The World of Western RPGs

Modern Age - 2002-2007

Modern Age, our era. To be honest this era does not really bring any innovation when it comes to design. Sure the writing in general has improved, but the themes and stories of these games are pretty much the same as what has been present in the genre. The most significant thing about this era is that 2D is finally dead. RPGs have become 3D, including bloom effects and extreme facial expressions.

Okay there is this one important innovation. The perfection of barbie-dressing. What is barbie-dressing? It is the ability to customize your character's appearance any way you want - be it from the variety of clothes to wear, or adjusting height and body build, or creating any face. This barbie-dressing existed in the clothing form since Diablo, where different armors changed the appearance in minor ways. Starting with Fallout and Baldur's Gate, the armor you wore changed your appearance in quite a significant way. But it is not until going 3D that RPGs have perfected this barbie-dressing phenomenon. The next game I am going to talk about, Morrowind, is the first 3D RPG that features a wide variety of fashion for your characters to wear.

There is another thing in this era where Diablo's influence is apparent - almost every RPG is marketed as an Action RPG. This makes the word Action RPG quite meaningless when games as fundamentally different as Jade Empire and Gothic 3 are both marketed as such, but it just shows that RPGs in general are replacing indirect control of the character (skills and shit) with direct control (press S to Seduce).

This era is also dominated by the heirs of Interplay (Black Isle) - BioWare (because of the close relations in its early days), Obsidian (because it is filled with important Black Isle people), Troika (because it was lead by the three Fallout guys) and CD Projekt (because I feel like it).

Let's make a quick summary. 80's - the birth of Sir-tech (Wizardry), Interplay (Bard's Tale), New World Computing (Might and Magic), SSI (Gold Box games) and ORIGIN (Ultima). This is the mythic era of the forefathers. If you know your history, you know that all nations have had the need to tie themselves with some mythic past. People have felt the need to have some strong roots and if they cannot have that they make up those roots. The biggest problem of the new-born German nation in the 19th century was exactly the lack of mythic roots. So they made up those roots. Whereas the Jews for example have very strong mythic roots that go back to to the creation of the universe. Historical or not, the fact is that they have a chronicle of forefathers that goes back to the garden of Eden. That is probably one of the reasons for the strength of their enduring.

"What the fuck, man?"

Of the five mythic forefathers, four of them died without heirs. But Interplay had heirs - two directly blood related, one of them now dead. BioWare can be considered adopted by Interplay and even CD Projekt can make a mystical connection to Interplay if they try. The heirs of Interplay have some sort of a magical aura to them, elvish blood, a divine birthright. It is something that most developers born after 80's do not have.

"What the fuck, dude. Seriously, I like Super Mario but I do not care much for this Holy Blood, Holy Grail crap."

This decade has been dominated by these heirs of Interplay. And their approach to RPGs has been rather similar, the differences being their unique personalities. The only RPG development studio to offer an successful, alternative approach in this decade has been Bethesda. But Bethesda was born in the 90's, without a powerful father. It has no mystical blood relations to the early forefathers. Yet, they have been more successful than the heirs of Interplay but... in the near future Bethesda will deliver a sequel to Fallout. And I feel this is because Bethesda wants to obtain that divine blood right, it wants to tie itself with a beginning and have a root. Even RPG developers need a mythic past.



Things to pay attention to:

  • First RPG to have extreme facial expressions
  • the evolution of homosexual romances in BioWare games
  • what makes Bloodlines so awesome
  • difference between Obsidian, Bethesda and BioWare
  • the second RPG to star Patrick Stewart as the kingly figure nearing his death.

MorrowindThe first Elder Scrolls game that became a blockbuster, it made the Elder Scrolls mainstream. This title follows the old simulated world design, though not in the way Ultima 7 did. This is far more closer to Darklands - a big world with a sense of history, exploration, linear quests, linear storyline, the game continuing after the completion of the main quest, the place where I put the "etc." and so on.

Just like Darklands, the game with its quests and things is rather repetitive. But the lore, oh my, Morrowind is one of the finest fantasy worlds ever created. It is slightly inspired by the 1st century Israeli Temple society and Roman occupation, but unlike many other fantasy worlds Morrowind uses the inspiration to create something new and different. It IS one of the finest examples of hand-crafted worlds. This truly is breathtaking and not only because of the graphics; the art design is a work of genius. Morrowind is a sensual experience not to be overlooked. In fact it is all about walking through nice places and drooling at the landscapes that do not exist in this form in real life, while admiring the nice skybox. It is the greatest travelling photographer game ever.

Neverwinter Nights seriesNeverwinter Nights started a new era of RPGs. The whole game was essentially a toolset to let you create your own games with an example module added to it. Unfortunately a lot of fans expected a great single-player adventure, which they did not get because according to popular opinion, the official campaign was one of the worst things ever to grace this earth. On the bright side, the fan-made modules business really kicked off and a lot of great games came out of it. A lot of bad games as well, because unfortunately most RPG fans are on the level of the worst fan fiction writers. But that does not take away from the value of NWN.

It was later followed by two expansions that offered a bit more single-player experience. Especially the second expansion gave lead writer David Gaider a status as the star romance writer of the genre. So far that pretty much holds true, since romances not written by David are usually quite painful. His finest work is in KotOR - the romances of Bastila and Carth. He is also the writer/creator of Jolee Bindo and HK-47. Like with all writers I bother bring up, what I am trying to say is that you need to remember this name. Later, Obsidian delivered the sequel and tried to make it a satisfying RPG experience from the start. Unfortunately they chose to retell the tale about the little chosen one who could. Even though their version of the tale is well presented, it feels too familiar.

The NWN 2 expansion Mask of the Betrayer is a totally different matter. Usually, the NWN series is not recommended for great single-player experiences, but because of the package as a whole. Mask of the Betrayer however quickly rose to become a new cult classic in the RPG world. Its cult status is quite similar to Torment's, because George Ziets - to whom I should look up in awe (Twisluia for short) for making MotB - is one of the few writers in the RPG world who is remembered by many people because of his writing. It is beyond good, it is awesome beyond belief, capable of delivering an orgasm with mere words. Mask is a unique game that enhances itself with tormentian quality writing and falloutian choices and consequences. Basically, what Obsidian did in MotB is a lot like what ORIGIN did with the Ultima Adventure games - creating a unique title where such amount of creativity unleashed that would not have been made with a bigger budget. In the end, NWN was a successful project, delivering a lot of crap, but also quite a few fine gems.

Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

Gothic 2Gothic 2 basically is like Gothic. It even takes place on the same island, it is only bigger and prettier. The sad part is that while Gothic 1 had a good motivation - survival and prison break - then Gothic 2 does not have that. Instead it dwells into ancient prophecies and your goal is to get off this beautiful island.

Gothic II

Knights of the Old RepublicThis game brought fame to BioWare outside the PC market. It shows how BioWare makes Torment's design its own. While in the BG series your dialogue choices mostly served the purpose of merely continuing the conversation, and Baldur's Gate II was much more of a classic western RPG than Torment, it is in KotOR that BioWare constructs the bridge between the two worlds of RPG. The dialogue choices now also serve the purpose of explaining your intentions, since the Truth or Lie options from Torment make their appearance here.

The second game marks the start of Obsidian's life. Obsidian was founded by the people that were behind the Black Isle Studios - who published the early BioWare games. I assume it was because of these old, friendly relations that they acquired the exclusive rights to make a sequel to a top-selling game. Both of these developers are similar and the two games can be even abstracted down to same elements, but I would like to point out a few differences between how Obsidian and BioWare approached the games.

Both titles adapted Torment's design, which in KotOR 2's case is not surprising since the lead is the same, meaning that you are given control over your character's mind. However, in KotOR you choose between good and evil personalities, completely different persons who are embodied into the same avatar for the player to make choices. In KotOR 2 you choose between different personalities that all suit the character of the protagonist and her background story. Game mechanics in KotOR are there because they are there. The game is tied to mechanics rather than mechanics to the game. For example, how much a party member will reveal about himself depends on how many levels you have gained. In KotOR 2, the mechanics are tied to game and thus something as stupid as "level up" is written into the game's story and given an eerie meaning. Also, the party members' stories are unlocked from the levelling system and depend on how much they trust the player. The player gains trust by either manipulating them or being really sincere (in the latter case only a few will like him).

Some of these differences might be because Obsidian has no writers, they have designers who also write, while BioWare has separated designers and writers. Speaking of BioWare's writers, I feel that Drew Karpyshyn is unfairly unknown even though he is the lead writer of two important RPGs - KotOR and Mass Effect. And then of course there is a difference between writing and tone.

KotOR I: there are people in the universe who do not know how to live - Jedis, Sith, etc... and so they fucked up the galaxy. It is up to the protagonist to kick a lot of butt, call a lot of people "You fucking blowjob!" and set things right. In the end it is up to him to give the fate of the galaxy back to the people (Light Side) or give the entire universe a huge fuck you and take control of the galaxy (Dark Side).

KotOR II: you take control of an empath who was forced to commit an atrocity in the war, which shattered and seriously fucked up her psyche. In the journeys of her life, she has gained the interest of a fellow empath with a similar teacher/healer background, who takes the role of a mentor for this poor, seriously fucked up empath chick. Through the travels with her mentor, she either finds life again (Light Side) or is forever lost in death (Dark Side).

These kind of differences I described are what distinguish Obsidian and BioWare even now.

"You could just have said that Bioware is epic conflict spiced with personal,
while Obsidian is personal conflict spiced with epic."

No, my puppy love for Interplay's heirs is too overwhelming for me to withhold unnecessary words.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II - The Sith Lords

Vampire: The Masquerade - BloodlinesThe third and last game by Troika. As mentioned before, Troika was that little company that made the greatest games ever that no one heard about and then died a painful death. As usual, in RPG design this game is an example to behold, for the atmosphere and style alone. This game is style - it embraces the player into a dream and never lets go. So far this is the only RPG where the player keeps seeing something in the corner of his eye. While in regular RPGs a different class/race does not mean much, in Bloodlines playing a Malkavian completely changes the game into a weird big drug dream - hearing voices and having a complete change in dialogue contribute heavily to this.

Speaking of dialogue, this game is definitely amongst the top three in writing in RPGs. It is like playing a Quantin Tarantino movie, since the dialogue has a similar attitude. Just think of Pulp Fiction, that is how Bloodlines often feels like. This is combined with some of the best voice-acting in games ever, and the marvellous Source engine allowed for facial expressions, making it the first RPG to feature it.

The writing is pretty damn good and Brian Mitsoda is usually praised for this. This title is not a story RPG however. In a way it is much more closer to Realms of Arkania or Darklands, meaning that it simulates situations and provides you many ways of overcoming those. That is achieved through brilliant dialogue and excellently staged situations, rather than through numbers and shit.

Countless Diablo clonesI really did not want to talk about Diablo clones since they are so boring, but I am a masochist. Okay, Diablo clones. What are these games? They are horrible uninspired games that probably only a few gamers will play. They do not do anything different than Diablo and after Diablo II they popped up like mushrooms after rain. The most known Diablo clone is the Dungeon Siege series. They turned the isometric hack-and-slash gameplay into 3D. In these games you start from the beginning and then fight your way to the end. I mean, you are on a linear roller-coaster and all you do is fight. Dungeon Siege managed to be popular enough to justify its existence, but it was also the last Diablo clone that was successful.

It is funny how there are so many Diablo clones made and the companies behind do not survive past a first game. Let's take Iron Lore for example. They did Titan's Quest, which is a Diablo clone set in ancient Greece. Then they also did an expansion for it. And then they went bankrupt. In their defence, it was an original move to set it in ancient Greece, but sadly, the Diablo-style gameplay is just too boring. Why play a clone set in a different environment when you can play God of War that offers much better action and immersion? Hellgate: London. a diablo clone set in a futuristic, demon-infested London. It failed. Mage Knight: Apocalypse. I do not even want to bother with this game. And then there are countless other Diablo clones from Europe like Sacred (which was actually quite good for a clone). When it comes to RPGs Europe has not really been an interesting continent (except for The Witcher and Gothic). Most of the time they just repeat what others did and they repeat it in a boring and uninspired way. However, I do have positive words for Divine Divinity. At first, it seems an average Diablo clone, the interface and basic gameplay is rather similar, but it is actually an open-ended RPG with an interactive gameworld that just took some (bad) inspiration from Diablo. Westwood's last RPG, Nox, was wise enough to approach the Diablo cloning with a likeable, joking attitude.

In a way, the Diablo cloning is similar to what happened with Dungeon Master in the mid-nineties. There are just too many of them and their individual strengths are not enough to overcome the sense of familiar nausea. However, where Dungeon Master clones dominated the RPG scene in the mid-nineties, meaning that there was little variety and the games did not attract any outsiders, in these days there are also succesful games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and that is why no one is screaming that the end of RPGs is neigh.

The Bard's TaleApart from the name and the designer Brian Fargo, The Bard's Tale has nothing to do with the original series. Instead of being a hardcore RPG for sad people, it is one of the few parody games in the genre. Like Steve Meretzky's Superhero League of Hoboken that parodied the typical RPGs of the 90's, The Bard's Tale parodies the typical RPGs of the 00's - Diablo clones. Unfortunately, as a game, it repeats all the mistakes of its kind, but it should be mentioned that more parodies would be welcome. Also, it is one of Tony Jay's last roles. And it is a musical.

FableFable is the first attempt at an RPG by Peter Molyneux (who is like famous). It is most known for the dissapointment it caused, since the content did not live up to the hype. The writing is far from brilliant, but the additional Sims elements to the game make it have a distinct face. Like in KotOR you can do evil and good, but while in KotOR you get slightly more meaningful consequences to your actions apart from your face getting a more evil-looking complexion, in Fable that is the only consequence. It is easier to compare it to Dragon Quest 5, as in both of these games you play out the entire life of the hero, from childhood to marriage, but where DQ5 is a traditional JRPG, Fable plays mostly out like... damn, I cannot really come up with anything witty, so basically it is a friendly, casual game focusing on the most important element of RPG design - barbie-dressing. That makes iit a nice gift for the little princess inside of you.

Jade EmpireI had some doubts about adding Jade Empire to this list, since in essence it does not bring anything new to the basic BioWare RPG formula. But then I remembered one thing, a very important detail. This is the first RPG where the player can participate in homosexual romances and even a threesome. Yes, you could have homosexual sex in Ultima 6 and 7, as well as in Fallout 2, but in those games it was more like casual sex than relationships based on love. In most games (with the exception of Serpent Isle) with its semi-graphic 2D sex scene) the screen fades to black during the sequence. Not in Jade Empire, the romance is shown along with an epic kiss. Gay romances still get the fade to black treatment however.

OblivionThe second game to star Patrick Stewart as the kingly figure. Oblivion is the first Western RPG since Diablo to reach mainstream appeal. The reason behind it? It came out for consoles and console RPG players really had not seen anything like it before. Oblivion, like the Gothic series, is the closest thing to Ultima 7 we currently have and the creators of both franchises are indeed the fans of this game. But, while Gothic had less detailed NPCs and NPC schedules, Oblivion decided to randomize it all and thus proved that no A.I can indeed replace good old scripting. The Radiant A.I quite often delivers hilarious results when one decides to dig deeper than five seconds. But on the other hand, like Morrowind, Oblivion delivers a really beautiful, hand-crafted world (though less original than Morrowind) and has simplified the gameplay sufficiently to make it more of an experience than challenge. Like the Gothic games, it is one of the first attempts to do full voice-acting for such a big game world filled with thousands of NPCs. The results? Well just like Ultima 6 messed up with a lot of things, so does Oblivion, but Ultima 6 was followed by Ultima 7, and it may be so with the Elder Scrolls games too.

The biggest strength of Oblivion, as an Elder Scrolls game, is that it overcame the repetitiveness that the previous games suffered from. Previously the stories usually offered three basic quests and countless variations on them. The first two did not have any brilliantly designed worlds to explore either. Oblivion introduces dynamic elements into this core ES gameplay. The way you stumble upon quests or the way some of them are designed, feels more natural than in any other RPG.

Comparing it with its predecessor, Oblivion replaces Morrowind's brilliant art design with bloom. What does it mean? While Morrowind will have a, everlasting appeal thanks to its unique look, Oblivion will last only as long as the next fantasy game with more realistic forests comes out. The screenshots below are from the brilliant art design in Shivering Isles. Just making sure to prevent a "wtf!" response.

"Hey, you said "look here!", when talking about make-believe somewhere in the beginning.
But you are saying nothing. I'm out of here."

While I have mostly tried to write about the history of RPGs as a semi-linear progress towards perfection, the truth is that this progress is more semi than linear. While Oblivion has done much to save RPGs from the sad people of turn-based combat, it has actually reinforced the power of sad people of make-believe. There are so many faults in Oblivion that break the believability of its world. You are not supposed to notice it, you are supposed to make-believe that there are no faults and that they are actually playing a forsaken dead god pornstar while they are actually not.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles

The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles

Gothic 3Gothic 3 continues the tale of the Nameless Prisoner just after he escaped from the island. This time he has to save the entire world, and he also gets to explore it (expect the island from first two games). As mentioned in the section about the first Gothic, all titles in the series are sandbox games leaning towards exploration. But unlike Elder Scrolls, they have defined characters rather than random NPCs, which means that at least some of the population in the game is written with some characterization in mind.

Gothic 3 is however a bit different from its predeccesors. It is the only world RPG game that tries to provide dynamic branching inside the plot that tries to manifests itself upon the world. Hmm... sounds awfully complicated. Let me try to explain. Fallout invented C&C. Fallout was a world game. The C&C in Fallout played a really significant role inside the plot and in the world. Later games that use C&C have so far all been story games. Elder Scrolls are world games. But the C&C they have has a really minimal effect on the world and on the plot. Gothic 3 tried to give C&C a more important role in world games again.

The first two Gothic titles were underground hits, but Gothic 3 was a major disaster from which development studio Piranha Bytes has yet to recover. It tried to achieve the mainstream success of Oblivion, but instead found cold rejection from the fans and potential new players stayed away from it because of its buggy reputation. It is a sad fate for such a good game. Also, the soundtrack is awesome.

Mass EffectThe latest story-oriented game by BioWare. I also have to mention that BioWare is probably the only development studio in the world that considers spending most of the marketing process on hyping up the dialogue of the game is a good idea. That makes them the good guys. The game itself features the same kind of choose-your-adventure gameplay they birthed with KotOR, where you are given a defined character whose personality and life you shape with your choices in the game. While Jade Empire was the first BioWare game and the first WRPG to have a kiss scene ending the romance, Mass Effect is definitely the first RPG to have a full hollywoodian sex scene. No, the sex scene in Gothic II does not count, because the hero and the lady were clothed, and this time, the gay people get the same treatment as heterosexual players.

With Mass Effect BioWare tried to tell a heroic adventure story in the most extreme way as possible. As can be seen, its cinematic quality is undeniable. It is also the shortest BioWare game and the first RPG to have "extreme" facial expressions.

The WitcherThis game has the honor of being the last title in the article. It is a bit hard to digest the importance of The Witcher, since it is rather new, but from my view the most important thing about The Witcher is that it finally improved on the current RPG design of choices and consequences. Before Witcher, all we got were mostly simplified choices and consequences - what you choose is what you get. This game actually delivers long-term consequences instead of short term. This means that the choices you make actually come into play much later than the situation you were currently in and that you do not immediately know what your choices will bring you. This is a much needed element of surprise in choices and consequences. No, surprise is a wrong word, but a certain subtlety is what choices and consequences have needed for a long time.

Of course, it has other merits too - especially noteworthy is how it handles the issues of pre-marital sex. But Witcher is more than just a well-designed adult game. All these elements it uses - the interactivity of Gothic, tormentian themes, choices and consequences, breathtaking graphics and music, NPC schedules - there is a certain perfection in this craftmanship. Never since Ultima 7 have we seen a world showing such believable and realistic human relationships, though the approach is much more cynical towards human nature than Ultima 7's approach.

In a way it is fitting that The Witcher has the honor of ending this evolution of RPGs article, because it definitely is one of the finest things that the genre has to offer and it certainly has improved a lot of things from previous games. Here is one to Witcher and all other great RPGs of the past. Now it is time to do the final rant and then it is goodbye.

Continued: The indies

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs