Reluctant Hero: Story Mechanics
Future Homeward Bound

Short Thoughts on cRPGs

Matt Barton has returned to complete his epic history of cRPGs on Gamasutra with The Platinum & Modern Ages. (I wish the whole thing was available as a pamphlet instead of 36 seperate webpages!) He concludes his piece:

My guess is that the next big revolution in CRPGs is just around the corner, though it’s impossible to tell from which company it might arise, or what form it might take.

Hopefully the next big revolution in cRPGs is Reluctant Hero, but you know what they say about chickens...

I just wanted to take task with this comment he makes:

...and an undisputed masterpiece  like Knights of the Old Republic is still enough to win over  old fans and introduce hordes of new gamers to the genre.

It's certainly a highly successful consensus classic, but "an undisputed masterpiece"? Now I haven't played it myself, but I know the people I work with gave up on it completely, and at least one of them was full of ire at the haphazard way the identity of the licensed materials had been mishandled. I'm not sure 'undisputed' is the operative word. I personally suspect the popularity of the source materials skews the popularity of the game quite considerably, although it clearly has many devoted fans.

Let's run a short test.

  • 'Loved KOTOR' returns 5,720 hits on Google.
  • 'Hated KOTOR' returns 981 hits on Google.

That's about an 85% approval rating, albeit crudely derived. So let me throw this over to the audience: Do you think Knights of the Old Republic is a masterpiece?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Yep, it was pretty darn fine, I stayed up plenty of nights to finish it (it has that "one more quest" thing down pat).

I didn't play it on evil though - just can't bring myself to do it, but I hear the evil path is not as well done as the 'good' path.

It's not just that it's Star Wars (but set 4000 years earlier so they can do all the same things as in the movies but without stamping all over them), but the writing is really good - I found myself laughing at the funny bits, and being pretty sad at times too.

I'm sure you've heard about 'the plot twist'. It is a good one, but I spotted it early (which I suppose is a good thing too).

'Twas quite fun, but 60-odd hours is a long time to play it :)


Those articles on RPGs can be condensed down to 3 pages if you click on the 'printer friendly' option, much easier to read that way.

I actually just played KOTOR recently for the first time, so perhaps my perception is colored by all the hype I heard about it and the advanced time frame, but I wasn't particularly impressed. It was good fun, yes; yet the writing was often wooden and blatant (in keeping with its source material, admittedly), the party member characterization was better done by Baldur's Gate II, the plot was pedestrian... I may be being overly critical, but I think to declare something a "masterpiece" requires such an exaggerated position, especially given that its narrative is often held up as one of the best of the genre.

HK-47 is a blast, though.

I only just finished playing it a few weeks ago after having heard plenty of positive reviews.

I liked it.

It was Star Warsy (but not like the new stuff) - but it was meant to be, so that's a positive from me :)

KOTOR is a commercial watermark, but if you look closely at the morality dynamic, its very shallow, Clint Hocking and Craig Perko have recently dissected it on its Boolean booloney.

Planescape Torment is a masterpiece. The disparity should be implicit.

Compared to the other games from that time, its a masterpiece. Compared to the real "masterpieces" like bg2 or so it's not.

Not an undisputed masterpiece, but definitely a masterpiece. I remember playing it and becoming engrossed in the story - crucially once I learned the game mechanics I forgot about them, and it became a story that I was acted out.

There were a couple of plot turning points where I knew that I'd almost sent the story the way I wanted it to go, but I'd failed. Normally, I'd have loaded up an earlier save and tried again, but with KotOR I felt that would be a betrayal of the good momentum I'd gathered, and to see the alternate storyline I would have to play through again from the start.

Anyway, it was one of those few games where I played and thought 'This inspires me to make better games'.

And then I got to the end fight sequence where they abnormally ramped up the difficulty and I had to save/reload dozens of times to complete it. Grrr.

Well, I am alluded to in the post, but I thought I would weigh in with - "definitely disputing the masterpiece thing".

I wasn't as on fire about it as the person I played it with was, but I couldn't believe some of the choices made in the mechanics side of things. Several parts of that took "breaking immersivity" to a new high for me, leaving me feelign slightly cold and unable to enjoy the Star Wars-y-ness of it all.

And Star Wars is one of my all time favourite franchises... Luckily this sort of thing was scrubbed from my mind by LEGO Star Wars. I had much more Star Wars-y fun with those games.

So, for me it was the mechanics that shone like a dead man's flesh.

I enjoyed KotOR quite a bit and played through it the requisite three times (evil, good, 'natural' choices) and it held up pretty well.

But when I start talking about the games which inspire me, which everyone ought to play, which I feel are the foundation upon which the great games of the future will be built?

Yeah, KotOR's not on that list.

It was a very good game. A masterpiece? No way. There was nothing at all remarkable about it. It didn't have a particularly good story, it had an excess of bland characters, its battles weren't exceptional. It tried to do something with its good/evil system, but it's primitive and thoroughly unimpressive. (I wouldn't judge the game based on that feature.) It's a very good RPG, no more, no less.

As I rather suspected, the claim at "undisputed" is rather premature. ;) I'll bet we get more comments on this over the weekend...

Was it a good game? Absolutely. Was it a "masterpiece"? That question is a bit harder to answer, for me at least.

Since my interest in any video game relies solely on the extent to which its makers have used their chosen medium to tell a good story (and this includes such exclusive-to-video-game factors as a sense of immersion in the game's world), those games I would personally feel comfortable labeling "masterpieces" are few and far between.

"ICO" is certainly one, as is "Shadow of the Colossus". So is "Riven", and its more recent cousin "Uru" at least comes very close. I might even include "The Longest Journey" and "Dreamfall", but even those are stretching thing a bit by my standards.

What those games all have in common is that in every case, storytelling takes priority over gameplay mechanics - or perhaps more acurately, the mechanics are always in the service of the story being told. They are kept "under the hood", so to speak.

Thus, the player is never forced to do anything that detracts from his or her sense of immersion in a "real" place - "leveling up" a character, for example. Such activities may be enjoyable to some, in much the same way as would be devising strategies in a game of RISK, but I see them only as hindrances to the real purpose (in my very personal and subjective opinion) of the interactive medium: telling stories.

That said, I applaud Bioware for streamlining the "mechanical" aspects of the RPG experiance in KotOR (and in Jade Empire, for that matter), but that still doesn't qualify the game as a "masterpiece" by any means.

Alex: I understand your position here, but it seems harsh to mark down a game simply for not being what you are looking for. For instance, Tetris obviously doesn't meet your desired criteria, but would you not acknowledge this as a "masterpiece" all the same (whether or not it is a game you would personally enjoy)?

But obviously, as you say, this is a subjective determination. Perhaps that is the most powerful reason why we shouldn't be labelling specific games as "undisputed" masterpieces. It implies an objectivity which must necessarily be absent.

Thanks for the comment!

I enjoyed KotOR but definitely don't see it as a masterpiece. It's interesting to read reviews of KotOR2 and see quite a bit of criticism of core game mechanics that are basically identical -- but escaped comment in KotOR. I suspect the Star Wars setting and BioWare's typical polish blinded many people to some fairly obvious flaws. I also think the Star Wars theme brought in a wider range of players who thought the good/evil paths were revolutionary, while many long time PC RPG players saw it as par for the course.

I thought the big plot twist was underwhelming and BioWare continues to modify the same basic theme that focuses on an NPC rather than the PC (female companion meeds rescuing in some sense - either phyically (Imoen) or morally (Aribeth, Bastilla ...) and the same characters - Imoen is Mission, Jaheira is Aribeth is Bastilla and so on.

The combat was dull - KotOR2 designer Chris Avellone admitted he basically Force Waved throught the second half of the game and the PC interface was unforgivable - and the exploration was dull with tiny little areas that sometimes consisted of only two intersecting corridors.

But...the whole was better than the sum of the parts and I enjoyed a trip to the Star Wars universe.

Subtitled Wookies.

Oh yes... How did I forget?

Sorry you had to relive the pain. :-)

Chris: I was tired when I wrote that. :-D

I realise now that my remarks did sound rather harsh (and I'm sorry about that!), but your observations clarified them as nicely as any I might have posted myself: My standards for judging the worth a game are based upon purely personal, subjective ideas (at least, within the context of game criticism as it exists).

I suppose one problem in labeling a game "an undisputed masterpiece" lies within the fact that video games are capable of being a great many things to as many different people. They can be used as narrative vehicles (wherein my interest lies), as educational tools, social networking platforms, or simply as games, much like checkers or monopoly or solitaire. We place many radically different works of entertainment and art in the same lumped-up category of "video games".

Because of this, it's not as easy for me to call a video game a "masterpiece" as it is to say the same of a novel, film, sculpture or musical composition. Those things all have (fairly) clearly defined purposes, and can thus be judged according to how well they fulfill those purposes - video games can't (at least not yet).

God of War has been labeled a masterpiece by many - but a masterpiece of what, exactly? Certainly not storytelling, nor even of "world-building", as none of the environments presented in the game look as though they could be inhabited by real (or even imagined) people. They exist only to be "played" in. A masterpiece of graphic-yet-strangely-cartoon-like violence simulation, perhaps? The parameters become so narrow as to be useless.

When discussing those games which function (almost) purely as narrative vehicles - for example, the Myst series - I would argue that "game" is not even an adequate word to describe them. What is? I don't know.

...But that's a topic best saved for another day. :-)

Alex: thanks for coming back to clarify your position! In respect to your commentary on the flippant use of the term masterpiece:

"The parameters become so narrow as to be useless."

I have to agree with this. In other media, something does not become an instant masterpiece - it takes time to establish the relevance of something. Perhaps we should wait ten years or so before attempting to identify game masterworks...

God of War is labelled by some of its fans as a masterpiece because, I suspect, it is an extremely efficient deliverer of fiero, the hardcore players' emotional crackpipe. But games that deliver this are really not that uncommon, and few remain favourites in retrospect for very long. That said, the game also smacks of polish (which is to say, high development budget). It will be interesting to see how long this game remains well regarded.

I'm prepared to be proved wrong as to the significance of the game, however. Let's see what people think of it in 2015. :)

Thanks for expanding your comment!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)