A thing I just realized about RPGs

I like single-player computer role-playing games a lot, but there are only a few that I’ve stuck with until the end.  Usually at some point I get bored or frustrated and put it down for a while, and end up never coming back.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Skyrim.  Actually it has consumed most of my free time since I bought it three weeks ago, and it has made me realize the nature of one of the qualities that sets a good RPG apart from a mediocre one.

A good RPG makes you want to tell stories about things that happened in your game.

Now that I think about it, this generalizes in some sense to other kinds of games too.

Here’s the specific story I told, the formulation of which made me realize this thing: Once I emerged from looting a dungeon in Skyrim to find a dragon fighting a giant. When I realized neither was about to turn on me, I watched them fight and when the dragon was almost dead, I finished them both off with two arrows each.

What made this experience inspire storytelling was that it felt emergent – for all I know it was scripted to happen when I exited that particular dungeon, but based on other things that happen in Skyrim, it really felt like the dragon had just happened to be cruising by at that time and decided to pick on a giant. It felt like something that probably hadn’t happened in my friends’ instances of the game.

A different example is from the first Neverwinter Nights.  I played all the expansions for that one, and in one of them there was this epic battle where you were supposed to defend a gate from an attacking army.  It was supposed to be a very challenging battle, but by that point in my game I was at a higher level than the designers had perhaps anticipated.  I had two dragons on my side, and a few other summoned creatures.  On seeing the dragons, the invaders mostly panicked and the dragons simply roasted them while they tried to flee.  So the battle was a cakewalk instead of a challenge, but it was really enjoyable because the ease of it felt like a reward for all the effort I had put into reaching such a high level.

More emergent behaviors, please.  More alternative ways to progress through the game, even at the risk of sometimes making the challenge level lumpy (err on the side of the occasional cakewalk here, as frustration is more, well, frustrating.)

But the take-home message is that I will get excited about games that sometimes produce unique-feeling experiences that I will want to tell other players about.

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