If you were to look at it from a philosophical standpoint, technically every video game that we play could be considered an RPG. Whether its taking control of a pre-written character in an established narrative, crafting our own heroes and stories or even just racing a car around a track, a lot of us choose to play games because they allow us to embody something other than ourselves. In the same way that a good book or an exciting film can transport us to other worlds, many people turn to video games in order to immerse themselves in an exciting adventure or experience, but others seek the solace and escapism the creativity of the medium offers.
If I had to guess, I would say that around 80% of my playtime would be dedicated to RPGs and the broad range of sub-genres covered by that umbrella term. I can pretty much find enjoyment in everything from massive AAA titles like Skyrim and Mass Effect, to smaller early access gems such as Ark: Survival Evolved and Subnautica, even though they all have wildly different styles when it comes to storytelling and gameplay. The recent release of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, and the huge success of other titles that include more ‘realistic’ game mechanics prove that this approach definitely deserves a place at the table, but it also raises the questions as to how much this pragmatism should influence the future of RPGs, a genre which has traditionally been quite fantastical in nature.
We don’t know what’s out there, maybe this is realistic?
Ever since the early days of role-playing games, developers have usually focused more on the adventure and characters within the narrative, often shirking the constraints of reality in order to tell thrilling and engaging tales. Classics such as Adventure, Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy enhanced the imagination and creativity of novels and table-top games, adding a whole new dimension to the experience and crafting a legacy that is still at the very foundation of contemporary gaming. The limitless freedom of make-believe has seen players travel to the far reaches of space, escape derelict labyrinths at the bottom of the sea and even forge themselves into the prophesied hero (or villain) of whole worlds. Some include the ability to insert your own avatar into the affair, others have expanded on established franchises from books and movies and many have inspired millions of people around the world, influencing everything from food to fashion. Personally, I love the ‘un-real’ nature of these games because it’s allowed me to immerse myself in stories that can be character building, heart-wrenching, hilarious, empathetic and even educational, sometimes all at once. I know I’m not alone in saying that role-playing games helped shape me into the kind of person I am today because they allowed me to embody and experience that adventurous spirit.
Conversely, in recent years I’ve found myself enjoying games that include more ‘realistic’ elements or mechanics. Predominantly found in early access, titles such as Rust, DayZ, The Long Dark, Astroneer and even Minecraft have exploded onto the scene, resonating with audiences and spawning a whole culture of YouTube content creators. With a few exceptions, these games often forgo narrative or characters, instead tasking the player with more real-world responsibilities like managing food, water, sleep and shelter. Depending on the game, you could also be trying to balance this undertaking with surviving dinosaurs, zombies, the vacuum of space or even other players, and although this may not seem ‘realisitc’ it does give rise to challenges that aren’t traditionally present in RPGs. You’d be forgiven for asking why something as mundane as staying fed and watered could be considered ‘fun’, but for me the answer lies in the progression and continued survival of my avatar, battling against the mechanics and watching the gradual expansion of my place within the game. Starting from nothing and clawing your way to the top can really give players a sense of accomplishment and overall enjoyment.
Surviving in The Long Dark is snow joke
In the last few years, we’ve seen games that try to blend complex stories and characters of traditional RPGs with the real world load of status management, to some measured success. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has realistic elements such as cooking, weather systems, weight, clothing and temperature, all of which were received well by fans of the series. Kingdom Come: Deliverance went several steps further in their pursuit of realism, basing the entire game on historical events and building all new kinds of mechanics to challenge players. A much deeper approach to equipment, reputation and skill development along with status management and an elaborate combat system have mostly served as a boon to the game, however other aspects have been met with harsh criticisms. A thoroughly stripped back and slightly confusing save system has irked some gamers, even though the developers promote this as a more ‘realistic’ experience. Also, the controversial decision to not include any people of colour and a general lack of diversity in the game because of ‘historical accuracy’ has not only driven players away, it has also prompted discussions around the social responsibilities of developers in today’s industry. Personally, I enjoyed some of the new challenges that KC: D presented, but I do think that Warhorse Studios and the development team could have been much more inclusive without compromising their ‘realism’, especially considering the liberties taken with other aspects of the game.
What is appropriate attire for a blood moon?
In an ideal world, the future of role-playing games will continue to grow and evolve alongside its player base. I, for one, welcome the addition of more realistic mechanics into the mix as long as it is used to support the narrative and enhance the immersion of all players. We can all imagine a bright future of an Elder Scrolls game that features complex crafting and farming or a Star Wars title that allows us to properly colonise a distant world. I definitely think that a lot can be gained by broadening the palette of RPGs, taking the wonderful adventure and fantasy of the genre to all new and limitless heights, but introducing greater realism in all its mundane glory shouldn’t be at the expense of actual enjoyment.
My full review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance can be found here