Republic Of Tamriel: Things I think computer games need to do differently.

When I’m taking a break from writing another book, I like to play console-based role play games. I do this for perhaps no more than two or three hours a week, but over several years that was enough time to finish Elder Scrolls Oblivion, and Skyrim, multiple times. I’ve also played all of Dragon Age (I just finished Inquisition last week!), Mass Effect 2 and 3 (twice), all of Fable (gorgeous scenery, but very short story!), Dragon’s Dogma (lovely scenery, completely stupid story), and Child of Light (which I count as the most beautiful game I’ve ever played.)

The game I play most often is still Skyrim. But even Skyrim has things which annoy me to the point of either not wanting to play the game ever again, or to the point of wanting to make a better game on my own. Here’s a short list of them. Most of my comments will be about Skyrim, but they’re applicable to other games, too.

– The politics.

In all the games mentioned above, the government is some kind of monarchy. Tamriel has an empire; Albion has a king; Dragons Dogma and even Child of Light has a duke. It’s as if we modern people have a secret love affair for aristocracy. But it’s also a fantasy about being at the top of that aristocracy. And I get that an RPG is fantasy– really I do. But I’d like to see a fantasy world that is not just simple escapism. Let’s remember that real-world aristocracies were brutally oppressive to the majority of their members: no freedom of speech, or of movement, or of religion, or of association, and the like. Most Western-world aristocracies were overthrown centuries ago for that reason. Or, is the message of the game that aristocracies are always benevolent and benign, and that working class people should accept their position, and grow to like it? Because that’s the message being sent by all the salt-of-the-earth working class NPCs in the game. Some NPCs complain about their lives, but not one of them utters anything like a statement of serious rebellion. Why is no one talking about a Republic of Tamriel? Or, if the game’s writers really want to commit to portraying an aristocratic society, why not show more of the turbulence in that kind of society? The faction infighting, the competition for prestige, the private armies, the oppression of the poor?

Related to that: in too many RPGs, the player takes down a criminal organization by killing its leader. Politics in the real world is never like that. When you kill the evil dictator, or the crime boss, or the cult prophet, or whatever, the organization does not disband. Rather, it immediately breaks up into factions, who immediately start fighting each other– or, if the organization is very well organized, a new leader is installed instantly and it’s back to business as usual. Politics in the real world is about who is loyal to whom, and why; it’s about who wields power and who is the target of that power; it’s about whether power is shared or whether it is seized; it’s about who gives the orders and who obeys them; and it’s about whose model of social organization is to be preferred. I’d like to see an RPG which reflects that reality.

What if there was:

– A way to investigate the leader of the world, or one of the world’s guilds and organizations. What if that leader could be blackmailed, or ousted, by some damaging piece of info which the investigation reveals?
– A way to become the leader of some faction through some means other than killing and replacing the previous leader? For instance, what if the organization is subject to periodic elections, which the PC could influence, or in which the PC could stand as a candidate herself.

– The economy.

Every game I listed above, even the ones with the most artistically satisfying UX such as Child of Light and the Fable series, has basically the same economy: “kill the monster, steal the treasure.” Of all the features of computer RPGs, that’s the one that pisses me off the most. Characters become more powerful, either in terms of treasure gained, or in terms of improving stats like hit-points, almost entirely by means of breaking things: things like the bodies of enemies. There simply isn’t a computer-based RPG about anything else. Why are there no 1st person RPGs primarily about building things? Why is it that PCs in games don’t have to consume anything? I suppose Minecraft could count as a game about building things, but I found myself still unsatisfied with it; the player only gathers and re-purposes resources; she doesn’t need to consume anything. There’s no through-put. And there’s still monsters to kill. Economics in the real world is about things (like money) flowing through a system; it’s not just things accumulated and stored for later, and it doesn’t always reward people for breaking things.

What if there was:
– A fast-travel system in which players have to go to a travel point, like an inn, to fast-travel; and then they have to pay to hire a carriage. Skyrim already has this; but it’s toothless since players can fast-travel to any point they’ve already visited, for free.
– A fatigue system in which the PC has to eat and sleep fairly regularly, and may suffer minor penalties for going without for too long. This suggestion, together with the one above, could add a dramatic “survival horror” element, without making it too horrible.
– A merchant’s guild quest line, which involves securing rare resources, or productive facilities, or trade routes? This could be no less exciting than the usual four guild quest plots (fighter’s guild, thieves’ guild, etc.) It could open for players the possibility of buying any house or business in the game, for use as a source of income, so that they’re not just killing monsters for a living.

– The relationships.

In Skyrim, your PC can get married. Once the relationship is established, however, it’s basically “over”. Your partner gives you gifts once in a while, but there’s nothing you need to do for the partner any more: you don’t need to bring gifts of your own, or even say “I love you”. Real world relationships require constant involvement. What if your Skyrim spouse was not just another achievement to unlock, but instead was a regular quest-giver? And what if your spouse left you if you turned down too many quests? Related to the point about economics above, what if your “household” had a regular daily or weekly maintenance cost, influenced by whether you are married, whether you adopted children, how big the house is, and so on? And if players want to think of the relationship as an investment, there might be additional benefits besides occasional gifts of money or homecooked meals.

– The religious culture.

Ever notice how the gods in the Elder Scrolls are a bit like ATM machines? You touch their shrine and “withdraw” a blessing that stays with you for a while. You don’t have to do anything else for the gods in return. But religious communities in the real world do make demands of their members. Suppose there was a game feature in which a player could commit to a certain deity, and thereby gain a certain benefit, but must act in certain ways in order to preserve the benefit, such as always killing certain kinds of monsters, or always leaving certain monsters alone, or always using a certain kind of weapon, or always visit shrines regularly, or vote a certain way, or the like.

What if there was:
– side quests which put those commitments to the test?
– Religious groups are also often political groups as well: they may require their members to live in certain ways, vote (or not vote) in certain ways, favour certain models of social order above others, and so on. This could intersect with the political dynamic described above.

– The intellectual culture.

The mage’s guild quest line in the Elder Scrolls games represents the only serious appearance of educated people. But they, too, are involved in the same ridiculous cycle of “kill the monster, steal the treasure”. The only difference between the Mage’s Guild and the Fighter’s Guild / The Companions, is the type of weapon that the PC uses. There must be a way to make scientific research and discovery into something exciting and game-worthy.

What if there was:
– a quest line involving mages and/or other intellectuals (scholars? scientists?) which involves progress on a technology-tree, a bit like what we find in games like Sid Meyer’s Civilization?
– What if information, or access to information, could be a source of someone’s power- thus intersecting with the political dynamics that I described above?

– To play the game I want, I might have to make it myself.

Well, there’s more things that bug me about Skyrim and the genre, but I’ll leave you on a more constructive note. (At any rate, it seems likely to me that no one in the management of any big game studio will read this blog.) Here’s a screenshot of my second attempt to create a heightmap for a 1st person RPG, using Unity. Yes, it is deliberately designed to look like Ontario and Quebec, although with some details re-arranged to fit the space.

2nd terrain map

At 8000 meters by 3000 meters, it’s slightly larger than Skyrim. But so far, the main thing I’ve discovered while creating it is just how big an undertaking top-shelf game design really is. I know about the logic of game design; I regularly use games in my classroom as teaching tools, and I teach the math and logic of game theory. I’ve also published a tabletop political strategy game. But I don’t know how to write computer code. Anybody got ten million dollars to spare, so I can hire a team of programmers and designers, and turn this map into a real game?

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2 Responses to Republic Of Tamriel: Things I think computer games need to do differently.

  1. Lon Sarver says:

    I feel your pain, I really do. I can also answer your question: Why don’t computer games do poliitcs/economy/relationships more subtly, less violently, or at least smarter? It’s about maximizing audience share without making the game ridiculously complicated to code.

    Appeal to the lowest common denominator, audience-wise. Top tier games are expensive and time-consuming to make, so the companies footing the bill want to do as much as they can to guarantee a return on investment. Which means giving the greatest number of players most of what they want, and not overwhelming them with things they don’t want.

    It’s like Tom Stoppard wrote: “We’re more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, you see.”

    Drama is about conflict, and violence is the lowest common denominator of drama. Some folks appreciate subtle politics, others deep economics, still others rich interpersonal games. Just about everyone enjoys stabbing monsters in the face. So, stabbing monsters gets the most attention, and the rest are optional subgames. Which means that winning the game is always going to require stabbing things, and politics, economics, and relationships will get you, at best, bonuses on stabbing the things you have to stab to win.

    Also, stabbing monsters requires less of a learning curve. Everybody’s familiar with combat, at least, they think they are. They’re really familiar with the dramatic, cinematic combat they see in action movies and video games, but the point stands. Most everyone can relate to a physically active, win or die (well, restore save) situation.

    Politics? Economics? Most people don’t understand those in the real world, when they can even tell them apart. That’s why every nation in a video game with multiple nation states all use the same gold, silver, and copper coins. Very few people want to play a computer RPG where victory over the Dark Dragon Lich Lord hinges upon getting just the right exchange rate between Kirkwall Gold Marks and Antivan Silver Nobles in order to corner the elfroot trade.

    Those people are playing turn-based strategy games. Or Eve Onilne, which still makes stabbing monsters–er, zapping other players–in the face a major part of things.

    These things, and relationships, are also major code hogs. When asked if DA Inquisition would allow for polyamorous romances, the developers responded with something like, “we thought about it, then considered how much extra coding it would take to account for even most of the possible permutations…”

    So, no, I don’t think we’re going to see something on the level of Dragon Age or Skyrim that supports as much politicking, merchanting, and romancing as it does killing things for some time to come. Especially not if they have to pay quality voice talent to act the exponential explosion of parts that would be required to make cut-scenes and dialog scenes of all those interpersonal possibilities.

    • Brendan says:

      You’re probably right, Lon, about the reasons why we won’t see a game like the one I’m describing, coming from a big developer. And it’s too bad: I think there would be a market for the kind of game I want, but you’re probably right when you say that market is likely to be small. Maybe I’ll have to make my game as a tabletop product, after all.

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