"So, give, give, give me more, more, more
I'd like it all."
The Wonder Stuff, "Give, Give, Give Me More, More, More"
The criticism most often leveled at the so-called action RPG has been the dumbing down of the supposedly more sophisticated plot and character development featured in "true" role-playing games. There is no "RPing" in the simple dungeon hack and slash of Diablo and Diablo II, the PC inspiration for the PS2's Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance, Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance II, and now Champion's of Norrath: Realms of Everquest. These are games about crawling a dungeon (preferably with friends -- single player games of Diablo do the game no justice and lack the very basic feel of the role-playing game experience, journeying with a party -- and the same can be said of Norrath), killing and maiming anything that gets in your way, leveling up, and getting treasure and more treasure and more treasure.
On the face of it, it may appear that I am about to talk the same trash about Norrath and action RPGs as usual. Kill, loot, kill, loot seems on the face of it to be a criticism. But, I think my experience with Norrath has given me a slightly more enlightened perspective on RPing than I may previously have had and really on the history of this sub genre and the broader genre of role-playing in general.
I believe what really got me thinking in this direction was the game's insistence on repeatedly referring to my character (and my wife's character whose dark elf shadow knight, Lola, accompanied my erudite -- albeit overly developed -- wizard, Shesa Lulu, on my adventures through the lands of Norrath) as a "champion." Yes, yes, I know that's the title of the game. I know that I am intended to take on the role of a champion of the lands of Norrath. Not a hero mind you, though, a champion. I probably would not have noticed the distinction between these two concepts were it not for the non-player characters "guiding" me on my quest who again constantly kept alluding to the fact that while they had armies to help them with invading goblin hordes, giant ant infestations, etc. what they really needed was a "champion" to help them beat these invaders back. Not once did they request a "hero."
A champion is bigger than life, a stronger more powerful soldier whose singular efforts can win a war. A hero often implies similar larger than life notions but brings along with it a virtue that a champion does not necessarily have to have. Indeed, villains have champions. Goliath was, after all, the Philistines' champion. Virtue and honor is not necessarily a prerequisite in a champion.
Hence, Norrath's simple hack and slash, loot, loot, loot, gameplay becomes it's own theme and narrative. It's all about the treasure. I mentioned NPC guidance for missions. These missions and the narrative accompanying them are often rather thin. Go kill X or go kill a bunch of Xs. Although admittedly this game does feature some slightly more innovative approaches to justify the mass slaughter of little green pointy eared men than other prior games in this sub genre, at times, for example, you are told to destroy a series of catapults that are pinning down a contingent of elven warriors or to go and find the mechanism for a gate blocking an army from its prey. Even so, soaking your blade in goblin blood and grabbing as much stuff as you can along the way is a necessity in these situations and still your prime motivating factor.
This is because character development in this kind of "role-playing" game is not so much found in the skills and abilities of the characters (which do advance as you level and choose abilities to upgrade and customize through Diablo 2-esque skill trees), nevertheless, development largely occurs through looting and accruing more and more powerful weapons and armor. Leveling is hard and takes time, but looting is as swift as a sword stroke, leading to untold riches, which translates into power. This is why while there are a few NPCs to explain your motivations and guide the "plot," such as it is, mostly towns in this game consist of one really interactive NPC, the shopkeeper, with whom you'll spend most of your time selling your loot to buy better gear rather than pondering the subtle nuances of the game's story.
But, in essence, this "looting for power" mentality is largely the spirit of role-playing as a genre. Those of us old enough to remember the first version of Gary Gygax's Dungeons & Dragons should remember that gold in that game was the equivalent of experience points. Every gold piece you looted from a dungeon yielded an equal amount of experience point. It was your finances that determined the development of your character, not innovative story telling and thoughtful character design. If nothing else, games like Norrath are old school in the sense that they embrace the champion figure, the lord whose gold makes him (or her, given that there are, of course, in this "non-sexist" game, the voluptuous vixens of Norrath -- they even have their own calendar) a "man" and maybe only then a hero.
Again, lest we forget, the classic fantasy mythoi often have gold at their heart. If the dwarves are aggravated about the dragon taking up in their neck of the woods in The Hobbit, their answer is not to raise an army but to hire a thief to get their stuff back. Even Bilbo's powers as a thief are developed by looting Golem. If Bilbo becomes a hero it is because of the gold, not as a hero should: in spite of it. Likewise, our oldest Anglo Saxon legend, the story of Beowulf boils down to a champion whose money saves a kingdom. It is Beowulf's battle with the monster Grendel that most people recall from that story, but that is only its beginning. In the final part of Beowulf, Beowulf an older, more settled nobleman takes up arms against a dragon threatening the region. He dies fighting it -- although the dragon dies in that conflict as well -- and the poet of the Beowulf saga is quick to emphasize that Beowulf's ultimate act is in dying to the dragon because its horde will save the people by granting them prosperity and peace.
So, I'll take the old school spirit of Norrath heroically gathering all the gold and kick ass swords and armor I can take. That is the heart of role-playing and perhaps the essence of the Western hero. Embrace your inner champion because as we all know: in Western culture, the most successful of our heroes are the ones holding most of the gold.
25 February 2004