Monday, March 12, 2012

My problems with western RPG's

Since Mass Effect 3 came out last week and a lot of complaining about DLC's and endings came with it, a nasty feeling came creeping up my spine. I don't care about any of it. I don't care about the game, I don't care about the Mass Effect fans and I don't care about what happens to our earth in what is claimed to be the most important sci-fi universe of the current generation. I am just unphased by it all, just because I could never get into western RPG's.

Look, miss, even if you wear that helmet,
you'll have everything protected,
except your vital organs...
I'll admit that the reason for me to write this blog post was triggered by a three parter episode of Penny Arcade's Extra Credits about JRPG's vs. WRPG's. When I watched it I realised why I was able to have fun with Japanese role playing games, but had problems with it's western counterpart. If I seem to be rambling in this post, watch those episodes and you might understand my brain spins a little better.

I'm not saying I can't play all WRPG's. I've had a lot of fun playing the Quest for Glory series. I also don't fully praise JRPG's without criticism. I am not always happy with the feeble and annoying pubescent stereotypes presented in JRPG's, but these are all topics for a different post.

To let me explain my problem, let me list the recurring naggings that get under my skin in every western RPG:
  • The beginning of the game: Chaos! Destruction! "There is no time to explain!" and then the next hour is a tutorial, explaining how to play the game. Even worse: it breaks immersion by pointing out buttons in dialogue. "Use the action button to talk to me"
  • The protagonist: It's always 'you' playing the game. It might be called role playing, but the protagonist should be modeled after the player. I will not go into discussion what defines the 'self', but if I can model the protagonist to myself, then why are all these characters forced to be in my party? I already have terrific friends and an awesome family. Why can I never model these characters to represent my real life friends?
  • The futility of choice: So, I can choose any skill I want, right? Which one to choose? Oh, you have a suggestion ready for me? So, the game can be played for me by the game itself? Then why do I have these choices?
  • The lack of focus: So the galaxy/empire/rebels are in grave danger? Good! Let's go on an adventure! Wait, why do I have to sweep the floor? Is this other sidequest even necessary?
  • The abundance of dialogue: Hi there, how are you doing? Yes, I know all about the evil bad guy, 3 other people told me about him. Yes, it's nice you have a daughter. If I don't listen, will I miss something? Not sure... Can I play my game now? No? Well then, let's wait five minutes before we interrogate the next person... Do I really need to click all those dialogue options?
  • My motivation: Can someone explain why I'm on this adventure? If you need help so badly, then why do you depend on a so called chosen? Will it make a difference if I stay at home and let all these soldiers do the work for me? They are professionals, right? I am not that special, I assure you! I get clobbered by the nearest cave troll!
Oh dear, I'm sorry I said that about WRPG's!
Please! I'll make it up to you!
No doubt I have made WRPG fans go into a fanboy rage for bashing their favourite genre and you know what? They are right! I am jealous of you people! You can explore fantastic worlds and experience great adventures! I can't do that, I'm solidly rooted in reality. No, please don't "get a grasp on reality", you can do that when you're retired. As long as you have a little personal hygiene, you can leave reality for what it is and travel back and forth between your fantasy world and here.

What I understood about WRPG's is that you should be able to tweak your protagonist character in such a way that it will suit your play style or at least you'll have more freedom than in a JRPG or any genre outside RPG's. I never take a predetermined path, one time I am a wizard, the next I am a tank. Diferent as they may be, I always try to play with a "no shit, let's save the princess", but it always comes back to bite me. Every character in the environment wants me to do everything, except following the main plotline.

Maybe it's the way the available WRPG's are written, but I can't put my personal gripes aside. It's not like I haven't tried. I am really eager to explore vast new worlds, but with every game and its universe I eventually got frustrated for different reasons. Let me give you my RPG resume and what my reactions were to them:
  • Neverwinter nights; First as a sorcerer: "I have no idea what I'm doing! Why are all these enemies falling? Oh, wait, I seem to be hitting them with an ice rod..." At the end of the first mission my squadmate tells me he was "afraid to die and wants to go home". THOSE ENIMIES WERE FRIGGIN EASY, MATE! One step outside and this lady comes up to me. She needs help, but annoyingly doesn't want to tell me what's wrong. I finally go on a mission and get killed by the first enemy... Let's try a different play style...
    "Me orc! Smash!" Ok, the first 10 people say my teacher spoke highly of me. How did a mentally retarded animal like me get through adventurers school? Never mind, killed again, uninstall... 
  • Mass Effect 1; I really wanted to get into this one. The fans are loyal and the universe seems very interesting. I casually got a spaceship, went to a nearby ice planet and saved an insect race. Woohoo! Go Shepard! I guess... It all felt empty. No choice I made felt like it had some kind of gravitas. Also, the RPG elements felt like they didn't do anything. Why am I even talking to all these people? Why am I scanning all these mute aliens? (weird sidequest) Anyway, I got killed by pirates when I went to the next planet. I didn't feel the need to save the universe after that.
  • World of Warcraft; Hold on, I have to pay monthly... I hear stories of people rotting away behind their computers, because of WoW. The combat looks like you take turns... I can tolerate the graphics, but why do you want me to play this?
  • Knights of the old republic; Found it for 5 bucks in the discount pile. It seems to be one of the greatest RPG's of all time, let's try it. "I'm being attacked by the Sith! Let's attack them back! Oh, wait, first I have to save Bastilla, but before that I have to sneak past a guard, before that I have to win a race for a gang lord, but he wants me to steal an engine for it... now I need to fight a giant beast first... Can I save the princess now? No?" Forget it...
  • The Witcher 1; Again, what am I doing? Is everything dying around me? Good! Hey, I'm randomly meeting random best friends. Now I'm talking to a female... Wait, what are they doing? No, Wait! STOP THAT! MY GIRLFRIEND MIGHT BE WATCHING! Anyhow, I need something from the other side of the map... It's not there... another side of the map?... Also not there... I've no idea what I'm doing or where I should be going. Forget it.
  • The Quest for glory series: A friend introduced me to this. I played this for hours on end. It's fun, humorous and I understand the full character sheet. The characters only want something from you when you approach them, nobody claims to be your best friend. Finally time to breathe and take on an adventure... See? I can enjoy WRPG's!
Finally! Free of work and/or MMO grinding.
I refuse to try harder than I already do. All the games listed above have received at least 4 hours of play per game. If I can't get into it after that, then I have more important and or more fun things to do. I have recently finished games I enjoyed in 4 hours that might have cost more money, but I feel like I wasted less, because those 4 hours made me happy. If I need to get through a lot of frustration then somewhere along the line a failsafe kicks in that tells me I need to spend that energy on something useful, like work or studies.

One reason I don't like game reviews is because different genres appeal to different people. I am not a person that can get invested in western RPG's, even if they get high scores. It's a shame, because it is a genre with a lot of depth. Maybe if the dialogue wasn't so obnoxiously long or maybe if there was a little less drama, then maybe I could get into it more.

As for now, I'm just happy the bad ending of ME3 feels like someone else's 42 problems beyond a final frontier in a galaxy far, far away.