Tropes are a thing. A lot of people feel like tropes are the worst thing imaginable, and every new title should be breaking new ground every time, or what is the point? That’s a bit unrealistic, I think. To me, tropes can be comforting. Experience in one game does not often transfer to another, so when it does, it can help in understanding the mechanics that interact in new ways. Plus, sometimes the tropes make the genre what it is.
That said, I have been playing a lot of survival games lately, and some of these tropes have got to go.
Starting out naked with no items? That’s good, important even.
Crafting recipes that require a resource that should be abundant, but turns out to be super rare? That shit has got to go. I’m in Conan: Exiles and there are two early-game arrow recipes: one requires bones and the other requires feathers. Just guess how many bones exist in the average human or animal. If you guessed “a similar number to the amount of feathers that are contained in a clearly-feathered ostrich-like creature,” you would be correct. Zero, specifically, on average.
Although, arguably worse is how little bark you can harvest from trees.
Shit like that didn’t phase me much in the past, but I think I was spoiled by The Forest. In that survival game, you can just chuck dead bodies on your campfire, and 6-7 bones would pop out a few minutes later. Oh, and it has the best building mechanic in any survival game I have played: you set down a blueprint and then have to carry the materials to that location. That makes way better sense than putting 540 stones in your (loincloth) inventory, crafting a Furnace that mysteriously weighs 50% less, and then plopping it down wherever.
At the same time, having experienced the ability to climb anywhere in Conan, it will be tough to go back to other survival games in which a waist-high cliff is an insurmountable obstacle.
One step forward, two, three, sometimes forty steps back.
There are a lot of tropes in RPGs that go largely unexamined, but I experienced one in Dragon Age 2 recently that seemed especially egregious: the impossibly unlikely encounter.
Now, you know how it is, you are walking around town and just so happen to stumble across a conversation between a woman looking for her son and guards clearly not interested in searching for him. What were the odds you would be walking by that one-minute exchange in the middle of a sprawling city? It’s a trope, but I can forgive that out of necessity; how else could you really set up such a quest organically, right? I’m not talking about those sort of encounters.
No, I’m talking about the part in Dragon Age 2 when I run across a band of Elvish assassins confronting a human along a desolate path on the Wounded Coast. The human is apparently a former werewolf who inadvertently killed the mother of the main Elf assassin, but the Warden from the first game has cured his lycanthropy. You get the choice here between letting the assassin finish the job, defending the man, or trying to shame the Elves into leaving. I did the latter, got paid 50 silver by the grateful man, and both parties left.
This wasn’t even a quest. It was just a goddamn throwaway encounter miles from any sort of civilization and/or rational explanation for how the two people could have met one another just in time for me to waltz by. It wasn’t like this dude was trying to assuage his guilt by watching the beach. As far as I can possibly determine, there was no reason for him to be there at all; he was not a trader, nor hermit, nor on the run. I would have been infinitely more sympathetic with my suspension of disbelief if this occurred in the city. Or in a cave he was hiding in. Or as part of a plot-line or rumor which suggested someone was looking for a former werewolf. Instead, this scenario gets more and more ludicrous the longer I think about it.
I mean, sure, most of the quests that I have seen in Dragon Age 2 so far seem rather unlikely. Who exactly is going to trust a complete stranger who was conveniently eavesdropping on your conversation in the first place? Actually, it might be fun for there to be an RPG in which all of these sort of tropes are subverted; some sort of deranged, manic dude cavorting into the middle of groups of people and “completing their quests” based on random snippets of dialog. But, man, that Wounded Coast encounter is on an impossibly absurd level of its own.
In a game with morality choices, would you choose the Good options if the results were often worse?
Most of the games I can think of that had moral choices ended up rewarding you the most if you chose the Good options. In Bioshock, for example, you could either “harvest” the Little Sisters for extra upgrade currency, or you could Cleanse them for a smaller reward. As it turns out though, if you end up Cleansing the Little Sisters they would start dropping off care packages containing ammo and extra upgrade currency, such that you might even come out ahead by going the Good route. The choice also ends up reflecting the tone of the ending, but it luckily skews towards Evil Ending rather than Bad Ending per se.
In thinking back to Bioshock, I started wondering if I would have been more inclined to harvest the Little Sisters if they did not “sweeten the deal” with the gift baskets later. I would like to say “No,” but I also feel like the “Pick the Good option and get bigger reward later” is such a ingrained gaming trope that I am beginning to question which inclination came first. Would the promise of a “better” ending be incentive enough to make Good choices, even if the game proper was made more difficult thereby?
Or to go all the way: what if the only reward of a Good choice in a game was the personal satisfaction of having done the right thing? In other words, what if the player was punished in some way for choosing the moral thing to do? An example could be sparing a bad guy, only to have them return and kill an NPC teammate later. Would the average gamer behavior change? Would the moral players feel better about their choices, or worse?
Sometimes I feel like I want to be a game designer just to screw with people.