May I Ask of You Directions, Sir?

I’ve been trying to play some CRPGs.

Key word: trying.

Christ. I just gotta enter this alien mindset. Just gotta remember, “This was made during a time when you couldn’t check the e-mail from your toaster, Nonused. Get ahold of yourself.” But I can’t, me! It’s so goddamn crazy! Well, ok, not that crazy. It’s just—I’m spoiled. I guess.

E-Toaster
E-Toaster

More often than not, in modern videogames (specifically RPGs), you get a quest, open a map, and there’s a pretty piece of geometry that says, “Go here, stupid.” If not that, it’s usually a clear path (I call it the funnel) to your destination, linear or quasi-linear. Makes it pretty clear what you gotta do. Go to the dot, kill that guy and you get your jink. Or, if you’re feeling extra saucy, you could use your silver tongue to get something off him and THEN get your jink on. I feel this is a modern RPG quest at its essence, and these old-school CRPGs have thrown that shit out the window. And with a sink!

But first, I’d like to clarify what games I was playing that got me into this thought process. For you, lovely reader! No, seriously, I adore you for who you are. And your curves, but that’s second to your winning personality.

The original Fallout, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and Planescape: Torment. Those are the big three that got me into this fun little mess. Got ‘em from GOG.com. If you haven’t heard of it, take a look, and read your bibles, fellow videogame player.

Obviously (or not so obviously), I got hooked when Fallout became free. Played it for about half an hour. It’s just—I really like voice acting, guys. It adds so much to a character-driven game like an RPG. Again, I’m spoiled. Sue me. I will law your ass. Actually, please don’t sue me. There’s a reason I got Fallout for free. Remember, you’re lovely for who you are. Don’t let them take that away from you.

But I was still intrigued. I really liked the feel of the combat, if that makes sense. Loved V.A.T.S. in FO3, and since that was the focus in the original, it was a match made in—well, not quite heaven. So, like—the pearly gates. It was a match made at the pearly gates. And I liked some of the adventury bits of it. I played a sly devil named Harrison Ford and, on my way to the first village, I ran into a pack of asshole scorpions. Mr. Ford’s keen wit was no match for five stingers to the face. Real shame. What good’s persuasion if I can’t circumvent the REAL issues? But the combat was genuinely terrifying with those scorpions. The SPRITES were scary to look at. And when they cornered poor Mr. Ford at the bottom of the screen—I don’t wanna think about it. It’s too much.

So, you're telling me you HAVEN'T left the vault?
So, you're telling me you HAVEN'T left the vault?

The game had piqued my interest, however, and I scoured the internet for a game with a more modern feel. Arcanum sounded perfect. Troika? Never heard of ‘em, but a couple of guys who made Fallout made this. It might be the best game ever. 2001? You couldn’t get more modern if you tried.

Man, guys. MAN. This game. I want to love it. It has orcs in suits working as bodyguards for rich gnomes. My half-elf was the most dapper son of a bitch I’ve seen in a long time (not as dapper as you, though). It’s like a math equation with my name in it. But everything within the awesome aesthetics is so fucking ugly. Actually, the aesthetics themselves can be pretty disgusting. I know graphics aren’t everything in a videogame, but—2001! Half-Life looked better than this! I look at my character model, and he looks nothing like the portrait I so carefully selected! Actually, the character creator is pretty awesome. You should try it some time.

The combat was pretty bad too. But that wasn’t what really turned me off this game. It was the lack of direction. The lack of handholding. Or, maybe handholding is the wrong word. Lack of—conveyance? I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to do! I didn’t know who had quests and who didn’t. I didn’t have a fun little exclamation mark to say, “Hey! Talk to this fucker so I may be free!” He pines for the fjords. I had to talk to everybody and everyTHING to obtain a grasp of what objectives were available to me. No assets really guided me any direction But, then I wondered, “Is that wrong?”

That’s the question that kept nagging at my brain. Still is. But regarding Arcanum, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve pretty much given up on that game since those side quests that aren’t immediately apparent are pretty much imperative to your progression through the main quest line. So when I ran into a legion of zombies in P. Schulyer and Sons, completely under leveled, I threw up the birds.

FUCK. YOU.
FUCK. YOU.

But that question was still in my head when I decided to buy Planescape a few weeks later. “1999? Oh shit. Mathematically, it couldn’t possibly be as good as Arcanum,” I say. “You shut the fuck up,” says Internet. “You love it.”

I do. I do kinda love it.

It amazes me that this game is two years older than Arcanum and has better production values all around. The voice acting, the animations, the writing. THE WORLD. God, the world. I don’t think I know how to describe it. No, wait. Yes I do. It’s what fantasy should be. Not fucking dragons and trolls and elves and dwarves and magic and bullshit. I mean, it has some of that. But it tries to stray away from that samey formula. It tries to make its own world and atmosphere instead of utilizing clichés that appeal to—y’know what, I don’t even know who high fantasy is supposed to appeal to anymore.

But that’s not the focus of this—thing. No. It’s that lack of direction that I’m so curious about. Planescape, so far, has hit the nail on the head I’ve felt. Not once has there been a maniacal piece of punctuation highlighting the critical path. No funnels. Just a town that I navigate through loading screens. But I am still given a sense of direction. “Go northwest to the moratorium,” says crazy death lady. “Get your jink on.” The map contains thumbnails expressing which building is which. I never truly get lost. But I am not explicitly told where to go for a quest through a map or quest log.

All hail!
All hail!

Case in point. Fork quest. I can’t remember the guy’s name. Let’s call him Nigel. Nigel’s crazy and getting his jink on in an inn. Innkeeper wants him out. Me, being the good-looking Samaritan that I am, offer to help. I go up to Nigel asking him politely to leave. He says, “Fuck you, gimme my fork! Find my fork and I’ll leave!” And then he van Gogh’s it up.

Now, a couple of you lovelies still reading this (why are you still reading this?) unfamiliar with Planescape may be saying, “Sure, seems reasonable. Go get his fork, Nonused!” But wait dear reader! That’s not so simple! Not by 1999 conventions!

I have no idea where to look. Crazy doesn’t give me directions to his fork. There’s no helpful funnel or bread crumbs to tell me where to go. This man is being unreasonable, so I get unreasonable. I’m all like, “Don’t make me fight you,” and he’s all like, “(Rasberry).” So I killed him. I killed him because I had no idea where to look for his fork.

But that makes sense, right? Normally, I’m all good and shit in my RPGs. Always willing to go out of my way to help because I can. Because I’d usually be doing the same shit if I was evil anyways. And the critical path is clearly displayed in front of me. It really isn’t that much of an issue to act as the ideal character. But, in this Planescape situation, it is completely. All because of a lack of navigation. It’s not the game’s fault though. Why would crazy give me a map to his fork? He doesn’t even know where it is! But I really wanted to rest at the inn (innkeeper would let me rest or free if I got rid of Nigel). Incorporating my solution, however, was not to the benefit of anybody. Well, that’s not true. I slept like a baby. But innkeeper technically hired a killer to be rid of crazy. That’s fucked up.

And for what? FOR WHAT?
And for what? FOR WHAT?

And this specific situation got me thinking about the use of navigation and direction within videogames. How the correct implementation of conveyance could completely negate any excuse they’d have for existing. Well, I could be wrong. Actually, I’m most likely wrong. I’m thinking in terms of RPGs, don’t really have my head set anywhere else. I just thought that this whole situation was crazy, in terms of design and choice. I didn’t have to kill him. I didn’t even have to do the quest. But, y’know, free bed. And it’s all ‘cause the developer decided not to show me where that fork was. Crazy.

But, in general, I guess what I’m getting at is this: do you like the “direction” (tip your waitress) player direction in videogames is going? With the exclamation points and shit? Or do you think that it might be a byproduct of lazy design? Or maybe you think everything’s hunky-dory and that RPGs (or anything , really) have never had it better? Or maybe something ELSE (gasp)? Please, jot down your own thoughts!

P.S.: Don’t sue me.

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