The Changing Face of the Plot

by Peter Harkins 

You may or may not remember the game "Rogue". I played it on a PC, but there are ports for just about every system (I believe it was originally for UNIX systems). Anyways, in this game the idea was that you were supposed to fight your way down about twenty levels through tons of monsters to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor. The game was all combat, and its simple text graphics were original and it spawned a class of games which came to become known as "Roguelike games".

The most innovative point of the game was that each time you played everything was created anew. Everything came through new, spells names changed, potion colors changed, staffs effects changed; you couldn't play once and always know that an Oak Staff would be "Confuse Monster", it could likely be "Haste Monster" the next game.

It was well-played and the games it spawned you'll almost surely have heard of: Nethack, Omega, Alphaman, and a dozen others. Each was created so the designers could play a game that wasn't the same every play.

And now there the console games are nearing the same point. The first RPGs had a "beat the evil guy" plot if they had one, simple but fun because that's what was around. Then the next wave of systems came and more things became possible to do: sub-plots and the option of what order in which to complete parts of the game were added, though there was still a single ending. The most recently released RPGs have branching stories with a limited number of outcomes.

Right now there are a few computer RPGs being created that are like Rogue when it comes to plot. The world and characters are freshly created every game, with plots being spontaneously created and woven together. In short, it's different every time and the game may not even have or need a final outcome.

These new RPGs are not "non-linear", nothing really can be. When the term "non-linear" is used, it's really a buzzword without meaning to it. We, as people, move from Point A to Point B, though we don't all take the same route or the same sightseeing. We live linearly, like it or not.

Also, the RPGs in which the story is freshly created every game require new ways of judging. At the moment people discuss what they thought of the story of a game, and most judge the game by that. But the new, dynamic RPGs cannot be judged by this. The plot I play will be different from yours, though they may be similar. The game will be ultimately judged by the rules, the combat system, the mechanics- in other words, the basic building blocks of the RPG instead of the world built upon them.

This, to me, implies that these games will not be very successful. Don't get me wrong- I don't doubt there will be loyal followers. It's just that there are fewer people who will discuss the common game system than the unique plots. Rogue and its successors were like this: while most people who played liked them, there are no large communities built around them as with other games.

If you will indulge me making predictions, I think that the dynamic RPGs will change the face of gaming. At the moment, there is clamor for "non-linear" RPGs. When the closest thing to one arrives and the curiosity is sated, I believe there will be a return to the story line in mainstream RPGs. It won't be totally cyclical in that there will be return to the simplistic plots of "beat the evil guy" (I hope), but it will be close.

Ultimately, I think the trend may shift towards storytelling or the traditional dice and paper RPGs. The main character will have goals they wish to accomplish, and the story follows them to a happy sunset fading to black or the tragic loss of the hero while questing to save what they hold dear. Endings will be numerous, but finite and scripted.

Whether or not my predictions prove to be true, storylines will be the most important part of RPGs. There is no game playing without a role to fill. There is no incentive to play without motivation. And there is no game without a player.

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