Old Skool

This isn’t even vaguely related to Conspiracy Theories, commentary on Conspiracy Theories or, well, anything I usually talk about. It’s a rant about computer game design and it was written quite some time ago. I never used it anywhere and `discovered’ it whilst trawling through my files. I’m slinging it up here because I want to uncluttered my Documents folder and this seems as good a place as any to put it.

Also, I think the point I was making in… 2005? is still largely true.

And I liked Deus Ex 2. Just not as much as the first one.

CRPGs: Designed by Flaws?

Like many, I suspect that the first thought that entered my mind after hearing that Deus Ex 2 would not feature a skill system was a mighty ‘Arrgh!’ With no experience system to speak of, Deus Ex 2 was destined to simply be a novelty shooter.

Then I played Arx Fatalis.

I liked Arx Fatalis, mostly because it felt like an Ultima Underworld. The game world, although small, provided me with some nice vistas to explore, had an interesting spell system and the crypts felt like Thief’s ‘The Boneyard’.

But Arx Fatalis has many flaws; it lacks substantial side-quests, somewhat robbing the game of replayability (especially since it also promotes the jack-of-trades character class), some levels are simply there for you to traverse and its crashes to Windows far too often. By far its biggest weakness, however, is that it is a traditional CRPG.

But I just want to be friends…To accomplish tasks in Arx Fatalis you need skills; to kill a goblin you need close combat, ranged combat or magical skill, plus the actual equipment. To gain or improve skills you need to complete tasks; kill enemies, complete side-quests, attain critical points on the main quest; all to get experience points to go up levels. These ‘tasks’ are set by the designers; the game rewards you for playing it in a certain way. The problem is, people don’t play games the way designers want them to. People (mostly ‘Thief’ fans) wanted to ‘ghost’ through the levels, but there was no extra-reward (which would match hacking-and-slashing) for trying not to kill everything that moved. It wasn’t part of the designers’ mindset.

It’s all remarkably constraining for us gamers.

Experience point based CRPGs tend to force you, the gamer, into acting more like a designer rather than a player. To level up you need to do things the way that they, the authors, planned you to. This wasn’t always a problem; in the days of yore the player, you, didn’t have much of a choice in the way they played a computer role-playing game. Games were necessarily simple; the game world didn’t support items having multiple properties that could be affected by the player, they did not give you multiple ways to traverse levels or obtain items. Games like Ultima IV made the world feel as real as they could, within the limitations of their world simulation.

Modern games try to go further and fail.

Arx Fatalis allows you to hide in shadows, allows you to sneak past hostile NPCs and try and complete the game without killing everything. It doesn’t, however, reward you for it. Arx Fatalis gives you a tool that ends up being a novelty. Ghosting wasn’t factored into the game design.

The simulation of the game world is getting better and better, but the options that this gives you simply seem tacked on. At its heart, Arx Fatalis is a classic old-skool CRPG; kill everything and reap the benefits. It’s an emerging flaw of the skill/XP based role-playing game. As the game world becomes more complex the less, it seems, you can actually do to make use of it. Sure, you can ghost through, play the diplomat or never speak to anyone and steal all the items you need, but don’t think that the game design wants you to actually use those options. It doesn’t.

Look at my emergent abilities. Bit worried about the monitor burn on my retinas, though…Harvey Smith, of Deus Ex fame, seems to understand this point entirely. Deus Ex 2 does not feature it’s predecessor’s skill system; you’re not going to need to obey the inner most thoughts of the level designers to get your rewards in ‘Invisible War.’ No more worrying about ‘Is this the optimal solution to the problem thought up by level designer X?;’ instead you can tackle the problem in any way you see fit. It is still a role-playing game; choices will determine outcomes and your character can attain ever greater powers. Instead of being rewarded by experience points you can spend on skills the ‘attributes’ are now bio-augmentations that exist as physical objects within the levels. Your reward is no longer a hex-decimal string assigned to your avatar upon ‘doing X;’ it is something you find in the course of your play-style.

The difference between Deus Ex 2 and, well, all the rest (for the time being) seems to be that you won’t be punished for thinking like you rather than the designer. Let’s just hope it works.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.