My last Analog Gaming was about two specific games. This one is going to be a little broader, especially when talking about the “Analog part”. This episode of Analog gaming though is about story and choice.
In traditional literature, you get a great story but no choice, and in the majority of great games you are presented with a lot of choice but very little story (this includes Bioshock, and whatever game happens to be your favorite). The earliest time when listeners/viewers of stories were given more choice in a narrative was probably with ancient poets, who could and did tweak their stories to appeal to their audience; we still do this today around campfires and with friends. Plays allowed us to see the action rather than just imagining it, and it allowed the playwrights and actors to put subtle changes into a story or present it in such a way so that it was new and different to their audiences as well. Always, however, the choice has been limited for the reader and the audience despite the fact that most people dream of being the protagonists of their own adventure narrative. How much more exciting would the Battle of Troy been if you had played a part in it? Would MacBeth had ended as it had if you had been the the young Prince’s confidant and friend?
Quest For Glory: So you Want to be a Hero?
Dungeon and Dragons changed all that! Here was a system that put you and a group of your friends into the role of the heroes of an epic medieval fantasy adventure. The 4th wall had been broken but in reverse. The actors were not acknowledging the audience. Rather the audience was storming the stage, the directors chair, and the writer’s box! Dungeon and Dragons though is a fairly simple system: it’s good at telling an action adventure set in a cliché fantasy world with a story that only serves to string together random raids of dungeons for loot, and that isn’t for everyone. The amazing thing about D&D was that it opened a lot of people’s eyes. It let them see that one could build a system in which story telling could spring free-form out of the audience, and, boy, there were a lot of systems to build.
The best systems didn’t focus so much on monsters and far away places but on characters, people, and the roles they played in their world (regardless of settings), here there was choice, a lot of it. If everyone did their job, the result was a great story that was richer, deeper, meatier than most of what you can find on your bookstore shelves.
Some of these great story, character, and ethic-based RPGs were made by White Wolf. Systems like World of Darkness and Promethean are much more than stepping into a dark fantasy world where you have special powers, but where you also explore morality, pride and the burden of knowledge, mortality and what it means to be human. These systems take common and well-known horror stories and turn them into serious philosophical discussions about the human condition, and these discussions are received from on high by an author or game designer. The story springs organically from the players themselves, guided by a Game Master or Story Teller.
Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire
Many of the earliest video game makers learned gaming around tables with books stack around them rolling dice. They were veterans of Dungeons & Dragons and several other role playing games. These video game pioneers were trying to recreate their experiences on the PC; games like Ultima and Wizardry were early attempts at this, and Oblivion is one of these games direct descendants. Early on in video games, Japanese and Western developers split on how these games should be made. The Japanese decided to take the numbers, algorithms, and charts found in pen & paper RPGs and ignore the story making part. They took all the busy paperwork of the format but ignored the player’s contribution to the RPG formula. The end result of this were games like Final Fantasy, a series that has not progressed much beyond its initial offering (discounting graphics and more complicated number schemes). JRPGs do not offer the player any control in the story, they are merely along for the ride. JRPGs are much more like movies or novels in that sense, in which the player has no control over where the story goes, and characters develop little. When there is character development, it resembles the author’s intents and desires rather than those of the player. This was not what RPGs were made to do! This is a step backwards from the pen & paper version.
Western RPGs have tried to remain closer to their analog roots, or they were until they became influenced by JRPGs and action-adventure titles. Very few games even tried to capture high ideal of analog RPGs. Sierra On-Line’s and LucasArts’ early adventure titles took the idea of a free roaming environment that pen & paper RPGs had and used it as a location for game protagonists, but the player was restricted by the limiting nature of their computer and the game’s programming. While games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Monkey Island promised freedom, players were limited by the games parser and the straitjacketing effects of the storyline.
Pen and paper RPGs are so amazing because the players are free to do and try anything once in the game world, and they are responsible for their actions. There are a few games that tried, they tried and failed but the effort was well worth it. They come close. Sierra On-line’s Quest for Glory series is a a great set of games. It was Sierra’s attempt to combine their traditional adventure games with RPGs. These games succeeded so much so because player’s decisions made a difference in the game. There were entire sub-plots that some players would never see if they didn’t take the time to explore their environment – the Rusalka and Domovoi quests in Quest for Glory 4 are good examples of this. They also are on this list because what you decided to play as changed how you’d solve the puzzles and over obstacles in the game. If you were a fighter you had to think like one, using brute strength to progress. Thieves would have to be crafty, and wizards had to use their spells and arcane knowledge. This is what RPGs allow you to do: slip into a role and explore it. Even today you can pick up a video game RPG, and your class is nothing more than dressing for the character it effects game-play minimally or not at all. (Oblivion is a big offender in this regard, it doesn’t matter what type of character you role, you can beat the game with a sword and shield, and some magic scrolls.) Deus Ex was great game that showed how decisions, ethics, morals can be explored in a video game, and just like QFG, how you played your character determined how you would react to the various puzzles and dilemmas the game presents you.
Video games still haven’t been able to live up to their analog ancestors. You can have a lot of fun playing Oblivion, Fallout, or System Shock but eventually your going to find a wall, a limit, imposed not by the world you inhabit, but the programmers and designers of that world, because it is beyond the machines capacity to handle or the games. This is not a problem in analog RPGs; you’re free to ignore the just about everything and do whatever you want in the world, and while doing so explore what it means to be good, or evil, friendship, love, greed, corruption.
I’m involved right now in a Dark Heresy campaign. The game is set in a gothic dark future where technology is magic and there is no hope for human existence. The game’s premise is that you are a government investigator of sorts (think film noir, mystery, and sci-fi put together.) It’s a neat setting but early on into the campaign and our group of people are dealing with fundamental issues of trust, teamwork, success, what it means to be human, insanity, corruption, faith, common decency, and the love of Mankind! None of this is anywhere in the books, or in our Story Tellers notes. They sprang from the players and we’ve been allowed to explore them, it’s been one of the most exciting things philosophical discussions I’ve ever participated in and none of us knew we were even having one!
If you’re interested in any of these RPG systems, just follow the links, they’ll take you to their respective websites. Or if you’re looking for something else in Analog RPGs explore the RPG Shop or head to your local hobby store on a weekend and see if anyone happens to be playing, or ask to see their bulletin board, RPGers are always looking for new recruits!