Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Wyrm Biting Its Tail

Over the past week, I've been migrating from my laptop, a Dell Inspiron 700m, to a new desktop machine. I had been using my laptop as a substitute for my old desktop machine, which had a significant "blue screen of death" system failure two days after I turned in my dissertation. But the laptop was clearly a second choice for all around use, despite the fact that it has served me well through a bunch of grad school. So I've been somewhat delayed in catching up with blogs and all of you.

If that were the only reason for my delay, I wouldn't feel so conflicted. As a reward for finishing grad school, I've been delving into playing Oblivion. And I've been enjoying it a fair bit, especially since my friend Andrew had tweaked the game significantly with various mods - mostly to get it to feel more like Morrowind.* I had gotten turned on to playing the latter game by my friend Mike, who once invited me over to his place to watch over his shoulder while playing because "you really have to see how they rendered the water." He was right - the visual impact of the game was amazing. Morrowind was the first game where I watched a sunset, just because it was so spectacular (for those of you who might be curious, it was looking across the small bay to the west of Seyda Neen).

That's what made Morrowind a really interesting game for me and for Mike (we shared similar attitudes towards game play - he originally got me turned on to playing Darklands from Microprose oh so long ago). Morrowind was about the closest you could get to a "sandbox" campaign in a CRPG, or so it seemed to us. The actual main quest was interesting for the first half or so; once you figured out your character's True Mission in Life, it was go-here-do-that, lather, rinse, repeat. Okay, that's a bit harsh - but the sheer variety of other things you could do was fascinating. I guess I should not have been surprised by how much I liked Morrowind; turns out that the lead designer on the game was Ken Rolston.** Ken's been in gaming forever; he taught the first seminar I went to at Origins 82, and he helped design Paranoia and material for Runequest.

So I ended up putting off Oblivion until I was done with grad school. (Don't touch that line.) Getting a new desktop machine meant I had to wait a little longer. Was it worth the wait? Mostly. The biggest surprise for me personally has been an even stronger dislike of embedded plotlines - even though that's what makes a computer role-playing game what it is. I haven't gotten a long way into the game - though I know a lot about it already from having watched Mike and Andrew play. Even so, some of the most fun I've had so far has been beachcombing for Nirnroot, and fighting the occasional bunch of goblins or highwaymen. Fortunately, the main quest doesn't require lots of on-going immediate attention, which is a good thing - I'm just not a fan of greased rails for the plotline, and I figure I can deal with "closing shut the gates of Oblivion" in my own good time.

How does this relate back to tabletop roleplaying games and the "Old School?" Easy - despite the impressive graphics, the tremendous amount of background development and scripting, computer RPGs and tabletop gaming are still two different things. What Oblivion has done has been to increase the pressure on referees to have appealing and complex worlds; the fact that Oblivion itself is a descendent of earlier tabletop games makes its a dragon biting its own tail.

In the end, though, I kept thinking of all of the labor that clearly went into creating Oblivion, and wondered what might have happened if it was applied to tabletop campaigns. But that's what distinguishes the computer game industry from our own corner of a much smaller hobby. Bethesda is clearly making money - and that's good. But even better is the exercise of our own imaginations in our own games. To be sure, Oblivion and its ilk scratch a sufficiently similar niche to make them very appealing to tabletop gamers, but the unpredictability of a plot when a bunch of people are gaming together still far exceeds what can be done within a computer game.

* One of the major objections we all had to how Oblivion was originally designed was that the monster encounters "leveled" with you, i.e. you kept running into things about as tough as your character. This meant that as you get higher level, you might start running into bandits with extraordinary enchanted armor - how's that again?
** Trivia time: when your character arrives at Morrowind at the beginning of the game, the first person to interact with is Socucius Ergalla, the Customs and Excise Agent - and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Ken. Don't believe me? See for yourself. Past that, the dialogue your character might have with the Telvanni wizard, Divayth Fyr, sounds entirely too much like Ken running a table-top adventure. But that's another story.


  1. Yes, the level matching in Oblivion is highly awful. I didn't have the option to patch my xbox version :-/

    I started to hate the gates opening up distracting me from other missions, so my choice was to get the main quest finished ASAP leaving me time to get around to the side quests without the DOOM-like gates darkening my skies.

    More to your point, I really never quite got the sandbox feel out of Oblivion (or what I saw of Morrowind). Putting aside the main plot and all the side quests, there was little to do. It had the exploring feeling of sandbox play down, but I didn't feel like I could make or construct anything in the game world. Which isn't to say they weren't fun, beautiful games.

  2. "...but I didn't feel like I could make or construct anything in the game world."

    Yep; my ultimate objection to a lot of CRPGs is that there really isn't that much more to do besides kill things and take their stuff. It would be interesting if there was some sort of social and economic system (kept relatively hidden) that would allow someone to do something else. But that takes more work. I suppose one way you could do this is to make scripted quests in Morrowind whereby the reward would be an increase in NPC regard, and a decrease in prices, and maybe access to different goods. But that's just a start.