Swords Against Darkness

I’m not sure if that would stand as a software title, but it works as a blog post title. To begin, let’s talk about the basic building blocks of a computer role-playing game. I don’t mean from a programming standpoint, but rather from a player’s standpoint.

Within the game you have your character or characters, their customizability, the character creation process, their presence in the game, and the extent to which you can advance and develop them as the game progresses. This is a major point of difference between Japanese and Western CRPGs; in JRPGs you typically are given fully formed characters with little or no customizability: there generally is no process of “creating” the character, rather you assume control of the character but his appearance, abilities, and personality are predetermined by the game designers. In Western games, the opposite is generally true: you would be given an outline of character creation options and let loose to build a character as you see fit. There are benefits and drawbacks on both sides; generally in JRPGs you have the benefit of a very vivid and realized character with a striking personality and presence who can seamlessly blend into the game’s setting. On the other hand, you struggle to feel like the character is yours rather than just someone else you’re watching on-screen. In Western games you have that connection to your character because you made that character yourself – but the drawback is that the character might have trouble blending into the world because the game has to include a generic “insert character here” sort of design feature for placing a variable player-made character into the story.

My preference leans towards the Western style, for two reasons. First, if you haven’t built the character yourself, I find it deadens the feeling of reward you get from advancing and improving the character. Second, if you dislike the look or personality of a character you’re forced to play, it impacts the joy of the game. What if you don’t want to play a flirtatious blue-haired teenage girl who wields and explosive teddy bear? Go find another game, I guess.

Which brings us to character advancement. This is one of the game concepts that sets RPGs apart from adventure games. In an adventure game like King’s Quest you experience many of the same elements as you do in an RPG, except that your character typically doesn’t advance in abilities, nor do you engage in combat. There are so many ways of expressing character advancement that I can’t possibly encompass them all here, but in a nutshell I’d say there are two main processes. One is to use a level system, where you would begin the game at level 1 and through the accumulation of experience points or something similar you would gradually go up in levels. The other is to use a system that doesn’t use an abstraction like “level,” but instead has characters gaining skill improvements and new abilities and things of that nature. Some games use combat and quest-rewards to determine when your character advances, and some use rewards for repeated skill use, and I’m sure there are many others. I don’t have a strong preference here.

Another facet of the game is the setting itself – the “world.” Many games now have a very open-world concept, where you can roam as you please, stumbling upon adventure as you go. Other games have set locations you can explore, and only those locations are available to be adventured in. Generally I don’t have a preference here. Games like Elder Scrolls have done a great job with the open-world idea, but sometimes it can seem pointless to have these stretches of wilderness where nothing much happens. I suppose either approach can work well if done correctly.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss combat. Combat can be dealt with in many ways, but to my mind it comes down to two simple concepts: is combat turn-based or real-time, and is combat based on game attributes or is there a twitch factor? In general I have a strong preference for combat to be turn-based and based on game attributes. I find that as a game becomes real-time and includes a twitch-factor, it stops being a role-playing game and instead becomes an action game. Unfortunately, the CRPGs of today are leaning towards real-time combat quite strongly. I think that the younger generations have less patience for the slow pace of strategic turn based combat than we older types do.

Tomorrow I think I’ll wrap this up by outlining exactly what I’d like to see in a CRPG.

 

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