The Return of Non-Cinematic RPGs

Pillars of Eternity is a throwback to Infinity Engine games.

Pillars of Eternity is a throwback to Infinity Engine games.

After the release of Pillars of Eternity, there was one word echoed by many different reviews: nostalgia. This is not unwarranted – everything in the game from its interface to isometric perspective, from spells per day mechanic to character quests and from sneaking around the dungeons to the game being divided into separate acts is tailor-made for the fans of Infinity Engine RPGs from the end of XX century, especially Baldur’s Gate 2. It’s an unashamedly old-school game.

‘Nostalgia’ is not mentioned only when talking about Pillars of Eternity though. It seems to be the driving force behind every single oldschool RPG – no matter if it’s Wasteland 2, Legend of Grimrock, Lords of Xulima or Shadowrun Returns. It’s understandable – it looks like people once again want to play the kind of games they remembered from their childhood. But is it all there is to the rebirth of traditional cRPGs?

Subgenre diversity

One thing you might have noticed is that not all of those 1990s throwbacks play the same. As was mentioned before, some of them play like Baldur’s Gate clones with real-time with pause battles and isometric perspective. Others, on the other hand, have turn-based combat. Some are not even isometric, instead opting for a grid-based first-person dungeon crawling. Some combine isometric exploration with first-person battles or tactical combat with choose-your-own-adventure segments.

Most of those elements existed before. We’ve had our isometric Infinity Engine games, our turn-based Fallout series and many different dungeon crawlers from Wizardry to Dungeon Master. It is true – most of the mechanics used in those newer cRPGs come from the old ones.

But those old gameplay styles are flexible and diverse. They’re different from each other and each one offers a great deal of complexity, often with multiple possible pathways to victory. Contrast this with, for example, Fallout 3 – a newschool update to the old series. It’s much more combat-oriented than its predecessors and its modern action-RPG formula made it similar to other games from that era. It truly was ‘Oblivion with guns’.

The curse of cinematic RPG

Another World,  a cinematic platform game.

Another World, a cinematic platform game.

I know I risk sounding like an old man complaining about all the new-fangled games when I say it, but ‘newschool’ RPGs are much less complex and much less interesting than their older counterparts. Just compare how many endings could be achieved in Fallout 2 with what we’ve got in the sequel. It’s the same with The Elder Scrollsthe games were simplified, the amount of freedom given to the player was reduced and everything became much more focused on the combat. The common explanation behind it is that the later games were made for the more casual gamers who didn’t have time, skill or patience to learn the intricacies of older titles. I’m not entirely convinced that this is always the case – it does play a role in the process but it’s entirely possible to make a casual game with non-linear plot and many solutions to different problems.

I personally blame the simplification of AAA cRPGs on the idea that big-budget games should be cinematic experiences. It can be seen in Bethesda’s later games, it’s been Bioware’s design philosophy for quite some time and many smaller companies are trying to follow their lead. Now, I’m not saying it’s always a bad thing – I personally enjoy the first two Mass Effect games, for example – only that it can be incredibly restrictive.

If a game wants to be cinematic, it should look realistic – this can also be a good thing but it’s not a silver bullet and stylized graphics can sometimes look better than even the most lifelike 3D models. It should have all the dialog voiced, all the moves animated and everything that happens should be shown on-screen as opposed to describing it – after all, movies are an audiovisual medium and you’re not expected to stop watching them to read a book.

Making a video game that is like the movie requires a lot of time, money, processing power and disk space. You can’t realistically record all the dialog from an old narrative-driven RPG with accompanying motion capture while at the same time allowing a long, branching story with many optional characters and a lot of choice. The games are forced into being shorter and less freeform by the restrictions inherent in the chosen design philosophy. The action focus is a side effect of a different aspect of cinematic experience: it must look exciting. And it’s easy to make fighting against powerful enemies or jumping over bottomless pits exciting while doing that for pressing a few buttons on a nuke or convincing the enemy that his plans are doomed to fail is a much more difficult task.

Tabletop and cinematic don’t mix

Dungeons & Dragons rulebook

Dungeons & Dragons rulebook

The return of oldschool RPGs may look like a temporary nostalgia explosion but I’d personally say it was inevitable. There are some good cinematic RPGs and many good cinematic video games – I recommend checking out a sub-genre of cinematic platform games for an early example of movie-style games done right – but the RPG genre itself is inherently non-cinematic, mostly because of its tabletop roots. If they strayed from those roots even further, they’d pass a point after which they’d simply stop being role-playing games, falling into a different genre instead.

Early RPG video games were clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons was inspired by myths, legends and fantasy literature. Some of the most critically acclaimed computer RPGs were so text-heavy it was possible to create an unofficial novelization by playing the game and writing everything down. Text has its advantages – it allows the writers to easily describe the character’s thoughts and draw focus to things that are difficult to show even with modern technology (e.g. facial expressions). It’s better for the games which benefit from a slower pace – focus is already shifted away from creating constant exciting visual feedback so that the players will take their time and appreciate the writing.

The mechanics of tabletop role-playing are not cinematic either. Even the more complex ‘simulationist’ games rely a lot on statistics, turns, rolls and other forms of abstraction. But there’s nothing wrong with abstraction, as long as the players have enough imagination to realize that what’s happening in the game is not necesarily the same thing that is shown on the screen. It’s time to stop asking questions like ‘why are they taking turns to attack?’ – it was never a point of games to look exactly like real life. All the abstractions and gameplay conventions are just a way of representing certain actions the same way sprites and 3D models are a way of representing people and objects.

Non-cinematic RPGs are not a thing of the past anymore because contrary to what their detractors say, the current generation is able to enjoy games for what they are. Video games have created engaging stories for a long time by developing and refining their own narrative methods and mimmicking Hollywood blockbusters. However, this is not the only way of widening their appeal. After all, if new players are able to get into tabletop games even if the main design goals are to please the core audience, why wouldn’t they want to play D&D-like games?

Further reading

Maciej Miszczyk


I play games (I have a preference for old, weird and difficult ones but that's not the rule) and write articles about them that are sometimes a bit too long. Sometimes I also do things other than gaming, I swear.

  • JackDandy

    I’ll say this much: What a time to be alive!
    The RPG Renaissance of the last 3 years was wonderful.

    The second Grimrock hit, followed by the Kickstarter craze (And Expeditions Conquistador), I knew we were heading for greener pastures.

    Right now I’m mad hype for Antharion, and for whatever Larian has up their sleeves.

  • ReaperX30

    I’m also looking forward to Sword Coast Legends.

  • MaidKillua

    Newer TES games – More focus on combat – kek

    Seriously though the combat was Skyrim’s weakest aspect (which is quite an accomplishment given how weak everything else about it was)

  • Carl B.

    Agree about Skyrim. The only aspect of it I enjoyed was the more reactive/responsive combat. This is why I’m looking forward to Skywind.

  • DeusEx

    The only thing we’re missing the creative freedom to do what we will with these RPGs.

  • Carl B.

    I wouldn’t blame the simplification of CRPGs on the idea that devs thought they should be cinematic. I saw more of a drive towards publishers feeling that mainstream dollars were more important than nerd dollars.

    They figured they had a good thing going in the 90s and wanted to grab the mainstream crowd while keeping us around…didn’t work. They alienated the hardcore CRPG’ers with ever-DEcreasing complexity and the mainstream crowd didn’t have the nuts to hang around and keep the hobby healthy with constant cash infusions the way we did.

    So we went to Jeff Vogel, or we played DOSbox, or we clung onto Arcanum/ToEE and hoped it would pass.

    Kickstarter let us prove that our pockets were deeper and our wallets were more full than the mainstream fans the hobby tried to pull in. Now you’re seeing industry white shirts wake up and realize that all along we were right, and they were wrong.

  • SunsetHaste

    All for team Larian

  • Anonymous

    Games are a very young industry, anyone else thinks perhaps this is the path they were naturally meant to take?

    Big companies tend to want to go bigger, bigger companies need bigger profits to keep growing,it’s natural and that means selling more to more people and for games that often also means sacrificing the niche aspects for the sake of that which will sell more.
    Less complexity, less depth, less mechanics and more graphic appeal and such.
    But while pursing the bigger sales a new demographic is created, one which appreciates the aspects that have been sacrificed.

    And right now we are seeing that this new demographic seems strong enough to support a market for itself in multiple genre.

    Think about it, did it ever really make sense that only AAA super big productions were driving the industry?
    Every other industry has something like the AAA market but also smaller markets as well for other niche demographics.

  • JackDandy

    KS and digital distribution are what enabled the growth of these niche kinds of RPG.

    Super thankful for that!

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    I’m looking forward to new Torment. I really loved the original and the new one seems to have a lot of the same creative ideas and ambition behind it

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    Well, the fact that combat wasn’t very good doesn’t mean it wasn’t the focus. I’m pretty sure even compared to Oblivion, Skyrim had less non-combat ways of resolving quests.

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    I think those two were connected – they were reaching to those new mainstream players with both simpler mechanics and cinematic narrative. But I think the ‘cinematic’ aspect should be overlooked as you can still make a good and approachable game within the oldschool RPG framework.

    I mean, as much as I love Planescape: Torment and, on the other side of the ocean, Final Fantasy 6, those were pretty easy games that newbies could get into. But this new kind of mainstream gamer didn’t need just easily beatable games – they also needed easily digestible stories told in ways they were familiar with – thus the focus on full voice acting, setpieces and AWESOME BUTTONS.

    Conversely, the return of non-cinematic RPGs is both about the games being harder (although sometimes with adjustable difficulty so n00bs could get in – like in PoE) and more complex and about them returning to different narrative styles. There’s a reason From Software games are so recognizable – not only do they have a focus on challenge, their storytelling is also hundred percent game-like: item descriptions, some dialogue but mostly level and enemy design.

  • MaidKillua

    Good point. Though I didn’t know that because I gave up on it after beating the main story. Couldn’t hold my interest the way the previous games did

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    I couldn’t get into it either, although I admit that the landscapes were pretty cool and fun to explore. But I’m not that much of a TES guy anyway, I always preferred isometric cRPGs: Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Arcanum etc.

  • MaidKillua

    Only one I’ve ever played was Diablo 2, too broke for a decent PC. Mostly stick to JRPG’s since handhelds are full of them

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    Diablo 2 was fun but I prefer more storyline-oriented games. The one I’ve mentioned in previous post are very good while also being old enough you could play them on a potato.

  • MaidKillua

    I dunno, my PC is sub-potato tier. I am experiencing a potato famine. I’d kill for potatoes to run games on (It’s actually just very inconsistent. It can run Starcraft 2 fine but struggles on some 2D games, for example. I think it’s mostly down to how well optimisted the game in question is. Everything by Falcom runs like a dream)

  • Maciej Miszczyk

    Most of those games are from the late 90s or very early 00s. They were designed with Windows 98 in mind so I don’t think your computer is that bad.

  • Thanatos2k

    It’s simple – if you develop it for the PC and ignore the consoles, you get a better cRPG as a result. We’ve seen it over and over.