Reconciling Gameplay and Story
A while ago Milady wrote an article discussing how she felt that the gameplay in for instance NWN2, but also other RPGs got in the way of the main reason a lot of us play this kind of games: the story. To her gameplay could be reduced to combat its most common manifestation and one of the most common denominators of the genre. She argued that by throwing endless amounts of enemies at the player “in brainless encounters” gameplay is distracting us from enjoying the story with is war of attrition- like enemies jumping at us at every corner and turn. According to her this is because RPGs try to combine the story element with the element of advancing levels and getting new shiny gear and such. Her solution for this would be to cut down the amount of “mindless encounters”, also known as trash-encounters and only keep the meaningful combat in the form of boss fights or random encounters that add to the story (she mentioned Zevran from DA:O) or the settings atmosphere. As an example she mentioned Planescape: Torment a game with very little combat and very much story (and even though you can kill a lot of NPC you are only going to shoot yourself in the foot by doing so).
While I agree with her on many of her points when it comes “mindless combat” I would like to offer some solutions how to make these types of combat situations work better in games as well as explain why it is important for me that we keep the “trash-encounters”. After all trash encounters do serve various roles in the game. Milady identified loot and character development through gaining levels as two of its purposes, but there are more.
“Trash-encounters” can be set up as a learning experience at the end of the game. The encounters themselves are actually not too hard, but since the point is you learning the ins- and outs of the combat it is far more important for the encounter to be easy than challenging. After all you will not be learning much if the game keeps beating you before you can actually try something out.
These easy encounters also serve as a kind of “relaxation” part of the game. Milady once explained to me why it in a dungeon or raid environment was important that “trash- encounters” existed. One of her arguments explained how they served as a point of relaxation between boss fights. By providing this it was ensured that boss fights could be more challenging as your mind had time to recover from the last boss fight. The principle is the same as having breaks between sets and to not work out to vary the types of muscles you work out, for instance at the gym. If I was constantly working out I would for one risk injury and also preform over all a lot worse.
Another reason why “thrash- encounters” are important is that they allow the player to feel powerful. You get those moments of “hell, I am awesome” when you beat that group of mobs and the good thing is you don’t really have to be the best player in the world to get that kind of feeling. It is one of the things that make games fun. Of course one should not over indulge n t because otherwise it is boring, but I can say I genuinely cherished a few of those moments in RPGs when I would just flick a fireball or do a dance of death and mobs would die without injuring me. That feeling is the main reason why I won’t put down some games. If I feel like the entire game is a marathon at 10% ascent I will quit it because I feel bored or I will only play it in snippets. The result is that the story experience becomes fragmented and the experience is not as good as t actually could have been.
Related to the “Godmode” argument above is also that combat in games feels very “hands- on”, mostly because it, for some more, for some less, releases adrenaline into our blood and it feels like we are actively participating in the game, not merely watching a movie or reading a book. Of course piecing together puzzles and talking to people in the game is active participation as well, but it does not feel as substantial or “hands- on” as it is purely mental participation and little happens on the screen. As such “trash- encounters” make the story easier to digest as you feel you are participating in it actively and it fills the blanks between when something is happening in the actual story. And it also gives you a nice break from the story when you just can’t be bothered by it. Kind of like minigames can do. In Witcher 2 I used to do the fist- fighting and dicing minigames, when I could not be asked with the story or I was stuck. In DA: O I used to explore the map looking for random “trash- encounters”.
The final reason I could think of why “trash- encounters” are good is that they artificially elongate the game experience. As such some key milestones in the story like act breaks and boss fights get more meaningful as you get thought of “finally I reached this boss”. How much one should elongate the game experience is hard to say and highly individual. One thing is sure though gamers do not like short stories. If it is a quick stroll through the park to kill the King of Shadows in NWN2 then the game would really not feel as good and the fight would be less heroic. Similarly if the siege of Denerim in DA: O merely involved killing the Archdemon the whole tension and drama built up for that would literally fall flat on its face. In other words it would be a shitty game and story experience.
Milady mentioned gear and levelling as a reason for including “trash-fights” yet I do think these two aspects are dwindling in modern RPGs as the main reasons for trash. Indeed in Witcher 2 you only got experience by completing quests and most of your equipment was crafted. Granted a lot of its materials dropped from enemies, but by far not all and you could even change it by saying all materials are awarded through exploration. Similarly in Mass Effect 2 and 3 (don’t remember 1 so well anymore) “trash” never gave you experience; quests did. And the weapons were not received by killing enemies, they were found or bought. So no I do not think that levelling or gear acquisition is the reason why we have trash encounters, at least in modern RPGs. In the older ones that was probably the reason yet we have moved beyond it now.
As such I do think only awarding experience through questing and gear through crafting and/ or exploration is a viable way to cut down on some of the trash encounters. A way I would like more though is to add a violent and non- violent approach to most of these encounters. Your reaction would then determine some of the information you get in regards to the story and might even lead you on totally different quests and story paths. By doing this you allow the player to choose what he/she would want to do. That is the most wonderful thing about games: If made correctly they can by virtue of adding player choice be the most individualised form of entertainment there is. Sadly we are not that far yet, player choice is not something that is necessarily seen as something great in the big studios. Let’s hope this ends sooner rather than later.
In the meantime if you are as frustrated as Milady by the endless trash encounters, maybe imagining a game without them or focusing on their positive sides will help you? Or alternatively if you think I am merely babbling nonsense please let me know. What are your thoughts on the matter?