Wednesday, January 12

What RPGs Should Learn From Movies

As you know, I'm currently playing Dragon Age: Origins, and while I'm certainly enjoying myself, I'm also bored out of my mind. I think this game would have been far more effective as a storytelling platform had it taken a thing or two from another medium.

My BA was in Creative Arts with an emphasis in film, while I'm not trying to toot my own horn here, I do think that I've been exposed to a fair amount of quality narratives in not only the movie structure, but in literature and fine arts as well. I am a holistic artist, which is why I have such an interest in video games in the first place, considering they combine all aspects of every other art form in existence already. I'm not writing this post because I despise video games and think they can never be art, but because I am passionate about them, and am absolutely convinced that video games are art.

So here are the places where I think Dragon Age fails, and hopefully future video game narratives can pick up the slack:

1) Video Games Should Reward You For Conflict. Way back since dudes in togas, we've understood as artists that conflict is compelling. In fact, I would almost be inclined to say that you can't have art without strife, but I'd rather not derail this post. Suffice it to say that the most common form of artistic expression demonstrates forces in opposition.

Yet, in Dragon Age: Origins, when I talk to my companions, I get points for agreeing with them, and I lose points for disagreeing with them. If I disagree with them a whole bunch, they get pissed off, and will leave my party. This means I am rewarded for passive behavior, and punished for instigating conflict.

Here is a perfect example where gameplay and storytelling are at odds with each other, instead of working together to keep the player involved in the world. The designers have set up a Catch-22 where if I want the most points, I'm bored, but if I seek to end my boredom, I lose points.

Future games, if they wish to be taken seriously as narratives, must switch this dynamic around to something counter-intuitive: players must be rewarded for disagreeing with companions, and punished for agreeing with them. Then not only is the player happy with their bonus points, but they are also excited by the conflict in your story.

2) Cut Out Your Exposition. Or at least, if you absolutely must have it, stick it in an obscure place that players never have to experience, and do not reward players for reading it. No one gives a crap about the country of Ferelden, or the Ash Warriors, or the history of your fantasy land. It is crap. It seriously is. Audiences want a story, and a story is conflict, not a history lesson.

If the exposition does not flow from conflict, then it should be cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. If you don't show it on screen, then it is unimportant, and is actively hurting the immersion of your players. And by "show it onscreen," I'm talking about the old but true "show, don't tell," which RPG designers seem to feel doesn't apply to them. Bull shit. Your explanations disguised as dialogue are terrible, especially when you make me read them to gain points for agreeing with your NPCs.

Don't treat me like an idiot. If you want me to know that mages can become abominations through demonic possession, then freaking show me a mage getting possessed by a demon. Don't make me listen to voice actors tell me about it. Fail.

In short, show me your world through scenes of conflict. That is the first thing beginning film scriptwriters learn, and it is a lesson every game designer needs to know.

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