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Sunday, May 06, 2007

That's The Rub

I'm not so sure that I play games (especially RPGs) as any 'character' other than myself - a person who vehemently seeks to demystify their game-world.

Yesterday, I started to play Planescape:Torment. Although Planescape was released in 1999, I'd only heard brief whispers of what my experience would entail. I remembered hearing that you could potentially play the game and bypass the majority of the combat through persuasive charm and, failing that, by running faster than Chikkita Fastpaws. I held this remembrance in mind as I created my character, investing all of my skill points in charisma, intelligence and wisdom - each traits that would further the storyline (intelligence and wisdom aid in the piecing together of lost memories), leaving my character immensely fragile. I'm still early in my Planescape experience, but what an experience! I can't quantify the pleasure of having NPCs fall over themselves in a rush to divulge all of their deepest, most sacred secrets to their new best friend ... who they just met ... as they unlocked the gate ... which they were supposed to be guarding ... to prevent people like myself from escaping. And the thrill of knowing a single wrong word could lead to a single blow which could spell instant death (not that this means much in Planescape, but I won't spoil the surprise for you!).

Many modern RPG staples seem obsolete: stats, loot, dungeon crawling; I'd rather explore the mind of a complex character than the lair of a dragon. Ethical decisions only present a dilemma as to which choice would trigger the most interesting result, the most exotic content. I like to play a game and think that I'm delving into areas that the developers later regretted coding, figuring that hardly anyone would go to the troublesome extremes required to stumble across their work. If I find a typo, incomplete text or placeholder, my quest has met with success.

Perhaps this quirk is borne out of a tiredness of traditional gaming archetypes, and a yearning for emergent gameplay. Games have become simpler in what I assume is an attempt to broaden their appeal. Unfortunately, I believe this simplification has led to the dumbing down or total removal of abstract or untested gameplay elements. Take, for example, the X-Com series, which began its tirade as a game of structural and personnel management, R&D, UFO interception, and crash-site investigation. Now, consider the evolution of the series, even if you discount that awful arcade-style space-shooter (X-Com Interceptor, was it?), there's no discernible progression, only a disintegration of the elements which made X-Com unique.

I seek to de-mystify my games, to tickle them in the right spot and have them bare their souls. That's right, games have souls. What I like most about games is that everything exists because someone thought it necessary; nothing exists without the inspiration of a coherent team - director, artist, coder, even QA's play their role in the humanisation of a lifeless body of script. I believe a little essence of character is rubbed into a game as each person gets to grips with their creative task. The citadel of Half Life 2 is a prominent example of script with soul. The citadel has a purpose and a meaning. My interpretation of this meaning is special because it's formed by the interplay of all my life's experience and all the citadel's developer's collective values.

When I first emerged from Half Life 2's train station and caught sight of the citadel, I forgot all about Gordon Freeman and his little mission to save the town from traffic congestion, or whatever. I was very firmly me. Me, gawping at something truly stunning. The same is true of corrugated iron. Fallout's rusty girders helped me unearth meaning in the midst of Junktown. There's no need for Pipboy. If the game's objectives are met, that's merely incidental to my quest of demystification. So long as there's a soul to be found, so long as the developers keep rubbing, I'll keep on digging.

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