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

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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.

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