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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

On Roleplaying and Roguelikes

I was role-playing before there were CRPGs. (Source: Wikipedia.)

The first video game I ever owned was an Atari 2600 cartridge called Space Invaders. Those of you my age will remember it immediately. It was the simplest of games. You controlled a ship (or just a laser cannon, maybe) that moved back and forth across the bottom of the screen, trying to wipe out waves and waves of alien ships. In the arcade, a similar game--which I was also quite good at--was Galaga.

There was no way to "win" Space Invaders, just like there's no way to win Tetris. All you could do was accumulate as many points as possible while holding off your inevitable demise. This never sat well with me, so I constructed a story around the game: I was a fighter pilot who bravely volunteered to stay behind and kill as many aliens as possible while waves of escape ships took humanity's remnants from Earth. Every point in my score was another human who made it off the planet alive. Although it was a fanciful elaboration on what I was doing, nothing in the game contradicted it, and I had fun with the additional element my imagination provided.

The enjoyment that others experienced with Pac-Man, on the other hand, always eluded me. The game was exciting enough, and I'm not saying that I didn't spend a lot of quarters on it, but I couldn't construct any sort of narrative around it. There was no way to rationalize a giant yellow mouth eating dots and menaced by cartoon ghosts.

Though some have tried. (Source.)

I did similar things with other games. When the first Windows computers came with Solitaire, I would play Vegas style (you pay for each hand but accumulate cash with each successful placement) and pretend my disapproving wife was sitting next to me as I tried to win enough money to pay the mortgage for the year. Minesweeper, on the other hand, is perhaps more tactical, but less plausible from a narrative standpoint.

I was thinking about these simpler games in a recent quest, prompted by NetHack, to try to figure out what makes some games "role-playable" and others completely hopeless as role-playing material despite being, ostensibly, "CRPGs." When I say, "role-playable," I'm not necessarily talking about in-game role-playing such as dialog choices and decisions based on class or alignment--these are all important, but are mostly absent from early CRPGs. I'm talking, rather, about narratives that the player can imagine externally to the game in front of him or her. This could include any combination of:

  • Mentally envisioning the environment through which your character progresses
  • Developing a detailed backstory for your character
  • Inventing dialog between your party members or party members and NPCs
  • Inventing quests for your characters
  • Resolving quests in ways that the game does not intend, or that does not give you maximum experience (e.g., just attack Mae'var in Baldur's Gate II because you "don't work with thieves", collect all the Threads of the Webspinner in Morrowind but dump them in the ocean to ensure they'll never be used)
  • Refusing to do things that you know how to do until your in-game character knows how to do them (e.g., when I play Ultima V, I'll already know all the mantras because of Ultima IV, but I could refuse to use them until my character learns them)
  • Taking time to do things like undress, eat, sleep, and socialize (much easier in modern CRPGs like Oblivion; there's actually a whole page on stuff like this)
  • Making decisions that do not help game progression--that may even hamper progression--in an attempt to be consistent with a character or ethos (letting fleeing enemies flee, buying drinks at the pub that do nothing for you, donating to churches, eating only vegetarian items in NetHack, refusing to let magic users accompany your inquisitor-led party in Baldur's Gate II)

Some of these items sound silly, I suppose--like a kid playing with his Star Wars figures--but hell, thousands of tabletop RPGers do it every day, using modules as their frameworks as I use the CRPG frameworks--so I'm not going to feel completely lame about it. In any event, everyone does it, if only to say, "your ass is mine" when they encounter the big boss or "boo-ya!" when they defeat him (if you don't at least say that, why are you playing?).

So if this is "role-playing" in CRPGs, what makes some CRPGs particularly good about it and others not? I would submit that it's partly about non-linearity, which I've already covered, but also partly how well the structure and elements of the story hold up to scrutiny. It has nothing to do with the bells and whistles attached to the game. Wizardry is bare-bones, and yet it can be enormously fun imagining your party creeping carefully through the Proving Grounds, hoping to get out alive. Ultima II, on the other hand, is as technically advanced as Wizardry, but I found it impossible to construct a sober narrative out of it, with its stealing and spaceships and goofy pop-culture references. If the CRPG developers have given you a structure and game elements that lend themselves to a complex narrative without falling apart, the "RP" part of the "CRPG" is strong.

Try this exercise: imagine a CRPG that you know fairly well. Now imagine that you've been tapped to write the novelization of the game, or a movie screenplay based on it. You have four parameters:

  1. You must keep the basic beginning, ending, and main quest of the game.
  2. You must include all of the story elements that the game includes.
  3. You must not include anything that contradicts any of the material in the game.
  4. As long as you adhere to the first three restrictions, you can include as much additional or extraneous material as you want.

Now imagine whether, based on these parameters, you could write a book or screenplay that would hold together--that anyone would actually want to see, and that wouldn't ruin your career.

Try it with Ultima IV. You can make your protagonist a recently-released convict, a disaffected teenager, a university professor, or a hardened street cop--none of these options contradicts the character creation in the game. Suddenly, he's whisked through a moongate to another world--no problem there; plenty of good movies and books feature magic. He has a long period in which he's disoriented and doesn't know what to do (the game doesn't show this, but neither does it preclude this). He finally makes his way to the sovereign, Lord British, and learns about why he's there--the conversation in the game isn't very cinematic, but remember you can add additional dialog, as long as you retain all of the dialog in the game. Dupre has to be a paladin and Katrina has to be a shepherd, and both must accompany your protagonist, but nothing says you can't construct a love triangle among them. And so on. There's nothing about Ultima IV (that I can think of) that would be absurd in an elaborated novel or film. Hence, it's a good CRPG.

Now try this with the original Ultima. Make a backstory for your elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit. Describe his slow rise in power and his accumulation of weapons and armor. Somehow introduce an air car with lasers. Figure out how you can plausibly get him into a spaceship so he can shoot down tie fighters and become a "space ace." Determine a logical reason that he needs to explore dungeons to improve his health. Finally, think of a credible explanation for his slaughter of Lord British's jester and guards, just to get a key. I suppose there is a tortured way in which all of this could be done, but I'll bet Ebert doesn't give it a thumbs-up.

I think the comparison to writing a novel or screenplay is quite apt. After all, when you're role-playing, you're essentially constructing a narrative. It might only be for you, but in order to be any fun, it still has to hold together within the world that the game provides. Might & Magic mostly holds together; Ultima II doesn't (unless you can figure out how a person might sensibly walk from the tip of South America to Africa and back in the course of one lifetime). In The Bard's Tale, you can construct an elaborate external world for your characters if you want (you practically have to, to alleviate the boredom of repetition); Beyond Zork is fun but too goofy to actually role-play.

Occasionally, you will be playing an otherwise good CRPG, but you will experience role-playing pangs over a nonsensical story element. We covered some of these in "What Were They Thinking?" Baldur's Gate II: My best friend is missing; why am I wasting time solving quests for innkeepers and druids? Why am I managing a production of "the Turmish play" at my own theater? Why am I not raising 20,000 gold and rushing immediately to her aid? Oblivion: the world is under attack from hell, I'm on a quest from the emperor, and yet I'm worried about getting promoted in the fighter's guild? But mostly these worlds are expansive enough that you can construct plausible external reasons for these inconsistencies; sometimes they even enrich the role-playing possibilities (I trust the thieves' guild less than the Cowled Wizards; Martin needs a really long time to study the Mysterium Xarxes). But in these early games, you'd have to use really tortured logic to explain why all the enemies come back to life when Werdna saves his progress (Wizardry IV) or why alien robots would keep codes to their own destruction on non-encrypted computers (2400 A.D.), and for these reasons I had trouble role-playing them.

Apply all of this to our most recent games: Mission: Mainframe and NetHack. I dare you to write a book in which an evil computer takes over an office building and your protagonist spends decades trying to find its location while slaying office workers with rulers and file folders (oh, and every time he leaves a floor and returns, everything is in a different location). Such a book would be worth the Amazon.com comments. But there's nothing in NetHack that's patently absurd. On the contrary, it's various touches (monsters leave corpses, you're constantly battling hunger, rocks occasionally block your passage, you don't automatically know what magic items are when you find them), by being both plentiful and realistic, provide a bonanza of role-playing options.

There are other factors, of course, that make NetHack good for role-playing. Randomization of the game world means that no two games will be the same. There are enough gameplay elements for you to hang a story on. (Akalabeth features a reasonably plausible game world, but there isn't enough stuff to tell a story with.) But the integrity of the game world is where it starts. Like the writers of Dungeons & Dragons modules, the developers created a coherent world, outlined a credible story, seeded it with various elements, and stepped back to let your character and those elements interact. Yes, the graphics and sound are nonexistent; yes, it is maddeningly difficult, but by god, you can role-play this one. I'm sorry that I assumed all roguelikes were cut from the same cloth. A roguelike can be a good CRPG.


26 comments:

  1. I know what you mean about constructing narratives. When I played Baldur's Gate II, any time I upgraded a weapon I would travel back to my ranger's cabin and leave the old one on the dining room table. By the end of the game I had an absurdly large pile of amazingly powerful magic weapons just sitting on the table -- a better loot haul than any of the heavily guarded dungeons in the game.

    I didn't even bother to lock the door.

    I did this simply because I loved the mental image of some low-level party of adventurers wandering through the woods, deciding to check out the empty cabin, and discovering my cast-offs were far and away the best treasure find they would ever have in their entire careers. I love messing with the kids, I just can't help myself.

    These sorts of self-constructed narratives make for powerful gaming memories. I think the reason I love Ultima V so much is because it was the first time an Ultima game was obviously set in the same world as its predecessor. That meant that my experiences playing Ultima IV were imported wholesale into Ultima V as backstory. When the bad guys were perverting the virtues, it wasn't an abstract or theoretical dispute. They were destroying my work, my *legacy*, and I was by God *pissed off about it*. Recalling my experiences playing Ultima V can still trigger strong emotions over two decades later.

    That's good game design.

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  2. If you watch the movie Cube (not for kids), you'll know that the office building can easily change rooms if you move out of one. :)

    Also, PacMan is of a race of Pacs. His mission is to get of the Pacs eggs to safety, because the ghosts, which are dead Pacs come to life, steal all of the Pacs eggs, because they are angry at the other Pacs for sending them to save the eggs in the first place. So many Pacs have sent other Pacs to save eggs that the ghosts never end coming, which you can guess by the amount of eggs lying around.

    The big eggs are not only new little Pacs, but a very good source of magic protein which enhances Pacman's ability to fight.

    Hah! See, everything can have a plausible story to RP in.

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  3. Thanks to emulation and the internet, we have instant access to a vast library of games for instant gratification. I recently got a GP2x Wiz open handheld gaming device for Christmas, which lets me play Commodore 64, MAME, NES, SNES, etc. I have immediate access to tens of thousands of games.

    Having easy access to the classics does have it's drawbacks in that if the outcome of a game is not going the way I like it to, I quickly reset and restart the game or I just change to another game. In the old days, such actions took more time than it does today (loading from tape or floppy). And because my library of games tended to be limited to what I bought (or copied from from friends in the case of the Commodore 64), I appreciated these games more.

    I recall constructing my own narratives when playing the more simple games. Case in point, "Video Olympics" for the Atari 2600. Take a look at it's box art:

    http://www.videogameobsession.com/videogame/atari2600/2600-VideoOlympics-vgo.jpg

    All the cartridge was, was 50 different variations of Pong. But the game's packaging gave the impression you could play the role of world-class athletes.

    There was one variation of Atari 2600's "Combat" where it was one gigantic bi-plane (quad-sized sprite) fighting against 3 small bi-planes. I took the role of the giant plane (which was colored white) and pretended it was the Millenium Falcon fighting against 3 imperial Tie Fighters. So with that, I created my own narrative from a thrilling sequence in "Star Wars".

    As well, when I played "Night Driver" on the Atari 2600:

    http://www.videogameobsession.com/videogame/atari2600/2600-NightDriver-vgo.jpg

    I pretended to be Michael Knight of the TV show "Knight Rider". It was also a ruse to get friends to come over and check out this game I supposedly had that was based on a popular hit TV show at the time.

    So I had a tendency to exaggerate, amplify the simple games I had in my collection to be a lot more than they are. Was it a sense of inadequacy (VS the fantastic arcade games of the time) or just a young lad's imagination run wild?

    This is a bit more difficult for me to do as an adult. Gaming is far more advanced nowadays, so the graphics and narrative tends to be more detailed. In fact, the gaming public demands this.

    I like retro games in general, because I'm a big fan of their aesthetics -- a game world constructed of big giant pixels is pure bliss, in my opinion. But when I play Combat today, I don't pretend to play Star Wars. If I want to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker for a few minutes, I just play the arcade vector graphic games from the early 1980s on MAME instead.

    My favorite CRPG that I continuously play to this day is "Telengard". As for constructing a narrative, I just pretend I'm a traveling soldier of fortune looking to acquire riches. I imagine that the various "Inns" and "Taverns" are like those depicted in the Fellowship of the Ring movie. And whenever I come across a demon or vampire in a randomized encounter, I pretend these were creatures who were terrorizing the village above the dungeon and I've tracked them down.

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  4. When I play a CRPG, a good story is the least of my concerns. If a good story was my primary concern, I would read a novel. I'm looking for interaction, and a challenge (mostly to my mind, no boss monster fights in my CRPGs please).

    What I look for is a game that forces me to make many meaningful choices and compromises as I develop my character(s). The various races and classes should be very distinct, with obvious strenghts, weaknesses and special abilities.

    Any quests in the game should also be distinct and challenging, no fetch quests.

    If there is a good story, I view that as a bonus. I'm not looking to build some sort of fantasy world in my mind around my characters, I'm just looking for an interesting challenge. Almost all modern CRPGs bore me. Mass Effect is a great example, the story may be interesting, but the gameplay is boring. Quests are simplistic in the extreme.

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  5. Your blog is the most interesting blog I've read in a long time. Please keep up the good work!

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  6. That's one of the most interesting aspects of the randomization- huge replayability, and emergent gameplay. It's very natural to start telling your own story about the experiences of the game. Not all roguelikes lend themselves to this- while I enjoy the Moria/Angband branch, there's not as many unusual situations as Nethack presents. The Moria/Angband branch is more focused on the experience of tactical play.

    One of the most intricate roguelikes around, Dwarf Fortress, which is no longer a CRPG but is still considered roguelike, has a famous example of storytelling based on emergent gameplay. So many factors are randomized in Dwarf Fortress, it's really stunning. The epic tale of Boatmurdered is the story of a failed fortress that went from bad to worse- a typical game, but what made it famous was the story they told about that fall.

    This is the former Pipecleaner Creations, by the way- I finally got around to fixing my profile name.

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  7. Boy, your post takes me back, Kyle. I remember having something of the same reaction back in the 1980s when Ultima V first came out. The Fellowship also raised my ire in Ultima VII.

    I think that Ultimas V, VI, and VII are partly fun to play because you revisit the old territory--a bit like going back to the town you grew up in and wandering around to see what's changed. "Cool, they rebuilt Magincia." "Skara Brae BURNED DOWN!?"

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  8. Cool blog! You might be interested in this:

    http://roguelikefiction.com

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  9. Nonsensical story element's are the Whipping Boy of the CRPG genre. We all love to groan about them but think how boring the game would if our PC trained for their epic final battle in a "realistic" fashion? Dungeon crawls followed by 40 hours of minigames similar to the "jobs" in Fable 2 or Weight lifting in GTA.

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  10. I've also noticed this. I don't conciously try to role-play, but some CRPGs practically beg for this. World of Xeen is one. Even though the characters had no dialogue, I soon started imagining them having personalities and sharing worried glances as they encountered the next absurdity in the game world. You can turn the near-plotless game into an entertaining story, as proven here: http://forums.penny-arcade.com/showthread.php?t=100992

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  11. Alternate Reality: The City!

    I'd pray for my character to stumble out of the bewildering starting room and into a Bulwer-Lyttony dark and stormy night, there to encounter a Troll with a potion of Treasure Finding and filch it. To go from those humble beginnings to the heights of Level 14, strutting around town with a Crystal Sword and some kind of fire armor? Sheer awesomeness.

    The game was so open-ended, and there was so much room for a kid's imagination in it, that I constructed entire novels' worth of stories around my little set of numbers on the screen.

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  12. I really like to construct stories in games, even those with established characters and stories. The devil is in the details.

    Good examples are Final Fantasy II (GameBoy Advance) and the Legend of Zelda series (especially the first three games and Ocarina of Time). In Final Fantasy II you play as four orphans who must establish themselves in a rebel army and bolster the army through quests in order to ultimately defeat THE Devil.

    The Legend of Zelda series as a whole I view as modern mythology (as mythology was before the printing press cemented myths instead of the broad range of story variations that previous oral traditions had produced). The land of Hyrule in which your character (Link) usually is protecting never has a fixed geography or history between games but share major details. In the 4 games I listed one long story can be told:

    The first incarnation of your character is a survivor of the royal knights from a great war for control of the land that took place when he was still an infant. He is commanded to find three spiritual stones and the Ocarina of Time to attain the evil-destroying Master Sword and stop a traitorous tyrant from attaining the power of the godesses to grant his wish for conquest. Link unwittingly plays into his hands and is trapped in time for 7 years to grow into a great hero while the tyrant wages war on the land and transforms the godesses' sacred realm into the Dark World. With the help of 7 sages Link seals the Tyrant known as Ganon into his own Dark World. Hundreds of years later a wizard named Ahgahnim (as told in The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess for Gamecube and Wii the wizard's name is Zant, who frees Ganon a bit differently) frees Ganon by enchanting 7 maidens descended from the sages. Link apparently defeats Ganon and reclaims the power of the godesses for Hyrule. Generations later a king of Hyrule hides one piece of the power as it requires a noble inborn quality to wield without bringing cataclysm to the land. In jealousy his son has a wizard who claims that the king told the princess of the hidden piece's whereabouts put the princess under a sleeping spell when she says she is ignorant to the knowlege. Out of grief the prince commands every girl born to the royal family to be named after his sleeping sister Zelda. Many generations later a Princess Zelda splits one of the pieces of power in her possession into eight pieces to prevent a returned Ganon who has somehow gotten hold of the other piece left in the kingdom from also acquiring her piece. Link is found traveling through the newly conquered territory by the princess's nursemaid and asked to find the fragments of the Zelda's piece of power to defeat Ganon. A few years after Ganon is killed, his minions plot to scatter Link's blood over Ganon's ashes to resurect their dark lord. Link is also informed of the sleeping Princess Zelda and tasked with finding the last hidden piece of power to break the sleeping spell and it can be assumed scour Ganon's evil from the world once and for all.

    Whoa, that was a mouthfull, but I wanted to show that even games with existent stories and characters can lead to embellishment from the player's imagination.

    --Glass2099

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  13. Reading all this I think the conclusion must be that the best CRPGs are those that create an immersive world where you can role play your character, and filling in all the blanks yourself, instead of the game telling you what your character is thinking and doing.
    Had most modern games labeled CRPGs not been closer to movies than to games, with all their cut scenes and highly linear gameplay, I would probably not have been so heavily into retro-gaming. For me the last game that was more or less perfect right out of the box, without needing mods to save it, was Baldur's Gate 2 or Morrowind. BG2 had a certain cinematic feeling, and annoying dreams and cut scenes, but at least before Chapter 3 (before sailing to Spellhold) you still were quite free to do as you liked and do quests in any order you liked.

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  14. This is exactly what I'm talking about! Don't hang around RPG message boards, though. They're making fun of us.

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  15. I do this too, quite often. Not only in RPGs, in strategy games and other kinds of games too. I mean, in Capitalism Plus I even went as far as to "promise" that I would not fire a single person after buying a competing company. Odd, I suppose, but it gave me a reason to try extra hard to incorporate its assets into my existing company, instead of just shutting down everything that didn't fit.

    I had a great game of Civilization IV plus the Fall from Heaven-mod too. I was playing one of the few good civs on the map, and basically the entire game was a struggle against evil civs that tried to exterminate me and bring about the end of the world (one of the neat features of FFH). But I fought and fought, and in the end I won - and saved the world. The entire thing felt pretty heroic. Like something out of Lord of the Rings, only it was my story.

    - Joe

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  16. "Minesweeper, on the other hand, is perhaps more tactical, but less plausible from a narrative standpoint."

    I would've thought the same until I saw this:

    http://www.collegehumor.com/video:1770138

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  17. Anon, that was awesome. Thanks for linking that.

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  18. Believe it or not, there is actually an "adventure" version of Minesweeper for the Turbo CD system. It's nowhere near an RPG, but you do play a character exploring caves and things, encountering various Minesweeper type puzzles that you must solve to move on.

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  19. Hey CRPG Addict!!! Screenshot no2 is not working! Cheers :)

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  20. Thanks, Manolis. It looks like the original site took it down.

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  21. I actually ran Ultima I as a tabletop game of D&D for my friends, and was able to (somewhat plausibly) answer all of your questions!

    The aircar (and the spaceship, blasters and other future tech) were accidentally pulled from Earth's future by a broken iTime--the time machine belonging to the Princess, who becomes the Time Lord in other installments. (Which is why she knows where it is; and she told the kings how to fix it so they can tell you.) Exploring dungeons to improve health was just an abstraction of the normal process of leveling up. And Mondain, when he realizes that the heroes are killing his monsters and threatening him; and that you've gotten help from the kings, sends demons to masquerade as jesters and influence the kings into acts that will stop the heroes, like locking up the Princess. Even Lord British isn't immune.

    (I just discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago, and have been working through the archives. Good stuff!)

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    Replies
    1. A bi tortured, but not bad overall. Now tackle Ultima II.

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    2. Yeah, I couldn't come up with a way to really make U2 work as written--it's too empty given it covers the entire Earth, and the time travel doesn't actually do anything in-game. So I ran that using the U2 map and Minax as the villian, but the plot was much closer to the SNES game Chrono Trigger, where the characters had to alter the past to create a future that had the things they needed (a quicksword, a ring the protected them from annihilation fields), and most of the dangers they faced were their own faults. Also, at one point they created a peaceful magitek future when they were hailed as the Prophets of God-King British. Then they destroyed it repeatedly trying to get more weapons to fight Minax's demons with.

      So, yeah. I'm not sure U2 is saveable.

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  22. Very interesting post. Although I only partly agree with you. I find that inventing my own stories to fill in the blanks is rather pointless. However, I do really like emergent stories that come out of the games themselves. I.e. the stories that come out of ingame choices and their consequences together with the outcome of my choices. I am however inclined to rig the game to go in the direction I want by either outright cheating or by reloading when the consequences isn't to my liking.

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  23. "Try this exercise: imagine a CRPG that you know fairly well. Now imagine that you've been tapped to write the novelization of the game"

    I do this in the shower/on walks quite often! One of several mental exercises that I occupy myself with during downtime. I still reckon they could have done better with the Super Mario Bros movie, scant and ridiculous the game's narrative may have been.

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  24. Sports sims are rife with role-playing opportunity. Thanks to confimation bias, you can end up thinking one player in your team is better (or worse) than the others even when they're actually identical! All it takes is a few good/poor performances at the beginning.

    Plenty of wargames/historical sims provide enough longevity and control to your units/characters that you end up associating character traits such as luck/boldness/caution/determination to bundles of numbers :)

    This makes it pretty hard to differentiate games like laser squad and all its progeny (JA/XCOM/etc)from rpgs.

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