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Why Do RPGs Work? Part 1 – Framing
Starting an RPG is a massive undertaking for a gamer. While a 20 hour running time in almost any other genre is considered long, it is fairly short for any RPG made in the past 15 years, with games regularly reaching the 40, 50 or 60 hour mark. It probably won’t be a thrilling ride all the way through, either. Glacial beginnings and intermittent rough patches are practically hallmarks of the genre, while level grinding and sprawling, empty dungeons are merely commonplace.
So why play RPGs in the first place? In this series I’ll look at three different parts of what can work in a typical RPG structure, with three different games to demonstrate each one of them.
I started playing Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn in earnest a couple of months ago. I’d tried repeatedly every few months since I finished the first game three years ago, but always stopped during the first chapter. I’d heard that Baldur’s Gate 2 perfected the densely packed, side-quest driven style of RPG, with new, player driven adventures hidden in every alleyway. Baldur’s Gate 1 had some of this in the late game, and when I started Shadows of Amn I did so with visions of the great RPG cities I was familiar with: Fallout 2‘s New Reno, Knights of the Old Republic’s Taris and, most delightfully, Planescape: Torment’s Sigil. But Baldur’s Gate 2 begins with a dungeon. You create a level 10 character, view the first game’s story in a recap, collect low level weapons off a table and fight your way out. There is certainly a lot of fun, story-driven content in that dungeon, but it is still at its core a trap-filled, battle-heavy slog for the first two and a half hours, followed by the almost overwhelming shock of the game proper.
What Baldur’s Gate 2‘s opening fails at (and what the rest of the game succeeds at) is not rooted in its mechanics, or its story, setting or presentation. The combat is immediately engaging, the primary plot hook is a wonderfully suspenseful way to follow up Baldur’s Gate’s almost unfairly intriguing final moments and the quality of the writing, music and acting is immediately apparent. The problem with Baldur’s Gate 2‘s first chapter is its rhythm. It teases fascinating things happening in its world, but the immediate torrent of new party members, battles and dimly lit corridors is simply not an inviting opening. A dungeon like this should happen at a crucial juncture in the story. It should feel like an extension of the character’s choices, and a dire moment in the story. One mod combines the two games, showing the party’s capture between games in an added scene between the two campaigns, but as its own game Baldur’s Gate 2 starts sluggishly.
Upon escaping the dungeon, both the villain and one of the player’s party members are captured by a group of local government mages, the Cowled Wizards, and control is almost immediately given back to the player. There is almost nothing to do but pick a direction and walk. We find ourselves in an unfamiliar area with no opportunity for roleplaying and no guidance. It’s overwhelming, and the first time I got to it I put the game down and happened not to pick it up for another year.
After this second major roadblock, the player’s freedom is given a reason. A shady figure approaches the protagonist and offers to free the protagonist’s friend for an exorbitant sum of money. After the player accepts, the next chapter begins immediately, confirming that bribing the thief is indeed the way forward. Suddenly the adventure has been given a frame. The party needs money, and a lot of people with money in Athkatla need a legendary hero. Smaller stories, such as a party member’s old enemy trying to get revenge or a conspiracy inside a local religious order, are used to tell the larger story. As the party completes quests the characters strike up conversations, argue with and befriend each other, the protagonist has troubling dreams of the villain, small scraps of information about the villain and the Cowled Wizards are relayed.
Once the action is framed, there is suddenly a reason to wander aimlessly. There is suddenly a goal to strive for and overwhelming immensity of the world becomes exciting, because we suddenly have a reason to live in it, experience it and conquer it. On one level, Baldur’s Gate 2 could work without this. Older RPGs like the Might & Magic and Wizardry series, tend to have some distant evil force that only appears at the end, with the unnamed, generic protagonists mostly wandering around searching for gold and adventure. That is still the core of Baldur’s Gate 2: characters wandering, completing quests and getting gold. But Baldur’s Gate II, and the original for that matter, tells a strong story around this structure, and uses that story as a guide for navigating that structure.
Even though Baldur’s Gate II‘s specific frame is not universal, the need for one is. Imagine one of the more cinematic Final Fantasy games without the dramatic presentation. Some would still be alright games, but is getting a new spell fromm an Esper really as memorable or satisfying as Final Fantasy VI‘s grand, absurd, beautiful opera scene? The actual gameplay of the opera scene simply involves memorizing a poem and winning an easy boss fight, but the frame of impersonating an opera singer to trick an air pirate directly informs how those mechanics are implemented, just like the questions of how to make money and who to take along while making it adds a sense of real roleplaying to Baldur’s Gate 2‘s otherwise aimless wandering.
Of course, that only works if the actual content is interesting. When I reviewed Blackguards a few weeks ago, I was impressed with its engaging, if sometimes confusing, story, but almost everything I did led to a slow, drawn-out combat encounter. Even the most worthy reason to go on a quest is not enough if the quest itself is boring. I enjoyed exploring Baldur’s Gate 2‘s quests so much because those quests were consistently interesting and varied. Perhaps the frame was simply an excuse to play the game how I wanted it to, but it drew me in to the life of a mercenary nevertheless.
It didn’t hurt that every interesting mechanic, be it finding new spells to write in a spellbook or sneaking past traps, was interesting and relevant. More on that next week, when I look at the basic mechanics of an RPG, and at Bravely Default’s fascinating take on them.