Friday, February 18, 2011

Personally Epic

So, tabletop RPGs and Video Games have their own strengths and weaknesses, but what is most interesting to me are the areas of overlap, where both are strong, but in tellingly different ways.

The most obvious example of this is in the realm of feedback, something I consider a strength for both models. Video Games allow much faster, finer grained feedback, but it must be within specific bounds. RPGs allow for broader (and more human) feedback on almost anything. This balance of strengths is very interesting, and obviously each approach would benefit from the strengths of the other. If we could offer deep, rich, immediate feedback to tabletop play, that would be as potent as adding real emotional investment to video game feedback.

The one that's really on my mind is scope. One of the recurring themes in Reality is Broken is about the human response to the "epic". This point comes up so often that I admit I never want to hear the word again, but it's an interesting one all the same. The assertion is that the level of work and detail that goes into crafting game worlds can inspire the same sense of awe that we get form other great works of man - cathedrals and such. The point is, I think, a little overwrought - a well made Halo level may be impressive, it's still experienced through a screen, and falls short of Notre Dame. Still, the underlying idea that Video Games can impress us with their scope is a good one. Controlling the sweep of empires, watching armies clash and other play at various scales is impressive and moving.

This is why a lot of video games have such high stakes within the fiction. A video games has the tools to get across to you some of the weight of saving the world, and that's pretty cool in and of itself, but it's also a clever leveraging of a weakness. The rub is this: it is easier to do epic than it is to do personal.

As people, we care a lot about other people and the world around us. Saving the world is a dramatic abstraction, but saving our kid brother is something we understand. We protect the people we love. We seethe in the face of those we hate. We engage people in a very personal way. For fiction (and by extension, games) the creation of those personal connections is an act of art, not science. Worse, it doesn't necessarily scale well, except perhaps in the hands of very talented artists. Making that connection is hard enough that most video games opt to take the easier route of going for epic[1]. And it's a smart choice - they've got the tools for it.

Tabletop inverts this. It can do epic, but it has far better tools for the personal. Some of this is a function of the medium - in play, it is easier to convey people than it is a special effects budget - but it's also a function of scale. A video game needs to impress everyone who plays it - a GM needs to impress a very small audience, an audience that she can watch and listen to. Yet for all that, there are tricks and methods a GM learns to use to capture that level of engagement reliably.

Ultimately, there will always be a bit of a divide in terms of which approach is stronger for which kind of scope, but unlike other differences, this definitely seems like one where each approach has a lot to learn from the other. To touch on yesterday, this is definitely something to look at ARGs for, as they often manage to convey scope without the immediacy of video games while still giving a slightly more personal sense of what's going on.

Anyway, having finished Reality is Broken, and having been drawing posts out of it all week, I really need to get around to reviewing it.

[back]1 - Video games _can_ do this, but it depends far more on good writing and design than any technology. The most visceral experience I had with this was in playing Dragon Age. I had played as a city elf, and the city elf introduction is probably the most powerful in the game, revolving around your family and very bad, very personal things happening to them. When you finally make it back to your neighborhood, you see some of the aftermath of events, and it's very human. Bioware avoided the cheap tricks and cliches, and in doing so made these characters come to life for me.

In the endgame, there's a point where you pull back to a strategic map of the city to see where the bad guys are hitting things. Nominally, you should be making tactical decisions about how you want to deal with this, but one of the threatened neighborhoods is your home. My instant, utterly instinctive response to that was that my family was in danger, and I picked that location without even looking at the rest of the map.

Dragon Age was a great game, but for all its amazing elements, that is still the element that comes to the top of my mind when I think about it. This is true of other games too - the moments that really stand out are the personal ones, like a well done death or something really moving. This may make no sense to anyone who hasn't played it, but here's another: to this day, I remember almost nothing about Final Fantasy IX (my least favorite in the series until XIII) but I remember Vivi and the Black Mage village.

Prick me and I can bleed other examples. This is the main reason I remain a CRPG junkie. Hard to get that fix elsewhere.


  1. Interestingly, I ordered my copy of Reality is Broken earlier today. Its good to know that whether or not you agree with McGonigal, its a wealth of interesting debate. Haven't had a chance to watch her interview on the Colbert Report yet (I'm in the UK so its not regular viewing for me!) but I'm interested in how it went.

    As for FFIX - my second favourite in the series. Obviously, I agree with your opinion on XIII.

  2. Interesting; have you seen Austin's various posts on our blog about epicness and heroicness in TRPGs? Epic is kinda his thing, what a large part of his brain is dedicated to. I'll direct him over here, see if it sparks more thoughts for him.

    Now, about the use of the media, I've not played it (not much of a video game person myself), but from what I've heard, Heavy Rain seems to do a lot of the personal-level drama you're talking about. Do you have any experience with it, or thoughts on why it may do that well (assuming it does at all)?

  3. My favorite moments playing CRPGs have been about personal drama, not epic. Planescape: Torment is my favorite by far in this regard. I got to know and care about each of the NPC allies and the main character. The game is genius.

    My second favorite is Knights of the Old Republic, IMHO more enjoyable than Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

    Surprisingly, I can't remember many moments playing CRPGs where I've really had strong feelings toward and hated the villains (Baldur's Gate II comes to mind though). On TV, shows like LOST and Deadwood have gotten a ton of mileage from this. I think CRPGs could make use of this.


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