Thursday, February 11, 2010

Nostalgia Reviewing

One trend I've noticed among reviews, particularly reviews of RPGs, is the tendency to view older games with heavy rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia. It's even more prominent amongst players than "professional" game reviewers. It typically leads to the standard argument of "I like your old stuff better than your new stuff", and decrying current titles in favour of old "classics."

Frequently these veteran RPG players wheel out the old gold box series games or BG1/BG2. Now, not to ruin the parade for what were great games of their time, they simply don't hold a candle to current RPG offerings despite what the most staunch critic might say. For argument's sake, let's look at the simple concept of player choice.

What choices were you given in gold box games? You perhaps got to pick your character's name, alignment, class. But in game choices that actually affected the plot? I can't think of any. I loved the Krynn games, but I never got any real choices that mattered: I never got to save Durfey, spare Lord Soth, or even make a small decision like side quests in Dragon Age or Mass Effect.

So jump forward to the Baldur's Gate series. I loved these games too, but let's not get carried away in saying they're way better than current RPGs. Again, the simple factor of choice proves the increased depth of current RPGs, as sure, you got to pick good and evil in BG, but you didn't have the same number of small impacts on the gameworld, and have people reference those actions and react differently to you because of them. This is, of course, in addition to the obvious aspects of eye candy and comprehensive voice acting and other such benefits we get from modern day games.

The real issue is that the reason people remember those games so fondly, and declare them to be so superior to current games is because of what they didn't show. The lack of detail allowed people to 'fill in the blanks' as it were, and create extra depth and character that simply doesn't happen now because the players are being given more. What do I mean?

I'd like to relate the story of a player who thought there was a subtle romance between Ajantis and Viconia in BG1. Why? Because Viconia would resist every single spell the player attempted to cast on her... except for healing spells cast by Ajantis. Of course, this was nothing more than simple chance, but the player read so much more into it. Because there was a limited amount of character depth, players created their own extra bits of personality in the characters that were presented.

In BG, all we saw of the NPCs was a small character sprite and a portrait. Compare to Dragon Age, where we get every line voiced, we get to see the character's full appearance, their facial expressions, gestures... there's a lot less left to the imagination, hence players have less attachment because they're not adding those extra details in themselves. In modern games, we're getting a more immersive and cinematic experience at the expense of personal creativity that helps increase a player's emotional investment in the game.


  1. I agree 100%. It's really odd when I think about the fact that I have just as vivid of an image of the world and people in Ultima 4 and 5 as I do with those in Ferelden. Why? Because I filled in the blanks myself. There are pros and cons to the development of the RPG and your post touched on it very well.


  2. I completely agree too - I personally find a lot of character development projected by me upon my party, and actually I quite like that aspect of it. It can be things like a fighter seemingly getting a lot of critical hits giving him a lucky hard hitting personality, or things klike a particualr character dying early in fights all the time, to one particular companion never getting the path-finding correct, or seemingly always running into melee when i want him ranged - it's this projected personality that I covet more than the spelt-out personality/romance of later games.

    It's what I'm banking on with my current project - and hoping lots of class/skill/feat dependant bark strings littered over areas and dungeons will help achieve for SoZ style parties. My yuan-ti ranger from first run through of SoZ didn't have any character specific dialogue, but through often being the last party memebr standing, grew a personality enough for me to become quite fond of him as a character.

  3. I really dont care to fill in any details so I will have to disagree on this for myself. I pay for a game, I want the personality portraited, as if in a movie.

    But telling me BG2 is not better than the current games, I disagree strongly. And first, see where I am coming from.

    I was never EVER interested in gold box games because they were mind numbingly stupid and one dimensional even for their time. I also didnt notice whatever you are talking about in BG1 cause to me those companions were nothing but robots and I found them totally underdone since they had 1 line to join you then said nothing their entire life after.

    But.... BG2? That game has literally a thousand things to do. I thought I had done it all in about 4 plays over 7 years or so. Im still seeing mentions on the internet that I missed. And the difference is, I wanted to do those side quests. They were interesting, the areas changed rapidly and the authors werent afraid to have a lot going on in one city.

    I couldnt care less about "affecting the story from various angles". The fact is dragon age side quests were boring delivery jobs and all I was interested in was the plot advancement which was great.

    Until a game can come at me with the drastically changing environs, and isnt afraid to unload a FULL roster of monsters like BG2, the game doesnt have a shot of being better to me. Certain aspects are better in dragon age, like the companion interactions, but on the whole nothing is close.

  4. So does this mean when we make The Shattered War mod we should pixellate everything and leave it more up to the users' imagination, AH? LOL, just joking. Good points, I agree with them.

  5. I disagree. You're confusing legitimate choice and depth for added features. Just because a game is fully voiced with facial expressions does not a deeper game make. You get three character classes in DAO. How many in BG? In BG2? Linear aspects aside, nostalgia is unremovable from older reviewers because what that brings to a review is context. Massive, complex plotlines were new on the video game scene with BG and BG2. And their beastiaries still beat the snot out of most current games. Eye candy has sadly replaced lots of depth. I'll keep the infinity engine if it can give me more BG2 experiences. A vast unfolding world. DAO is great, don't get me wrong, but I still feel a bit of the treadmill effect. And to be fair it is starting at a disadvantage because it isn't new like these were in their day. Anyway, just some thoughts.