This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite awhile. Others have been, too, going by some recent comments: the fact that games, at least the CRPGs, haven’t changed much over the years.

Take away the sound, the music, and especially the graphics. What’s left is much the same gameplay as we had back in the days of Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale.

Those games were dungeon-delving, pure and simple. Kill critters, grab goodies, frag Foozle at the end.

Might & Magic added quests, or “Do something for me”. Ultima gave us conversations, limited though they were.

Over time, other games incorporated those features, expanded them a bit, and added some storyline. Along with that came ever-fancier visuals and sound. But for the most part, we’re still doing “kill, grab, and frag”.

Obviously, we enjoy those activities, or we’d have stopped playing long ago. Yet, just as obviously, we aren’t deriving as much satisfaction from them.

We could say that games haven’t progressed much since the early days. Which brings up the question, what do we mean by progress? If CRPGs are stuck in a rut, what would get them out of it?

One thing I’ve noticed is the lack of “role-playing” in CRPGs. Often there is none at all. Or it’s handled poorly, as in the D&D-based games, where “good, neutral, evil” is decided by the designers. Actions are noted, but motivation is overlooked – and motivation is integral to role-playing. The implementation of alignment is simplistic, and has annoyed many gamers.

Further, most games that allow for some independent action – playing as “good” or “evil” – come to the same resolution, which is nonsense.

Might & Magic VII, at least, provided somewhat different paths, and different finales, depending on whether you chose the light or dark side. For once, your decision made a difference. Usually, though, you end up being a hero regardless of how your character acted through the game.

Which brings us to story. Most plots are unimaginative. Oblivion is a case in point. There is nothing new or interesting about following the main line. It’s just the usual errand-running, with a lot of padding thrown in.

So we see what’s really lacking is human interest. I can’t think of any game I’ve played where I felt my character was truly part of the virtual world. I’m just the savior passing through, going through the motions, building up to the inevitable showdown with Foozle.

There may be interesting side quests – sometimes far more interesting than the main line – but there is little that is truly involving about the game as a whole. What’s needed is more (much more) work on what the player is doing, rather than what the player is seeing.

And by “doing”, I don’t mean fighting. I mean interacting with the NPCs. This is how story is really developed, and how you actually role-play your character. Games need far more depth here. They need to be less static, too.

Everything is predetermined before you even start. It’s hard to believe in a world where everything sits around waiting for you to act, and where your actions are limited. There is no sense of change, even when you do act.

Most choices revolve around doing or not doing some minor quest. They all seem to exist in vacuums of their own, unrelated to the world around them. If you decide not to take on the job, so what? Nothing happens.

There should be effects in the world from what you do or not do, possibly not evident for some time. This applies to the main line, as well. Suppose there’s a right way and a wrong way to bring back that Drum Of Ages. The wrong way may have unforeseen consequences later on.

A well-conceived plot for the main line, with realistic NPCs, intelligently-designed conversations, and, perhaps most especially, player choices that make a real difference, would go a long way towards lifting CRPGs out of the doldrums.

The one game I’ve played that came closest to this ideal is The Pandora Directive. An adventure, not a CRPG. Throughout play, Tex interacts with people in different ways, as decided by you. This leads to different events, and multiple endings, not all of them pleasant.

So if an adventure can pull this off, why not a CRPG? Obviously, that would take a great deal of careful thinking and design, but it’s certainly possible.

Will we ever see this? I’m doubtful. It seems, these days, that developers are doing either multiplayer games, or “action RPGS”. And if they are doing CRPGs, they’re more concerned with technique and graphics than anything else.

But we can always hope. Someday, perhaps, there will be at least one game that has a real story that goes beyond being a mere excuse for combat and treasure grabbing. We just need that day to come around soon.miniscorp