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January 25th, 2009, 08:56
You may have heard of Jonathon Blow's Braid, an indie art/platform game that achieved critical success on XBL Arcade. This would normally be way out of our coverage but Gamasutra's new interview includes news that Jonathon is toying with an "RPG-ish" game, as well as several fascinating comments. On Fallout 3:
But I played Fable II, Fallout 3, stuff like that. And in Fallout 3, there's one section of the game that people comment on that feels kind of personal and emotional, and it's not the stuff that's supposed to feel that way. It's not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic.

It's when you find this abandoned camp that's now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing.

And you think, "That was really a touching story that I just found out there." And it wasn't actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story.
…and on a contradiction in game design:
To give a really simple example: almost every game we make now is challenge-based in some way, right? Unless you're talking about Wii Music, there's some goal that you have to meet. The player is here, and wants to go this way. The game's challenge pushes back on him, adding some friction. You want the player to get through the game eventually, but that challenge slows them down or makes them go in a circuitous path.

That's half our game, this challenge element. In story-based games, the other half is the story. And the problem is that story needs to go [the opposite direction challenge does]. Because stories have pacing. They have an order of events that happen.

So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment. But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other. You try to balance them, but usually one of these is going to be more strong than the other, and that's the direction you'll feel more of.
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January 25th, 2009, 08:58
Interesting interview. The separation between story and game play has certainly become more noticeable in recent RPG development trends. It often feels almost like you're experiencing a movie while doing some mini games in between. I don't necessarily mind this approach as long as the gameplay is interesting and the story is well told. The problem is that all too often, rather than working in unison, the two separate elements can detract from each other. Excessive use of cut scenes can negatively affect one's sense of immersion during game play. On the other hand, requiring the player to do too much grinding can break the pacing of the story.

Even more problematic is the fact that the focus on stories (especially when told through expensive cinematic cut scenes) often has a limiting effect on the game play. If developers invest considerable resources into creating cut scenes, they'll want to make sure that the player actually experiences those cut scenes. The effect on the game play tends to be more rail roading, less choices, and often also more hand holding and less challenging game play.
In older RPGs, the connection between story and game play frequently felt much more organic, in part because stories were more minimalistic. You explored the world, you talked to NPCs, you read some books or scrolls, and all those little tidbits added up to form a major part of the narrative. It didn't feel forced onto the player. Unfortunately, cut scenes and voice acting are far more expensive and less flexible than text. As such I think they're a major culprit in hindering the integration between story and game play in many modern RPGs.
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January 25th, 2009, 21:32
I think the straight challenge/story dichotomy is missing something big in order to be an accurate representation of the difficulty of rpg design. The other critical factor of rpgs is ego identification with the game character(s). This why the rpg conventions continue to exist. This is why people find it fun to gain hit points, gold, levels, statistics, magic weapons, and become powerful and influential in the gameworld. So that means there are tensions between 3 elements of design, since the pursuit of these elements takes time from the story and diminishes the challenge of the game (if it doesn't diminish the challenge, then there is usually still a conflict, such as Oblivion level-scaling). I don't think there is a harder type of game to make well.

I found Braid to be one of the most fascinating games I have ever played. I will be looking forward to see what he comes up with, though I think making an rpg as innovative to the genre as Braid was to platformers would be a near impossible task.
Last edited by Burress; January 25th, 2009 at 23:49.
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