Many games rely on a simple system of dialogue cutscenes as their mainstory-delivery method. The most recent game I worked on, ChronoBlade also used this device and my direction was that it should deliver the information as succinctly as possible, as players can quickly grow tired of it, while still including a great deal of the uniqueness of each character. Now you might be saying, “Conflicting goals! Noooooooo!” Well read on.
I should acknowledge my fellow narrative folks on the team: Mel O’Connor was the main narrative designer, and did the bulk of the writing, while Jordan Patz and I did some of the writing, but mainly made directorial and editorial contributions. A rule of thumb is that if you like any of the writing samples below, you should assume I did them, and if you don’t, it was one or both of my colleagues.
OK, now remember when I said that my direction contained conflicting goals? Well guess what, these are almost always the same conflicting goals that exist for any writing for video games. Interactivity is the core of the medium, and dialogue is almost necessarily less interactive. Players want to play, so we need to give them the basic information and let them get back to it, or they’ll just skip the dialogue altogether, and if we try to force them to read, they’ll probably quit. This was my reasoning for how quests and dialogue worked in Diablo II—the story was there if you wanted it, but you could also skip it and easily access the information later.
And then there’s the other side of my direction; if the dialogue is not engaging, it doesn’t matter how short it is, players still will be uninterested and annoyed at its intrusion. If, on the other hand, you can get players to care about the characters, the world and the narrative, then they can come to see these cutscenes as a reward rather than an annoyance.
And on this last topic, at least somewhat resisting the temptation to be snarky, there is what I would call the standard fantasy role-playing game voice (SFRPGV) that you can find examples of in many games, and particularly ones that use this type of dialogue cutscenes. It is a formal, sometimes vaguely ye-olde-tea-shoppe voice. Dungeon Runners won me over with a hermit character who sounded like Oscar the Grouch, appearing early in the game, mocking it thus:
You know that town where they all pretend they’re in the Renaissance? Yeah, those guys suck.
When SFRPGV is used ubiquitously, it leads to characters feeling very generic and one-dimensional. This is ultimately what we were trying to avoid.
Dungeon Runners also reminds me that I should note that there are other ways to create engaging dialogue, one of which is the use of humor—it’s very easy to overuse it. If everything is always jokey, it’s hard to arrive at a sense of any sense of depth or realism, and Dungeon Runners ultimately succumbed to this. I forget the source, but I remember reading that great, deep humor is also ultimately based on developing strong characters—that done, you can put them in a closet and the scene will write itself. I recall watching an episode of Frasier where the writers seemed to have run across the same idea and accepted the challenge: the entire episode took place in a café with the various characters coming and going, and was awesome.
So we created distinctive characters with well-defined backgrounds, and tried to keep those in mind when writing their dialogue. The results, however were hit and miss—sometimes there would be bits of dialogue that would showcase one or another aspect of a character, but there was still a muddy sameness to the voices. What I was striving for was a level of characterization so strong that players would be able to identify the speaker just by reading a line—even a fairly bland line should at least allow players to narrow down the speaker. Obviously, more extreme measures were needed.
I decided what was needed was a tool that broke down the most essential elements of how character comes through in voice. Looking back at the SFRPGV, I already identified some distinctive elements: a Register: formal, and what I’d call a Quirk, as it differentiates it strongly from normal speech: archaism. I went on to identify two more elements that are generally missing from SFRPGV: Attitude and Topics. I defined these four elements thus:
Register refers to a scale of formality in speech. This is a real linguistics term that I borrowed, but I defined a nonstandard scale that better suited the purposes of the game:
Attitude means a character’s outlook, which tends to find expression in speech. This is a major element of their personality.
Topics means the subject matter that characters tend to care about and therefore mention with some regularity.
Quirks are distinctive elements of speech or personality. These elements are probably the most varied of all.
Another intent in choosing these is that they work as separate axes and therefore are able to be combined in a variety of ways. Characters can share a register, for example, but if the other elements are different, their voices will still be quite distinctive. I created a matrix using these elements, and we filled it in to yield the following:
When writing dialogue lines this was a great reminder of the elements that make up each character’s voice; we could essentially use it as a checklist and try to tick as many boxes as possible while still delivering the information and keeping things brief. The desired differences in character voices began to emerge:
Portia: We’ve got a strong lock on that signal, Aurok. It’s proximal to you up ahead. Aurok: Then I shall proceed in the search for those left untainted among the Laxmenni survivors.
Conflicts also would arise between characters based on some of these traits:
Lucas: Come now, old man. You’ve obviously heard of Draugar; they can’t be that uncommon. Launstig: They are things of lore, little else. An honored warrior becoming one is unheard of. Wattsworth: Most interesting! I shall create an entry in my databank. We should attempt to gain a live specimen for additional study— Launstig: These are our hallowed fallen, ripped from the glory of Valhalla—to do so would be a great offense! Lucas: Then I suppose I ought not mention our intent to spirit one away to sell?
And finally, Huld, an Odio boss, threatens Lophi and Knot, who roundly ignore the creature in this bit of magnificent nonsense:
Huld: Toi et tous friends are but insects in nostra vis. You will make keinen Unterschied. Knot: Lophi, doesn’t he remind you of that one big Khul’ngal? Lophi: Ha, yeah, we sent that guy’s smoking soul to Kikallakalla quick! Knot: And he had that hilarious look on his face, and he was like, ‘Duggazzagin khegazgaaaaaaaz!’ Hahaha!
If nothing else, we definitely took a big step away from the SFRPGV.
Like somany of Jorge Luis Borges’ works, “Death and the Compass” (“La muerte y la brújula”) is a brief piece that contains big ideas. Just as Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) did, this deconstruction of detective fiction appropriates the genre’s trappings, even likening the protagonist, Erik Lönnrot, to Poe’s Auguste Dupin to help usher us down the primrose path (where Eco more subtly suggests Sherlock Holmes with his William of Baskerville). Indeed, Borges said that Poe created a new audience, which distrusted everything the author related, and penned this piece to deliberately provoke readers into overinterpreting it.
Clearly, Borges is having some fun mocking whodunnit tropes; the names, the overwrought prose are all lampshades. Scharlach means “scarlet” in German, making the villain’s name “red red”. A Study in Scarlet is also the name of the Poe work that created the detective genre. Lönnrot, too contains rot, German for “red”, as well as being a likely reference to Elias Lönnrot, creator of the Finnish epic, Kalevala. The red herring also comes to mind as an important element of the genre.
Many of the names contain references to numbers as well, tying to the numerological associations of the tetragrammaton, another central motif in the work. By contrast to Red Scharlach, Black Finnegan’s names are a pair of opposites, as finn is Old Irish for “white”. Taken together, they remind us of the black and white and read/ red all over riddle. The harlequins and the bear mask worn by Gryphius also seem to be details included to create an air of the bizarre and ridiculous and throw us off the scent.
Almost immediately, the narrator gives us a bit of misleading prefiguration, telling us:¹
It is true that Erik Lönnrot did not succeed in preventing the last crime, but he did, indisputably, foresee it. Nor did he divine the identity of Yarmolinsky’s unlucky murderer, but he did perceive the evil series’ secret shape and the part played in it by Red Scharlach […].
To me, this seems a clear influence on of one of the most deconstructive sentences ever penned—one by Gabriel Garcia Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad):²
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Both throw information at you for which you are not prepared and misdirect your expectations of how events will unfold—and naturally enough, Márquez’ oeuvre was inspired by Borges.
But gradually Borges turns more serious as he approaches the real core of his work: the symmetry of the final setting, Triste-le-Roi, is depicted as monstrous; a concrete labyrinth matching that created by the detective’s own devotion to reason, neither of which he can ultimately escape, also recalling another Borges work, “The Garden of Forking Paths” (“El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan”).
Borges has turned the detective genre on its head—rather than cleverly following the clues and catching the criminal, Lönnrot becomes the victim of a Batman gambit leading to his own doom. In this way the author’s thesis is revealed: it is pointless to seek reason, meaning, and pattern in a reality that, in fact “has not the slightest obligation to be interesting,” by Lönnrot’s own admission, or to contain any of these things. This brings another of Borges’ works to mind; “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, which concludes:³
The truth is, [reality] wanted to cave in. Ten years ago, any symmetry, any system with an appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—could spellbind and hypnotize mankind.
Despite all the humorous deconstruction then, “Death and the Compass” is a warning not to be seduced by phantom shapes that appeal to our aesthetic sense, or to engage in temptingly far-fetched conspiracy theories, but instead to accept that life is sometimes random and meaningless.
I’m quoting the version in Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley, 1998.
This is from Gregory Rabassa’s English translation of 1970.
Influences in worldbuilding for Empyrea (Argots, Part 1A)
For the game ChronoBlade, I created a fictional slang to be used by a large population of automata, called “Cans”, who were in a state of burgeoning rebellion against their human creators.
Rather than conforming to typical modern ideas of “robots”, the cans were envisioned as the product of a society based on a Victorian-era New World colonial nation called Empyrea that had come into contact with an ancient source of energy called saraf, which they learned to use without fully understanding.
The Cans are one of the products of this new technology, assembled from a combination of organic components and mechanical analogues and animated with saraf. I drew some inspiration from Karel Čapek, the coiner of the term robot in his 1920 play RUR.¹ His vision of these creatures is that they have skin, flesh, and guts, but are in some way assembled by humans. And then of course they also rebel.
Real world automata such as those of Jacques de Vaucanson, provided another touchstone. There was one that he used real skin on, Flûteur Automate (“The Flute Player”), and the Canard Digérateur (“Digesting Duck”) is whence my word for these automata stems (as well as punning on the idea of them being metallic vessels).
The rebellion of the Cans has to do with their rising self-awareness, which has led to them see themselves as enslaved by their masters who, however, continue to consider them mere objects. This led me to posit that the Cans might employ an argot, as underclasses often have historically in order to communicate freely amongst themselves while obscuring the meaning of their conversations from their overlords.
Vodun, best known as “voodoo”, is one of the manifestations of saraf in Empyrea, and is specifically seen in the game character, Lucas, who has learned this “magic” after being recruited by the Copper Queen. His incantations are in fɔ̀ngbè, in which the Cans recognize the “old high tongue” that is lost to them but remains one of the major influencers of their slang. The other is more literal: English Thieves’ Cant itself, the real language of the slums of England and later those of the US.
As Čapek’s RUR is one of the points of inspiration, here is a quote from that work rendered in Canargy, as I dubbed this argot:²
We’ve become meys who copped ras… Jobolo collies in our pudds. There are ganns when jobolo alies us. Ras alie us which are not our ras… Empiricks are our blocks! The chaunt that beys you want to be gangy; the chaunt that beefs; the chaunt of the ra; the chaunt that beys agann — that is their chaunt!
And another one from A Clockwork Orange as a tip of the bowler to Anthony Burgess’ Nadsat, an argot with similar features:³
Doppoe I couldn’t cop gangy was to see a quire toe halfhalf’n’half beefing away at the quire chaunts of his blocks and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a quire toe shell larking in his quire puddings….
I tried to make these examples as Canargy-ful as possible, just to show the richness of the language and how greatly it can transform and render English unrecognizable, but that’s certainly not how it would generally have been used in game… most of the time. If getting the meaning across with a bit of flavor was the goal, I could simply have substituted fewer, less important words with Canargy equivalents, but it would also have been a good vehicle for the inclusion of Easter eggs for players willing to learn the dialect.
“We’ve become beings with souls… Something struggles within us. There are moments when something gets into us. Thoughts come to us which are not our own… People are our fathers! The voice that cries out that you want to live; the voice that complains; the voice that reasons; the voice that speaks of eternity — that is their voice!”
“One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy dirty old drunky howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking rotten guts….”
Spoiler alert: Hollywood’s remakes don’t yield better films
A recent conversation sparked fresh annoyance with the seemingly unchallenged Hollywood propaganda success for the idea that film is somehow the best medium for the realization of any idea. It’s not. Whether a scene in a comic-book-based movie is good or not is entirely beside the point. To me, if filmmakers can put together good scenes, their abilities would be put to much better use in the pursuit of original works.
Because of Hollywood’s thoroughgoing dearth of talent and ideas, films are often remade or rebooted, which is, historically, almost always a bad idea. Watching the trailer for the “new” Magnificent Seven, I consider that this remake of a remake is in no way needed. I’d much prefer to go back and watch Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant original.
But at least this is an attempted redux within the medium (except that everything about the context is different). And makes some sense from the point of view that at least theoretically the art and science of filmmaking have advanced. However, it’s more about putting box-office bankable actors together with a vehicle that is ostensibly risk averse, since it already has proven successful; there’s not a lot of money to be made on the extant Seven Samurai (「七人の侍」 Shichinin no Samurai).
As to adaptations from other media, there’s some nonsense about how movies “bring X to life”, but I fully disagree. Les Misérables is alive to me in a way that no film adaptation of a musical theater adaptation could ever come close to touching, and what is more, I don’t want my version to be reduced, homogenized, and commoditized according to the way a group of Hollywood hacks decides I should think about it. The assumption being made is that these showbiz folk are not only smarter than me and you, they are also smarter than Victor Hugo.
Well I beg to differ. In reality, as William Goldman observed,
No one in Hollywood knows anything.
In fact, if a work is excellent in its native medium, this tends to make it a worse candidate for a good realization in another. The language it uses to conjure scenes might be what make a work succeed as a book, whereas in a film, those scenes are typically achieved by making literal images of them—no words are involved.
I’d argue this is true for every medium—there are elements inherent in each that uniquely suit it to specific ways of conveying meaning. Effective creators understand and master those elements in order to realize excellent works. So good books, comics, games, and everything else should be allowed to just be those things—they don’t need to be boffo at the BO to matter. In fact, if you really care about a work, you should root against Hollywood coopting something special and subcultural into an almost necessarily mediocre mass-market “success”.
The narrow premise that turned into a universal rule (Wish Fulfilment, Part 1)
I believe the ideas of fantasy and wish fulfilment in game design have been greatly misunderstood and overapplied.
Ideally, each game is a new experience, although certainly there are clones and reskins. Given this, the player does not necessarily have an idea going into a new game about what they want from it. Even within a genre, games should be striving to better the art and science involved so in a way, if you’re concerned with fulfilling backward-looking fantasies about horse-riding, this “logic” would lead you to not invent the automobile.
Where did this idea come from? In Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design, Scott Rogers says:
Tim Shafer, designer of Brütal Legend, says that all good games provide wish fulfilment. Playing as characters they wish they could be gives players a chance to be something they aren’t in the real world. I think the same is true about games in general. Regardless of the game genre, games should make players feel something that they aren’t in the real world: powerful, smart, sneaky, skillful, successful, rich, bad, or heroic.
This is, frankly, nonsense.
Using the example of chess, as is commonly done in thought experiments about games, what can players possibly be feeling that is different from the real world? Being smart? It’s pretty hard to win at chess without being smart in the real world; same with sneaky. Powerful then? Both players have exactly the same pieces; you only become more powerful by eliminating their pieces from the board, which gets back to smart and sneaky. Successful? You feel successful if you win, which is a possibility in every game, but again has requirements of its own.
I’d actually argue that a player cannot be made to feel something they have not in the real world, and it’s arrogant to pretend that a game could do that. If my real world experience is that I’m stupid, can you really make me feel smart? Probably not. This is the problem I, and, I venture many others had when we studied Romeo and Juliet as high school Freshmen: It’s generally agreed to be one of the masterpieces of English Literature, but by and large, we had no experiences to connect with it—instead, we just wondered what these two were blathering about (and generally gravitated instead to Mercutio’s wit and bravado). The player brings their own set of experiences into the game; those are what you have to work with.
Even in the specific context to which wish fulfilment seems to belong, role-playing games, I’d argue that someone playing an assassin in a D&D game has to already have a devious side to their personality in order to enjoy it. Therefore, I’d say instead that games are heightened experiences. Chess is an arena in which someone already smart and sneaky can harness those traits and master the strategy and tactics of the game in order to become powerful and ultimately successful within that context.
Also note that there is zero authorial intent in chess to foster any of those feelings or traits. Although we can’t ask the game designer what they intended, it seems a clear abstraction of warfare, with movement limitations and therefore strategic value placed on the various pieces reflecting the subject matter. The gameplay arises from this ruleset’s application to controlling territory, defending units, attacking your opponent, and so forth.
Let’s dig deeper into where wish fulfilment came from. Shafer took up the thread again in an interview with Game Studies:
I still think it’s useful with any character you make up to think “How is this a wish fulfillment? Why would anybody want to be this character?” Like they say in screenwriting class, are you writing a character that an actor would fight to play?
This is a terrible way of looking at designing characters. To begin with, actors and gameplayers are fundamentally different roles, where the first is part of the work and the second is the audience of the work. Ideally a screenwriter is thinking about conveying meaning to their audience rather than appealing to their co-creators (obvious Hollywood realities aside). Plain and simple this is pandering. There have been many attacks on the gaming medium’s puerility, and this certainly seems like a possible cause of that. But more importantly it places artificial limits on the kinds of games that can be made, keeping creators too, in a state of arrested adolescence.
Papers Please provides an excellent counterexample. The role of immigration officer is one few players would aspire to, but it is vital to the experience of the moral choices and emotions that accompany them that this game deals in. And the game’s no exception in this regard: This War of Mine, Abe’s Oddysee, and Life Is Strange are just a few excellent games that are far from wish fulfilment.
I think the error here, as has been said of comics, is that a medium has been mistaken for a genre. Every game does not need to be the equivalent of an action movie. Certainly designers need to know what they are choosing and why, but our medium is a rich one, and I think it’s capable of representing a much broader spectrum of experiences than this “rule” would dictate.
Another possible source for the fantasy idea is Raph Koster, who says in his blog post, Game Grammar:
Ask things like “What is the player’s goal? What is their fantasy?” for every verb.
At the risk of putting words in his mouth, I believe he is referring to fantasy in a very different way than how I often see it interpreted in game development: his verb roughly means an action a game allows a player to perform, and the game designer here is being asked to consider the things allowing that action implies.
So goals of course—games revolve around the achievement of goals, and it’s important that the player understand how a verb can help them achieve those goals. On the fantasy side, this means thinking about player expectations of what a verb might let them do. And to the designer this also might imply some of the limitations they need to place on a verb: allowing players to battle NPCs definitely creates the fantasy that they can kill Lord British.
Even in the relatively narrow context of a game that involves the player taking on the role of a character, the idea of this character being a wish fulfilment is one I’d approach fairly cautiously—which of these provides a more interesting character arc: a character who starts out awesome and keeps being awesome, or one that changes over the course of the work?
In my twenties I turned my back on much of what I had been reading to that point. Comic books, Fantasy and SciFi novels, and indeed nearly any sort of fiction started feeling disappointing to me. Instead I pored over topics like history, comparative mythology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and media theory. I rifled through books that friends and family had left over from esoteric university courses, and searched lonely corners of libraries.
I would still occasionally read fiction, but only if it had been highly recommended; things like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy(Divina Commedia), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault) by Umberto Eco was one of these.
Although some of the other novels I’d read might connect with one or another of my other interests, none did to quite the degree of Eco’s. Moreover, whereas the nonfiction I had been reading typically ran the gamut from somewhat stuffy to challengingly dry, he had managed to weave this same matter into a compelling work of fiction. Still more remarkable, even though it wasn’t at all dumbed down, this thriller was by turns funny, mysterious, sad, suspenseful, and many other things besides. Finally there were numerous pop-culture references placed on an equal footing with all its lofty topics rather than being treated with disdain.
Of unabashedly arcane and dense books such as Foucault’s Pendulum, for which the internet provides annotations and concordances, Eco commented:¹
I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. […] So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.
He was less sanguine beforehand with some of his essays pondering who his audience was and even whether such readers existed. Regardless, I agree with his more recent sentiments in my own case. His unusual last name, handed down from his foundling grandfather, was apparently so dubbed by an inventive civil servant as an acronym for ex caelis oblatus (L. “offered by the heavens”), which is certainly how the author seemed to me. I read everything by Eco I could get my hands on; novels, nonfiction works, essays, interviews, as well as many of the works he made references to, leading me down still other rabbit holes.
When Umberto Eco died in February of this year, I was pretty broken up about it. As part of my mourning process , I searched my local bookstores for anything of his that wasn’t already in my bookcase, and wishlisted the rest on Amazon—that’s not where I prefer to buy books, but it’s a good reminder of those I’m looking for. In any case, this is how I came upon The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari). This book contains a few disappointments but is amazing in other ways.
It’s important to note that while the book’s title seems to suggest it’s some sort of fantasy roleplaying supplement, it’s anything but. It actually makes up a trilogy with History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza) and On Ugliness (Italian: Storia della bruttezza). These may seem unrelated, but in the original Italian titles you can see they are all “histories”, though beauty and ugliness are certainly a more closely related pair. The Book of Legendary Lands actually is about places that never existed but were nonetheless obsessively searched for by explorers over decades, centuries, and even millennia in the case of Atlantis.
Some of these “legends” relate to limited and misinterpreted information, but quite a few relate to tall-tales, forgeries, and outright lies. Eco explained why such topics intrigue him:²
As a scholar I am interested in the philosophy of language, semiotics, call it what you want, and one of the main features of the human language is the possibility of lying. A dog doesn’t lie. When it barks, it means there is somebody outside. […] From lies to forgeries the step is not so long, and I have written technical essays on the logic of forgeries and on the influence of forgeries on history. The most famous and terrible of those forgeries is the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion].
One downside is that there’s not much of Eco’s actual writing in it. Of course, as a fan, I missed it. The book is really an extended bibliography: each chapter covers a grouping of legendary places, which he discusses the history and context of, and the writings that contributed importantly to each legend. Quotes from some of those sources round out the chapter. All of this (at least in my edition) is accompanied by amazing historical illustrations, which unfortunately is another place the book falls down: These really needed to be explained much more than they were in the brief captions they were afforded.
The positives definitely outweigh these issues. In many ways this book acts as a key to Eco’s works—it’s a journey through his source materials, the writings he himself was fascinated by. One encounters The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the sewers of Paris which are central to the plot of The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga), The theories of the Antipodes and sympathetic magic of which appear in The Island of the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), the false Grail conspiracies on which Foucault’s Pendulum hangs, and many more. On this last point, there is also a thorough debunking of the historicity Dan Brown claims of his idiotic oeuvre on the topic, together with those that the overrated sham artist drew upon (not to say plagiarized wholesale).
Just as a sourcebook, this is an impressive piece. Some of the works Eco references I was aware of, but there are many more that I’ll need to explore after reading this. Basically it’s a list of cool things to go learn about. I’d give fellow enthusiasts of signore professore dottore a solid recommendation, but a more cautious one to those with an interest in the legendary worlds discussed but who have not read Eco unless you’re up for something quite dense and scholarly.
If anyone were to look into my sources, many are traceable to Eco. A notional concordance of Diablo II, for example, would show significant overlap with that of Foucault’s Pendulum.
Stephen Moss, “Umberto Eco: ‘People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged’”, The Guardian, 2011.
Naming things in games is something I’ve always both placed importance on and enjoyed. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it is a form of diegesis which, while even more constrained than haiku—generally, three or four words is as many as you get—places world story and flavor unavoidably in the player’s path, as well as presenting it in a way that doesn’t intrude on interaction as other story-delivery methods often do.
And so the names of places, characters, skills, and many other parts of a gameworld receive a great deal of my focus. Items in particular are important, particularly in RPGs, where they are typically a central element of gameplay.
In ChronoBlade an example of an item name that tied into the game’s narrative was Fylkir’s Lacrimator. Filkir the Maleficent was the name of the boss who dropped this item; many of these characters were named after members of the team, as this one was, but rather than using their names directly, I’d render them into an appropriate language and with a meaning that made sense to their role. In this case, the boss was named after level designer extraordinaire, Philip Mallery. The area was a Viking-Age world, so I used the Old Norse word fylkir, meaning “commander”, modifying it with “maleficent” to hearken to his last name as well as to make the boss sound properly menacing. The character was a Cronarch Lout, a ranged type who threw grenades at heroes, so I played on the idea of a common type of grenade: tear gas. This substance is technically termed a lachrymator, but as a weapon it also makes foes cry, so the name ticked all my boxes.
We included vanity equipment in ChronoBlade, a commonly used trope, especially for multiplayer games, as they allow an extra layer of avatar appearance customization. Our vanity equipment fell outside the canon of the gameworld, so I placed cool references at an even greater premium.
Barborum Magister is an example: we had some cowboy hat-and-mustache combos, Tombstone also has those things and the war of words between “Doc” Holliday, portrayed by Val Kilmer, and Johnny Ringo, played by Michael Biehn, is one of the best on film, so I took it as my inspiration. Eventus stultorum magister, “fools learn from outcomes”, was one of the awesome Latin barbs thrown therein. As the item was facial hair, I riffed on the phrase for the name, which means “master of mustaches” The Daisy Drover and The Huckleberry Plainsman rounded out the collection, each coupling a period slang word for something excellent (both of which also appeared in the film in the context of the ongoing Holliday-Ringo rivalry) with the name of a type of cowboy hat.
When we decided that for a group of sports-themed vanities our pugilist, Aurok, got modern boxing gear. I knew right away, I wanted the reference to be to Muhammad Ali. We did this as a set (which was also named), which included all three item types (head, body, and prop).
The set name was The Jungle Rumbler, maybe the most direct reference to Ali as a participant in the Rumble in the Jungle, his match with George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974.
I stuck with that theme for the body, naming the item Rope-a-Dope Threads. Rope-a-dope was the tactic that won Ali the bout, and “dope threads” is appropriately ’70s slang for stylish clothes, so these ideas joined to form the name.
I called the padded boxing headgear the Unmarked Face-Guard, referring to Ali’s frequent comments on his prettiness, and specifically not having a mark on his face.
Finally, the boxing-glove props were Whale Tusslers; Ali claimed:
I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.¹
Requiescat in pace, champ.
1. I’ve since learned from the Eddie Murphy film, Dolemite Is My Name, that this originates in African-American folklore.
The genre’s emergence, elements, and where it’s headed
The Action Role Playing Game (ARPG) has grown into a game genre with its own integrity and uniqueness. Recent conversations with colleagues caused me to contemplate where the category is headed, and in doing so, where it has been.
From my high school years on, I was a huge pen-and-paper (P&P) RPG enthusiast—it was essentially my gateway to becoming a professional game designer. D&D, in particular was a glorious mess with Byzantine system depths to explore, all fueled by imagination and social play. It was arguably the first true RPG and reached an audience of more than 20 million people.
I quickly moved from playing to creating campaigns, worlds, rule mods, and eventually full game systems. I parlayed what I was doing into a job, and then migrated into electronic gaming. It was always somewhere in the back of my head that I wanted to bring these experiences to life in the medium I was now working in.
CRPGs and JRPGs
I was far from the first: D&D remains one of the biggest influences on computer and video games to this day, but in the earlier days, perhaps even more so. Versions of RPGs had begun to appear in electronic form nearly as soon as those platforms came into being, and labeled Computer RPGs (CRPGs). The constraints of the medium were such that these games were very stripped down, and very little of what was awesome in P&Ps could shine through. Turn-based gameplay was one of the many limitations that game creators had to accept.
The idea of mixing action elements into the RPG milieu appeared in Japan on consoles (hence the JRPG or Japanese RPG), where already growingly sophisticated audiences wanted something less static than what had been offered in CRPGs to that point, where mostly text and numbers showed what was happening.
Before, and even more during my early career in electronic gaming, I tried to play everything that came out in the genre, both to enjoy it as a player as well as to learn from it as a creator. Finally in 1991, I was able to work on one—Inindo: Way of the Ninja (「伊忍道〜打倒信長〜」 Inindō Datō Nobunaga).
The Advent of the Modern ARPG
Shortcomings and a Manifesto
Unfortunately, the overall experience of playing all of these games—and especially, in some ways, that of working on one—failed to satisfy. True, there were some bright spots. Wizardry was an early addiction and included some all-night play sessions, and Eye of the Beholder’s imagery, if not its gameplay, was pretty slick.
As for Inindo, both my position as a relative newbie—only my second job in the biz—and Koei’s technical inability to pull off anything trickier—nearly all of their games used essentially the same engine—meant that it was a nearly by-the-book Final Fantasy clone. Our innovation had to focus on making our grand strategy player base feel at home in the game.
As a game designer, this forced me to think about how to do things better. We’re problem solvers, that’s our job: “oh, too bad; that’s how it is” is not how we leave things. So over time, I came to some conclusions about how I felt the genre needed to change:
Many C- and JRPGs had world navigation on one UI, and when there was an “encounter,” would load a different screen where this would take place. Having all the action take place on one screen was how I concluded this should be done, and this idea merged to some extent with the next one.
Many CRPGs had taken to using first-person perspective, one of the effects of which was that your characters were reduced to portraits which actually had nothing to do with who they were, what they were wearing, etc.
The isometric view was the one I thought most likely to be able to work: compromising between the overhead navigation views of JRPGs, and one where the player could see the action as well as having a decent degree of situational awareness, was what I pegged as the right approach. Populous, which had a zoomed-out mode (but kept most of the action in a single POV), was one of my reference points for this approach.
Lose the Party
A single player controlling the whole party seemed to me a slavish following of a P&P form, while completely missing the substance: the party, a source of social interaction and where the actual role-playing took place in P&Ps, became an annoying source of UI management and gameplay friction as implemented in electronic games. In P&Ps, one person typically played one or two characters in a party; playing the whole party meant to me that the ability to identify with your characters—which should be the most compelling aspect of the game—was lost. True there might have been a few standouts where the writing was strong enough to make this work but by and large it was not the case. Parties should only be used in a multiplayer setting, where each player controls one character.
When I walked into Blizzard North in 1996 and they showed me what they were working on, I could see on their screens the things that were in my head and my notebooks, and I knew I was home.
Send in the Clones
Diablo came out at the end of that same year, also picking up the Roguelike trope of the randomized dungeon, which kept the novelty level high. While it was quite successful, and a few clones did appear, it was really the massive success of Diablo II (D2) that ushered in a flood of them. To me, Diablo proved that we could find an audience for this new game type, and D2 let me explore it much more thoroughly. Many clones, at least initially, were quite literal—wholesale adoption of all the elements in D2, with varying degrees of success.
Thus today, “Diablo and its descendants” has come to be what people tend to think of when the category is discussed. Many of the features that people think of as “standard” to the ARPG genre originated with Diablo or D2, so much so that the game type is often referred to as “Diablo clones.”
A few of the common elements are:
Because the action in these games takes place in real-time, there is some degree of skill involved. There are issues that come into play like timing and distance from the target, selecting which skill to use when, etc. This is sometimes described as hack and slash, but it can be quite sophisticated at times.
One of the big motivators across this category is the search for new and rare items, generally equipment, but also straying into other categories as well. The risk/reward proposition is often important, with tougher enemies dropping more important items. This also fosters important social elements in the form of showing off your character and trading items with other players.
A notable miss in this regard was the launch version of Diablo III (D3), which instead emphasized its real-money auction house. Certainly, I don’t think the loot aspect needs to be the same in every ARPG; clearly its use as a motivator is strongly needed.
Since “role-playing” in the P&P sense was not present at all in the electronic RPG, progression—in the sense of a character that persists and improves such that its play mechanics change over time—was what really became the defining feature of the category. Nonetheless, there are some elements of progression that were solidified in the Diablo games which have found acceptance and have propagated, not just among ARPGs but also via hybridization into nearly every other gaming genre.
This is an element where I feel there’s a lot of room for exploration. For quite some time, the ARPG have stayed pretty firmly in the high fantasy world, often sticking specifically to Elf-Dwarf-Orc tropes, which are pretty limiting both in terms of the narratives involved, and the audience. In the Diablo games we understood what our setting was and that many high fantasy elements did not belong there.
Breaking the “Clone” Mold
I’ve been pleased to see lately that some elements have begun to evolve. Stagnant genres tend to die off, so it’s good to see these things happening. The category has also successfully moved to nearly every platform successfully (social, mobile, console), as well as adapting well to different revenue models (free to play, subscription). There are honestly too many games to call them all out, but I’ll try to mention a few here.
Some would narrowly define this genre to isometric view, but many games have successfully deviated from that camera, such that now 2D sidescrollers and 3D open world games alike still fit in the genre. Neverwinter Online and Black Desert are strong contenders for what new ARPGs can look like in a different format.
Variety in Combat Styles
Many different combat styles fall into the ARPG category these days as well. At a high level, I think the idea of player skill in terms of movement, use of abilities, etc. seems to remain what binds these all together. Variety in combat styles is actually going to be a super interesting conversation going forward in RPGs.
Some games like Spirit Lords (I’m guessing due to tech limitations) experimented with limiting the odds in battles rather than the hordes of enemies typically faced, which resulted in some loss of the ARPG game-feel—based on this, I’d posit that hordes of enemies are important to the genre.
There are simply ways players like to play, and these systems allow that. The skill trees of D2 have grown, changed, and migrated—some even enabled via equipment.
D&D let you effectively hang yourself by making choices that were dead ends, and D2 let us optimize for effectiveness; that feeling of mastery over the systems is a huge plus for players, and it’ll be a balancing act to create that sense of mastery without creating choice paralysis or a negative experience for intermediate players.
This aspect of crafting is one that I really like. The items in D2 are essentially static: sure, you can boost them a bit by socketing some gems, but after a few levels, you need a new one, ’cause you’ve outleveled it. What item progression does is to extend the usefulness of each item. This system is generally an aspect of crafting. There are some collisions with loot however, as dropping too many good items can effectively act as a disincentive to upgrade items if you’re not careful.
Additionally, there are some items that fall outside of progression, like vanity items which change your character’s appearance with only a minor change to stats (or none at all). These came from MMOs and are now ubiquitous, especially in free-to-play games. Pets are a combination of D2 mercenaries and vanity items with progression. Torchlight added them to good effect, and others have since followed suit.
Untiered items are another interesting development that Realm of the Mad God and others have employed. Basically, these require item’s abilities to remain always relevant, or to be based on character level or stats, so that they are effectively never outleveled. There’s some tricky balancing to be done with these, but it’s a very cool evolution of D2’s unique items.
Some games have added player housing, which can act as yet another progression store. Path of Exile lets you level up hideouts and gain better crafting options with Masters, while the Van Helsing games have a hideout that you build out and that you can even play a little tower defense game with. There is potential for a system like this to feel like it’s diverging too far from the ARPG core, but tying it back to other core systems (as Path of Exile does, in that it improves loot) is an important factor to consider.
Sadly, it’s not all upwards and onwards. Some things have regressed; here are some examples:
Multi-Classing and Specializations
These are all a return to cruft—the great thing about the treed skill system of D2 is that the player can stick to one part of the tree or another or create a huge variety of hybrids. Multi-classing in Neverwinter Nights was an annoying exercise in theorycrafting and decisionmaking at every level up. Specializations also force the player to give something up by choosing. Certainly “respec-ability” is now common, which is good—playstyle preference evolves in any player who sticks with a game for a while.
One of the dangers even in the Diablo games was that they could often begin to feel single player, and this seems to have continued into much of the current crop of ARPGs as well. Even playing in a party has become meaningless in some games. In D3, for example, I often felt as though I was simply racing my “party” to the end of each level rather than playing cooperatively. I think it’s important to drive real multiplayer engagement in these games, and real incentives are the best way to do it.
There are some positive examples I’d like to point to, including Dark Souls, where multiplayer goals all relate directly to helping or hurting other players, and Dragon’s Dogma, which effectively used asynchronous coop through borrowing friends’ companions, and sending rewards back to players. I think there are many possibilities here that have yet to be explored.
Where I Think it’s Headed
I think there’s even more room to explore the specific elements that fit within the broad definition I’ve proposed for this genre.
This was an idea I had back in the D2 days, but the palette I had to work with was pretty limited, especially if they are to be meaningful and interesting rather than “fetch me a rake.”
What if customization responded to what you actually do as the player, instead of being explicitly chosen (something like a more responsive version of the Beasts in Black & White)?
Keep it Friendly
One of the reasons I feel the Diablo games broke out was how approachable they were. It’s easy to get into a self-referential RPG bubble, but it’s important to remember that some of your players might not have played any RPGs at all. If you’re lucky, your game could be their gateway!