Once upon a time there was a game titled The Four Crystals of Trazere. It was a little role playing game that ran on anything from CGA to VGA and could be fit onto a single modern floppy diskette. It was the standard fantasy formula: a group of four adventurers, each with their own special abilities, goes out into the world and saves it from an ancient evil.
What was hysterically bad about it was the combat system. These four characters could go around and take on enemy armies…and win. Entire legions could be wiped out by these four maniacs, one of whom was a bare-chested barbarian. All you had to do was hit the Enter key when a bad guy showed up on the screen, and you could walk away and the fight would go happily on without you.
Granted, most CRPGs tend to have their characters develop into walking tanks, but this was the most blatant of the bunch. Even the Diablo series, where the character eventually becomes the fantasy equivalent of the atom bomb, didn’t take it this far.
It really comes down to a give-and-take. By definition, a fantasy game will not have complete realism. Otherwise, the first monster that the character came across would have the same effect as a giant blender. On the other hand, to go completely out of whack spoils the mood of the game. One of the joys of the CRPG is watching a character grow in a consistent world; the hero goes from everyman to superman in the course of a single game.
The best CRPGs are grounded in real life. However, at the same time, they know what to put in and what to leave out. Hero’s Quest, a game that was re-named Quest for Glory, was one of the best early CRPGs I had ever seen. The skill sets grew as the character practiced them, the story was entertaining, and there was plenty to do.
Unfortunately, when it came to sleep, things got a bit annoying. You’d be in the middle of something important when a little box would pop up stating: “You’re getting tired.” Invariably, in the middle of completing the all-important quest was when you’d need to catch forty winks (although, at least this game handled most of the food issues automatically).
At least it wasn’t like Eye of the Beholder, where you had to feed all your characters yourself (and the rations only lasted about ten minutes). You’d start with some rations in your inventory, and then find more food on the dungeon floor, so you wouldn’t run out. Why anybody in their right mind would eat food they’d found on the floor of a monster-filled dungeon is beyond me. That anybody would think that feeding characters food found in a dungeon is fun boggles the mind.
(The most inane use of food in a game that I ever saw was Betrayal at Krondor. Not only did you have to feed your characters, but you had to check every ration on you to make sure it hadn’t gone bad. It was the only game I’d ever played where one of my characters died of food poisoning.)
It is true to reality that everybody eats. Even as I write, I have a cup of tea beside my computer. However, except in very rare cases, lunch isn’t an event that moves the story forward, or even adds anything to the game. It has the same level of importance as going to the washroom.
(Happily, at least to my knowledge, nobody has ever put going to the washroom into an CRPG, and hopefully nobody ever will.)
Weapons, at least, seem to be handled fairly well. The new Dungeons & Dragons games, such as Icewind Dale, can go a bit overboard when it comes to weapons slots; four slots for a warrior is a bit much, after all (go ahead…just try to stuff two swords, a battle-axe, and a polearm in your belt…I dare you). But that sort of thing falls under gameplay mechanics, and doesn’t actually detract from the game.
Actually, the most brilliant use of weapons I’ve seen so far has been in the Diablo series. Weapons wear out, and have to be repaired by a smith. In real life, that’s exactly the way it works. Go whacking a bunch of bad guys with a sword, and the sword will lose its edge. If you hit something really hard (like a heavily armored knight), the sword may even bend and have to be straightened. In Diablo, it’s all done with durability; as the durability of the item goes down, it needs repairs, which can be accomplished in a single click at the blacksmith.
That’s simple, elegant, and realistic. At the same time, it doesn’t require players to spend an hour sharpening and oiling their swords when they could be using the time slaying monsters.
I guess realism in CRPGs comes down to making reality convenient. Let’s face it, most day-to-day tasks aren’t terribly interesting. I still maintain that the world is wondrous and beautiful, but going to the washroom, eating, and sleeping can be just plain dull. They’re the things we do because we have to. And, while sometimes they should inform the events in an CRPG, they certainly should never dominate them.
I think the key is to make the game look realistic, while keeping inane elements out of the gameplay. For example, in Diablo whenever characters went into town, they sheathed their weapons automatically. It was a great bit of realism that didn’t pester the player with the details.
If any game designers are reading this, please, take a note: eating, oiling swords, and washroom breaks are all things that should be taboo in any CRPG. Sleeping is sometimes acceptable, but only when it doesn’t get in the way of the gameplay.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to kill an evil army.
Next installment: Language, Language, in which your glorious author looks at how language is used online…
Garwulf’s Corner was written from 2000-2002, by Robert Marks and published on Diabloii.net. Garwulf’s Corner covered gaming culture, fantasy literature, computers, and more. Robert Marks was also the author of Demonsbane, a work in the Diablo series of novels published by Blizzard Entertainment.