I always shudder when some game company or magazine claims that the latest RPG is the “future of the genre.” Besides being remarkably pretentious, the number of times it actually proves true can be counted on a single hand. The most recent offender here is Dungeon Siege, Microsoft’s answer to Diablo II.

    I probably sound like an old fogey when I say that I’ve seen it all before. The problem is, it’s true. I HAVE seen it all before. I remember the gold box AD&D games from the late 1980s. I remember what I think was the very first real-time RPG combat back in the early 90s, in a little-known game called The Four Crystals of Trazere. I remember Legend of the Red Dragon when it was NEW.

    (Wow…I AM an old fogey. I guess I just set the speed record for that.)

    I must admit, I have been fascinated by Dungeon Siege. I’ve spent hours reading reviews, previews, and little notes found in secret locations in an ever increasingly diabolical…er…let’s just say, I’ve been keeping informed.

    Is Dungeon Siege the future of the genre? Not really. It represents the past far more than the future. Almost every element advertised as interesting and new I have seen before.

    The first time I ever came across skill-based advancement was in Sierra’s Hero’s Quest, later renamed Quest for Glory. Diablo had random levels, and Diablo II created a world where you could walk from one end of a vast desert to the other without ever seeing a loading screen. AI script-based real-time party combat appeared in Baldur’s Gate, as did photo-realistic backgrounds. Dungeon Siege refines all of these elements into a single package, but doesn’t take the next great step forward.

    The truth of the matter is that it can’t. The technology has gone about as far as it can, and any game trying to push the envelope that way is pushing in the wrong direction.

    It may seem like a strange statement, but it is true. There will always be room for refinement, but that is all it will be. In a game such as Baldur’s Gate, which is far more complex than any of the Diablo games, everything can be accomplished with a single-button mouse, and the interface can be learned in less than ten minutes. It’s a far cry from the keyboard-based interface of Realms of Arkania way back when. The game will become more attractive, with high-resolution 3D rendered images and characters, but that is an esthetic quality, rather than a great leap forward.

    The future of the genre doesn’t lie in the technology. For that matter, it never did. What made Gateway to the Savage Frontier a wonderful game back in 1991 had nothing to do with early VGA graphics. It was the gripping story and interesting world. You wanted to keep the bad guys from invading the north via the ruins of Ascore. You cared about the welfare of Neverwinter. With that story and world, the game would have worked without any graphics at all.

    The future of the genre lies in a balance of storytelling and world creation. Baldur’s Gate was a great example of this. It presented a large and, more importantly, living world. In this world were interesting characters and a gripping story. The game even managed to raise the question about whether one’s quality is determined by actions or bloodline.

    If you look at the genre right now, you will find some excellent examples of world creation. Morrowind, which essentially allows the player to wander around in a realm as big and involving as our own (in theory), is the latest in a long tradition of games that specialize in gigantic worlds with lots to do. The Ultima games have been doing this for ages, and as far back as 1993 Realms of Arkania was advertising a world with over 70 towns and dungeons. A good fantasy world is immersive, with an internal consistency that allows the player (or reader, or viewer) to learn its rules and appreciate its beauty. It does not necessarily have to be physically immense, but it does have to have variety and depth; ideally, any MMORPG should be able to be set in any regular RPG world, and vice versa.

    However, the most important element of the genre will always be the storytelling. Without a good story, the world is nothing more than window dressing. While there are subquests in a good RPG that have nothing to do with the main story, this acts to enhance the background, creating the illusion of a living world. Most of the subquests, though, serve a different purpose; they are related to the main plot, and can even advance it in new and unexpected directions.

    I like to compare it to a pattern of fabric. The primary threads are the main plot. Unrelated subquests and the general world design are cross-threads used to bring out the beauty of the piece, while related sub-quests run with the primary threads, interweaving and increasing their complexity. Without a good main thread, the rest of the weave is dull and uninteresting, but when done just right, the cross-threads and complimentary threads can turn a good pattern into an amazing one.

    The future of the CRPG has always rested in the quality and constant fine-tuning of the weave. The better the story, the better the game. Too many unrelated quests and the player loses sight of the plot. Too few and the world seems flat and uninteresting. But no weave is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. As the pattern becomes better, the stories that are told become deeper and more relevant. And, with the current mix of great graphics and storytelling potential, a Lord of the Rings of computer games cannot be far away.

    My hope is that the game designers will now cast aside pushing the technological envelope in favor of improving the quality of storytelling. The current technology is incredible; all it needs now is a flood of ever-improving stories to go with it.

    Next installment: To Judge a Medium, in which the author examines the recent court ruling in St. Louis.

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