Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Chatty RPG

We live in the future now, really.

We have iPods and iPhones and Droids and Blackberries and laptops and netbooks and iPads and eight thousand other ways of keeping in touch with everything.

But we don't walk up to others and talk to strangers on the street.  At least, in big cities you sure don't.  You might exchange a polite word ("How about that rain?"  "Sad about the Caps, huh?") in the elevator, or say, "Excuse me," or "I like those shoes," to someone on the Metro, but that's about it.  There are so many of us in such a small space that when you're on the T, the MTA, or the Metro -- you just politely keep to yourself.  You don't ask a stranger for his entire life story, then walk into his house uninvited and start talking to his wife.

(We also keep our hands off other people's stuff.  My neighbors don't have stacks of barrels sitting outside their front doors, but if they did, I wouldn't go rooting through them to look for books, vials, food, or coin.  That would be rude, and criminal to boot.)

But then there is the world of gaming.  Or rather, there are the worlds of gaming.  When you reach a new location in an RPG, what's the very first thing you do?  (After saving, of course.)  You talk to every. single. person. in town.  At great length.  You ask them their life stories.  You perform their tasks and errands, up to and including murder.  You ask anyone and everyone you meet if they need help, and if they do, you immediately proffer it.  Your sword (or gun -- Fallout and Mass Effect are not innocent of this) is at anyone and everyone's disposal, with small exceptions for not helping members of a problematic alignment, or persons perceived as evil or shady.

In the same way that so many RPGs hearken back to a medieval world that never existed, I think they also hearken back to a small town / village perspective that never existed.  They are all small-town Britain (or occasionally France), where everyone is happy to see you, will share his woes, and will ask a favor of you.  You, the Mary Sue Gamer, are going to save the world one lost kitten at a time, and locals expect and allow this sort of behavior from you.  In some games (again the newer installments of the Fallout series leap to mind) the locals at least distrust you until you do some small tasks to prove your good intent.  And there is more and more of that.

But part of me can't help but feel that the longing for a never-extant perfectly pastoral world keeps expressing itself in our game worlds.  This isn't just one game and it's not just one designer; the theme repeats itself over and over in European, Japanese, and American RPGs. 

They pretty much all look like this. (This one's Oblivion.)

If some weird dude with pointy armor and a bad-ass companion showed up in most actual small medieval hamlets?  The majority of townsfolk would hunker down and avoid coming to his attention until he went the hell away.  The coming of warriors meant the coming of war, and untold number of fields were ruined and everyday folk killed in the battles, wars, and skirmishes that popped up all over medieval Europe.  Armed conflict was an unpleasant and commonplace way to go.

I mean, really: you're a pig farmer, a peasant who lives in a thatch hut with a hole in its roof for smoke to get out.  Your immediate village has about 50 people in it, and for market days, when you go, you head (on foot) 10 miles down the road to the big town.  Life's all right, if dirty and smelly.  You think you have almost enough food stored for winter and you've figured out who to marry in the spring, and then these people show up:

A collection of PCs and NPCs from some modern RPGs.

I don't know about most of you but I personally would go hide behind the hut, with the pigs, and hope the creepy men and women with the ridiculous and expensive armor and visible, obvious, heavily-used weaponry would just mosey on by and leave me alone.

Although I've only lived in large, East-coast cities for the last 30 years, the rest of the modern world is not so different.  I've just been out in the countryside for the past three days, hanging out at a bed & breakfast with a vineyard, a wild garden, and some friendly critters.  (The cats decided my husband was their particular friend; the ducks mainly just quacked in a panicky sort of way.  And the peacock decided that the humans needed to be awake at dawn.)  We were 150 miles out of the city and about 50 years back in time, out in the woods with the wines.  And when we went into the small, local town, we shared some polite words and conversations with the various folks we met, but I didn't ask our waiter if he needed help avenging his brother, or check with the bartender to see who owed her an outstanding tab.  Nor would I have done so in 1911, 1611, or 1311.

We all know that games are emphatically not reality.  If they were, we wouldn't play them, gamification aside.  And there's a definite line where we do and don't want "realism" in our gaming.  It's one thing if our heroes need food, water, and sleep.  Sometimes we'll even put up with lingering injury from wounds, or NPCs going to bed at night.  But anything more realistic than that and we start to get grumpy.  And I'm not asking for greater medieval realism in my games, either.  I don't have the energy to play that, for starters.  Nor do I want my gaming to be as depressing as that reality was.

Gamers are stereotypically and infamously asocial introverts.  (As always, the truth is something less than the image.)  And yet, where our game worlds could give us missions in a hundred different ways, the most common means is through dialogue and lots of it.  Is that what, collectively, we really crave?  A conversation?

No real research here, or anything, and I'm not sure I expect answers.  I'm just wondering why the patterns in our games are the patterns in our games.


  1. I think it's an easy way to give you side quests, that makes the world feel a bit more alive.  They could have just a bounty board for the same quests, but that would get criticized as boring.  I will add that not every game does it this way, but more the "high RPGs" like Dragon Age, Fallout etc..  Borderlands uses bounty boards, and with the world building they've done it makes a lot of sense that NPCs would be hiring out for mercenary work.

    My best guess is that they are trying to have a fully fleshed world, and to many people that means having NPCs to talk to and receive quests from.  I must admit that there is also a certain satisfaction to going around a town and making everyone's life a little better.

  2. i, on the other hand, am a raging extrovert who can carry on a conversation about anything, anywhere, with anyone, and the number of times that i've wished that i could walk up to a stranger and ask if they needed vengeance for something is quite huge.

  3.  "I'll take a mocha coconut frappuccino, please.  Grande, no whip.  Also, do you have any avenging that needs doing?  My rates are reasonable and I have a sword in the car.  No, wait, it's okay, please don't call the police..."

  4. Good thoughts.  I think I'd like more people to tell me off when I bother them for no reason.  Good use of a charisma/personality skill for sure.

  5. Here, I'll copy/paste my post over here, so you have some more comments.

    What I really wanted to do in my second run through New Vegas was play a
    Man With No Name type, who's kind of a dick to the people he meets. 
    And I'm still vaguely trying to do that, but in order to get any
    questing done you have to take on everyone's pet project, so you have to
    be way more helpful than even a reasonable person would be, let
    alone a traveling gunslinger who'd rather play two sides against each
    other than put himself in harm's way.

  6. Isn't it a story-telling conceit?  I'm thinking about the first 20 minutes of Yojimbo, in which this vaguely ominous ronin gets more plot exposition than he probably bargained for (maybe that was the price of the rice and sake?), but we as viewers kind of need that.  It is a slightly more organic way of giving us details, of fleshing out the world (as Byrk mentioned), and maybe helping us connect with certain NPCs.

    Real life anecdote time:  I was trying from Chicago to Minneapolis when my car lost a wheel on the interstate.  I was stranded at pretty much the halfway point between the two cities without any readily available escapes until my car was fixed in a week.  While I don't normally go out of my way to talk to strangers and request help or ask if they need me to get them 8 owlbear pelts,  there were some tremendously awkward conversations at the truck stop about where people were headed and would they mind an additional passenger.  I mercifully was able to stop because a friend was driving through later that night, but I found out that given a dire situation, it made sense to try.

    If you're a city elf that just rolled into Lothering after a catastrophic defeat...yeah, asking some locals for what's happening or help makes some sense.

    I'm totally with you on the NPC pig-farmer's nonchalance, though.  Especially given the values dissonance between them and the PC.  Whereas the pig-farmer would use a financial windfall to buy a house with stone floors, carpets, a real roof, clothes that don't smell like pigs, and never work again, the PC probably buys a marginally better weapon and nicer armor while remaining at the end of the day a homeless, murderous, stalwart hero of the land.  Maybe it is like high-fantasy worlds where magic is everywhere and people are just used to dudes and ladies running around in fearsome regalia that glows with an eldritch light.

  7.  My guess is that it's a legacy of the D&D era when RPG's really were conversation based.

  8. Most it I suspect is storytelling/design conventions in games, as others have mentioned...the old dnd scenario was you meet your adventuring group in a tavern, and all decide to visit the castle of indescribable evil that's outside town, cause someone tacked a note on the town hall... but I kind of wonder if just a more extreme version of how so many of us are doing our socializing in general now, putting up a little mask (like an internet handle) plus the expectation of being watched. In a game we're soaked up in a role and a story, and have to get to it, experience it all, and in real life, well, you have more time to fill it with the banal.

    As for chattiness with strangers, maybe you're getting your socialization meter filled up in different ways now, or just filling up time in general, that hustle and bustle gets us moving on faster. Technology has opened up socialization in some ways just as it's closed off others. Meeting up on xbox live or steam for a few rounds of whatever is the new bowling league night, but ipods mean you might not want to disturb your busmates and ereaders obscure the fact the cute whoever across the way is reading your favorite author.

    Okay, the last paragraph and most of the first is a meander, it may just be that conversation is how adventure rpgs dangle plot hooks. More narratively concise, but still open, games like the GTA series deliver less of the every townsperson is missing a cat and/or plagued by demons by funneling missions through a fewer number of characters, and if you play another sort of rpg, like a sim, as a Sim or the farm sims like Harvest Moon you could probably never talk to a townsperson other than to sell produce. That sounds like a boring game to me, but hey.

  9. I think that's the rub, side quests often give you xp, items and money for completing them.  I don't think I'd do so many of these quests if there was no reward for it.  In some games they are expecting you to do side quests, so if you don't your character is underpowered for the progression into the game.

    My guess is that answering "No I won't do it" at least gave you the XP and killing the character gave you the reward we'd see a lot of people doing that.

  10. I sort of wish Bethesda would simply lock away certain quests depending on how you choose to play.  They do this to some extent in New Vegas, where you end up with a different storyline (and different quests) depending on which faction, if any, you choose to align with.  But it seems like you could take that and play it out with side quests too, where there could be good/evil/selfish decisions that you make during the course of the game and you get different quests depending on which one you choose.

  11. and if you play another sort of rpg, like a sim, as a Sim or the farm
    sims like Harvest Moon you could probably never talk to a townsperson
    other than to sell produce

    I think it's the opposite, actually, at least for games like the Sims and Harvest Moon, because part of the point of these games is to get to know the NPCs.  Because of that, they tend to be more "natural", I think; your character gradually become better friends with them, and in games with actual language (like Harvest Moon, or the Persona games), you don't find out their whole life story until you've socialized with them a lot.  They don't tend to do the stuff K. Cox is talking about, because talking to the townsfolk is an end unto itself, not (or not only) a way to unlock side quests.

  12. They actually do, to an extent.  It's quite challenging to remain on the "right" side for ALL side quests and companion quests -- I put some significant effort into doing so.  The same is true to a lesser extent of Fallout 3; there are companions who won't come with you if your Karma isn't good / neutral / evil.

    I agree that it would be nice to see those options opened up a bit more, and followed through on.  But actually, once you add up ALL the little factions in New Vegas (not just the big four story-quest options of NCR, Mr. House, Legion, or Anarchy) there's quite a lot you can miss if you're not careful.  Helping one faction will set you against another and cost you their quests unless you time it all very delicately.

    (I'm a completeist in addition to being a goody two-shoes... I enjoyed the challenge.)

  13. i also want to note that talking--in detail--to strangers is something that, while mostly unheard of in big cities, is more or less the norm in other (especially more rural) parts of the country. (not everywhere, as you noted in your post, but it happens a lot. so there's that.)

  14. It has been my experience that when a stranger who is very clearly Not From Around Here sweeps into a small town, that the townspeople will happily engage her in conversation, but will not be divulging much of themselves to her.  They will speak about the weather, about the stranger, and about the stranger's destination and needs, not about their own lives.

    Admittedly, my experience has been as the stranger, and perhaps I am shifty-looking.  (I wouldn't put it past me.)  But it also makes sense: why is the stranger here?  What does she want?  Those are better (more sensible and self-preservationy) reactions, to me, than to say, "Oh, hey, could you run my errands...?"

  15. all of my family is from the rural midwest (i am a city kid), so maybe i have some sort of midwesterner blood that gets me access to people's complaints/problems? i also have a very open demeanor and somewhat ursine features, which tends to evoke attitudes of confidence from even the crustiest of people.

  16. That's actually a much clearer of what was going on in my head. I do think you can get to the core of a fair amount of the gameplay in the Sims and Harvest Moon without socializing, but it feels natural to do so. Rockstar, mostly because the stories they like to tell position their characters with contacts to give them assignments. To do get to a lot of the material in the Bioware sort of rpg, the
    artificial sort of conversations seem to pop up more.

  17. Well, why players do it I imagine comes down to the fact that developers make us do it by forcing us to find the one guy in town that knows where the evil lich keeps his phylactery so we can advance the plot.

    Why the developers do it, I don't really know. I can't think of another way to reasonably implement a mission/reward system in anything resembling a non-linear fashion. You have sword/gun/spell, will travel, and unless you're willing to wait around until someone runs up to you, you need to cold call the local population. Bethesda Fallout is pretty good about having that actually happen sometimes, especially in New Vegas, when many of the sticky situations you can help out with partially play out as you walk by. You find out about the problems of Goodsprings because you overhear an argument between a Powder Ganger and the inn owner, and the dialog options reference that you overheard it (which can be really confusing if, as happened to me the first time I went through it, you didn't actually hear it)
    Most games set up a conceit where "people like you" running around and doing odd jobs is a regular part of the secondary world. Anime is filled with this kind of thing, and not just in fantasy stories. Cowboy Bebop and the bounty hunter system it creates to give the characters an excuse to have their guns, travel around, and solve other people's problems. In Mass Effect you're basically leading a deep space, far future Untouchables group, and cops ask a lot of questions. In most fantasy worlds, "adventurer" is the world's second oldest profession, so you need to keep all these heavily armed people busy somehow. So why bother dealing with all these things, especially when the local ruler and his or her troops are incompetent to fix the problems, or or don't perform any law enforcement or stability services. All the nobodies in these towns also have regular access to currency to pay with, presumably spent by other adventurers who have come through to do their odd jobs.

    The Discworld books do a good job of pointing out the general absurdity of the idea.

  18. N** is actually a lovable wookie name?

  19. rrrroooaaaaaargh

  20. Interestingly, this article reminded me of the Seven Samurai, when the samurai find all the dead ronin's equipment and weapons the farmers have stashed away. I think part of the conceit of that movie and Yojimbo is that the locals have gotten so desperate they'll confide to/ask help from damn near anyone. 

  21.  "I'll take a mocha coconut frappuccino, please.  Grande, no whip.  Also, do you have any avenging that needs doing?  My rates are reasonable and I have a sword in the car.  No, wait, it's okay, please don't call the police..."

  22. I think that back in the original days of the RPG, "talk to the king to get your quest" was used not just to tell the story, but also to justify the existence of the king in the first place. Resources were at a premium, so with few exceptions*, NPCs were there so that you didn't have plain old text telling you what to do.

    In modern games, that's not really an excuse any more. I think it's more to flesh out both the world and those characters (how many of us would stop to talk to NPCs otherwise? It's the same as not bothering to check out those boxes if we know there's no loot in them, right?), but in a sense, it's a shortcut to the "realism" of those imagined worlds. It's true that the average villager not only would want no part of an armored warrior stalking into town (dirty armor = just killed someone, clean armor = just killed someone and didn't even get hit), but there are presumably issues that said warrior could help with, somewhere in the town, and someone's going to know what those issues are.

    Perhaps you'd have to find the one tavern that would take foreign coin from strangers, and spend some time there, and get the barkeep to warm to you enough to explain problem A or mention person B as someone who could use a little help, but I wonder if we want that level of realism in our games. How many people are complaining about the way that New Vegas manages the factions? (X members are shooting at me on sight, wtf, this game sux.)

    I suppose another approach might be greed or survival, depending on your current circumstances. You live in this small village, eking out a living, and one day, someone who actually owns something comes into town. Hey, this lady not only has a real sword, but armor! And a wand! And real gold coins! I could feed my family for a month with one of those coins, assuming I didn't get it stolen from me ... maybe I ought to see if I can help her in some way, any way I can. If she doesn't like me and cuts my head off, well, it beats worrying whether or not I'll drown the next time we get too much rain and my hut floods. (For greed, think oily NPC: Hey, you look like you have money! You're new to the area, aintcha? Let me show you around, make friends with you, help you spend some of that gold.)

    I don't know that the purpose for in-game conversation necessarily has to mirror what we like in real life - I prefer my in-game persona to be much better at whatever-it-is, as a general rule, than I am in real life - but there are some times when it really doesn't seem to be well done. (Hi, remember the castle you just left? Let's go back, but you have to hold my hand the whole way, because even though we're childhood friends, I can't find my way there with both hands and a flashlight, whatever that is.)

    *Iolo in Ultima I, for example. Random movement. woo.