It literally hit me as soon as I saw the controversial words of Gordon Walton, in an interview you probably missed. “Who is Gordon Walton, anyway?” Many people missed his epic, candid interview with Games Industry at GDC, where he lamented the changing dynamic between publishers and development houses. He said a lot of controversial things – one of which was that Activision’s current model would “end in catastrophe” – but I want to focus on one line that literally woke me up from an inexplicable melancholy caused by a slew of spoon-fed experiences.

Walton said that “[The] Sims 1 was bigger than Sims 2 and bigger than Sims 3,” despite being “the least high res,”

“It gave you iconic stuff instead of expository stuff. And you were listening to that simulation, making up what it meant in your head. You were looking at their tiny little animations and you were putting the emotion in there.”

They’ve been disappointing because they’ve been spoon feeding me exposition.

When I read that, gears started grinding in my head. Some of you will have read my previous article ‘Why the hell should Larian Studios get your money?’ in which I discussed why being slightly less ambitious with voice over and graphical style/fidelity can free up more resources to increase the depth of your game. In that article, I showed at least some disdain for modern aRPGs (not because they are action oriented) because with the AAA polish often comes a lot less depth.

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 I can’t stop playing AvernumHD: Escape the Pit (review forthcoming).

I thought that my RPG melancholy was because of the aforementioned problems, but after reading what Walton had to say about The Sims – something I would have never said myself, but something that seems genuinely logical when heard – I realised I was only half right. Recent RPG experiences haven’t been disappointing simply because they’re not as expansive or descriptive as classic RPGs like Divine Divinity, Ultima VII, or Baldaur’s Gate, they’ve been disappointing because they’ve been spoon feeding me exposition, and I’ve been putting nothing but time into them.

Walton argues that, without imagination, gamers cannot be engaged.

Think about Walton’s example of The Sims 1. I don’t really know anyone – including LGR, someone I greatly admire – who would go out of their way to say The Sims 1 is better than The Sims 3. Maxis have gone strides in improving the dynamic of the game and giving you things to do. But I don’t think that’s Walton’s point. Walton is suggesting that certain games can be more engaging than others. The Sims 3 needs to give you a truck load of content, because all the content is whimsically animated and explained; it’s exposition. There’s no conscious input – your imagination isn’t engaged. Walton argues that, without imagination, gamers cannot be engaged, and whimsically animated exposition gets boring after the first run, which is why there’s so much of it.

In other words, being spoon fed exposition results in problems of its own. Whilst it’s great watching awesome stuff happen in the form of animations, visuals, events, scripting, and voice over, etc, it’s all being given to you. Your brain isn’t engaged. It’s eye-candy, in the most literal sense. Junk food for your eyes. This is where I get to a point of contention: I did not enjoy Skyrim, and I don’t play a game to mess around with the modding potential. For me, that’s not an added layer of depth, that’s just an indicator that you were sold something that doesn’t meet your standard. Sure, there are a hundred arguments as to why modding is fun – and it is fun – I’m just saying I don’t enjoy an RPG for its modding potential. Please allow me that.

When you’re someone in my position who talks gaming all day with a number of different people all over the world, you really need a constructed argument for why you do or do not like something. Skyrim was a tough one, but ultimately it’s for the reasons outlined in my article linked above: polish over depth (and it really wasn’t all that polished). Total Biscuit – a man I disagree with more often than not – said it best (surprisingly): “It has the depth of a puddle”. The first time I saw a dragon it was as epic as Bethesda had made out. Then it got boring. The first time I saw scripted wildlife after emerging from that cave, I got the “oooh” RPG feeling, but then it wore off. The first time I saw each village, I was blown away by the artistry that went into making them, but then it sunk in: this isn’t a world, it’s a game. That’s just how I felt, and it makes me no more or less of a person than you. Each to their own, this isn’t about right or wrong.

his entire life flashed before my eyes as though I were remembering some HBO period drama

So what’s the problem with many games at the moment? They don’t engage the player. There’s no room for imagination. Everything is spoon fed to you, right in front of your face. Big, bold, and polished. When you play a lot of games, you’ve seen it all before. What you can show me in polygons will never be as grand as whatever my imagination can render, given the tools. When I read the description of a pale and decrepit cave dweller in a game like AvernumHD on my tablet, I have a much more realistic and vivid image of him – even as a tiny pixelated sprite – than if he were rendered for the PS3. He becomes a memory. I’m able to bring these characters, and this world, to life. In the 10 seconds it took me to read a description of this guy, his entire life flashed before my eyes as though I were remembering some HBO period drama.

Isn’t there something beautiful about rendering characters in game yourself, rather than being spoon-fed someone else’s vision? It’s like when your favorite book becomes a horribly miscast movie. I want to choose how wrinkled Jon Doe’s face is, and how tattered his clothes are; it’s up to me to paint him, and it’s not like I’m incapable of that. We’re all smart people.

Suddenly, I understood why these retro RPGs are so popular, and so important – and why Final Fantasy 7 has everyone so infatuated. They (the players) rendered in their minds, through their hearts, the emotional context for the world and all its characters. They engaged with the characters, and they drew their emotions. The players invested into the world with thought and creativity, because it was crude and nondescript. Without facial animations, it was up to us to delve into the minds of the games protagonists, and to understand how they would react, through how they feel, and why they felt it. We just don’t get that any more.

How would you write Squall?

You were the lead protagonist.

If you look at Final Fantasy VIII‘s main star, the brooding and emotionally unhinged Squall, what you have is a crude, emotionless lump of polygons. The PS1 wasn’t capable of animating deep seated emotions on faces that were nothing more than  few squiggly lines on a bucket-head – yet Squall was, to me, one of the most relatable and emotionally dynamic characters in any RPG of recent memory. He was stiff, unanimated, and almost faceless: yet he was, arguably, more three-dimensional than any of the literally three-dimensional characters in any of Final Fantasy’s successors. He wasn’t that way because of presentation, he was that way because the depth of story, with dialogue unhindered by voice-over commitments, allowed the player to connect and engage with the context, and feel how that character would feel, projecting his own emotions onto him. You were the lead protagonist. Everyone playing was Squall, and everyone playing was Cloud. That’s why, in their own respective ways, players relate to these ‘blank canvas’ characters so soulfully. You pictured a scene in your head derived from how you felt about the context. What ever happened to that?

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It is fascinating to me that no character creation variable can feel as much yours as a pre-defined, scripted character with crappy graphics and a truck load of written dialogue. In the same way you grow to know literary characters as though their lives were real, through the sheer depth of the written text, crudely rendered characters with good depth of story have you engaging with their lives to a greater extent than one you made yourself, in a sand box environment. There’s an enormous disparity between crudely rendered classic RPGs (and any genre of game, for that matter) and AAA, modern titles – and I agree with Walton when he says imagination has been pushed aside for exposition.

Think of classic RPGs like an illustrated novel. You know what the characters look like through two-dimensional sketches, but how they react to the world and events around them is entirely up to you. With that stencil, you shape the character throughout the story. The grandness isn’t subject to an engine like Unreal 3.

There’s a lot to see, but there’s never anything to explore…

I had serious problems trying to engage with Mass Effect 3. A heavily emotional finale in a three part series, I couldn’t help but sigh at many of the over-arching emotional cliches. Everyone was emotional. Everything was exploding. Whilst this was all being shoved in my face all the time, I didn’t feel engaged with any of it. It’s not like I wasn’t trying to be engaged. I loved the first, and I completed the second. The entire episode was one big exposition fest. Science fiction is supposed to tie in with mystery. It’s scary, it’s imaginative. Science fiction is philosophic. Mass Effect 3, however, is not. Everything is spoken at you, and everything is shown to you. The universe is explorable, and the story unfolds – like a movie. Once you strip science fiction of mystery and intrigue, you’re basically left with a soap opera that just so happens to be in space (Star Wars, anyone?)

In my opinion, a good RPG shouldn’t just be an emotional soap opera.

I understand that much of what I’m saying can be filed in ‘unpopular opinion’, and it’s not very useful, either, but isn’t it interesting how we’re at a stage where exposition really has overtaken imagination? In many AAA titles, imagination has become a marketing tool pre-sale. You see posters of artfully painted open worlds, with a shifty dark character standing in the foreground looking out. What an adventure there is to come, they say. Once you get your hands on the game, however, you’re just… spoon-fed countless hours of scripted events, where people talk at you, and exposition stamps out intrigue. There’s a lot to see, but there’s never anything to explore…

Whilst the majority of you won’t agree with me, I really think I understood what Walton said when he exclaimed: “It’s challenging, because people are just not as engaged if their imaginations aren’t engaged.” That’s why I’m bored of modern RPGs, but it’s okay that you’re not.

Ending on the original quote, which I hope you’ll read again:

“It gave you iconic stuff instead of expository stuff. And you were listening to that simulation, making up what it meant in your head. You were looking at their tiny little animations and you were putting the emotion in there.”