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Three Great Role-Playing Games–That Aren’t RPGs

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Wikipedia would have us believe that RPGs are defined by a player taking on the role of a character, usually in a detailed world, and we are to accept that the hallmarks of the genre include “developed story-telling [sic] and narrative elements, player character development, complexity, as well as replayability and immersion.” One glaring issue with this description: Wikipedia doesn’t even really provide a definition. Rather, it describes the kind of things one tends to find in RPGs, not necessarily what they are. Furthermore, some have argued that “RPG,” as a genre, might not even exist. With all of this in mind, this article is less concerned with what RPGs are than it is with what RPGs do. This article seeks to explain how Papers, Please, L.A. Noire, and Crusader Kings II manage to do the work of RPGs–immersing players in a compelling role–without exhibiting the traits we traditionally associate with the RPG genre.

Papers, Please is probably the most unusual entry on this list, and it truly relies on interactivity to sell its concept. The player takes on the role of a border security official, inspecting documents and deciding whether immigrants and refugees may pass into glorious Arstotzka. Two things that stand out to the observer: one, that this is giving off some serious Cold War vibes–down to an East-West Berlin analogue–and two, that the role of the player sounds dreadfully boring. But the creator, Lucas Pope, uses mechanics and choice to create compelling, thematic dilemmas.

One decision as an example: do you separate a married couple because the wife is missing her entry permit? The morality may seem obvious until you come to the end of the day, when citations could cause pay docks, taking heating, food, and medical attention away from you and your family. Can you trust every sob story you hear? Can you act compassionately without being thrown in prison? Papers, Please immerses players in a totalitarian world, not by casting them as some freedom fighter or some soldier, but by casting them as a regular person trying to navigate an oppressive, dangerous situation. Papers, Please is an acute emotional experience, capturing the vital essence of life under a totalitarian regime.

Another entry which tries to capture the mood and aesthetic of another time period is L.A. Noire. However, while Papers, Please is concerned with the propaganda of Soviet-esque nation states–Glory to Arstotzka!–L.A. Noire seeks to emulate particular filmic depictions of 1940s L.A. Chinatown comes across as a distinct influence, and themes explored in that movie make an appearance in Noire; both pieces of media deal with corruption, abuses of power, and even the complicity (and sometimes direct participation) of the police in those abuses of power.

Unlike Papers, Please, L.A. Noire opts to put players in the shoes of a particular character: Cole Phelps. Early on, Phelps bears an uncanny resemblance to Captain America, and the likeness doesn’t stop with the fact that Aaron Staton is basically a normal-person version of Chris Evans. Phelps also served in World War II, albeit in the Pacific Theater, and other characters have a tendency to comment on his strict adherence to the rules. The audience is meant to understand that Phelps is an upstanding police officer stuck in the mire of a corrupt, violent city. Mechanically, this is reflected in the scoring system. Infractions are punished, and efforts to go above and beyond the call of duty are rewarded. Initially, this seems to reflect a desire to do the job by the books and earn praise and commendation on the part of Phelps. A desire which is then imparted to the player.

With this kind of structured role-play, players are incentivized to discover every clue, to suss out every lie, and even to obey the rules of the road. Phelps’s woke ideology (compared to his peers, anyway) also keeps his reactions to various events roughly in line with the reaction of players. Then, as we peel back the layers of Cole’s backstory, we discover that he’s not the all-American hero we’ve come to imagine. Somewhat ironically, by becoming alienated from our own character, we can relate to him better. We feel the same disillusionment Phelps does when we confront the seedy underbelly of L.A. together. Additionally, we understand Phelps’s career as a detective; he’s not motivated by commendation, but by atonement. But like Chinatown, L.A. Noire realizes that the world doesn’t always reward people who try to do right. That things can be horrifically unfair, and there’s no meaning to any of it. We’re left with a familiar sentiment, playing this role: “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

In discussing abuses of power in video games, Crusader Kings II must eventually rear its head. This game is insidious. It’s probably one of the most immersive experiences of Realpolitik one can find in video games. In one of his videos, hbomberguy (now famous for championing trans rights on his Donkey Kong 64 stream with AOC herself appearing) describes the way Darkest Dungeon dehumanizes its characters by reducing their quirks and traits to statistics on a page–thereby rendering them disposable in order to prosecute a war against unspeakable evil. Crusader Kings II, on the other hand, dehumanizes its cast of (often historical) characters in order to establish a game board. A board on which thousands of people will die, but you won’t care, so long as your dynasty amasses the power it needs to survive and thrive in the callous cruelty of the middle ages.

This is great storytelling, and great role-playing, and it’s purely systems-driven. While CK II utilizes statistics and character development in ways comparable to RPGs, it opts out of complex, set-in-stone narratives. Rather, it forces players to create their own stories, to carve out a legacy in a fictionalized version of the historical medieval world. And unlike many RPGs, the choices you make are not contextualized personally. You don’t really have to confront the emotional fallout of your actions. People are represented by portraits, statistics, and sparse descriptions. And because your primary drive is to expand and consolidate power, these collections of portraits and statistics become a means to an end.

Marriages become pretenses for power grabs. Obstacles within the line of succession–even infants–may be removed, provided one has the power and influence to execute such plots. Unthinkable acts of cruelty are merely factors in a grim arithmetic, and one begins to see glimpses of characters like Tywin Lannister in their own machinations (one can also play as Tywin, with the right mod). Like Papers, Please, CK II conveys an emotional experience which, in all likelihood, bears resemblance to the experiences of real people. After all, if real kings didn’t necessarily need to see the consequences of their actions, if the results of their decisions were often conveyed to them via letters and missives, what were they capable of, provided it benefited them and their family? This game takes that question a step further; what are we capable of, placed in similar circumstances?

This is one of the fundamental strengths of good role-playing. While role-playing can be something the player does, it can also be something the developers build their game to facilitate. They can even push roles onto the player that they might not have chosen otherwise. It can cause us to reflect, to ask (sometimes uncomfortable) questions of ourselves. Furthermore, these games show that such role-playing need not be found in the RPG genre in particular. Papers, Please is a self-proclaimed dystopian document thriller, while L.A. Noire is an open-world action puzzler, and Crusader Kings II is a strategy game with simulation elements. It is worth interrogating genre conventions. Further than that, it is worth exploring whether compelling narrative experiences like role-playing can be accomplished in ways we have yet to imagine.

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role-playing_video_game
https://medium.com/@SA_Liberty/what-are-role-playing-games-even-how-are-they-that-50071c5552e2
https://www.reddit.com/r/CrusaderKings/comments/3cldsj/i_just_get_tywin_lannister_now/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziqXwyCjuFE

 

Brandon Curran was born in a damn desert before being spirited away to the arboreal paradise of Portland, Oregon. He likes grey skies, green trees, and a steady mist of rain. When he's not writing articles about game design, he's working on that book he's totally gonna finish. In his spare time, Brandon plays video games, paints miniatures, and mutters to himself

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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How Do ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’s’ Max Raid Battles Measure Up?

Max Raid Battles are one of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s premier new features. Do they live up to their full potential? Let’s find out.

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max raid battles

One of the most heavily promoted new features of Pokémon Sword and Shield have been their Max Raid Battles. These gargantuan fights are both a key part of the online experience and likely the first taste most players will get of Dynamaxed Pokémon in-game. So, how’d this take on Pokémon Go’s raid system pan out in the series’ first mainline entry on console?

Well, on the plus side, getting into the thick of a raid is super straightforward. After the opening hour or two, players are introduced to the Wild Area and can access Max Raid Battles straight away by walking up to a pillar of red light on the field. From there you can invite others, challenge the raid with NPCs, and choose which Pokémon you want to use.

Real Friends Raid Together

Playing with friends online, though, is a bit more convoluted. There’s no “Invite Friends” option to be seen. Instead, all social features are handled through the Y-comm (literally accessed by pressing the Y button). It’s here that players can Link Trade, Link Battle, exchange player cards, and more.

After actively connecting to the internet–which has to be done each play session and each time the Switch is put into sleep mode–it’s up to the host of the match to find a portal and send an invitation to everyone. A notification will pop for friends on the side of the screen, and then it’s up to everyone to join the match directly through the Y-comm interface.

If players want real people to fill in any remaining slots (all raids are four-person affairs), they’ll need to join before the room fills up. Setting a Link Code avoids this hassle by creating a room but, unlike Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, only computer players can fill remaining spots after friends finish joining this way.

After some experimenting and fudding about, my buddy and I were able to hop into matches fairly quickly without much issue. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that creating friend lobbies is only such a headache because it had to be tied to the Y-comm. Pair this with the fact that battling while waiting for a friend to create a room can cause the notification not to pop, and getting a group together is a bit more painful than it should be.

Max Raid Battle Rundown

The raids themselves are a surprisingly engaging twist on the classic Pokémon battle formula. Groups of four challengers work together to take on a Dynamaxed raid boss. Each raid boss has a different star rating, and even the 1-star battles are no joke the first few times around. These boss Pokémon are merciless, and regularly one-shot lower leveled ‘mons with ease.

To combat these monstrous foes, one random trainer in every group is granted the ability to Dynamax their chosen Pokémon and lead the charge. The Dynamaxed Pokémon gets the benefit of having extra-powerful moves and increased HP, though it’s rather disappointing that there only seems to be one Max Move per move type (one Grass move, one Dark move, and so on). Each of these has a secondary effect on the battlefield; some trigger sandstorms, others trigger a health regeneration field that heals everyone a bit each turn. Regular moves with type advantages deal a significant chunk of damage, but it’s Max Moves that can truly turn the tide of battle.

If one of the group’s Pokémon faints, that trainer has to sit out for a turn before it automatically gets revived (a smart design choice to keep all trainers actively involved). However, the fainting of each Pokémon triggers the storm above to become more and more vicious. After four faints or ten turns, everyone is booted out of the raid sans rewards.

max raid battles

The Fruits of Victory

Two of the easiest ways to better your odds are 1) Choose a Pokémon with a type advantage going into battle, and 2) Manage who Dynamaxes when. Each trainer’s Dynamax meter grows periodically and, though only one trainer can use it at a time, multiple players can activate it over the course of a raid. It also seems like each raid’s star rating is tied directly to the raid boss’ level, so bringing a generally powerful Pokémon to a lower-level raid is another viable strategy for success.

Aside from the chance to capture the raid boss itself (and some Pokémon are Max Raid Battle-exclusive), winning a raid nets players some very worthwhile rewards. These include everything from EXP candies and berries to nuggets and TMs. It’s not so much of a haul that it hurts the overall balance of the game, but there’s enough to make getting a few friends together and grinding raids for a couple of hours worth it.

max raid battles

Though Max Raid Battles are just a small part of the overall Sword and Shield package, they’ve ended up being a rather fun take on Pokémon’s traditional multiplayer offerings. For as unnecessarily complicated as playing with friends is, there are also a few cool ideas here, like being able to join a raid from anywhere on the map as long as the host is at the raid pillar. There’s some good fun to be had here if you prefer to battle alongside your friends instead of against them.

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