|A strategy game with "RPG elements" is not a CRPG.|
Longtime readers will remember a time, about a year and a half ago, when I swore off CRPGs and my blog, only to return a month later. I was unable to withstand the allure of virtual ruins after I stumbled upon some real ruins while hiking.
A similar thing happened yesterday while I was touring the city of Viña del Mar in Chile. I've been in South America for the last week, forcing myself to spend my free time enjoying the physical and cultural landscape rather than sitting in front of my computer. In Viña del Mar, I wanted to tour the Fonck Museum, which is one of the few places in the world that you can see one of the Moai statutes from Easter Island without actually going to Easter Island.
The Moai, displayed outside, probably primed me by looking inescapably like some kind of stone giant. Inside, I was greeted by multiple displays of primitive weapons and armor before I finally came across the exhibit that sent me over:
If you don't feel like enlarging the image and reading all the text, here's the key section:
The Ariki henua was the religious leader of the island, direct descendant of the founder Hotu Matua, through the first born son of each generation. He was the receiver of mana from the creator gods, and his mana was the force that maintained social order and subsistence.
All it took was the mention of "mana" to suddenly drive home the fact I hadn't played a CRPG in over a week. From that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be back at my hotel room with my laptop. So today, while the weather is glorious in Santiago and the mountains beckon majestically in the distance, I am playing Dragon Wars. It didn't occur to me until writing this how the sentence "I'm playing Dragon Wars while sitting on a balcony overlooking the Andes!" can alternately sound awesome or pathetic depending on where you place the emphases.
Let me explain why Dragon Wars and not Romance of the Three Kingdoms. I did play around with Romance a little bit and got a half-posting written. But I didn't like it. I'm a CRPG addict, not a strategy game addict.
|The opening of the game shows some CRPG-like qualities by having you choose from several heroes with RPG-style attributes.|
As the game approached on my play list, many readers told me that it wasn't a CRPG, but I was less concerned with subjective assignment of category and more about whether the game featured at least two of the three elements on my list of core characteristics for CRPGs: 1) character leveling and development, 2) an inventory unconnected to the solving of puzzles, and 3) combat based on probability and statistics rather than player skill and speed. The game does have the latter two. All strategy games have the last one.
In setting those three characteristics, I was trying to identify what I felt were the key distinctions between CRPGs and other genres. I've said it a million times before but it bears repeating: the key distinction between a computer role-playing game and another type of game is not whether you "play a role." You "play a role" in almost every game, including adventure games, action games, and first-person shooters. The distinction is also not in whether you have "choices" (dialogue and otherwise) while playing that role, or we'd have to exclude a huge swath of games from the 1980s that almost everyone considers RPGs. The distinction, rather, is in the nature of the protagonist, who (a few exceptions aside) you name, create, and develop and in the nature of the way you use inventory and tactics to defeat enemies, survive, and occasionally solve other puzzles. Pure adventure game players generally overcome obstacles by having the right item, not using the right tactics. Pure action game players generally overcome obstacles through player skill (though with occasional inventory upgrades), not statistics. Some action games, and first-person shooters, feature inventory upgrades but not character leveling. There are hybrids of all of these, of course, but hybrids do appear on my list.
But I was forgetting a fourth key element of CRPGs, the one that most distinguishes them from strategy games: a single narrative, extending from the beginning to the end of the game, that allows you to conclusively "win."
With strategy games, you're not really expected to win every game. If you do, you're probably playing on settings that are too easy, or the game itself is too easy and you need to move on to something else. The point of strategy games, as with chess, is to play against a strong intelligence--either another player, or a good AI whose decisions you can't always anticipate. It's the only way to feel truly victorious if you do win. And during the whole process, you're actively building skills that probably help somehow in the real world.
If I was a strategy game addict, I'd feel smug and superior to CRPG players for these reasons--almost the same way in which I, as a crossword puzzle addict, feel superior to people who like "word search" puzzles. The whole point of a CRPG (unlike, it must be said, a tabletop RPG) is to "win" the game. If you haven't won, you haven't really finished it. And of course you're going to win. You're the only one who's playing! It might take you a lot of tries, but eventually (this is where I'd pat the CRPG player on the head) you'll find that magic sword and beat that nasty ogre. You just keep at it, champ.
I could have played Romance of the Three Kingdoms like a CRPG, declaring a "won!" posting when I was victorious in one of its five scenarios. I could have been especially lame about it by setting the enemy AI to the easiest level, or by playing all of the roles myself but having all but one make horrible decisions. But I would have been missing the point of the game, which is to try all it scenarios at various difficulty levels and with various options, not to win a single narrative but to achieve tactical mastery over the AI or other players.
All of this is slightly ironic because tabletop role playing games owe their histories to strategy games, at least in terms of things like weapons and statistics. No history of role-playing games is complete without a reference to Chainmail, Gary Gygax's pre-Dungeons and Dragons wargame, from which many of the original D&D rules were adopted. But the genres diverged when players preferred to play persistent characters with whom they could identify, and with nebulous personal development goals rather than domination of a battlefield.
I've spent a long time thinking about why I don't like strategy games despite liking tactical combat in CRPGs. It comes down to the differences between battle tactics and campaign tactics. In a CRPG, each battle is generally its own unit, and if the party can win, they can continue to progress in the game. If battles become too hard, they can seek development and grinding opportunities in between. In strategy games, by contrast, battles are interrelated and there's generally no way to take a "time out" and develop units in between--not while your enemies are trying to dominate the same map. Decisions made early in the scenario can make the scenario unwinnable, and I hate investing that much time only to ultimately be defeated. I also hate micromanaging resources like rice and ore, fine-tuning unit production, and all of the other responsibilities of controlling a nation rather than exploring a dungeon.
The only strategy game that's really captured my heart is Warlords III (I hear II is pretty good, but I haven't played it), which had the advantage of organizing its scenarios into larger campaigns with ultimate victories at the end, as well as persistent heroes that the player can develop (with both leveling and equipment) within scenarios and move between scenarios.
|It also had extremely cheesy video acting in between scenarios.|
My CRPG play list is already absurdly long, even if we don't count some of the older non-DOS games I'm now trying to include. I've got to trim something. One of my decisions is to trim strategy games that do not offer persistent heroes that the player can develop in between scenarios. This ensures that I play the games that best fit my CRPG addiction without a lot of extraneous games that simply have "RPG elements." On, then, to Dragon Wars.