It Should Have Been an RPG

From The CRPG Addict

Confession time. My lack of entries over the last week has not been because of my usual excuse–work–but rather because all my free time has gone into Red Dead Redemption 2. It’s an absurdly large, long, and addictive game. I’ve been on break all week (no one schedules anything the week of Thanksgiving), and what with the snow and cold here in New England, it’s been tough to convince myself to leave my couch and fireplace to go play old RPGs in my office.
Some of you will see my enjoyment of this game, and perhaps even its medium, as a betrayal of the interest that we share. But I can enjoy action games on the console, too. I look for different things when I’m sitting on the couch than I do at my computer. 
That said, it’s hard not to play Red Dead Redemption 2 and not wish it had more RPG elements, like character development (a few upgrades to max health, stamina, and “dead eye” don’t really count) and a more tactical approach to combat. The game is extremely “realistic” in that a headshot brings down every enemy, which renders all the work you put in to getting better weapons somewhat meaningless. A player would have little problem making his way through the game with just the starting revolver. Yes, this is more “realistic”–it’s always a bit jarring when I nail a super mutant in the head with a rocket launcher and it doesn’t kill him–but still anathema to an RPG lover.
What Redemption does extremely well–far better than its predecessor–is the game world. There’s no question that it would get a perfect 10 in that category if I was rating it on the GIMLET. Most of my joy in the game has come from simply wandering around the enormous map and finding cool things. Some of them are side quests, but a lot of them are just little vignettes. Almost every abandoned cabin has some kind of story to tell, and graphics and sound have advanced enough that you don’t need explicit text to tell you what happened. I went to one cabin where there were half a dozen corpses, a couple clearly having collapsed at the dinner table. A hole in the chimney had poured poisonous carbon monoxide into the house. Another cabin had dead flowers on the doorstep, decorated for the arrival of the owner’s new bride–only she never made it. His cart is found crashed at the bottom of a nearby cliff, a note on his body indicating that he was headed off to pick her up at the train station. There are dozens of scenarios like this. I can’t believe the detail that the developers put into St. Denis–a fictional version of New Orleans–with dozens of back alleys, courtyards, and terraces that have no purpose to the plot and most players will never see.
An ongoing mystery concerns the disappearance, 15 years prior, of a visiting princess. She was 5 then; she would be 20 today. I learned about the enigma from a newspaper article. Later, a random camper in the wilderness told me he was obsessed with the story and heard there were some clues to be found in the town of Van Horn. I spent hours searching Van Horn, heard some cryptic things from a guy in the tavern, found some of the princess’s likely belongings in the pawn shop. I’m not even sure this is a real quest–not sure it’s even solvable in the game. But simply wandering around looking for clues was more fun than I have in the typical RPG with quest markers leading you from plot point to plot point.
One of the parts that I like best are all the animals. As you discover them, a compendium fills in information. You don’t have to kill them; you can study them from afar with binoculars. They act about as realistic as any animals I’ve ever seen in a game. Beavers come out at dusk from their dams and head into the forest for wood. Deer cautiously approach riverbanks to get a drink. Cougars and wolves stalk deer. Eagles swoop down to lakes and carry away fish. If the only mission in the game had been to observe every animal, it would still be enormously fun.
Another thing it does particularly well is in the area of enemies. I’m often challenged by foes in RPGs, but it’s rare that I actively fear or hate them. Redemption has some foes that I go out of my way to avoid, and some that I go out of my way to kill. The prime example of the former is a clan of creepy cannibalistic hillbillies in the northeast corner of the map, an area clearly meant to represent Appalachia. The whole part of the world is dreary and depressing. There are ruined coal towns with unemployed hobos asleep in every alley and a mining town where everyone has black lung. But the worst part is wandering into the woods at night and getting attacked by a group of overall-clad lunatics. You don’t camp out in this part of the world.
Not all of the monsters are human. The swamps of Lemoyne–a stand-in for Louisiana–have alligators everywhere. I can’t count the number of times I ended up between an alligator’s jaws while I was searching for orchids or egrets or some other quest item that you can only find in the swamp. Unfortunately, it’s dishonorable to just shoot every damned one of them. Then there are the wolves. When he reviewed The Grey (2012), Roger Ebert wrote, “When I learned of Sarah Palin hunting wolves from a helicopter, my sensibilities were tested, but after this film, I was prepared to call in more helicopters.” I feel the same way after about six unsuccessful attempts to get through the same mountain pass.
On the hate side, the world is full of rival gangs with whom you develop extremely legitimate grievances. Plus, there are lots of racists. Interrupting a KKK meeting with a stick of dynamite never gets old.
The story is fun and compelling, but it bothers me from an RPG perspective how little control I seem to have as to its direction. You have control over a thousand minor things–whether to intervene in a scene of domestic violence, whether to suck the poison out of a snake-bitten victim, whether to shoot the shackles off a runaway convict–but not in the big story moments. I’ve said repeatedly that actual “role-playing” and “choices” aren’t a necessary part of a definition of an RPG, which is true, but they are perhaps part of the definition of a modern RPG, and the lack of any meaningful input into the direction of the story really makes this game’s genre clear.
(I should mention that I’m only in Chapter 5, so it’s possible that things change.)
This isn’t the first time I’ve played a non-RPG and wished I could change its genre. I felt the same way about the first Red Dead Redemption. Just like the sequel, it had an excellent game world, NPCs, main quest, side quests, and inventory, but little-to-no character development or attribute-based combat. Dishonored and its sequel might just qualify as RPGs in a technical sense, but I wish they’d gone a bit further in those same RPG elements. L.A. Noire–another Rockstar title–left me desperately wanting an RPG in the same setting. 
This phenomenon–wishing non-RPGs were RPGs–isn’t a modern development for me. I had the same feeling about Pirates! when it was first released; give me the same game but with some character attributes and an inventory! I remember thinking that Airborne Ranger (1987) would have been better if the character had just gotten a little stronger in between missions. I remember wanting to earn experience in Doom
These fantasies may be misguided. Perhaps these games are perfect the way they are, in their natural genres, and attempts to turn them into RPGs would ruin the balance of gameplay that they already achieve. Nonetheless, the desire is there. What games have you played that you wished had taken more of an RPG approach? 
We’ll return to the usual program shortly, I promise. Happy Thanksgiving! 

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