Thursday, February 21, 2019

Breadth, Depth, and Immersion (ft. The Seventh Link)

The party continues to explore The Seventh Link's large world.
             
This entry posits a thesis that I've never explicitly articulated before and probably haven't spent enough time thinking about its flaws. I thus particularly invite you to join me in the comments and add or modify the thesis's tenets. It doesn't feel to me like a particularly original argument, so I'd also be glad for any references to other writers who have argued something similar.

The thesis is that a perfect game (although this might apply to films and novels, too) is something like a cube--equal and balanced on three dimensions. I am calling those dimensions breadth, depth, and immersion.
           
Fate: Gates of Dawn (1991) had an enormous game world and not enough happening within it.
          
Breadth refers primarily to the physical size of the game. It can be measured in dungeon squares or tiles, or in modern games the length of time it takes to travel from one end to the other. It also refers to the length of time it takes to play and win the game; while this is often a function of size, it can also be manipulated to make a small game seem larger or a large game seem smaller; for instance, in the use of fast travel (making a large game seem smaller) or the re-use of maps (making a small game seem larger).

Depth refers to the things that you find and to the things that happen within that game world. The specific elements depend on the game's genre, but for RPGs it includes things like the backstory, lore, NPCs, quests, and character development.
            
Two separate multi-volume book series covering the biography of a single NPC might be too much for some games--but not for The Elder Scrolls' huge game world.
           
We'll get to immersion in a minute, but for now let's pretend that my thesis has only these two elements, and I'm arguing that a good game is like a square: you want a breadth equal to its depth and vice versa. The easiest way to engage the thesis is to imagine the extremes. A game with extreme breadth and almost no depth would be something like Red Dead Redemption 2 or Fallout 4 if all you could do was explore the map. You'd get bored pretty fast.

The opposite--a game with extreme depth and no breadth--is harder to envision because it almost wouldn't be a computer game at all. Imagine a game of only a couple of dozen squares in which every time your character moves, you have to read paragraph after paragraph of text and engage in hours-long dialogues with multiple NPCs. The computer part would feel superfluous. The Star Saga games are the closest I can imagine in real life.
               
Star Saga (1987) mostly used the computer application to direct "players" to chapters in a several hundred-page book.
           
My thesis is that a good game doesn't have to feature a lot of breadth or depth, but rather than it needs to keep them in balance. It is thus not absurd to argue that Ultima IV is a better game than Dragon Age: Inquisition even though the latter is bigger and has far more story and lore. The issue isn't which has more but which does a better job balancing the two. Ultima IV has just enough backstory and in-game dialogue, lore, and other content to support the size of Britannia and the length of the game. If had featured 200 books with as much text as those found in The Elder Scrolls, it would have gone too far. It would also have gone too far if it had featured the same content as it does, but in a world four times the size.

I have seen the phrase "wide as an ocean, deep as a puddle" applied numerous times to Skyrim. I find it unfair, but only a little. I'd say that it's as wide as the Pacific Ocean but deep as the Arctic Ocean. The game has plenty of depth. It would be insane to argue that it has less depth (e.g., less content, less meaningful NPC interaction, fewer choices, less role-playing) than fan favorites like Dungeon Master, any of the Ultima titles, or even Planescape: Torment. But people aren't objecting to its absolute depth; they're objecting to its depth relative to its breadth. When I say a game is "too long" in my GIMLET, I'm not saying that crossed some objective threshold so much as I'm saying that it's too long for its content.
             
Ultima Underworld (1992), through a combination of graphics, sound, and interface, is one of the first games to make you feel truly "immersed" in the setting.
           
Let's talk about the third axis. I debated for a while about including it, but I do think it's important. Immersion deals with the game's capacity to make you feel like you are truly "occupying" its world, and it's primarily a function of graphics and sound--although we must allow for skilled developers who can engage the player's imagination in the absence of these things, as a good author does.

To understand the importance of this axis, imagine a large game that you believe balances breadth and depth well. Fallout: New Vegas seems to be a fan favorite. Now imagine that it has no sound and the wireframe graphics of Wizardry. Is it still on your top 10 list? No matter how well a game balances size and content, there's a point at which it becomes "too much" if it can't fully engage your senses and immerse you in its world.

None of these variables is completely objective, and immersion is probably the least objective of the three. Its importance has a lot to do with your age and experience level with older games. I still think the graphics in Morrowind are beautiful, but last week, I stumbled on a Reddit thread in which someone posted an image of a horse falling over in Red Dead Redemption 2 and leaving a horse-sized imprint in the mud, and half the commenters were complaining that the imprint wasn't realistic enough. Even among those of us with a high tolerance for primitive graphics, immersion is a mutable characteristic. A game that seems like a solid cube today will slowly flatten as we become used to better graphics and sound.
                
Watching the sunset in Morrowind (2003) still seems lovely to me, but to some people these graphics are hopelessly outdated.
            
The greatest developmental sins are committed by RPG authors who fail to consider these elements of balance. Take Fate: Gates of Dawn, which took me 272 hours to win and featured both an enormous outdoor game world as well as enormous, multi-leveled dungeons. It was a game of ridiculous breadth, and while it had a certain amount of depth--perhaps even more than the typical RPG of the time--it didn't have enough depth to equal the breadth. I still recommend that modern players limit themselves to the opening area and the Cavetrain quest, as those first 50 hours let you experience everything good about the game; the remaining 5/6 of its length is utterly superfluous. Knights of Legend, Wizardry V, and all three Bard's Tale games are all good examples of games whose size greatly exceed the amount of interesting content they provide.

It's tough to find reverse examples--too much depth and not enough breadth. I mentioned the Star Saga games earlier, in which you make a move in a computer application and then read pages of text in an accompanying book. I ended up rejecting them not because they weren't RPGs because they weren't really computer games. There are other examples of games that wanted to do something epic with their themes but struggled with an interface that could support their intentions. ICON: Quest for the Ring is a good example. The three Richard Seaborne games--particularly Escape from Hell and The Tower of Myraglen--had deep philosophical ambitions that weren't quite matched by the gameplay experience.
              
The Tower of Myraglen (1987) wanted to be more profound than the breadth of the game could really support.
             
But even games near-perfectly balanced in depth and breadth often suffer when we consider the immersion axis. I will grant you that there's a somewhat high threshold before it becomes important. It arguably never becomes important in simple arcade games, and even with RPGs, anyone who argues that Wizardry or Ultima or Dungeons of Daggorath are bad games because of their graphics is expressing an opinion so out-of-touch with my own values that I'd almost regard it as a character flaw. But even I would argue there's no place for a soundless wireframe game that takes 200 hours. There is a degree to which good descriptive text can substitute for graphics, which is why I often praise games for including it, but even I would probably balk at an all-text Fallout 4

Deathlord is a good example of a game that's reasonably square with breadth and depth but still largely fails because it's just too big for an iconographic game. I think we're going to start to see this a lot more with 1990s titles, as the use of hard disk installations allows for physically enormous games that are still a bore to explore. The first Elder Scrolls title, Arena, will probably be an example.

Most people probably wouldn't argue that a game's graphics and sound are too good for its breadth and depth, but there are times that you feel that the developer's wasted immersive engines on limited content. Myst is arguably a good example, if you don't love its type of puzzles. Eventually, we reach a point at which depth and immersion almost merge--where the graphics and sound are so good that they let you see, hear, and otherwise experience things that would otherwise have to be rendered as dialogue or written text--and that has implications for this thesis that I haven't fully considered.
                
Fully half of Red Dead Redemption 2's game map exists mostly to look nice, with no significant gameplay content.
          
This thesis gelled as I play The Seventh Link. If you haven't been paying attention, developer Jeff Noyle paid a visit in the comments to my last entry and offered some tips and maps, which motivated me to keep going with the title. The game is mechanically sound: Noyle did a good job replicating the basic experience of Ultima III and IV, including combat, while arguably improving the economy and inventory system. The problem is a reduction in content accompanied by an increase in size. Elira alone--let alone the three other planets--is as large as Britannia (from Ultima IV), has almost as many towns and dungeons, and its towns and dungeons are larger. And yet in the entire game, there is less dialogue than a single Britannian town. While an Ultima player has lots of side-quests and sub-quests to accomplish (find the mystics, find the runes, learn the words of power, meditate at shrines, etc.), the Seventh Link player has a much simpler quest with fewer stages. In short, the game's breadth far exceeds its depth.

When I last blogged about the game, I had explored a couple of dungeon levels but was worried about overextending myself. I think the developer intended a larger, stronger party before tackling the dungeons. Back on the surface, I soon encounter what I most needed: a pirate ship. After slaying the pirates in combat, I was able to board the ship.
           
Blasting enemies with the ship's cannon.
         
As in Ultima III-V, the ship has cannons that can be used to mercilessly wipe out approaching enemies, but doing so offers no experience or gold. They're best used to eliminate enemies you don't want (e.g., anything that causes poison) so you can spend your hit points and spell points on easier and more lucrative prospects.

I used the boat to reach previously-inaccessible land areas and thus visit a few more towns. In one of them, I got a third character, a cleric named Tharon. One of the towns sold a "flying disk," but it's a bit above my price range. I need it to continue exploring the town, although I don't know if you can take it with you when you leave.
            
A second NPC joins the party.
           
There are some interesting graphical vignettes in the outdoor area, including doors in the middle of mountain ranges, archipelagos connected by bridges, towns at the end of mazes, towns with lakes in the middle of them, and so on, but none of this interesting geography leads to any depth in gameplay. The towns have the same identical services and one or two lines each of useful dialogue. This makes the land somewhat exhausting to explore, which is why I'm now using the maps that Jeff provided with no shame.
             
An interesting environment, and yet the town has no more depth or character than any other town.
          
I'm going to make a push to win this in one or two more entries, before I get started with Star Control II, which will require a large devotion of time this weekend.

The final thing I'll say about breadth, depth, and immersion is that my GIMLET doesn't reflect them very well. The considerations aren't entirely absent, but the GIMLET definitely rewards more of everything rather than good balance among the three axes. So far, it hasn't been a huge problem,  but I think it will become one as time marches on. Mediocre games from the 2000s will end up getting much higher scores than excellent classics just because they have more of everything--more NPCs, more character options, more history and lore, better graphics and sound, and so forth. I'm concerned that the GIMLET's purely additive system will result in relative scores that I balk at, like Might and Magic IX ranked higher than Might and Magic III or a bore-fest like Kingdoms of Amalur outperforming Pool of Radiance.

I don't have the answers to this conundrum yet, but sometime this year we'll have a discussion about potential revisions to the GIMLET that better take these factors (and others) into account. This would be a good time to start organizing your arguments.



126 comments:

  1. I never understood the people who wanted the game world to be bigger, larger, MOAR STUFFF!. It always came down to an unmanageable mess, with things you need scattered all over the world and whole sections that you never return to. I wanted a world that, while it could be large, would be manageable. No getting lost, no wandering around without a clue of what to do, revisiting old hints.

    Unforunately the breadth crowd usually wins in my experience, because apparently the developers love creating more than they love playtesting or making sure they have a coherent game. They have a need to create, and to heck with anyone who suggests they should sublimate their desires as they're making a commercial product. Cheering them on is the MOAR STUFF crowd, who don't care about the game as long as it has FOUR THOUSAND MORE ROOMS than the last title.

    I believe the foundation of this is the pursuit of novelty. The short attention span is bored easily and wants something new, constantly. These overly broad worlds convince the customer to buy with the promise of a bundle of novelties, but don't satisfy the gamer who plays. Who cares anyway if the game becomes unplayable due to overcomplexity, just buy a new game to satisfy that novelty-seeking impulse.

    You should create a Venn diagram of breadth, depth, and immersion and place certain games in the different areas of the circles. Put crpgaddict.blogspot.com somewhere where it can't be photoshopped out and watch it go viral.

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    1. In some aspects, though, quantity provides a quality of its own. A gigantic world that you can never explore all of seems more realistic and immersive. You really could just wander off and explore. Daggerfall was an attempt at this, though Bethesda subsequently moved towards smaller, hand-made dungeons.

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    2. The first 2 gothic games had the perfect size to depth ratio. Was not a huge world, but every NPC had a personality, fit into society and had a day/night cycle.

      I think Ultima 7 is the first game to really get into true depth. I remember being amazed at how NPCs all had jobs. Went home. I could bake stuff, etc...

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    3. Extreme breadth is easy for AAA game developers because you can distribute the work to hundreds to thousands of relatively low-paid scripters, modelers, etc. That's the Ubisoft model to a T, and it's why you get tonally incoherent games like Watch Dogs. ("Oh, no, my sister-wife got kidnapped! Better go find a guy hanging out in an alley so I can get some levels in the spider-tank minigame!")

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  2. >and half the commenters were complaining that the imprint wasn't realistic enough

    I suspect that most of them were being silly about it, since I don't think current players really expect a horse to leave the exact correct mudprint when it falls. It's likely a new version of the "OMG unplayable!" meme.

    In another ten years, though, that criticism might be more serious. But I still don't think people will be terribly critical, even then.

    Your breadth/depth/immersion factor seems to be a "quality of time spent" measurement. Given the number of hours you had to invest in the game, how much enjoyment did you get out of it? Was it about as expected, or notably better or worse?

    You could think of this as a bias number, defaulting to zero. You've used a similar technique a few times... there have been games where you've knocked off a few points for flaws that didn't show in your normal categories. You could formalize the process, making it into an official category. And, defaulting to zero, it doesn't change the existing scale, and doesn't require any more work.

    You could call it your "Thumb on the Scale" number. :)

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    1. "Quality of time spent" - I think this is key. I'm going to go on a contrarian limb and say that while all these concepts are fishing for what makes a game good, sometimes it may be more intuitive if you approach from the flip side and look at what makes a game bad. This isn't just for games - most arts don't have a perfect formula for doing them right, but they absolutely have a large number of flags for things going wrong.

      I'll accept that both breadth and depth do mean something, and that finding a sort of balance can be useful, but if you're starting from scratch it's going to be really, really hard to lay out a plan that makes sure these two things are in harmony. What you really need to do is make a draft of the game and then (and others have said this) playtest and make sure that interesting things happen frequently enough it's satisfying for the player. Too grindy? That's bad. Too empty? That's bad. Too generic? That's bad. Too hard to find the next step? Riddles too difficult without a hint? Character progression too slow? All bad.

      You can fix those things by adjusting the breadth, the depth, the timing of progression, in part via gimlet-y things like NPCs, puzzles, and the economy, even.

      I'm not 100% sold on immersion. It's not something I pay much attention to, and some of my favorite games, such as West of Loathing (it's a stick-figure game riddled with jokes) definitely lack much of the "immersive" qualities you describe. Again, a lot of other readers have suggested the opposite might be a bigger issue: it's not the immersion, but fighting against parts of the game that can distract, frustrate, or otherwise pull you out. That might include graphics so bad you get annoyed, and I can definitely remember voice acting so terrible I wanted to quit a game (Heroes of Might and Magic 5). On the minor side, I remember a lot of aggravation over even the item-swapping inventory interface in Might and Magic 4. Again, it's not so much being immersed, as not having negative elements interfere with your enjoyment.

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  3. Personally immersion for me is more dependent on the believability of the world and a good breath-depth relation than on graphics. Something with graphics as simple as the Gold Box games or Ultima VI can be more immersive than a game with modern graphics, depending on the content and worldbuilding.

    Interestingly enough many modern interface and design trends hurt the immersion for me. Morrowind and even Ultima Underworld are more immersive than Skyrim and Oblivion, because the old games allowed you to get lost and let you explore on your own terms, giving you hints to quest locations by actually giving you hints in dialogues and readables. In Skyrim and Oblivion, you barely get any description of how to get to your quest goal - you're just told "Go to dungeon X" and then a marker appears on your map that you can follow. These markers completely ruin my immersion because they're a level of handholding that ruins the exploration for me, and due to the quests being designed around markers, if you deactivate them entirely, you end up having no idea where to go since the game doesn't offer any hints.

    Immersion is very subjective, but for me it is often broken when the game is over-relying on intrusive features that remind you that yep, you're just playing a game, not exploring a world.

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    1. Doesn't Skyrim let you turn those markers off? They are definitely immersion reducing.

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    2. Yes it does, and there are mods in Oblivion achieving the same, too. Question is whether or not the design is based on the existence or non-existence of quest markers. Would you find a location if the quest marker pointing to it weren't there? In my opinion, both Oblivion and Skyrim assume the presence of quest markers, while Morrowind, for example, doesn't (although it features markers for important locations on the global map - but by listening to NPC's, reading books and asking the right questions, you could find these locations on your own).
      There is definitely a very close relationship between immersion and the existence or non-existence of tools which are required to find your way, but are not integral components of the game world. Some people might argue that even auto-maps are immersion-breaking (I don't).

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    3. I agree, I started playing the Witcher 3 without mini-map and markers, to get a more immersive experience. I eneded up turning them on at some point, because while it was "immersive", because the game world is so huge and detailed, finding anything took way too long. The game clearly wasn't designed enough around giving "in-game" markers for those who didn't want to use "non-immersive" ones.

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    4. That's exactly my experience of The Witcher 3 too. The game needs to be properly designed around exploring.

      I think there is a fear in modern games that getting lost is frustrating & therefore immersion breaking - and with so many games available and attention spans potentially waning, they may be right.

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  4. Immersion is less about graphics and more about interface. The more direct your control over your hero(es) is, the more you can engage. If you have to fight with the interface, that distracts and reminds you of playing a game.

    It's also about how the story is told. Some games have few "story-checkpoints", where some guy explains you everything (there has to be a trope name for that) and sends you to the next featureless dungeon. That feels like a heritage of back when disks were too small to include the whole story and it was printed in the manual. The story basically acts as a framing and could as well be exchanged.

    Other games allow you to gradually uncover the plot, with NPCs, events and areas adding details. That makes a huge difference - a fetch quest is pointless and feels like a distraction if you have to supply a vendor with materials, but helps progressing the story if you work towards your goal, like collecting a part of the McGuffin, gaining an ally or getting intelligence about the endboss.

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    1. Of course there's a trope for that, it's called Exposition Break.

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  5. Interesting thoughts. I put your thesis to test with these two non-RPG games:
    VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
    and The Red Strings Club

    Both games are, in my opinion, extremely immersive and have a lot of depth. They have absolutely no breadth (basically they are playing in a bar). Immersion does not come through graphics or sound, but solely through depth. Therefore I would argue that the immersion and depth axis are not independent of each other. You can achieve immersion through depth, but not the other way around.

    These games probably compare better to novels (they are visual novels), which also only achieve immersion through depth. Depth makes it feel real and indistinguishable to the real experience (to some extend).

    Immersion is the thing I’m looking for in games: I want to make a new experience that would be impossible in reality. That also makes them so addictive, if the artifical experience feels better than any real world experience, I go with the fake one.

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    1. I haven't played these particular games (though VA-11 HALL-A is in my Steam wishlist since I love cyberpunk) but in the case of most visual novels, the question arises whether they are games at all.

      I've played a handful of VNs and all of them were so light on the gameplay and so non-interactive in the story, they didn't feel like games to me at all, and I couldn't get immersed because I had too little control over my character.

      Chet mentions Star Saga above, which sounds a lot like a VN (make gameplay choice, then read a lot), and he barely considers it a computer game for that reason.

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    2. I highly recommend Star Saga to anyone with even a passing interest. It's best played in a multi-player setting, whether working cooperatively or in self interest for most of the game. It's more only slightly more than choose your own adventure style novel, with a small market sim aspect that is probably the only real game element. The world building is fantastic though, and well worth multiple playthroughs for each character.

      The second game unfortunately suffers from middle-child syndrome as the development team planned it as a trilogy. Sadly, only two games were released.

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    3. Visual novels have EXTREME variance in the number of choices and how 'gamelike' they are. Some are clearly following in the tradition of choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks, with tons of choices and lots of ways to leave yourself dead. Some really just want to tell one particular story, and the only choice you get is which character's story to read first. And some are more like taking all the combat out of a game like KOTOR: you get to design and customise your character, you get to choose which sidequests to do, you get to choose whether to be 'good' or 'evil', you get to decide how it all ends and what happens to your companions, but the main thread of the story stays the same and pushes you towards the same climax.

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    4. The "like KotoR with the combat taken out" VNs sound like something I would like very much. Are you referring to games like Princess Maker, Long Live the Queen, Academagia etc? Because I never saw these as VNs, nor did I see people sort them into that genre. To me those are known as Princess Maker clones.

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    5. The intersection between "life management sims" like Princess Maker and visual novels is the dating sim.

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    6. Something like LLTQ would be on the gamier-end of what I'm talking about, because of its stat-raising mechanics. 7KPP is another with a lot of stats.

      But imagine a VN where the first thing you do is design your character, and then you go on an Epic Quest with your companions, and whenever events come up you get to choose a tone response (like Bioware's diplomatic/joking/blunt) which doesn't really fork the plot, but adjusts the way your character relates to it. I've seen little indie VNs like this, where there's only really one story but you get to roleplay your character a little going through it, maybe even choose a romance/companion. Or Telltale games are a bit like that these days, I think? The story's mostly the same but the details are up to your roleplaying choices.

      To me, a true Princess Maker clone is completely undirected. There are characters sometimes and they may have some backstories/endings to uncover, but there's no single overall plot, and part of the point of the genre is that you can spend the entire game picking flowers if that's what you're into. Academagia's a little bit like that. There are a few events that will happen no matter what you do, but they're really just flavor. There's a lot of plotlines you could follow up if you wanted to, but they don't really affect the 'game world' in any way afaik. There's no consequences for anything other than adjusting your stats.

      I would probably not class these as visual novels for lack of a central story, but LLTQ and 7KPP are more VN-like.

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    7. Thanks for the detailed explanation. Then VNs are truly not the genre for me. Telltale games were too heavy on the cutscenes and too light on the gameplay, same with all the VNs and Dating Sims I tried. PM and LLTQ like games are a lot of fun though because they are so free form, and focus on gameplay over story.

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  6. To me the quality of an RPG comes in that magic moment when you understand its interface, skills, dialogue system and you are able to orientate yourself in it, so you happily fight, explore and gain levels with confidence. But there is another point: repetition. Which can be very exhausting and nerve wrecking to me. I rage uninstalled Skyrim for that reason (after 100 hours anyway): same dungeons, little reward.

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    1. My main issue with Skyrim is the formulaic dungeon design. They're always rather linear, always circle back around to the entrance at the end, and side-rooms and hallways never lead very far. Every time you enter a dungeon you know it will be vaguely tube-shaped. Labyrinthian was a particularly horrible example because I expected something more... well... labyrinthian. Instead it was as linear as the rest of them. Yawn.

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    2. You are mixing Skyrim with Oblivion.

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    3. No, Skyrim has exactly the same dungeons over and over again. The problem that I had with Skyrim, though, was that you barely had any clue on what side quest was going to be actually written and which one was going to be generic. It was a lottery, with most of them being generic with bad rewards. Oh God how much I hate that game now.

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    4. I think after 100 hours, it's time to put the game away and try a new one. If it lasted that long, it's a miracle. Saying that you hate that game because it doesn't provide more than 100 hours of interesting gameplay? Jeez.

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    5. Skyrim's dungeons all follow the same template but are not identical, Oblivions were literally the same dungeons

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    6. Yeah, Skyrim did not have identical dungeons. It had identical TILE SETS. All draugr crypts looked about the same. However nearly every room had unique layouts and one or more features that set it apart from others. Having replayed much of Skyrim twice, to this day I can say "oh, it's THIS dungeon" based on the features alone. I know what Bleak Falls Barrow feels like. I remember the dungeon where you fall into a jail cell where a mage experiments on his test subjects. I remember Ustengrav that broke out into a massive cavern of pillars with a waterfall, trees, and a skeleton seated on a throne in the far corner. They're all different enough to feel unique.

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    7. Sure, the fluff may be different, but they are mechanically identical. You just go through the rooms in a completely linear fashion fighting levelscaled draugr. There is maybe a few dungeons that are slightly more complex, but most could be just replaced with a straight corridor.

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    8. This is so true. I started and stopped Skyrim I think about half a dozen different times over the years without ever finishing the game.

      Why? Because I'd focus on the side quests rather than the main quest and after a while, everything just looked so repetitive and I lost interest.

      On my most recent playthrough, I forced myself to work the majority of the time on the main quest just to see the end. At least those dungeons (when involved) tend to be unique by nature and didn't make me lose interest.

      Recently I gave Enderal a Skyrim total conversion mod a shot and I was throughly impressed. Considering that it's free, the amount of content (especially pretty good written stuff), dialogue (including voice) blew me over.

      Especially liked how the capital city of the world actually looks like a capitol, rather than visiting Solitude and going, "Eh? This is supposed to be the biggest city in Skyrim?"

      And the main quest is quite well written and the side quests are very good too (some of them I'd rate as near excellent in terms of how interesting they are).

      I'd highly recommend anyone who owns Skyrim to try it. It's especially nice how the dungeons are not photocopies of each other. Granted the linearity aspect is still there (although a few dungeons seem to have three or more routes) so I don't find as tiresome as Skyrim's selection.

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    9. Harland: please make an effort to understand what you read before trying to be dismissive and sarcastic.

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    10. I agree that Skyrim was too linear--in fact, I think the world and dungeon design have been going downhill since Arena. My favorite Elder Scrolls games are Arena, Redguard and Daggerfall because they have suck large and interesting worlds, complex dungeons and so much to do, but I never got invested in the later games that way. Take Oblivion, for example--both the game and the afterlife in the game series--in Daggerfall, it looks like a mysterious astral plane; in the game Oblivion, it looks like a generic fiery hellhole.

      I rage uninstalled Skyrim after the quests broke and I could no longer continue the game. I restarted Daggerfall many times before I beat it, but I quit Skyrim as soon as it stopped working which I think says it all.

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  7. The first thing I thought of when you mentioned immersion was interactivity. Being able to interact with the gameworld in complex (and consistent!) ways probably creates the greatest sense of immersion for me. I'd also say that graphics are only a secondary factor as they can greatly enhance the sense of immersion but not create it on their own. E.g. a rogue-like with ascii-presentation but complex interaction can be far more immersive than a fantastic looking first person game with limited interactivity (press "E" at the designated spot to perform the designated action).

    A good example for lots of depth with little breadth would be a good point'n click adventure. The total number of rooms/screens will be tiny compared to pretty much any other game, especially RPGs, but you'll spend a lot more time in them and pay attention to all the little details, objects etc. (This can also lead to a unique feeling of immersion if done well...) Whereas in RPGs you often end up systematically combing the game world: Where's the shop, where's the mage's guild, talk to all unique NPCs... rinse and repeat.

    This brings me to another point where RPGs often waste opportunities to create a more believable and immersive game world: Creating locations that feel culturally unique. What I mean by that is that you often see visually unique places, but they all feature the same key buildings like shops, smiths, mage guilds, warrior guilds etc. This makes sense from a gameplay perspective, but it does mean that new places start to feel old and familiar too quickly.

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    1. Both adventures and rpgs walk a tight line with interactivity because they depend on different things as gameplay mechanisms and rewards.

      Adventure games are focused on exploration and, most of the times, on narrative - and this is why either you write a good main character or your point n click is sank into the ocean. When there is no writing, like in Myst, gameplay turns to solving puzzles that give rewards that have to do with exploration of new screens and new puzzles. That is the tight rope of adventure games: puzzles are blockers and rewards, texts are too. So the balance is really hard, mostly for a design that cries for linearity.

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    2. bit of a huge mistake there at the end about myst though. it had tons of writing. they created an original writing and numeral system and language, and there was a very involved set of backstories for all of the islands that were cohesive and comprehensive.

      plus there were dozens of video-based scenes with dialogue and intense character development.

      it feels like you should go play myst again thoroughly before you comment about it, since you do not know what you're talking about.

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    3. No. They created a lot of writing after the game, outside of the game (myst books and all). The first Myst has barely any video. The second one has more video, true, but it's obvious that the story is super thin. Presto shook things up on the third and the fourth one is the first one where I feel that there are some characters.

      God what happened with this comment section? This used to be around people that knew the games and discussed amicably. "You should play myst again". Please, don't make me torture myself with that again, looking for some reward in a game that barely has any.

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  8. KOA would have been the greatest thing ever, IF it would have had splitscreen coop.

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  9. I don't really see the need to revise the gimlet at all. Just make sure you're rewarding quality over quantity. This should be easy enough for categories like combat, encounters, game world and gameplay. And even for categories that seem to reward quantity like equipment or NPCs it shouldn't be much of a problem. I don't think anyone will complain if you score a more recent game lower on NPCs than, say, Ultima IV, when the NPCs are shallow and less crucial to the game. Likewise, a game with a huge selection of equipment could score low if the equipment makes little difference tactically.

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  10. Visual novels and adventure games often use a game shell to increase the immersiveness of what might otherwise just be a novel or movie. Even though they are neither broad nor deep in many cases, giving some element of control to the player changes the way they engage with the content.

    I felt Tides of Numenera might have been too deep for it's breadth. I felt like I was just plodding around the same locations, reading a whole ton of scene setting, but not actually scratching any sort of exploration itch.

    I think the idea of breadth vs depth is significantly captured by the notion of 'pacing', which is applicable to many forms of media. Is enough happening to keep us engaged? Is there enough spacing between events to allow us to sit with the emotional or intellectual resonance of what just occurred? When games, books, movies, songs get the pacing right, we tend to refer to them as 'tight'.

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    1. About these new Kickstarter games like Pillars of Eternity and Numenera which have loads of dialogue and lore dumps, Jeff Vogel said better when he claimed something like "Story should be the reward for playing the game, and not the opposite (getting to play after going through much lore dump)".

      I guess this balance is difficult to achieve, and lately the more vocal RPGs on the internet are the ones with more extreme opinions, and not really the norm, hence this games having lots of text to appease those fans.

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    2. Yeah, Vogel is on the money. And he paces 40-60hr RPGs pretty darn well for almost a one-man show.

      I'd really like to see Chet play Avernum 1, or Geneforge 2.

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    3. He'll get there eventually! He also has the Exile series on the game list... I've never played those myself.

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    4. Avernum 1-3 are remakes of Exile 1-3 and the plot and writing is largely the same. Well, the first Avernum series. I haven't played the Avernum remakes. Yes, he remade Exile twice. Hell, Avadon feels pretty similar to Exile. Vogel really loves dragon's lairs. And blunt, deadly-looking female swordmasters who are the captain of the guard of a remote outpost and who don't have time for your nonsense but who will give you a mission if it'll get you out of her hair.

      I've kind of gotten tired of Vogel's writing by this point (can you tell?) but it was incredibly good for the time. I think it easily matches the best-written RPGs of the era coming from major publishers (Exile 1 came out shortly after Ultima VIII, to give some context). The Exile series also has a lot of well-written female characters and has the earliest sympathetic depiction of a lesbian couple in an RPG that I'm aware of. Extremely ahead of its time.

      I think Chet will like it and that it'll do well on the GIMLET. It might be the first Mac RPG he actually really likes.

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  11. I don't think the GIMLET needs revision. It rates games on technical categories. How well everything works together is something almost entirely subjective and can't be fairly rated.

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    1. Seconded. I can see how in these early stages, the GIMLET might look like it's additive... but you've made arbitrary additions and subtractions before.

      It would be better to think of the GIMLET as an index to how much that index is represented in the game as a quality. For example, in your "Knights of Legend" review, you gave the Graphics & Interface category a mere 2 ... despite how the game clearly has lots and lots of artwork that you described as "beautiful." You rated quality over quantity.

      It's quite sensible to dread the 1990s, with CD-ROM and multi-megabyte hard drives freeing developers from their memory constraints. But we read the CRPG Addict because this stuff is literate, self-aware, and critical. Don't be afraid to be arbitrary. (Oh, and thanks again for all this.)

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  12. I don't think that when people say Skyrim lacks depth, they mean the quantity of its content. Rather, it the superficial and simplistic quality of said content that makes it puddle-deep. NPCs only have a couple of lines, 95% of the quests boil down to blindly following the quest compass, the dungeons are linear and copy-pasted, the civil war questline is a joke etc. TES games from Morrowind on are generally made with the philosophy that immersion is king, and if you have to pause and think about what you're doing in gameplay terms, that'd take you outside of the fantasy.
    From a certain perspective, though, the lack of depth in Skyrim's case might not be such a bad thing. Imagine Skyrim had the dungeon design of Dungeon Master and the tactical battles of Goldbox series, while maintaining its huge size? That'd be a game impossible to finish due to time and engagement requirements. On the other hand, reducing the gameworld size would make it in some ways less immersive, taking away the feeling of having a grand adventure exploring a vast terrain. So I would say that the issue of balance is more complicated than just bringing the three variables to the same level.

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    1. Well Skyrim isn't really an RPG, it's a great action game with some light Role playing mechanics tacked on. That's not an insult to it all, I have well over 500 hours wasted in it and plan to waste even more time in it; as with all Bethesda games the mods truly make it into an epic experience worth playing again and again. Pulling out attributes and prohibiting class selection or even class creation is especially damning though, and the paltry dialogue options are just disappointing. Very off topic rant and I apologize, it's just been swirling around in my brain. BTW, TES 1 Arena's world is fairly open but there are optional dungeons to explore and things to see, not quite as bad as the endless miles of nothing between cities in Daggerfall. I love both those games to death regardless of course.

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    2. I don't think this is a fair judgment on Skyrim. The game has way more depth than any GTA/UBI-clone, which are the norm nowadays, and that includes The Witcher 3 which is a game with discrete missions and quests and much less interacting systems than the Bethesda games.

      All those interacting systems is what makes their games so buggy. Developers went for the much less ambitious route of aping GTA and Far Cry 3 instead.

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    3. I'm not saying that Skyrim is a bad game, and of course you can find shallower games than it, no denying that. But if you compare it to, say, Ultima 7 rather than Witcher, the picture will be very different. Because both Skyrim and Ultima 7 are very simplistic mechanically, and both provide roughly the same level of complexity when it comes to world simulation. Yet in Ultima 7 those simulations serve gameplay - e.g. in physics-based puzzles or in following NPC schedules - while in Skyrim they're mostly just window dressing (outside maybe of thieves' or assassins' guilds quests).

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  13. Using your conventions, there aren't many western RPG that have too much depth relative to its breath. However, this kind of fault can be more easily found in other game genres.

    Some japanese RPG, plagued by linearity, can be good examples. Adventure games can have this kind of characteristc too, but as it has already been witten down here, the entire genre of visual novels (or the neighbouring genre of CYOA) is based on good depth versus little breath style of gameplay.

    Another point I'd like to rise is that I think some recent games suffer from both depth and breath bloating : this is the reason why I disliked Skyrim, or the latter expensions of World of Warcraft. Those are huge games, filled out with so much content that I felt like I played within a virtual theme park, rewarding me with flashy trinkets for anything I did and leaving little room for imagination.

    Thus I think there is both a balance to find between both characteristics, and a balance of each of them to build up a really good game.
    Among games you are going to play soon and that I know, I think World of Xeen managed to do this very well for instance.

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  14. Other commenters have mentioned believability and interface as factors more central to immersion than graphics & sound. I am pretty lenient with regard to interface issues, but I do agree that a general sense of coherence (a wispy concept which is not necessarily covered by your definition of breadth and depth, and has nothing to do with visuals and audio) is needed to keep me immersed in any make-believe world. I can take the occasional slip (e.g., pop culture references in a high fantasy game), but the world generally has to make sense within its own premises. I think Ultima Underworld was really good at this on top of its technical virtues.

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  15. A good example of a game with depth greater than its breadth, though not a CRPG, would be Legend of Mana. The game has all kinds of complex subsystems at work for the player to explore and exploit, starting with the ability to customize the layout of the world map to various, unexplained arcane effects and including a smithing system where the player can customize their own weapons, and even a system for building a programmable robot companion using old or disused equipment. Problem is, the game is made up of a series of short vignettes with no main plot, some of which don't even feature combat, and it's so short and easy that the whole thing is over before you really have a chance to dig into any of this stuff, so it all comes off as a bit of a waste.

    A lot of Tri-Ace's games are the same way (and terrible for other reasons besides), and I think it may be a problem more common to Japanese RPGs in general, while Western ones often have the opposite problem of sprawling acres of open space with nothing to do.

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    1. Legend of Mana has three man plotlines, not zero.

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  16. For me, creating my own party of characters is key to immersion. In Baldur's Gate, I would wonder why I was traveling with certain NPCs. Hence, I find immersion easier when I create the party, whether Gold Box, Wizardry, or TOEE. For example, Pool of Radiance had very good balance between breath and depth. The fact that you created your own party of newcomers added an immersive element.

    I think making choices is also a key. Sometimes, a party makes choices that matter only to itself: distributing treasure. It is good when the game gives choices that have lasting consequences.

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    1. I'm a little confused. You choose your companions in Baldur's Gate, so presumably there's a reason you decided to take them along. And (as far as I know) you can't bring everyone along, so you have to make decisions about who you actually want to keep. I have trouble seeing how that's an obstacle to immersion.

      Personally, I find mentally roleplaying the kind of people my character would like to have around more immersive than just rolling up a bunch of characters without defined personalities.

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    2. I found the NPCs in B.G. to be underwhelming. I found making my own stories about characters that I had rolled to be more immersive. To be fair, I stopped playing B.G. more because of its real time combat system. That is another topic for later.

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    3. Baldur's Gate was an attempt to be MORE realistic. When you're in a "real" D&D campaign world, you're just one character. Your party members will be people you meet in the campaign world. Thus you've only the choice of yourself. I think this was a great idea. They also gave you enough options for evil party members, etc.

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    4. I cut my CRPG teeth primarily on Wizardry and Gold Box titles. Just playing one character was new then. Even now I find it funny.

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    5. If a character's backstory is shallow, cliche, or doesn't excite me, I like to imagine that's just the cover story they present to others, and in my mind make up some other story using the same facts.

      I was disappointed that BG didn't offer more evil characters, if you ran an evil party, you'd basically have to recruit them all to have a full party, at least in the base game.

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    6. Neutral parties are even harder to assemble. Because of the lack of a good neutral fighter, I eventually recruited Ajantis and imagined the rest were just constantly making fun of him (and letting him go first in battle). That's not a critisism of the game, though, most games don't have neutral characters at all. I just never warmed up to most of them, and the voice acting got repetitive fast.

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    7. I find the whole alignment system of D&D to be rather silly in general, with its good neutral evil axis

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    8. Good vs Evil is kind of the ur-trope of fantasy. Neutral is usually either 'get off my lawn' or 'I am beyond such concerns'.

      I don't find it to be a super-interesting metaphysical construct to play around in, but whatever, it's easy to roll with if you don't think about it too much.

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    9. There's also "Balance!" as a neutral battle cry, as if it's really ever very clear what proper balance would be, let alone actually managing to achieve or maintain it.

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  17. I agree with everything, EXCEPT that immersion comes mainly from graphics and sound. More than that, it's all about the interface and kinesthetics - how good is feel to actually play the game, to consume its contents.

    It is what dooms games like Knights of Legend or Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. The content and systems are good, the graphics too, but the controls suck. You fight against the game, instead of enjoying it.

    On the other hand, even a very shallow experience content can be fun if moving around and doing things is fun. Skyrim is a "hiking simulator" because simply walking around is fun. Any dumb "go there and kill some stuff" quest feels fun - more than a complex quest in Knights of Legend.

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  18. Regarding depth vs. breadth and judging whether a game has these elements in balance, I would say be careful to avoid a sort of "no true Scotsman" argument here - resisting the urge to say that if a game "feels right" then its breadth and depth must therefore be in balance.

    I think of the two, depth is much more important, and that any decent amount of depth would feel good no matter how long the game is or how much physical space it occupies. It is only when the game becomes too long in the tooth that you notice a problem.

    In my opinion the only way to notice a lack of breadth is to be left with a sense of wishing the game had been longer, or still not wanting it to end, which is a better feeling than being bored but still wanting to tough it out and trudge to the finish line.

    I'd say a good example of depth over breadth was Planescape: Torment. It's not an incredibly short game, but there is so much depth, lore, detailed descriptions, character back stories that I found myself wanting more, but still overall fulfilled.


    Another element that's important to consider is UNEVEN depth or breadth. Fate: Gates of Dawn has this problem, by starting you out in a small area which was relatively well-balanced in things to do and places to explore. Then it ballooned to an unreasonable size.

    I feel like there have been a few games featured here that have very uneven depth, starting out strong and then petering out after the initial quests. I can't remember which ones specifically, I think it may have been a sci-fi one that in particular felt like they ran out of time/money after the starting areas and became a boring grindfest.

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    1. "Fate: Gates of Dawn has this problem, by starting you out in a small area which was relatively well-balanced in things to do and places to explore. Then it ballooned to an unreasonable size."

      I feel like that's a common flaw in games. You define the scope of your world, and then you work really hard on your initial area, and then you realize you're out of time and/or money and still have 90% of the map to fill. Time to add a bunch of filler content!

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  19. "Imagine a game of only a couple of dozen squares in which every time your character moves, you have to read paragraph after paragraph of text and engage in hours-long dialogues with multiple NPCs."

    This describes many JRPG's quite well, in my experience. I'm looking at you, Xenogears.

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  20. Based on the comments here, I think it'd be useful to have an indicator of the balance between these three things, but to have that as a separate BDI index instead of a modifier to the Gimlet. You could certainly be more explicit about final modifiers to gimlet scores based on a game being too imbalanced between these three things. But players have different tolerances and interests. I find some games to be TOO immersive (I can't play a lot of the FPS games for that reason) and I'll tolerate too much depth over too much breadth, but I have some exceptions. There's also metagame factors at play here.

    A game like the later Elder Scrolls series has enough breadth and depth that it's possible to imagine a critical clue buried in a single copy of a single book on a single shelf in a single house somewhere in the world, which requires you to read carefully through every single book to find it. Alternately, you can just pull up a guide/walkthrough or search for the solution and bypass the whole thing. For these earlier games, that was only possible if you had a magazine or a clue-book (or a friend who was willing to give hints); for "modern" games, I suspect many players start with guides. Certainly my brief experience of established MMORPGs was that nobody expects you to learn as you go: you should already be familiar with the instances you're entering if you're partied up, and most people would rather direct you to the wiki than spend time teaching you. For folks who find this breaks their immersion, it's a huge turn-off, but others clearly enjoy it.

    For that reason, I think baking the BDI index into the Gimlet does a disservice to readers. It'll be easier to add to past games, too, if it's kept separate, perhaps aside from a few point adjustments based on your assessment of how well or poorly the balance worked.

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  21. I'm glad to hear you are continuing with the Seventh Link! I need to see if I can give Jeff a hand extracting the town and dungeon maps...

    Your BDI theory is VERY sound, and it's something that's been on my mind a lot recently. I'm presently working on completing the content for my CRPG, so I'm writing dialogue, scripting encounters, drawing maps, and generally trying to keep the depth level in balance with the breadth of it.

    One of my major peeves with any CRPG is when there is a lot of empty and useless territory with NOTHING in it. Drawing rivers, peninsulas or islands that you have literally no reason to visit adds nothing but time and distance to the game. Ultima II is a very bad offender in this regard.

    Conversely, Ultima IV had areas like this, but they took the time to give them a little depth. For example, the Fens of the Dead are mentioned in the manual, a set of swampy islands off the coast near Paws. In game, they're pretty much pointless; nothing on them and they're poisonous. But that bit of lore gives them character; in Ultima VI you can visit them and find a shipwreck with a skeletal crew still lingering about.

    One of my favorite CRPG's for making maps interesting is the Avernum series. The game rewards you for poking around in every nook and cranny with various encounters and treasures in off-the-beaten-path places. I've tried to adopt that same philosophy with my own map designs because it encourages the player to explore.

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  22. Make it a FOUR dimensional cube, adding time somehow...oh and it has to have frikin lazers, as Dr Evil would say :)

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  23. For me games with abstract graphics usually have better immersion. I also prefer text over spoken text. When I have to imaginate the content it feels more immersive, like reading a book versus watching a movie. So I am a great fan of roguelikes, there I find depth, breadth and great immersion. Many modern games put me off with too much cut scenes that make me feel like watching a movie and not playing a game.
    The most immersive game for me is Dwarf Fortress (Fortress Mode and Adventurer Mode, too), where other people only see ASCII nonsense, that reminds them to the matrix screensaver, I see coming a whole world to life full with exiting stories and a lot of nice details (and a lot of cruel fate...).

    About the GIMLET: Static rating systems always have flaws, perhaps you should add a separate, 100% subjective, fun rating. A separate BDI index like mentioned above sounds also good. But beside how much fun you had with a game you can hardly compare games.

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    1. The first thing that popped into my mind at the suggestion that immersion is driven by graphics was "What about NetHack?" The second was "And Minecraft?"

      Both games provide significant depth, breadth and immersion, coupled with primitive graphics.

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    2. No roguelike has really provided "immersion" to me so far, which is why it's good that a full game only lasts a few hours.

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  24. I think the boring answer, in regard to the GIMLET and how it'll favor newer games, is that games objectively do become better over time because of the advantages of new technology and the amount of "standing on the shoulders of giants" inherent to the evolution of game design. I'm still a huge fan of older games and believe a great deal of them can still impart lessons to modern game developers, but I think the minimum quality level of some of the mediocre contemporary games you mentioned is still relatively high because they were able to learn from many years of empirical observation into what does and doesn't work for RPGs.

    That said, and I'm echoing a few other commenters's responses here, the GIMLET is also fine-tuned enough to acknowledge when there's too much of something (your breadth vs. depth argument), or if that something is too uninspired in its cynical adherence to its era's prevailing trends. All those Ultima clones you've reviewed recently began with a pretty strong foundation, but were invariably docked points for a lack of imagination or any sort of forward progress. That'll still be the case for modern games too.

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  25. For a revised Gimlet, I´d say strongly consider elements like the realism, believable nature of a game (incl. in the context of its epoch). We all know games are make-believe, but how much can a game go stretch what we consider to be possible even in a fantasy universe?
    Also the lure/addictiveness of the game, I mean how fast it can draw in the player and keep him hooked--not by accident, true to the name of this blog. I agree with fun factor too.
    Does a game have a coherent story, consistent play?
    Ultimately too the originality of a game is a good heavy duty test. A lot of games would get scored down on this, unless they can prove how they are doing something, at least one notion, that isn´t just copied from elsewhere.

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    1. Originality is highly overrated. Classic storytelling tropes and themes endure for a reason -- because they connect with people. Too many attempts at originality are nothing more than "[existing story], except with the nouns changed". It can have the feeling of a plagiarized essay where the student tried to replace words with a thesaurus. Or the latest Taco Bell menu item -- a bunch of stuff you've already had, except in a slightly different shape and combined differently.

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    2. Originality is highly prized. If I have to listen to the same old, tired tropes one more time I'll scream. "The hero's journey" AGAIN? Come on, there are some new thoughts in people's brains, get them out onto paper.

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    3. So you´d prefer a high degree of plagiarism? How many Spiderman sequels must we suffer, etc

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    4. People like the familiar to know where they stand, and the surprise to keep things interesting.

      Sure, some people like avant-garde stuff specifically, but most of us derive comfort from a particular set of norms. Hence we have this blog!

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    5. There's a difference between originality in broad themes and originality in the details. I care about the latter but not so much the former.

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  26. Imagine I want to be original and say I make a CRPG where instead of magicians you have electricians or pyrotechnicians, making the sparks etc and you´re in a kingdom of above-ground mazes, instead of the usual subterranean dungeons, and instead of there being a typical king of the realm, there is no ruler, it´s just anarchy, gangs of pirates and road trolls bullying the realm, and everyone is addicted to mutant turnips that give them super endurance during the night, but nobody can move around in the daytime, so everyone needs to carry around a moon mirror...blah blah. I could go on but you can get the point.

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  27. Why do you think that Skyrim/Fallout 4 have little depth? Is it because of how short the main quest is compared to the side quests?

    Where would you rate Witcher 3 or Kingdom Come: Deliverance on depth? I dont have a console so I never played Read Dead Redemption 1 or 2.

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    1. Fallout 4 has:
      Limited ability to roleplay dialogue.
      Linear, single-strategy quests that don't impact the game world/ending.
      Minimal faction gating of quests which means little replay value.
      Limited character development options.
      30-odd settlement locations which are effectively all the same.
      Relatively brief major questline padded by distance.

      A lot of the complaints for Fallout 3 are true for 4, albeit to a lesser extent (though the stealth and gunplay are much better).

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    2. I didn't see him say Skyrim or FO4 have low depth. I did see him day "imagine either game if all you could do was explore the map" as an example of limited depth. But I haven't played either, so I've no idea whether it's true or not either way.

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    3. Fallout 4 has its problems, but Fallout 76:

      No characters

      No story

      No point

      No reason to explore

      Everything you create is erased when you leave the server

      Nothing to do but grind for items that make the grind slightly less tedious

      Microtransactions, and even though they were supposed to be cosmetic they have become useful to gameplay.

      $200 nylon hobo bindle sold as a fancy canvas bag.

      Players banned for complaining about how the terrible game.

      No offline mode.

      All the bugs you expect from Bethesda mixed with servers that randomly stop working.

      This is why I will never again buy from Bethesda.

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    4. I didn't say that either had low depth. I said that Skyrim didn't have a depth equal to its breadth. I think FO4 is actually a pretty "cubey" game, although that opinion is so controversial that I didn't want to over-use FO4 examples, lest this comment thread focus on that game exclusively.

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  28. Good article. I think that the term "depth" can be a bit misleading, maybe because it evokes that something is sophisticated, well-thought, etc.
    I am thinking more about "size of the gameworld" versus "quantity of content" versus "quality of content". Fate Gates of Dawn is very uneven in these - large world, low amount of varied content, mediocre quality. Dungeon Master gets it right - small world, enough content for it, and the content is rather good within the constraints of the system (puzzles etc.). Skyrim is an interesting example. It has rather huge world and lot of varied content. The problem is, as VK noted, the quality of this content. It´s hard to regard Skyrim as game with depth, because at least for me the content is too generic and formulaic, the variability is only on the surface. Is the fact that there are tons of lore in books inside Skyrim impressive? Only as much as it is impressive that there are generic TV soap operas with hundreds of episodes. So it seems that the problem with Skyrim is a one of unfulfilled expectations - you have this huuge world filled with NPC and quests and places - and than you realize that all these are not very interesting.
    Planetscape Torment does it better than Skyrim IMHO, because there is medium sized world with enough content for it (apart from the last areas of the game), and the content is really interesting. A bit heavy handed maybe, but still interesting.

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  29. Couple of immediate thoughts on immersion:

    One, I think an immersive game should have consistency of tone and mood throughout. Like, Fate: Gates of Dawn, I believe, you ended up getting frustrated with because the tone of the endgame didn't match what you saw in the rest of the game. The robots and spaceships that show up out of nowhere in the early Ultimas and M&Ms are probably another example of immersion-breaking shifts in tone.

    Two, I think immersion requires having a sense of momentum in what the protagonist's priorities are. I think a big part of why I burn out on the Elder Scrolls games quickly is that the protagonist is supposed to be rushing off to save the world/realm/whatever from something, but keeps getting thoroughly distracted by the internal politics of the mage guild, earning the trust of a noble house, or exploring whatever half-hour random dungeon happens to be on the way. Octopath Traveler is another recent example; each character's storyline gets so sliced up by the structure of the game that it never feels like the narrative has any particular momentum.

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    1. I agree about the problem with the Elder Scrolls. In the more recent games it seems like the hero should be much more focused at the problem at hand, not dallying around running errands for the Fighters Guild. I thought Morrowind had a much better balance since your quest wasn't much of a quest at all in the beginning, it grew as you explored. At the start you are just a prisoner who is being exiled to Vverdenfell.

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  30. A game like Fate is probably too big, no matter the amount of depth/content. There's a point when you just want to finish a game and move on, although that point may come earlier or later depending on the player.

    Immersion can extend that amount of "acceptable playing time", though in my case that has more to do with feeling at home in the game world and connecting with the characters. But depth, in the sense of more things to do/find, eventually becomes exhausting, too.

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    1. Yeah, I think that too much, or too little, in any dimension is bad, regardless of relative proportion. Pages of dialogue text, vast maps, or PKD-style memory wipes are all going beyond my enjoyment threshold, no matter what else is going on.

      So I think maybe the basis is slightly different. A) Did the game last the right amount of Time? B) Did the game have the right content Density? C) I don't have a C.

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  31. I think that this theory is nice, but your "depth" parameter bundles together too much the "role-playing" and the "game" parts. Depth of game-world and depth of mechanics should be separate as they really need to be balanced properly, and on an equal footing with breadth and immersion. Even in perfect balance, the game-world elements alone will never make a "perfect" RPG without a balance with the mechanics which are, after all, fundamental to the game as a system.

    If the three parameters were all balanced but your character progression was not and your characters would end overpowered at 25% at the game and all fights in the 75% left were just clicking through, it would be incredibly boring. If I had an incredible immersive world with 100s of hours of content but a choice of 1 class with 3 skills each, I'd get bored fast as well. Skyrim is in that direction: huge, with detailed lore, immersive, but mechanically action-oriented and simplistic.

    On the other side you get games with incredible mechanics and a shallow content. I think Wizardry 7 you just finished is just that. A huge game world, relatively immersive, where the mechanics, character progression, items and combat are incredibly deep, but the world story/quests/npcs are shallow, formulaic and full of plot holes and missing links.

    In my opinion you should not bundle world-depth and mechanical-depth, and still have it as a meaningful element.

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  32. I read through this very interesting thread and was surprised nobody had mentioned Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is my favorite open world game because it does such a great job of balancing breadth, depth, and immersion. The game is tactile and logical, with lots of ways to manipulate the world around you, and it has a huge world which is interesting pretty much everywhere you go. There are little challenges everywhere centered around traversal; you're totally free, but the world is so carefully designed that you're always pointed towards something to find.

    Exploring the world is its own challenge and its own reward. BOTW's combat and quest systems are relatively thin compared to its competitors, but the depth of the map design and the sense of immersion are worth the trade off.

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    1. Breath of the Wild is not a windows/pc game. So it´s off limits.

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    2. In case you're not joking, I don't think any game should be off limits in this kind of discussion, especially when Chet brings up Red Dead Redemption 2. Even if it won't make it on Chet's master list, it's a good example to consider.

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  33. I remember watching a video some time ago where they tested the open world formula that says that for an open world to not feel empty and boring you should happen upon something that grabs you attention, an npc, a buildng, an enemy, a sign or just anything that you want to explore and look at every 40 - 60 second. I can´t find the video again on youtube but it would be fun to see how really old games hold up to this theory. (The examples in the video was like fallout NV and some other)

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    1. I saw that video too. I remember them specifically mentioning the Far Cry series in that video. FC2 remains my favorite in that series for the things it did to increase immersion.
      There was fast travel but you almost always had a short trip (a couple km) to your target so you had to study your map and plan your route.
      Weapons wore down and jammed then eventually broke. This is still a major point of contention for many players and few of them seem to understand that any weapon, no matter how well it's cared for, will misfire and jam occasionally. No matter how much Kalashnikov you have in your AK-47 even they will misfire.
      There was a good reason for there being almost no civilians, they had pretty much all fled the area.
      But the world was beautiful and full of little clues about what was going on. There were no huge text dumps or people prattling on about that, that and the other thing. YoullY see smoke rising from somewhere near a tree and if you investigate you'll find a cars that had crashed into it. There's a couple dead bodies and a suitcase full of diamonds nearby. You're left to wonder what happened or make up your own story, so the world becomes more real to you. I loved it.
      The later games got bigger but not necessarily better. I enjoyed FC3 but it got a little too long for it's own good. FC4 gave you some interesting choices and I liked how enemies would try to retake captured territory but it suffered from the sameiness of the missions later in the game.
      That video is right though. The scenery should inspire the players to leave the path and explore rather than just punch quest tickets.

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  34. Long time lurker, first time poster here. I think the idea of balance between breadth and depth applies in a unique way when considering one of my favourite genres, the moodpiece/walking simulator. At first glance these types of games are all breadth, no depth usually offering no interaction besides player movement. However, the removal of the traditional elements of gameplay allows for depth to arise in places where it would usually be overlooked such as finding a unique vista or looking back over distance travelled, similar to the joys that can be gained from an IRL hike. Even basic gameplay considerations can cover over these joys. It is difficult to enjoy beautiful landscapes of Skyrim when the player is being attacked by bandits. Because of this I put forward a distinction between what I will refer to as “mechanical depth” (mechanics, systems, etc.) and “emotional depth” (mood, theme, etc.).
    For this reason, I posit that a game with no mechanical depth would be preferable to a game with little mechanical depth as it would allow more room for the game to have emotional depth. I recently played Fallout 76 and spent much of my time with the game thinking about how I would enjoy it more if there were no enemies and I could take my time to freely explore (Game designer J.P. LeBreton has created several “tourism mods” with this idea in mind). I understand such a game would not be for everyone (as walking simulators certainly are not) but would be worthy of consideration.

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  35. My favorite game of all time is the original Deus Ex precisely because it balances breadth and depth so well. The story proceeds linearly but each environment is packed with detail and things to do, so you never feel like any space has been wasted. And the immersion is greatly helped by the fact that any human character, Player included, can be killed by a single good hit. It always takes me out of the experience when someone in New Vegas (a game I love) survives multiple shotgun blasts to the face and keeps on going like nothing happened.

    Off the top of my head the other game with the best breadth-to-depth ratio would probably be Chrono Trigger, but that's a console RPG.

    I generally take an RPG with a length of sub-20 hours as a good sign, and even in super long ones like Morrowind I tend to just restart with a new character around that time anyway.

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  36. Interesting topic, especially as you mention the two games I am playing at the moment, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Star Control 2 (inspired to replay it when it came up on your upcoming list). Both games, while on a base level are miles apart, probably fall in similar places on your proposed axes. They both have a huge game world with lots of it unused for the main plot, yet the relative ease of navigating in both makes it increase the "immersion" as well as the "breadth". You only probably end up visiting 10% of planets in any SC2 playthrough, but if the game world was reduced to just that 10% the immersion would take a big hit. Similarly with RDR2 you really get the feeling of being in the wild west, which you might not get if it was say only a quarter of the size and you could ride from Valentine to Blackwater in a minute.

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  37. I´ve been misinterpreted. I´m not avante garde at all. What I mean by originality is that if people didn´t program in some new elements, we´d still all be playing dnd or pedit and nothing would have moved on. Graphics wouldn´t have improved, new magic system ideas wouldn´t have happened, combat and plot lines wouldn´t have developed or shifted direction. Does every game have to be Rogue-certified or Ultima-Cloned? I don´t think so, and nor do you. U4 was original for example because of the virtue system. Would you have rather that didn´t happen because, "oh god, originality is so over-rated"

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  38. I've been giving this some more thought, in the vein of trying to come up with a ranking system for BDI. It's definitely not easy, since, as you point out, they're all rather objective. Just spit balling some ideas...

    The first thing to consider is unlike the GIMLET scale, BDI's values actually impact each other. Breadth and Depth, for example, would be the average of two scores so that huge worlds with little content are dinged, and vice-versa.

    (By the way, a game with low B and high D would be Trust & Betrayal: The Legacy of Siboot. It's not a CRPG, but it's definitely a crazy over-the-top interactive story game.)

    I think ranking Breadth and Depth on a scale of 1-10 is still viable. A game like Deathlord has a Breadth of 10, but the lack of depth and the HUGE distances to travel give it a really low depth (like 2?) despite having decent NPC's. So 10 + 2 / 2 = 6 overall.

    Regarding immersion, especially with older games, I think you don't just take graphics into account. I think it's the quality of the first two factors that it encompasses as well. Empty boring maps or frustrating or annoying encounters with NPC's take you out of the game. Good manuals with great backstory add some immersion, although if the game seems to completely ignore that material, you can ding it for not matching up.

    For Immersion, I would actually treat it as a modifier on the BD average. And probably keep it to like five ranks like the following:

    0 = Average immersion. Not really anything notable. No adjustment to BD.
    1 = Good immersion, had some interesting things happen. A bonus to BD, like +1 or +2 points.
    2 = Great immersion, it kept me playing non-stop for hours wanting to see what happened next. BD is multiplied by 2.
    -1 = Medicore immersion, had some frustrations, took breaks a lot to play something else. BD is penalized by 1 or 2 points.
    -2 = Terrible immersion. Game was almost unplayable, had to force myself to keep going. BD is halved or worse.

    So once you have a BDI score, you can either use it as an additive on the GIMLET value, or just supply it alongside.

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    1. I think an average of B and D isn't going to be that useful for measuring how in balance a game is. A game that has 4 and 4 would measure out to the same a game that had 7 and 1. Maybe take the average and then divide it by the larger value, giving a range of 0 to 1.

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    2. Just spit-balling, as I said. :) I agree, I don't like that a very high and a very low become "average" in that case.

      The main point is that they have a relationship to each other. Your end goal would be an algorithm that says a game like Ultima II rates low due to a lot of maps that have little content or value, verses Ultima V where the world is full of interesting places to visit. It's not just maps or places either, it's also items, economy, variety of monsters...

      Delete
  39. I hope you post a new game review soon Chet! Do you ever use an emotional "x factor" in the gimlet?

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  40. It's an interesting thesis that might help explain some of the praise and criticism of particular games.
    I'd say that Dungeon Master featured high breadth, decent depth (figuring out monster strategies, keys, and triggers, but very little conversation), and very high immersion. It was one of my favorite RPG's.
    Heroes of Might & Magic had pretty balanced breadth and depth, but immersion was moderate. That's probably why I mostly played the campaigns and didn't bother with single scenarios - the bit of transitional text in the scenarios improved my immersion. Again, a favorite series.
    World of Warcraft manages good balance in a gigantic game, possibly weakest on the depth axis, but that's only after many hundreds of hours of play. So it's also a winner.
    Of my own games, I've seen many complaints about Quest for Glory V being the weakest; some even say it "isn't a real QfG game." Yet it has greater breadth than the previous entries, and possibly greater depth. (Some areas, such as the fishing villages, feel thin, but there is more and deeper dialogue in the key areas of the game such as the city.) The failing is in immersion - the primitive 3D available to us at the time makes it harder to be immersed in the game.
    Caveat - Many other players rate QfG5 as their favorite of the series. Those players got deeply into the story and puzzles, loved the orchestral music, and were not bothered by the primitive 3D graphics.
    Castle of Dr. Brain is a smaller game that I think has good balance. The depth is probably higher than the breadth, as I packed multiple puzzles into every scene, and the game is basically linear (reducing breadth). I think the immersion is decent - not much dialogue, but art, music, and the modest premise work pretty well together. So maybe B 2, D 3, I 2. Something I consider a weakness might actually improve the balance - I would have liked more replayability of the puzzles through random or database variations. But that would have increased depth even more without a corresponding increase in breadth or immersion.
    I'm not sure about "a cube is best," as some players prefer one aspect over others, but it's a decent approach. Here's a possible exception - Lots of people love Sudoku, which has little breadth, and not much immersion, but a lot of depth. Bridge and chess are similar popular games.

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    1. QFG1 is a tight little package :) (I haven't played much of the other entries)

      I felt sometimes the larger HoMM maps dragged, you knew you were going to win, but still had another half hour of traipsing after enemy heroes.

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  41. Mathematically speaking, anything that totals up to 100 and rates individual categories on a scale of 1-10 will be compatible with existing GIMLET scores. For example, you could rank breadth, depth, and immersion each on a scale of 1-10, multiply them together, and then divide the total result by 10 to get a final score out of 100. If you find the GIMLET to be not fit for purpose as the 90s wear in, you can switch to (B*D*I)/10 and retain backwards compatibility for things like high scores. I'd test it out by giving games both a standard GIMLET and a BDI score for the next couple of installments. Games with even BDI scores (i.e. games whose score in each of breadth, depth, and immersion are similar, whether high or low) should have a total BDI that's similar to their total GIMLET. Only games with lots of variance within their BDI score should have a score very different from their GIMLET.

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  42. Really interesting post, for me only a few games have the perfect „cube“:
    1. Ultima Underworld
    This game is still unsurpassed, no modern game has ever reached the level of balancing breadth, depth and immersion as well as this masterpiece.
    Exploration is key and very rewarding, NPCs have a lot to offer lore/quest/atmosphere-wise, the dungeons are huge and every dungeon level feels unique in tone and setting. Plus you have the fantastic immersive elements like a dynamic light, an early „physics engine“ and similar to Ultima7 the ability to pick up every object and even combine things. This will forever be one of my favourite CRPGs of all time, and its sequel was also extremely good, especially story-wise/NPC wise.
    2. Betrayal At Krondor
    This shares the first place with Underworld, for I just love the approach this game took: designed like an interactive fantasy novel with many chapters, it still offers a huuuuge gameworld, that is just a joy to explore (if you can live with the oldschool polygon graphics) , because there are so many secrets and riddle chests to discover .
    I loved the turnbased combat system, the way your characters improved , and all embedded in a really great story. Perfect balance of open world and scripted/guided story. And I still think it had one of the best looking inventory systems even to this day, with so much flavor text for every single item.
    3. Ultima 7
    One thing first: I HATE its combat system, and that is the reason why I can‘t play it anymore, but everything else is brilliant: the depth of the world simulation from day/night cycles, the ability to bake bread and the like, the deep lore and interesting plot and NPC dialogues, the richness of exploration ... the only modern game that comes a bit close to this are the two Divinity Original Sin games, which have a better combat system, yet even they fail to simulate a living world as perfectly as U7 did ...
    4. Gothic
    I will always prefer Gothic I and II to every Elder Scrolls game.
    Here the gameworld is smaller, but the depths is better balanced to it, there are no convenient „circular/tubular“ copy-paste dungeons as inSkyrim/Oblivion, the smaller scale gameworld feels more like a realistic setting because everything is crafted so well.
    I liked the way NPCs react to your actions, and have their routines and a day and night cycle. I also loved character development, I will never forget the feeling of achievement I had when I finally slew my first Orc , an enemy I had to run away from in fright for a long time in the beginning of the game.
    Sadly controlling the character feels kinda awkward nowadays, once you are used to modern 3D engines and controls ... but this game has a special place in my heart for having a very good balance of the three points you mentioned.

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    1. Agree with your list, to which I would add the original Fallout. It was a tight little package.

      A few Bioware games, such as BG2, KOTOR would also be good examples, for me.

      U7 makes a good contrast with Part 2: in that game, the world feels smaller, but it's packed with tons of dialogue and puzzles, so that depth is more than the size of the world can support, IMHO.

      Similarly with Torment: some locations have so much dialogue (no matter how well written) that it feels a little punishing.

      The two Gothic are some of the most underrated RPGs ever, can't wait for the addict to get to them, in 2030.

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  43. You are close to understand why jrpgs (some of them at least) have survived all these decades in popularity https://i.ibb.co/5hDVkFt/DQ3.png

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  44. You've given me a lot to think about in terms of how to tweak this model, and in particular whether depth and "immersion" are really different axes. I'll meditate on potential GIMLET revisions at a later time, but I appreciate the ideas discussed here.

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  45. A few people have gotten at this, but I think it's a stronger argument to say that a good BDI balance describes the perfect RPG. That's probably also the perfect game to a CRPG addict, but other genres from walking simulators to chess don't necessary need the same balance to achieve their aims.

    In my own terms a good game is one that provides a good stream of interesting decisions, or at least if not a decision new information (plot/lore) that fundamentally changes how you look at the game. A key part of that is the right density of those moments, which is pretty similar to saying B-D needs to be in balance. It's not about how big or small the game is, if the good stuff is too far apart, the density is low, then it's boring. Too much density is just intimidating, confusing, and inaccessible.

    So yeah, there is something that newer games can drown you with pure content, but if it doesn't add up to truly interesting decisions/information coming at the right rate, then it's not as good as a more primitive game that gets this right. That content is just noise.

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  46. The GIMLET is a rubric for assessing the things that you like about CRPGs. BDI is already represented there, though not explicitly called out. Mostly in Game World and Encounters, and probably little bits here and there in other categories.

    The interesting thing to me is that BDI isn't really specific to RPGs, unlike Character Development or Economy. And, it really doesn't cover mechanics at all, it's mostly about narrative.

    I saw a talk by Marc LeBlanc on a framework for game design he called MDA - Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. It's a short paper.

    Mechanics are the rules of the game. Dynamics are the player behaviors and experiences that emerge from those rules. Aesthetics are what they sound like - the sense language presented by the game through art, setting, narrative, etc.

    It might be a worthwhile exercise to look at the GIMLET through MDA. Which categories cover which aspects? Is anything underepresented in proportion to the enjoyment you derive from the games?

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  47. Imho the BDI system has the same problem of the GIMLET one. Both systems factorize a game in separate aspects. But what is not considered is how these aspect interacts to create a whole.

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  48. Bloodnet and Superhero League of Hoboken do this well: Large worlds with little filler, plenty of interesting things to see and a great sense of mystery. I wish more C.R.P.G.s were like them.

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  49. The coolest way to solve this would be with a weighted average of the GIMLET, using the scores composing the final rate... I don't know if it would be more or less hard with the info you already had, but if you could find the way, you could even calculate the new GIMLET with the data already present in the old one...

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  50. In my oppinion the best rate of Bredth vs Depth would be Depth 2 times the Bredth. Having interesting things to do is much more important than open spaces, so we should really be aiming for more content in a single location.

    I also don't consider immersion factoring in, it is more a issue of representation. For example, Wizardry 6 has varied locations in it's tightly packed world, but since all walls look the same, we don't perceive them as different, but one big blob, but if there was one tileset for each location that would be enough. It is not that the tiles should look better than they already do, but they should look different to represent the huge differences between a castle, a pyramid and the river of the dead, instead of everything looking like a huge cave.

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  51. You should add a 4th dimension to your quest: timely relevance. In the 80's, Bard's tale fake-ish 3D was all the rage, but nowadays simply looks cheap. Same to Ultima, back at the time, they were great, but nowadays, only old folks like me would like it. So take into account the relevancy of the time it was built on (compare Bard's tale to other 3D games of the time, same for top-view RPG to compare against Ultima, and so on). With thatm you'd avoid comparing the new Bard's Tale (with top graphics, enemies, laughable songs - Oh, Charlie Mops) with the older one. Two completely different beasts.

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  52. Let's focus on what's important: thinking up synonyms so the scale becomes either GIMLET with a TWIST or GIMLET on the ROCKS.

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    1. What, you mean LIGOLAS and GIMLET isn't the obvious choice?

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