Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Generic Antagonist

My previous posts on antagonists have primarily dealt with games that have a strong focus on individuals, looking at enemies that you get to know somewhat personally to give you a motivation to defeat them. Most of these have been RPGs. But what about games where you're placed in a situation where you're not dealing explicitly with one enemy? What about when you're fighting against a massive faceless horde? For example, Gears of War pits you against The Locust, Half-life has you fighting the combine, Just Cause 2 has you shooting at... pretty much anything and anyone who gets in your way. These games are all popular and manage to successfully install a desire to win and "defeat" your enemies on par with many of the successful antagonists I've previously discussed.

I'm not about to advocate that these games are masterpieces of story-telling, but despite their varying cinematic impact and strength of writing they all are quite successful in making you feel like you're in an environment that is increasingly hostile towards you and your actions. As a player, you're very concerned about surviving your next encounter and getting to do the next thing of your list of objectives. They give you a great sense of wanting to "just play a little bit longer" or "I really hope I can take this enemy down".

On three, or three and then go?

Admittedly all three games have characters that serve as some sort of figureheads for the hordes of the generic enemies you fight, but they're typically far removed from the action until the very end of the game. They're typically not given the same sort of weight that an antagonist is given in an RPG. They might have some influence on the troubles that the player is facing, but in general I'd say they aren't fully realised characters with depth - at least not depth which is exposed to the player in any significant way. So why are these games so successful in making the player want to keep going, and why can't RPGs deliver in the same way?

Perhaps some of the reason is that RPGs rely heavily on narrative to provide player interest. Or rather, rely on narrative delivered in the specific form of dialogue in text or speech form. Of course, if we're dealing with narrative in computer games, there are so many more options available to a designer than text and speech. Take Half-life or Gears of War and see how their narrative is delivered in many different forms: scripted events or cinematics, combat scenarios, art style, the player's environment, sound, music, and so much more. Sometimes they are able to do so much more with one line of dialogue than an RPG ever could...

We don't go to Ravenholm...

One simple line sets the scene for Ravenholm, and all the visuals sound serve to reinforce the eerie and foreboding delivery of Alyx's warning. Gears of War pits you against increasing tough enemies as the stakes of the battle rise, and Just Cause 2 sees the army becoming increasingly tense and quick to send everything they have after you. By not having a single specific antagonist to focus the player's main ire upon, each enemy and sequence poses its own challenge and interest in a way that other games don't capture.  Compare the threat of fighting a group of locust in a set piece in Gears of War to yet another darkspawn battle in the Deep Roads of Dragon Age.  Which is the more exciting and engaging piece of the two? I love RPGs, but if I had to pick which of the two was more likely to get my heart going, I'd have to choose Gears of War.

I don't believe having an "epic story" makes fights around the henchmen or grunts of the "great enemy" that you're faced against inherently boring. There simply appears to be something in RPGs that frequently causes these "trash mob" fights to become repetitive or otherwise uninteresting. Have RPGs become too reliant on explicitly telling the player everything through dialogue rather than letting them figure things out for themselves? Has this dependence then made every fight that is not accompanied by relevant dialogue to give it a direct context and meaning becomes dull or potentially pointless to the player? Or perhaps it is that RPGs simply need to experiment with attempting to provide narrative in the same way that it is done in a more action oriented game.

1 comment:

  1. [This post was too big, so I copy/pasted my major points. ;p]

    I think a huge problem with trash/mobs/minions in RPGs is their central purpose tends to be character progression. When gaining new abilities requires earning XP, killing mosnters earns XP, players spend a lot of time "grinding" minions to reach the next set of abilities before they move on. I, personally, dislike grinding without a purpose (like any random battle after level 10 in the original Final Fantasy). But so much time is spent grinding to enforce the power of these new abilities, it takes up much of XP-based RPGs. Then when "RPG-lite" games appear, they make combat more fast-paced and grinding less important but *add more enemies.*

    When every fight is either ability spam or auto-attack, it becomes difficult to force planning or use of obscure abilities. I think some other games are better (in varying degrees) to make the player use other options. In Halo:Reach, some equipment types or weapons are often more desirable as "instant-win" weapons but are so rare that they have to be put to good use, while one may have to pick up a spiker (worst weapon in the game) just to kill an enemy that drops a real gun. The Force Unleashed tried a few different enemy types, but most of them still had obvious strategies such as "zap this guy, lightsaber that guy, grip that guy and throw him off a ledge" etc. Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood added new enemy archtypes but made most of them similar with the variety of (useful and fun) abilities, and one can only tell the difference in the extreme cases they were designed for. (Such as Agiles knifing you during a chase or Brutes knocking you down during a big fight.)

    As for explicitly telling the player what is going on, it *does* seem to be increasing. After successful genlock fight #34, one begins to forget why the Deep Roads are so damn scary. While having a fight with 2 Hunters and a Sniper in Halo can bring about some desparate tactics, 2 Ogres and an Emissary tend to be standard fare in Dragon Age Origins. If a companion said "oh ****, two ogre at once!" in DAO, I'd laugh. When I hear "Hunters!" or see someone fly out of a room in Halo, I care. Not only are the enemies more interesting in a fight, but they inherently carry extra weight because of their extra challenge. As for players being told story only through dialogue, it's hard to care about environments when you're told "ooh spooky", you see allied corpses everywhere, and all the enemies are one-hit kills. When enemies are around only to give the player points/XP, people stop caring.

    All right, rant over. Summary:
    - RPG minions are used as bags of XP
    - Other game minions can be interesting or bland too
    - XP bags = no one cares about minions
    - Enemy/ability variety = good
    - Empty/useless variety = not good

    Um... just ask if I don't make sense. ;p I think about this a lot, especially when working on Scars of War for DAO. I really went through 5-10 variations of the minion horde in Act I, because I kept making the fights too hard, too easy, too bland, etc.