Friday, November 27, 2009

The Melancholy of Lost Civilizations in RPGs

Gamasutra recently reported on a presentation by veteran RPG designer Ken Rolston, in which he noted that world-building often means creating objects and settings from days gone by:

Often, that melancholy comes when exploring the remains of long-dead civilizations, seemingly something of a preoccupation of Rolston, and one that frequently makes its way into his games by way of in-game artifacts.

"Melancholy, I think, is the underlying tone in most of the role-playing games I've done," Rolston said, adding, "I know games are all about fun, but there's an underlying tone I'm always trying to speak to."
That aspect of RPGs never struck me before... but how appropriate that a sense of melancholy is consciously integrated into the design of most RPGs!

By its nature, the typical RPG conventionally contains several things, among which are a relatively well-developed world and characters roaming that world killing each other. Well, what does it say about these worlds that it's considered normal for people to go around killing each other without being clapped in irons immediately as a danger to society?

As worlds in which the player character can run around killing people, that naturally suggests some kind of breakdown of order. This makes it almost inevitable that the created history of the world of a computer-based roleplaying game must include lost civilizations, in which a Golden Age of the past was more civilized than the Hobbesian present.

It's virtually commonplace to see cultural and architectural fragments of former civilizations in a fantasy milieu. Michael Moorcock's Elric, last emperor of languid Melniboné, is regularly described as melancholic. In computer RPGs, there were the Ayleid Empire of The Elder Scrolls and the Tevinter Imperium of BioWare's new Dragon Age. But a more aesthetically advanced past is almost always part of other well-developed RPG settings as well -- the mythically idyllic pre-invasion past of the Fallout series, for example, or the Republic before Palpatine corrupted it, or the pre-catastrophe world before The Computer took over Alpha Complex in Paranoia (another game Ken Rolston worked on).

In such worlds, where you can't swing a sword or fire a bullet without hitting some burnt-out ruin, any character capable of thinking beyond moment-to-moment survival must feel some sense of melancholy for a life that might have been. It's a natural way of lending some emotional depth to what otherwise could have been a simple action-oriented killfest.

Consider the choices and placement of objects in Bethesda's Fallout 3. The use of artifacts in Fallout 3 are a graduate-level course in how the objects placed in a gameworld can define the narrative of that world.

Fallout 3 was filled with what might be called "microstories." Open a door to a bathroom and see a skeleton in a bathtub, surrounded by empty bottles of booze and a pistol. Look into a small bedroom and find an array of children's toys, seemingly abandoned in the moment of play. Peer into a closet in a tunnel and discover a rat's-nest of useful items guarded by a lone teddy bear. (And let's not forget the "plunger room" or the Rube Goldberg-style trapped grocery store....)

In every place where people lived, there are artifacts posed in ways that tell a small story of the moments just before The Big One... or the grim and hopeless days after. I can't imagine even the most hardcore gamer, who cares only for how many Super Mutants he can kill, being insensitive to the pathos of the little stories and the overall sense of lives meaninglessly snuffed out that they tell.

Is that "fun" in and of itself? I suppose not. "Experience feelings of loss!" will probably never be part of the advertising materials for a game. But did the care that went into telling those sad microstories make Fallout 3 more memorable -- more fun -- for me?

Absolutely yes. More generally, I would say they contributed to making Fallout 3 a more satisfying game for many gamers.

But should that sense of melancholy be a part of every RPG with aspirations of worldiness?

The question for RPG designers is, do they want to continue to create worlds in which emotional heft is supplied by an elegiac regret over the remnants of lost civilizations?

Or is it possible to build a deep RPG world that includes all the lethal conflict that gamers seem to want, but that takes its emotional depth from some place other than comparison to "a more civilized age?"

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