Thursday, 19 November 2009

A mile in their shoes (The appeal of role playing games)

Entertainment technology is advancing at an expediential rate, with faster processing speeds and higher capacity gaming machines allowing developers to constantly improve on gaming experiences. One area in which such technological leaps are readily evident is within the world of first person role-playing games (RPGs). RPGs have been widely popular, especially in the Japanese gaming market, for as long as gaming consoles have been around. Setting the standard for many years, Japanese RPGs are formulaic but extraordinarily deep in both story and gameplay. Most RPGs take the form of either a space opera, for example the Final Fatasy series, or are middle-ages anchored Lord-of-the-Rings-esque fantasy epics. Most of these games were squad based, relying on a range of traits unique to each squad character to achieve the overall aim.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion set a new standard in Western RPGs

In recent years Western games developers have taken up the mantle from the Japanese market and begun to produce some of the most spectacular gaming experiences available. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion was one of the first truly epic games to arrive on the Xbox 360 platform. It is a spectacular game in which the player can customize everything about the character they play. Their species, race, features, background and abilities are all editable allowing every player’s experience of the game to be almost entirely different from the next. Furthermore the game had a wonderful orchestral score and excellent voice acting (including Patrick Stewart as the Emperor) that immerses a player in a deep and intricate story.

Bioware’s Mass Effect is one of the finest games released on the Xbox 360. With many of the traits of Oblivion, character customization and a selection of backgrounds from which to start the game, the player is placed in the role of Commander Sheppard, a human upon whose shoulders the fate of humanity and, eventually, all life in the known universe rests. Again, the game is of epic proportions with a classic three-act story arc, which demands the player’s complete attention and dedication. Whereas Oblivion had taken RPGs into the domain of single player, Mass Effect included a squad based command system that allowed players to tactically command their compatriots in the real-time combat scenarios, although sadly the computer controlled friendly forces could often act rather densely and could detract somewhat from the combat experience. The cinematic cut scenes and interactive dialogue choices create an adventure opus in which a gamer can loose themselves.

One of many alien species which make up the galactic community in Mass Effect

RPGs in the modern format are a new generation’s answer to, although not a substitute for, a traditional movie/TV/book style of entertainment. With similar budgets, and in some cases casts, to Hollywood blockbusters, RPGs are more immersive and, more specifically, the player has control of the outcome. Unlike a movie where viewers are simply spectators to events, RPG games make players the pilot. They take the lead and decide where their story takes them. They make the decisions that influence the outcome and they guide the character’s actions in accordance with their own morality or, conversely, completely out of character and experiencing the results of actions they would never consider in the real world. The length of RPGs can vary from around 20 hours of gameplay to in excess of 80 hours and they can, of course, be played through again, differently with different characters to create an entirely new gaming experience a second time through.

The greatest appeal of RPGs is that they place the gamer in a role and a situation in which they would never find themselves in real life. Anyone can be a hero or a villain, regardless of their backgrounds, character or abilities, by taking on the guise of these fictional characters and acting out their responses to the on screen stimulus. Whilst gaming will never replace movies and books they are quickly becoming a longer and more immersive entertainment experience and should, over the next few years, begin to be recognised by the non-gaming public in general as a viable platform for story telling and a true rival, in terms of economic impact, to other forms entertainment media.

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