Saturday, February 25, 2012

The dubious state of CRPG storytelling (engrish rehash, just because)

Right. So as much as I can read and translate just about anything from English to French, I never, EVER had proper grammar lessons, so bear with me while I'm practising, okay? :)

While playing through Fable III and Amalur recently, I finally realized what has been bothering me for some time with CRPGs: the genre is biting its tail. We constantly have to deal with the same clichés, the same story is being rehashed for the umpteenth time, and while the gameplay varies from one game to another, it can always be stripped down to the same stuff: you save the princess/best friend/world, become a superhero with godly powers and... well, basically: that's it. You barely even chuckle while firing up YourFavoriteRPG 154-28, where the hero, or almost naked heroine, falls back to level 1, forgetting everything he/she learned in the previous game and that would have allowed him/her to tear apart level 1 mobs in the starting area.

But that's not it either. Starting at level 99, after all, would be as boring as it gets. And if nothing heroic ever happened, you wouldn't give the least bit of a fuck.

My concern is of a broader kind. I don't think the genre will evolve much as long as the stories we recount again and again aren't returned to their real and proper scale: fleeting moments, beautiful stories which, over the course of aeons, become no more than that: beautiful stories, BEDTIME stories with very little interest - and almost probably no HISTORICAL interest.

You'll probably say Fable and Amalur share those very flaws. I certainly won't pretend they don't, but it seems to me that both point to the moon, and it would be a pity to look at the finger. Let me explain, however briefly.

* Fable III doesn't recount the story of a farm playboy with unlikely hairdo and an oversized sword who goes out to save the world from an evil god or an ex-soldier lacking half his wings. The hero's story is much more simple, almost mundane. It's "only" about a coup.  The kind of stuff that goes down in history books, with his name if he's lucky, then gradually disappears, as already stated. I mean, sooner or later, our beloved books will be nothing more than a Lascaux to any slightly advanced civilization that stumbles upon it. The game still remains - despite its flaws and mistakes - epic in its own way, fun and impressive.

* Amalur, on the other hand, boils down to the titanic hero and slayer of gods. But the whole environment, the story itself, scream that this geste will soon be forgotten. The House of Ballads is probably the most obvious example of this. Sigrell and the other Fae heroes are no more, maybe they have never been; there's only their story, told in a few rhymes that the Fae toil to recount again and again, lest their history, their heroes, dwindle and finally disappear. The lorestones also give brief glimpses of days gone by, of stories that once equalled the one we live in grandeur, yet shrunk away; and at the same time tell of futile moments, without rhyme or reason, which for some reason survived. All of it told bluntly, with no hesitation or selection. They are mere echoes of history, and all ask the same question: what will remain of it all?

And as if it weren't enough, the end of Amalur's story is just as it should (warning, spoilers ahead): after defeating the final boss (notwithstanding the disappointment given the lack of difficulty if one's armed with potions of Fate), we know exactly what will happen: the hero and his/her actions will quickly fall into oblivion. Not that he/she has little merit: she freed the world from the grip of a bloodthirsty god AND from the clutches of Fate itself. But he/she will remain silent about what truly happened in Alabastra. What will remain of this geste AT FIRST? The Tuatha came, almost conquered the world and suddenly lost their spirit and fell back. And while this observation is the starting point for the whole of Babylon 5 for example, here it is not so much a beginning as it is an end.

Back on topic. What is actually missing in current CRPGs may well be somewhere between these lines: uninteresting fates, partly glorified and soon falling back into oblivion. It may be a silly idea, but would it not be interesting, and refreshing for the genre, to switch sides and give the world its true place again: that of the hero of the story?

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