titan Quest.  Hitting at the right time, Titan Quest, and its expansion Immortal Throne, filled the gap left by Diablo 2 and the many developers unable to competently build in the action RPG space.  The game was entertaining and had a few interesting mechanics, but didn’t do anything earthshaking.  I mention Titan Quest, because now the reconstituted spirit of Iron Lore has put out a new effort in the form of Grim Dawn.  Unfortunately for them, this time, there’s competition.

If you’ve played Diablo or any of its clones, you know the basics of Grim Dawn.  Players control a single, powerful hero who destroys legions of monsters through clicking and loot. Titan Quest’s wrinkles return as well.  Monsters drop components that the player can combine to create more powerful versions which can then buff an item or serve as material for the game’s crafting mechanic.  In addition to components, the Grim Dawn carries over a dual class system that allows the player to invest in two class skill trees thereby allowing for potent combinations.  Sadly, poor loot drops also return with all but the rarest of loot feeling rather underwhelming.  All told, the solid, but unspectacular base game, returns with a feeling of been there, done that.

Of course, this is still early access so there are a number of systems still in development. The most interesting is the faction system which should allow for branching paths and quests.  Each faction in the game, including enemies, have a favorability meter that tells the player what their disposition is.  In theory, the player will get to choose which faction to align with including the horrors that are overwhelming the world.  At present, only the good faction of helpful villagers works so the others are really just measurements of how badly the Cthulu hate your guts (hint: lots).  Still, the villager quest does show some of the potential.  Unfortunately, much of that potential feels misused.  Rather than grant the player access to special new things, the faction system grants them access to the merchants they should have had from the start.  Hopefully the system won’t just act as a gateway to the crafting guy.  Even so, the finding of villagers out in the wilderness and the small touches that show general improvement on the town are compelling.  A quest to get cloth results in tarp roofing for some of the areas.  It’s nothing game changing, but it helps show how the player is having an effect on the world.

Another new addition is unwelcome. The game communicates the story by telling the player all the amazing things that happened while the player was selling nondescript loot.  Towns destroyed, empires fallen, and horrific experiments performed are just some of the interesting plot points that the player has absolutely no involvement in.  The player will pick up logs from time to time, but that only goes to show how much is happening outside of the player’s sight.  If Grim Dawn is to draw its players in with its story, it can’t just talk about the fun stuff.  It needs to show it.

I mentioned this game to my father, who enjoyed Titan Quest.  He responded that he wasn’t really interested because, with Diablo 3 and Path of Exile in the world, he didn’t really need another action RPG.  That is the argument Grim Dawn needs to overcome.  It needs to present something unique that its competitors don’t already have covered.  If it doesn’t, I can’t see Grim Dawn doing well.

Steam Review: Again, Steam recommended a game that was only okay.  What I’m coming to realize is that Steam’s recommendations are only as strong as the depth of the genre that the player is interested in.  If there aren’t a lot of good games in the genre, Steam will recommend what it has.  Good to know.

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