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The Old-School RPG Is Back

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Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Shadowrun. If you took these games, scaled the graphics back 10 years and slapped a Black Isle brand logo on them, no one would think anything was out of the ordinary. These games, and a number of others such as Pillars of Eternity and Torment: Tides of Numenera show one thing very clearly- old-school RPGs have a fan base, they make a ton of money, and they’re back in a big way. Break out your ale, fanciest party armor and your nicest weapons everyone, because we’re about to party like it’s 1999 with some major improvements.

The death and resurrection of the old school RPG is an interesting one. Large publishers tend to shy away from them, seeing them as niche market games like point-and-click adventure games and hardcore puzzle games. The fact of the matter is, these games have large audiences, mostly drawn from the pen and paper gaming crowd or from gamers that grew up with the Fallouts, Baldur’s Gates and Icewind Dales of the gaming world. These games were the first big open world games, even if that meant they did do a bit of hand-holding and leading in places. They had structure, but also freedom. It’s a tough balance to strike and Black Isle, followed by short-lived Troika, were masters of these games. The problem, sadly, was that many of them were not commercial juggernauts and Black Isle eventually closed.

Cut to today and thanks to Kickstarter, they’re back in a big way. You would think they’ve become the most profitable thing in the world. Judging by Steam sales and the number of active forum threads for the new titles in the genre, they might just be. More and more these games are offering a freedom to the players that they didn’t necessarily have before. A freedom to interact with the world in more meaningful ways than in games like Skyrim, but also with the ability to give the player a fun and free-form world that doesn’t rely on flashy marketing gimmicks to sell itself to the slavering hordes of teenagers waiting for the next game full of big explosions. They’re cerebral games, with just enough flash to make it feel impressive and empowering. Life means something. Death means more, especially when resurrecting fallen friends is not an easy task and can legitimately be impossible in some of the genre staples. A world of real consequences for bad player choices is a world that draws player investment. As that episode of Family Guy where Peter becomes the Grim Reaper shows, death is a force that gives life purpose, focus and meaning. Without it, you’re just going through the motions, and the motions do not make for a compelling RPG story.

The genre’s hiatus was a tragic one. In the intermediate time, few titles saw release that really kept to the core of the genre. Neverwinter Nights probably did that best, especially with its robust modding community, but two games can’t hold up an entire genre for 10 years. That’s just too wildly unrealistic to even be an option. After the genre awoke from its dragon-length nap, it came back more mature though. Stagnation in the early 2000’s gave way to some serious innovation in the last two years, with combat systems that don’t feel like a chore and graphics that let you tell the difference between the floor and that breastplate you want to pick up. The devil is always in the details and the details are what a 12-year break in big name genre releases have really refined.

Who do we have to thank for the return of this once noble genre to its natural habitat? Ourselves. Big publishers, like I said, shy away from these kinds of projects because they don’t guarantee 3.5 million units in sales on launch day. Kickstarter and Early Access, flawed as they may be, are the heroes of this fable. When publishers were saying ,”no”, we were saying “shut up and take my money!” The result was a system that funded some high-profile and well-developed projects, while allowing the developers to gain an instant community of beta testers and active contributors to the development process. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

No one knows where things will go from here, but my guess is up. With funding, a dedicated community, good sales numbers and critical acclaim, I think the genre is back to stay. Which is great, because we all need more games where a rooster posing for a portrait in a busy marketplace crows about being  “a magnificent cock” to anyone with the right perk to hear him.

About Whiskey Ginger

Whiskey Ginger is a scientist by day and comedy writer by night. Other than his passions for the nerdier things in life, he also writes for comedy sites dedicated to fraternity and postgrad humor. His parents just wish he'd write less dick jokes.

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