Wednesday, February 24, 2010

combat

I’m fascinated with the idea of an RPG without combat.

RPG Combat is, 90% of the time, a chore. The trend really started with Final Fantasy (yes yes I know about your “basements and demons” and “random encounter charts”. shut up, nerd) on the NES which was so underpowered that keeping track of what enemies you had already defeated was impossible, so it was easier to either respawn all the enemies (a la contra or mega man) or, for jRPGs, have a “random encounter” every couple of steps – essentially invisible enemies stalking the map.

This has the side benefit of turning your 20 hour game into a 60 hour one at minimal cost to your programmers/scripters. It was such a winning convention that I don’t think it was significantly overturned until Chrono Trigger, which had the groundbreaking innovation of letting you see enemies before you fought them.

In my mind, RPG combat is forgettable and skippable. It’s filler. It doesn’t achieve anything besides maybe letting you see your character grow when you hit level 60 and can kill sand crabs in one hit (Expressed best by Earthbound, where lower-level enemies ran away from you, and if you caught them you just got your loot without even going to the battle screen. No one has done this since, which irritates me). Otherwise they’re just containers that make you trade time and hp/mp for a splash of exp and currency/items/ rare loot.

Anyway, I tried to make a combatless RPG once for a SA Gamedev competition. I had a month to do it. I spent most that time trying to get my custom menus to work, instead of doing game scripting or making interesting maps. It didn’t work out so well, although a few generous people saw what I was trying to do and encouraged me.

The premise of the game was simple: You woke up as a newly created robot, sent off to explore the nearby forest. As you approached, you discovered humans, at which point you black out and end up in “heaven”. Then you reappear – at the same point in time that you were originally created. And you are sent on your task, but some glitches occur. You hear things out of order, the world seems a bit different. And then you meet the humans, and black out, and you are in heaven. And you can complete this cycle endlessly, trying to determine what happened before the humans gave you a virus to wipe your memory in order to preserve their hiding place, trying to distinguish what was “real” from what the virus was doing to you. Or you could go to heaven, and enter the gate, and sink into peaceful oblivion, ending the game.

It wasn’t executed very well. I’m not a good writer. I’m a worse programmer. Scripting was clunky and difficult, even using a toolset. I’m waiting for the right tools to come down, something that integrates map design with character design and a better flow for scripting events. I didn’t have the patience to put in all the triggers my story needed. This is my common failing with projects – I give it my all for 2 weeks, or a month, and then I lose interest and get distracted. This is my fear for this blog as well.

The point is, combat wasn’t necessary for this game. It was an RPG, but you didn’t need to fight forest animals or humans or anything, because it served no purpose to the story. The sole mechanic (barely implemented – god I’m such a lazy ass) was collecting information for the robot’s central database by examining items – and learning about humans would allow you to query the DB about them, which would trigger a catastrophic event.

I think there are a lot of stories that can be told without combat. Imagine a small town where you went from door to door, helping people with their problems & learning about the dark secrets hidden beneath the town. A great horror story, better if it ends with your inevitable death.

Or taking the combat mechanic and fitting it to something more suitable to a turn-based blow-by-blow. Like a conversation RPG (NOT OBLIVION).

* You used: angry tone! It’s super effective!

I think we can all agree that the best parts of Fallout3 weren’t the combat (although there were some great combat moments!), but exploring the new world laid before you, trying to make sense of it all, entering a convenience store to find elaborate traps laid out, hacking into computers to read the last words of a dying family… There are a ton of things you can do without assuming an unlimited army is assailing the player every 15 steps.

I guess I’m essentially asking for “short story” RPGs instead of sprawling 60 hour epics. Bundle them up and sell them as a package, like we do for books. It’s a great way to break out of the sci fi / fantasy rut the genre is currently in.

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As always, there are a few games that break the rules completely. Deus Ex made combat almost like a puzzle, if you wanted to play stealthy. Fallout3 used limited ammo and shaky aiming to create the impression of being dumped in a hostile, scary world where every shot is critical (and has a 10% of being critical, hoo hee hah hah). But by the end of it, you took 100 skill points in your favorite weapon and several perks to create more ammo, and you were a damn god of the wastelands.

Plus the first time I entered the metro system, I got bullrushed by a horde of feral ghouls, at least 10 or 20. I pulled out my shotgun and blasted away furiously until I discovered i had backed into the wall and had run out of ammo. I died, but it was one of the most pitch-perfect moments in gaming for me. I have never had such an experience with a jRPG – unless you count the time I spent an hour grinding a boss’s health to 0, and then his minion healed him back to full health before I could deliver the killing blow. Wait, no – that was the wrong kind of emotion. god damn you, shin megami tensai series!

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