Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Games and fun

Games play (heh) an important part in my life.

I blame my big brother. He introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons at the impressionable age of, ooh, about 13. It was new and exciting, a fun game in those days, before the news media and fundamentalist Christians had heard of it; a friendly, co-operative game, bringing socially inept geeks together in their common love of fantasy and fairy tales.

D&D has come a long way in the 30 years since then (mostly backwards, at least for the players, although obviously it's kept the publishers in business). But it's also given rise to an entirely new genre: the computer FRPG.

It's not widely appreciated, even by players of both, how different the computer FRPG is from the version with pencils and paper and polyhedral dice. Some people think that writing the perfect computer FRPG is just a matter of coding a big enough world, and faithfully and meticulously translating enough of the rules. But this thinking ignores the most important rule of all, which is the core of the difference.

Put simply: the pencil-and-paper game is a social event - a bunch of people get together to have fun. The computer version is a storytelling medium - the "author" draws up a plot, and the player's job is to find a way through it. There may be many different ways, some arriving at slightly different endpoints, but the basic framework and goal are not negotiable. (True, most human DMs start out with a similar "plot" in mind. But good ones will change it as they go along; only bad DMs will try to force their players to stick to a framework they planned from the start. A well-run game is not so much a story as a symposium.)

And that's why the computer FRPG is a form of art, no matter what Roger Ebert says on the subject; because it's not like the social game that is played between friends. Rather than spending so much time defining "art", I think Ebert should give more thought to his idea of a "game". Games like Neverwinter Nights, the Zelda family, Morrowind, Jade Empire - these are not about winning or losing, or even playing. They are about experiencing a story.

Some of them allow more latitude than others. Resident Evil imposes a fixed path, set out by constant short-term motivators. Neverwinter Nights - the most faithful translation of pen-and-paper rules I've seen - forces you to jump through the hoops laid out in the order required, because there's simply not much else to do. Oblivion, by contrast, gives you near-complete freedom - but there's still a single, central storyline to be completed.

The 2008 version of Prince of Persia is an extreme example. Not only do you have to follow the plot (with virtually no latitude about what order you do things in or what skills your character develops), but when you screw it up, you're immediately returned ("restored") to the point just before you did. This mechanism caused a lot of controversy at the time - some people thought it was taking the risk and the skill out of the game.

But, in truth, none of these games is about risk or skill, any more than watching a whodunnit is about your ability to outguess the fictional detective. They are about the experience.

And that, dear Mr Ebert, is art. Some of it is even, I would claim, good art.

I recently replayed Jade Empire, and I would say that, in script, acting, cinematography and (most importantly) storyline, it stands comparison with decent Hollywood action movies. Zelda: Twilight Princess is by turns engrossing, thrilling and touching, as well as beautifully visualised. Oblivion, while scriptwise a pale shadow of Morrowind, tries to make up for it with technical execution (I recall the first time, stealing through some tunnel, I saw an ogre ahead of me - I almost wet myself).

There's also, of course, plenty of bad art in the genre. Assassin's Creed has a confused and cliched storyline, with little latitude to explore and no attempt to reconcile the inconsistencies. Ditto Freelancer, and Neverwinter Nights 2. Bad writers keep you on the story railroad by putting in arbitrary, unexplained restrictions to what you can do. Whereas the better games either trap you in a storyline where there is always an obvious, immediate short-term goal (Zelda, Resident Evil), or continually nudge you towards the plot with internally consistent motivators (Morrowind).

But even bad art is still art. Good art shows what it can aspire to.

If the computer FRPG were really just a digital version of the tabletop game, then Ebert would have a point. As it is - well, he should try playing through some of these games. Then let's see if he can still maintain that he hasn't experienced some kind of art.


mumsie said...

First of all, what is FRPG? I can't make it out.
Secondly, I never understood the joy of all those computer games you used to play, nor yet, for that matter, the wargames that preceded them.
However, when you put me down on a sofa, handed me a WII remote control and helped me create a MII, as well as introduce me to the fun we all had with this type of game you got me hooked. It was only after weeks of enjoying the WII that I learnt it was created and marketed by Nintendo. Had I known that the first day, my prejudices would have made me run a mile.
Maybe there is a moral, maybe I only ever came across very 'bad' rigid computer games.

vet said...

I beg your pardon for omitting it. My old editorial training would never have permitted it, but I've been forced to relax former standards somewhat. "FRPG" stands for "fantasy role-playing game".

The joy of the computer version of the games is not unlike the joy of reading a book or watching a film, with an element of puzzle/problem-solving thrown in. It is, as I said, quite different from the social version. (Even in so-called "multiplayer" games, where you play in the same game as hundreds of other people online at the same time.)

To the best of my knowledge, the last game of this type you tried to play was at least 20 years ago, and was pretty much all text. They've come a long way since then. I suggest getting "Zelda: Twilight Princess" for the Wii: it's a beautiful game, with lovely characters, and quite unlike anything you've seen before.

mumsie said...

Thank you. I spilt tea on my MacBook the day before I left for Sweden. It sulked and went on strike and it was only after I came back that I could take it for repairs. Fortunately, they did it under warranty (bought 21 Sep. last)! Now I feel whole again and may well have a go at Zelda. All the best to you and Susan. I'll write a proper letter one day soon.