I realized something interesting recently: even though I have played my fair share of computer role playing games, I rarely blog about them. Oh sure, occasionally I will have a post about how RPG X has really impressed me with some facet of its gameplay, but rarely do I find myself drawn into an ongoing narrative as I have been wont to do with other genres. This is strange when you stop and think about it. I mean, RPGs by definition are designed to weave an engaging story that should be readily tailored into not just a single blog posting, but multiple posts. Yet, despite playing a series of expensively produced, high profile RPGs over the years, none have had sufficient merit for me to make more than one or two drive-by postings. What is going on here?
I think there are a few things that I find wanting in most contemporary RPGs:
First off, the story: it’s usually a bizarre recipe for trite convolution. That is, the story is inevitably one we’ve been exposed to countless times before: you know, the hero and his plucky band that must stave off a cartoonish evil that has been unleashed upon the land – of course, ‘the land’ being a superficial medieval setting that lacks any of the actual depth of that period. But because this is such a trite tale, game devs can’t resist muddying the waters by painting on a thick coating of their own concocted chrome, something that adds nothing to the story but does succeed in making the whole plot seem like the fevered dream of an adolescent boy who had read a bit too much Tolkien before hitting the sheets. I think Dragon Age: Origins, my favorite RPG, is a good example of this. I mean, that game’s lore was so convoluted that I couldn’t make sense out of its calendar’s various epochs, let alone the story!
Not that the details of the story matter anyway, because the player is usually so busy questing that the plot fades into the background. This syndrome is made worse if, like me, you are not the type of player who powers through the entire game in a few sittings. Usually by the time I complete a game – which is a rarity when it comes to these multi-hour epics - I have completely lost the narrative thread and just work my way through the campaign one quest at a time until it ends. I have always found it very telling that with just about every RPG it is entirely possible to continue playing without having the faintest clue about what it going on. Sort of begs the question: if you can play without understanding the story…do you even need a story? (It is entirely possible that Aterdux Entertainment, devs of the forthcoming RPG Legends of Eisenwald, might be the first fellows to realize the needlessness of an intricate plot for a CRPG. Quote: “Heroes of our legends are not saving the world and are not participating in the wars between gods. Rather, they are directed by human motivations: by a desire to find glory (and wealth), by blood feud, revenge and even by unrequited love.”)
Second problem: just where is the role playing in these role playing games, anyway? With the exception of some superficial choices – gender, race, stats, and order of quest acceptance – the player is almost always tied to the pre-conceived game mechanics favored by the devs from the conception phase. In other words, no matter what the player does, he still is dancing to a tune called by the coding dungeon master. Once you realize this it becomes clear that most RPGs aren’t, but rather are just as rigid as any other genre in the player freedom department. And when you get right down to it, for RPGs that means that they are all little more than elaborate arenas for slaying monsters and gathering loot, the preferred dominant game mechanic for this genre (have to hand it to Blizzard, their Diablo franchise cut to this chase long before anyone else did). Not a lot of opportunities for role playing there….
Then there is the problem of death. Rather, I suppose the problem isn’t one of death, but of infinite rebirth. By that I mean most RPGs allow a save and restore mechanic, something understandable considering the ferocious nature of these games. But if the player can cheat death by an external mechanic, is he really role playing at the point? When a dragon turns your level 12 elf into a pile of ash time and again, but each time you simply restore from a saved game and start the battle anew…well, where’s the role playing in that? In real life, dead is dead, after all. I think this is the biggest flaw of the contemporary RPG market – the lack of perma-death. Nothing, in my opinion, sucks the epic out of a heroic tale as knowing that, in effect, the player’s character is immortal by way of a programmed cheat. When you are immortal, every fight is already won, every dragon already slain. After all, they are mortal and you are not. Oh sure, it may take twenty restores to win a final victory over Snaggle Tooth, but it will be done eventually. Hence, every fight that should be memorable, that should inspire the bard to song, is reduced to a mere battle of attrition. You won…but who cares? With immortality, who wouldn’t eventually win just by sheer exhaustion on the part of your foe? That is why no bard sings of “Brave Eric, the Save and Restore Knight”.
Which brings us to the final problem: most RPG experiences become extremely repetitive really fast. I think this is why I blog so infrequently on the latest RPG to catch my fancy. After the newness of the setting and mechanics wear off, I inevitably become quickly bored. All the promises of epic questing, of bloody triumphs by sword and shield, of dark tragedies involving fiendish monsters and maidens in distress, all of these promises quickly become reduced to ‘left click’ and ‘right click’, save and restore. Yawn. And it’s all made the more pointless by the knowledge that there are thousands of other players out there experiencing almost the same thing, if in a different order.
Ultimately this is why I so rarely find myself sufficiently excited by a RPG to blog about it on a regular basis. All too quickly it becomes clear to me that most RPGs have the gameplay depth of Space Invaders. Heck, if we could give our little cannon a few tweakable stats and include some loot drops from the aliens, it would probably qualify as a RPG by today’s standard!
Interestingly, whenever the latest RPG begins to wear thin, I always find myself rebounding back into Chess. In many ways Chess manages to capture the role playing essence better than most other contemporary RPGs. Sure, there is no real story to chess, just a superficial medieval graphical theme (albeit, it must always be pointed out that unlike other posers, Chess is an actual medieval game!), but as I wrote above, that is probably for the best when all things are considered.
I suppose the RPG part of the game is best captured by the player’s Elo. Like a character’s “level”, a Chess player’s Elo score is a great snapshot of skill, one earned point by point just like ”XP” in a traditional CRPG. However, unlike the frivolous way a player can earns scads of XP by slaying tons of generic monsters over a relatively short period of time, Elo points require a real investment of time, doubly-so if the player prefers correspondence Chess. It can literally take years to amass a respectable sum. And unlike the frenetic action of most RPGs, Elo points are won one (er…1?) battle at a time where every move needs to be carefully considered and fit into an overall battle plan to defeat the opponent’s king. I have played many a RPG that has taxed my trigger finger to the point of breaking, but only Chess has gotten me to sweat blood over each and every move. And Chess, like real battle, is emotionally exhausting. It is for this reason that each Chess game, nay, each Chess battle, leaves a powerful memory in its wake. Unlike my faceless and pointless CRPGs victories, a victory in Chess is something that is truly worth celebrating. Likewise, every defeat leaves a very real emotional blemish. There’s no “save and restore” in Chess, after all.
Unfortunately, there are no “loot drops” in Chess. However, we do get to level up our pawns when they reach the back rank. And every Chess player gets a trophy at the conclusion of the battle – the PGN score.
Speaking of which, here is a recent game that had me on the edge of my seat on more than one occasion (annotations by Fritz 11).
C20: 1 e4 e5: Unusual White second moves 1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nc6 3.e4 Bc5 4.Nf3 d6 5.h3
[5.d3 Nge7 (5...Bg4 6.Be2 Bxf3 (6...f5 7.exf5 Bxf5 8.Be3 Nd4 9.0–0 Nf6 10.Na4 Nxe2+ 11.Qxe2 Bxe3 12.fxe3 e4 13.dxe4 Bxe4 14.Nc3 0–0 15.Ng5 Re8 16.Ngxe4 Nxe4 17.Nxe4 Rxe4 18.Rf3 Qe7 19.Raf1 Re8 20.Qf2 h6 21.Rf7 Raabe,S-Sharma,D (2071)/Gelsenkirchen Horst 2006/CBM 113 ext/0–1) 7.Bxf3 Nd4 8.0–0 Ne7 9.g3 0–0 10.Be3 Nec6 11.Bg2 Ne6 12.Bxc5 Nxc5 13.Nd5 a5 14.f4 Nd4 15.f5 f6 16.Rb1 c6 17.Nc3 Qb6 18.Kh1 a4 19.Qd2 Qb4 20.Rf2 Calderon,O (1972)-Calderon,J (2031)/Riobamba 2007/CBM 120 ext/0–1 (54)) 6.a3 0–0 7.Be2 a6 8.Be3 Ng6 9.b4 Bxe3 10.fxe3 Nce7 11.0–0 c6 12.d4 b6 13.Qd2 exd4 14.exd4 Qc7 15.Qg5 f6 16.Qg3 Ra7 17.h4 Nh8 18.Bd3 c5 19.Nd5 Nxd5 Hackbarth,W (2140)-Hiermann,D (2249)/Oberpullendorf 2002/CBM 089 ext/½–½]
5...Nf6 6.d3 Be6 7.Ng5 Qd7 8.Nxe6 fxe6 White has the pair of bishops 9.Be2 0–0–0 10.Rf1 d5
Time to open up the d file...
Risky, but I thought it was worth the risk. But my opponent refuses to take the bait, which is fine with me.
11.Bg5? [¹11.cxd5 and White could well hope to play on 11...exd5 12.Nxd5³] 11...dxc4–+ 12.dxc4 Qxd1+?? with this move Black loses his initiative [¹12...Qf7 Black has the better game 13.Qc1 Qg6–+]
Fritz doesn’t like my blunt charge into White’s rear rank. However, feeling that the advantage has slipped to me, I am more than happy to get the powerful pieces off the board. So I send my champion to slay the fell White queen! XP me!
13.Bxd1 [13.Rxd1 h6 14.Rxd8+ Rxd8 15.Bxf6 gxf6³] 13...h6 Black threatens to win material: h6xg5 14.Bd2 [14.Be3 Bb4µ] 14...Bb4 [14...Nb4!? 15.Ke2 Nd3 16.Na4–+] 15.f3 Secures g4 [15.Bc2 Na5³] 15...Kb8 [15...Nh5!? 16.Ba4 Na5µ] 16.a3³ Bxc3 Black pins: Bc3xd2 [16...Be7 17.Ba4³] 17.Bxc3= Nh5 18.Kf2 White loses the right to castle 18...Nf4 19.Be2 Rd7 20.Rad1 Rhd8 [20...Nd4 21.Rfe1=] 21.Rxd7² Rxd7 22.Rd1 White threatens to win material: Rd1xd7 22...Nd4 Black threatens to win material: Nd4xe2.
Fritz remarks that “The black knight is well posted.” I believe both to be. Two knights working together can be a lot of trouble…at least, that is what every other RPG has taught me. 23.Bf1 Kc8 [23...c5 24.g3 Nh5 25.b4] 24.Rd2 [24.c5!?±] 24...c5 25.g3 White threatens to win material: g3xf4
With my d4 knight securely defended and bottling up the center, clearly the battle is about to shift to my left flank.
25...Ng6 [25...Nh5 26.Be2²] 26.h4 Rf7 Black pins: Rf7xf3 27.Rd3 [27.Be2 Ne7²] 27...Ne7 28.Bh3 Rf6 29.b4
Making little progress on the left, my opponent shifts back to trying to pry the center open. So I bring in some reinforcements.
29...b6 30.h5 Nec6 31.Bg4 Kd7 32.Ke3 Ke7 33.f4 [33.Rd2!?]
He is really determined to blast my d4 knight loose. In that case, I'll play along. Time to let the cavalry do what the cavalry does best...go on the offensive and raise a little heck.
33...Nc2+ Black forks: a3+e3 [33...exf4+ 34.gxf4 Nc2+ 35.Kf2 Rxf4+ 36.Kg3 Rxe4 37.Bf3 Rxc4 38.Bxc6 cxb4 39.Rd7+ Ke8 40.Rc7+ Rxc6 41.Rxc6=] 34.Kd2 [¹34.Kf2!? might be a viable alternative 34...N2d4 35.Ke3=] 34...Nxa3µ 35.bxc5 Nxc4+ 36.Ke2 [36.Ke1!?µ] 36...bxc5 37.Bf3? [¹37.Rd1!? Rf8 38.Rb1] 37...Nd4+–+
Like General Jeb Stuart’s ride around McClellan’s Union army (okay, I had to break with the medieval RPG theme here, albeit I’ve always believed the ACW had many a medieval theme to it), my d4 knight rides around White’s army, snatches up two pawns, and almost returns to its starting square. Level up!
38.Bxd4 cxd4 [38...exd4?! 39.Rd1 e5 40.Rc1–+] 39.Rb3? [39.Rd1 Rf8 40.Rc1–+] 39...exf4 40.Rb7+
My opponent still fights to stay on the initiative. He’s a determined one, no doubt working on casting some spell of making.
40...Kf8 [¹40...Kd6 and Black can already relax 41.gxf4 Rxf4 42.Rxg7 d3+ 43.Kxd3 Ne5+ (43...Rxf3+?! succumbs to 44.Kxc4 Ke5 45.Rh7³) 44.Kc2 Rxf3 45.Rxa7 Rh3–+] 41.Rxa7 [41.Rb8+ the only chance to get some counterplay 41...Kf7 42.Rb7+ Ke8 43.gxf4 Rxf4 44.Bg2–+] 41...fxg3
41...fxg3 will be my most important move of the game – my spell of making! That little pawn, like a level 1 character, has his sights set on becoming a great warrior one day, a warrior with a broadsword that crackles with lightning, and glowing armor forged by dwarven blacksmiths. My opponent spots the potential in him, too, and moves to stop his transformation by distraction: he attacks my king.
42.Ra8+ Ke7 43.Ra7+ [43.Bh1 a fruitless try to alter the course of the game 43...Ne5 44.Ra7+ Kf8 45.Ra8+ Kf7 46.Ra7+ Kg8–+] 43...Kd6 44.Rxg7 [44.e5+ doesn't improve anything 44...Nxe5 45.Ra6+ Ke7 46.Ra7+ Kd8–+] 44...Ne5 45.Bh1 Rf2+ 46.Ke1 Nd3+ 47.Kd1 Nf4 48.Ke1 g2
Unfortunately, like many would-be heroes, greatness is not in the cards for my g pawn. Rather, he will be required to sacrifice himself for a greater cause. By pushing to the g2 square, he forces my opponent to make a choice: capture my f2 rook in exchange for giving me a new queen, or sacrifice his bishop to stop my g2 pawn from queening. My opponent rightly chooses to take the g2 pawn, ending its quest for greatness. However, his d4 brother might be the next champion of Sanctuary, Azeroth, Westeros…whatever the current medieval fantasy hotspot happens to be. That pawn now begins his rush at the enemy king. Blood for the blood god!!!!!
49.Bxg2 [49.Kxf2 does not save the day 49...gxh1Q 50.Kg3 Ke5 51.Kf2 Qh2+ 52.Kf1 d3 53.Rg3 Qe2+ 54.Kg1 d2 55.Rg5+ hxg5 56.h6 d1Q#] 49...Rxg2 [Weaker is 49...Nxg2+ 50.Kxf2 Nf4 51.Kf3 Nxh5 52.Rb7²] 50.Rh7 [50.Rg8 does not solve anything 50...Rxg8 51.Kd1 d3 52.Kd2 Rg2+ 53.Kd1 Ke5 54.Kc1 Rc2+ 55.Kd1 Kd4 56.Ke1 Kxe4 57.Kf1 Re2 58.Kg1 d2 59.Kf1 d1Q#] 50...d3 51.Rxh6 [51.Kd1 doesn't do any good 51...Ke5 52.Rh8 Kxe4 53.Rf8 Nd5 54.Rc8 Ne3+ 55.Kc1 d2+ 56.Kb2 d1Q+ 57.Rc2 Nxc2 58.Kb3 Qb1+ 59.Kc4 Qb4#] 51...d2+ 52.Kd1 Nd3 53.Kc2 [53.Rxe6+ does not help much 53...Kxe6 54.Kc2 Nb2 55.Kc3 d1Q 56.Kb4 Qd6+ 57.Kb3 Qd4 58.e5 Nd3 59.h6 Qb4#]
My opponent has been using his rook to clear a path for his own champion, the h5 pawn. But it will be all for naught. Even though his king has been doing his best to guard the d1 queening square, the knight and rook combination is too powerful to resist, sort of like one of those “active skills” in a CRPG. Can you see the winning move?53...Nb2! Mate attack [53...Nb2 54.Rxe6+ Kxe6 55.Kc3 d1Q 56.Kb4 Qd6+ 57.Kb3 Qd4 58.h6 Nd3 59.h7 Qb4#] 0–1
Fritz so liked that move that it made it a hidden training move in its analysis PGN.
At this point it is clear that my opponent can no longer stop my lowly pawn from becoming a level 30 queen, so he resigns. Well played.
Time for me to level up!
Now, I know I am wont to describe every other game as being inferior to Chess, but I really mean it when I say that this single chessic struggle contained more epic combat than any RPG experience of late. It even netted me 22 experience points in the end.
Again, if only Chess had some loot drops….