May 11, 2009

Narrative Density

So whenever I talk about games, RPGs in particular, I always to end up talking about what I call narrative density, or in the simplest terms, the ratio of story to gameplay. Now, it's not a strict ratio, as a ratio assumes a certain amount of mutual exclusivity, which I don't mean to imply. Storyline and gameplay can exist at the same time, in fact, I think in the best games they often do. Nevertheless, I come back to the original concept, Narrative Density.

The reason I think of this particular concept is because I am currently playing through Knights of the Old Republic 2 (which I should say I am quite enjoying), Obsidian Entertainment's first game (at least as Obsidian). Obsidian has since released Neverwinter Nights 2 and several expansions, and is now working on the action, spy RPG Alpha Protocol. Why is that important? Well, as you are probably aware Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Neverwinter Nights 2 are sequels (duh) to what where originially Bioware games (just drop the 2's and you have the original titles). Bioware games I finished, finished very close to thier original release in fact, in additon to playing all of the official expansions to the original Neverwinter Nights. So why then, have I never managed to finish KOTOR2 or NWN 2 (sorry typing those all out got tiresome quickly) despite repeated attempts?

What I think it all comes down to for me is this concept of narrative density, of how much time I spend talking vs. killing monsters and exploring dungeons. I think, as far as I am concerned, Bioware is at almost exactly the right level of density for me, whereas Obsidian misses the mark, spending far more time than I would like talking and telling me the story than allowing me to experience it for myself. On the flip side, I think modern console RPGs have gone the opposite direction. In an attempt to keep achieveing longer and longer RPG expereiences, titles like The Last Remnant and Final Fantasy XII offer up far more in the way of dungeon slogging than they do in story, so much so that occasionally I actually forgot what my overall goal was in the first place.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think it's different for each player. Some players may desire to almost read their way through the story, while others may only be interested in the action, and I think there are plenty of games that they would be satisfied with. The really difficult one to please (such as myself) sits right in the middle, desiring a certain mix of story and action, and that mix may vary from person to person. The desire is not so strong that it completely deprives us of joy if our ideal density is not present. As I said, I am greatly enjoying KOTOR2, despite feeling a bit detached in certain 20 mintue conversations, but it is still something I am aware of, and if I am aware of it, I know it's not ideal. Admittedly, I love talking to Kreia, all her dialogue is intriguing and thought-provoking, so kudos to Obsidian for creating a character that actually makes you think, but I don't think I ever felt this way about the original KOTOR, Mass Effect, or even Jade Empire, and it seems worthy of noting.

In fact, my favorite game of all time, Chrono Trigger, is remarkably short for an RPG. About 12-15 hours for one playthrough and maybe double that to achieve every ending. It seems as though an RPG of that length today would be chastised by the community at large though it is one of the highest rated games of all time according to GameRankings. And I guess that is really my point (I know, I wasn't sure I had one either). As games continue to get more and more complex, there also seems to be this push to have more and more content often at the cost of quality (at least within the RPG market, in my opinion). This trend for the most part disturbs me, and I hope that developers are eventually able to overcome it in favor or shorter much more polished expereiences. While I might personally be a bit upset at a 6 hour experience, if all six of those hours were nothing but top-shelf entertainment, it would probably still go down as one of my games of the year (look at the Gears of War series).

The truth is from the standpoint of a consumer or a developer we would all rather have a game that's too short, than too long. That's all I'm saying...

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