The Cultural Gutter

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Click. Kill. Reward.

Andrew Smale
Posted August 3, 2006

The Hero's Journey as paper doll.The mob of deranged and frothy beasts approaches quickly, my tower shield and fearsome-looking warhammer doing nothing to slow their approach. Blood is spilled as I dispatch the group quickly, their remains forming a pile at my feet. I loot the corpses, ignoring the broken weapons that were casualties of the skirmish. I drink a health potion, and continue on my journey towards the next objective.

Add in some equipment modification or “crafting lite”, some disposable side quests, and map-based save point system to the above and you’ve basically got the formula for every action RPG since Blizzard’s Diablo II (2000). The game mechanics are brutally simple: kill monsters, get new weapons and armour or gold to buy them with. Earn experience with each kill to gain points to upgrade a series of attributes and special abilities, which in a medieval-like setting don’t vary that much between games.

Iron Lore’s Titan Quest (2006) is the latest game to repackage these conventions, and the results are surprisingly enjoyable.

While many games are often criticized for lazily copying past successes, Titan Quest takes a break from the medieval and borrows freely from Greek, Egyptian and Chinese mythology for its setting. The adventure may be different, but the features expected of any action RPG are all intact. Well, except for an excess of mouse clicking.

The act of playing is hopelessly mechanical; the ceaseless clicking and looting and inventory shuffling would cause the uninitiated to shrug it all off as some swords-and-sorcery paper doll simulator. What is it about these games that make them so immediately captivating? Why is there an urgency to complete quests that essentially mean nothing?

This discussion is interchangeable with the current state of MMORPGs — with the addition of persistent worlds full of actual human players, of course — but the purpose of play is still exactly the same. Characters advance through killing scores of monsters for arbitrary rewards.

click-kill-big.jpgThis design maintains the illusion of empowerment inside a tightly controlled environment. The main story will never change in the case of the single-player action RPG, nor will the method by which the player gets there. But the character — that’s customizable. The player is the character at the centre of the action, and is as important as the story. Consider it a simplification of the archetypal Hero’s Journey — a Level 1 character begins his quest with very little information or powers; the world is in turmoil and must be set right. A trip is made to the local town where the first quest is obtained, and the adventure begins.

The Quests are important. They’re milestones in the larger narrative, yes. But they’re also a known list of accomplishments. Like any game the objectives are usually laid out beforehand, but the list of quests that is constantly updated provides a record of their accomplishments.

It’s not like a First Person Shooter or platformer, which can essentially be “beaten” through raw skill; the RPG has a character, a constant during the entire experience that can grow and transform according to the player’s wishes. Not having the right equipment or sufficient stash of health potions can make the difference between dying a few times and not being able to go any further.

With a character that has received investment of this nature, going back to the game is not so much going back to the world as it is revisiting the avatar. The progress within the game can be seen; the character is a representation of hours worth of gameplay and careful consideration into modifying its attributes and equipment. Though it’s certainly tough to explain the appeal (or the time spent, for that matter) to anyone unfamiliar with the genre.

In the case of Titan Quest the journey eventually comes to an end, with the Great Evil plaguing the land having finally been vanquished by a character festooned in the most luxurious warrior fashions. But MMORPGs have managed to prolong this outcome, securing players for the long term. Characters are in a perpetual state of development, and when they aren’t being upgraded with experience or rare items they are contributing to instanced dungeon raids or guild activities. The clicking and looting become secondary to the social activities that are plentiful in the game’s high-level content; the developers have simply encouraged the players to create their own adventures.

Comments

3 Responses to “Click. Kill. Reward.”

  1. James Schellenberg
    August 7th, 2006 @ 6:09 pm

    Hey Andrew,
    It’s interesting to think about how an RPG (or MMORPG) hooks the audience and keeps them playing. The backbone of a game like this is the numbers: hit points, weapon capabilities, gold pieces, etc, etc. The better games disguise this with a bit of flashy overlay, like new and scary monsters, beautiful scenery, better-looking weapons and armour, and so forth.
    With reference to Titan Quest, I think that the game generally did a good job of hooking me on the perpetual treadmill, and made me a satisfied gamer. At least, most of the time.
    I haven’t seen this mentioned in any reviews, but I really hated the way the game is divided up into normal, epic, and legendary difficulty levels. I played the game once through, but then I have to play the exact same game over again 2 more times!? Before I get any good stuff? It seemed ridiculous to me. I’m not seeing any new art, any new settings, any leaps forward in the scariness or creativity of the monsters I’m fighting, and all to get items with slightly better stats attached to them? No way. It seemed like the game lost all sense of balance. Maybe I was supposed to be so hooked by that point that I would just go on, but instead I gave up the game in disgust. I would have infinitely preferred to have the epic/legendary items spread through the game on the first time through, making things more difficult if necessary of course.
    Sorry about the rant! I enjoyed the game, up until I realized that I wasn’t going to get any good stuff until I played an identical game three times over. That left a bitter taste for me.

  2. Andrew Smale
    August 17th, 2006 @ 10:05 pm

    I wouldn’t assume that this approach is unique. Diablo II was divided up into Normal, Nightmare and Hell. And it was essentially the same game because you had to complete the same quests in the same areas – the maps were just laid out differently. The monsters were all the same, too – they were just more powerful. The weapon drops were better in each level of increasing difficulty to make up for the more powerful monsters, but they never seemed to increase in frequency. Just like Titan Quest.
    I’m curious: ignoring the perpetual item hunting of MMORPGs (of which there is no shortage), what did you expect from a single player RPG? Did you really want three whole game worlds for the price of one? (and Titan Quest is a hell of a lot bigger than Diablo II)
    If you’re really desparate for more content, Titan Quest comes with a good selection of tools for creating your own maps and adventures. Perhaps we’ll start seeing some fan-created mods as a result.

  3. James Schellenberg
    August 19th, 2006 @ 12:09 am

    You’re right, Andrew, I guess my comments came across as a bit naive :)
    Diablo II is actually a gap in my gaming knowledge, since I somehow missed ever playing it. But I’ve played plenty of first-person shooters where a higher difficulty level gets unlocked once you’ve completed the game – Serious Sam comes to mind. FPSes are a whole ‘nother beast of course, because all that’s required on harder levels is a better twitch reflex, and there’s no expectation of better loot. With RPGs, I guess I’m sensitive to the way the addictiveness is driven by some behind-the-scenes spreadsheet. Bumping up the numbers without changing anything else – that’s what bugged me (and I realize this is how MMORPGs operate, but I’ve somehow managed to avoid getting sucked in there too). Thoughts?
    I can think of at least one game that had difficulty levels that made replay more interesting: the first Thief game. Your objectives got progressively more thief-like – on the highest difficulty, there were some levels where no one was supposed to see you at all – which seemed like a neat way to help gamers figure out stealth gameplay since it was new at that time.

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