Last night I power-leveled by farming zombies with a stranger in the desert. To most human beings, what I just wrote means nothing. That’s because Role Playing Games are in a weird place right now. If I wanted to explain what happened last night to most human beings, I would say this: I boarded a ship to Alik’r, a city known for its palm trees and beautiful beaches. Unfortunately, when I arrived, I found that it was under attack by the living dead. Fearing for my life, I paired up with another adventurer, a Vampire well-versed in black magic. Together we faced the scourge. Running circles in the sand, throwing bolts at these zombies, we led them into an ever-tightening vise until they were ripe for the slaughter. My companion then called down lightning from the heavens as I swung my mighty mace into the horde, effectively pulverizing these foul creatures into a cloud of green blood.
At this point, most human beings would consider me a huge nerd. That’s A-OK with me. Role Playing Games are supposed to be about escaping into fantasy and allowing oneself to be silly for a moment. But log in to The Elder Scrolls Online and you will see a very different thing happening. Instead of story-tellers and creatives, you’ll be met with an army of technicians employing obscure acronyms like DPS and AOE (Damage Per Second and Area Of Effect, respectively) and performing nonsensical, repetitive actions (like killing the same fifteen zombies three hundred times in a row). We are a long way from the origins of RPG’s: a few friends sitting around a table, creating characters from scratch, and collectively imagining a Grand Adventure for them to embark upon. Today’s RPG’s, on the surface, may resemble their forebears: orcs, swords, magic, quests, sacred gems, etc. Playing them, though, you get the sense that this is all just paper-thin packaging around a core experience that more closely resembles stock-brokers attempting to game an open market. Check the forum discussions: it’s all about the numbers now. Have you seen the movie Moneyball? Turns out baseball went through the same transformation. Players became variables in an algorithm with only one end-goal: raising the net amount of points scored. So it is with RPG’s. Your goal has become, as a player, to raise the damage you deal and limit the damage you take. All of this to burn through enemies at a higher rate. The point of killing enemies faster? Who gives a shit. Snort a line of coke and put on your best Armani suit, it’s the 80’s baby and we’re all gonna be rich.
Back to last night in The Elder Scrolls Online. It’s now three hours later, and all we’ve done is repeat the aforementioned zombie slaughter. We’ve stopped only when our inventories grew full, at which point we returned to the nearby town, sold all of our goods, and returned to Zombie Beach. I am richer than when we started. I know this because in the top corner of my screen, when I press the “option” button, there’s a number that tells me so. Quantifiable progress. It’s all I live for. Remember the last paragraph? How much it sounded like a critique? Well guess what. I’m a big hypocrite. (I’m also a level 45 Orc Dragonknight with a very, very high DPS and a very, very powerful AOE.)
Realistically, I would estimate that I’ve read about 2% of all the lore and dialogue presented to me in The Elder Scrolls Online. I’m part of the problem with most RPG’s. But, then again, so are game makers. By lazily copy-pasting fantasy tropes, they have turned me into a numb, apathetic witness. I now scroll through the text as fast as possible and then look at the map for the next marker. I head to that marker using the compass that’s built into the game. There I place the glyph / mine the ore / summon the spirit / kill the beast / investigate the book / report to the NPC. Then I check my map for the next marker. Experience points rise, they fill the progress bar, my level increases.
I get it. Financial concerns mean corporations only bankroll games if they are considered safe investments. What’s a good way to make a game a safe investment? Design it similarly to a game that’s worked in the past. In this case, the highly-successful Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Do I feel that Skyrim brought anything new to the RPG table? Nope. Not thematically at least. It’s main accomplishment was importing the open-world model of GTA III into the realm of RPG’s. To be honest, I found it pretty boring.
Rare commodities now: innovative, open-ended story-telling with the power to summon a playful sense of Elsewhere. The freedom to choose one’s own path and venture out into the unknown. The fantasy of belonging to a different species in a truly fantastic world.
I’m sure these things, once the meat and potatoes of RPG’s, still exist out there. The space that originally birthed them, however, is now relatively barren. There are, of course, exceptions to this generalization (and I’m very much aware that I’m making one, as well as committing the crime of lumping together MMORPG’s and RPG’s). You can feel free to mention these golden few in the comments after insulting me generously. I’ll be out there in the desert, farming zombies like a moron.