Autumn: A Meager RPG Harvest
Last Christmas, we gathered around the RPGWatch tree and tried to add some chill to the air by reminiscing about the snowiest games in our collections. We griped together; that old Yuletide nip had gone out of the air, leaving us stranded in a muggy winter wasteland with solid cloud cover for weeks on end. But at least we had those good old wintry games.
As I sat down to write this article, I ran into a huge obstacle right away - there seem to be far fewer autumn-esque, Halloween-y RPGs than I thought! Here in the midwest, fall is a big deal. Pumpkins everywhere you look, corn mazes, farmers' markets with their rustic barn doors thrown wide, jams, jellies, apple bobs, primitive Americana crafts. Our local coffee - some of the best there is - is at your fingertips, bursting with flavors like cinnamon, candied pecans, apple, and of course, the ever-present pumpkin spice. And Halloween is just around the corner. But where's the fall RPGs?
I mean sure, there's a few. The obvious solution is already on your tongue - there's Skyrim and Guild Wars with their beautiful autumn zones. Lords of Xulima and Pillars of Eternity also have areas with beautiful fall coloration. Then there's non-RPGs, like Assassin's Creed: Syndicate and Saints Row: The Third, with their own taste of October. But as I write this, I'm gazing out my window into the autumn sunrise, casting its ever-weakening golden light onto the faces of leaves just beginning to turn from forest green to olive. Soon the trees will be ablaze in oranges and bright reds, the mornings will be just a little bit chillier, and here in Ohio, we'll have to start wearing hoodies.
We all play RPGs for different reasons. Some of us just like tweaking stats, crawling dungeons, trying different classes, cranking up the difficulty to test our minds and our mettle. For me, RPGs have something of a unique purpose. Video games are a whole new artistic medium, one that allows us to truly immerse ourselves in another world, at least for a little while. That's why I play. And since autumn is my favorite time of year, I would love to have rich autumn-themed games to delve into, as fitting companions to cider, sweaters, Dragonlance books, and hoodies.
We have a few autumn RPGs, at least. Let's talk about what we have, then we can throw another log on the fire and talk about what we want.
My own heavily-modded version of Whiterun, re-imagined as a cozy autumn hamlet.
If you said "autumn in an RPG", Skyrim is the first thing most gamers would think of. The Rift is probably the most familiar fall setting in the video game industry, and rightly so; properly modded, you'll never see autumn scenery like this anywhere else. Still, if you'll permit me to nitpick, I will say that Bethesda could have done more than just giving us a forest of birch trees. Low-lying banks of chimney smoke early in the foggy mornings, descriptions of the sharp odor of hickory smoke, fall festivals, vivid fears of the things that prowl the night close to the Harvest Moon...these things would have done so much to evoke a chilly autumn atmosphere. But, as we all know, Skyrim wasn't a title renowned for stellar writing or immersiveness. Those things had to be added later by talented modders. Even Skyrim's gray, uninspired color scheme failed miserably in delivering the experience of traversing the varied climates of the wide north of Tamriel; at release, it looked like seeing the world through the eyes of a severely depressed person. It took ENB addons to bring out the game's real beauty.
Skyrim might be one of the most famous examples of fall scenery in an RPG, but unfortunately, scenery is all it's willing to offer.
For me, fall isn't fall without a wide, beautiful blue sky to offset the smoldering colors.
2. Guild Wars
The breathtaking beauty of Pre-Searing Ascalon. Listening to it with the right piece from the Guild Wars soundtrack will pour burning salt right down in your nostalgic feels.
That image takes you back, doesn't it? Come on, you can admit it. I won't shame you for it.
The original Guild Wars doesn't get talked about too much these days; a lot of players seemed eager to toss it into the trash bin of history and move on to its sequel. Some diehards still play, though, and my nostalgia takes me back every once in a while to hang out in Pre-Searing Ascalon. It might not have been the very best MMO, but my goodness, Ascalon was beautiful. It blended New England-level autumn color with red poppies and grim skies to create a unique experience.
Walking the ruins of Ascalon in Guild Wars 2 might be depressing, but it still delivers some pretty scenery.
3. Lords of Xulima
The Golden Woods are aptly named. The zone's beauty more than makes up for its frustrating puzzles.
I can say, without any reservation, that the photo above was the reason I decided to get Lords of Xulima. Any game with that kind of seductive autumn beauty has gotta be worth a try, I reasoned. I admit that I was rough on LoX at first. I still don't think the interface and effects are all that amazing, and it came out around the same time as the embattled Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is still a game I love. But Lords of Xulima has a lot of charm. Its forests and settlements are full of a beauty all their own, and the game brims with nostalgia.
Non-RPG Fall Scenes
RPGs are arguably better at immersing us than any other genre; RPGs by nature require more attention to stats, your character's physical and mental health, and many other factors that keep you focused on the world around you. But sometimes you can't find what you're looking for in an RPG.
1. Assassin's Creed: Syndicate
The scenery alone is almost reason enough to pick up this game.
On the surface, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate might look like just another awkward console port rushed through production so it could start making money for corporate investors. Sure, it's a AAA title, and sure, it could use a touch of polish (not to mention a complete rewrite of the brittle story). But for me, this is the cleanest, most polished title in the Assassin's Creed series. Lots of care went into the environment, prettier and more historically accurate than most of its predecessors. The weather feels more real; nights are rainy and oppressive, making your chest tight with vapor and industrial smog. Days are bright and vivid, revealing a new direction for the series. The same lazy, ape-like animations used for the main character in every other version has been scrapped, replaced with newer, more believable movement. Victorian London has never felt so alive in a game.
And of course, the whole Lambeth district is resplendent in all the colors of autumn, making one of the game's most beautiful buildings a fitting home.
2. Saints Row: The Third
Its graphics and engine might no longer be cutting edge, but Saints Row: The Third is still one of my favorite open world games.
I never thought I could have so much fun with something so silly. While the Saints Row series (minus the first one) doesn't take itself as seriously as the games it's modeled on (Grand Theft Auto and others), Saints Row: The Third changes up the formula by giving you the choice between a male or a female protagonist. Sure, I like my games a little serious, but this game's open world mayhem and fun soundtrack got me through last summer. And that's ironic because the game has some decent autumn scenery, especially in the Deckers-controlled district of Stanfield.
There are too few games with gorgeous autumn backdrops. Period. Some of the best ideas never got implemented; for a while, it seemed as if we would get a Dragonlance module for Neverwinter Nights, but the project was abandoned.
I'd love to see more Victorian or Rococo streets shivering in November chill as the leaves go swirling around you. Gothic valleys, alive with color, where you can't help but dread the imminent sunset. A haunted New England countryside, still echoing with the curses of witch hunters from remote Puritan times.
For a season so beloved, with so many occasions deeply important to us (such as Halloween), fall is terribly under-represented in the RPG world. It's my hope that that changes soon. We've got enough palm trees and steamy jungles to last us for a good while, and I can assure RPG designers that autumn would be a perfect backdrop for just about any RPG.
Are there any backdrops - autumn or otherwise - that you feel are under-represented? Do you have a mental image you'd love to see brought into reality in the form of an excellent RPG?
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