Friday, February 10, 2012

"Roleplaying The Old Republic": A Rebuttal

So, all right, we're all gamers around here, right? And we're all probably at least slightly familiar with Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, right? He's known for being critical of games, and that criticism is why people think well of him as a reviewer: because he's willing to think about the things that work and that don't work in a given game, and how to improve the model. While I feel personally that he's had a few instances where he'd let his standards slip so he could say he liked a given game, or where he applied double-standards to justify why he didn't like another, I could still say I enjoyed reading his work. Even if I didn't agree with him, I was essentially willing to trust the fact that he was thinking these issues over and looking at them reasonably.

Then he wrote this. "This" being an article about how much better it is to write backstory for your character in an MMO than to play a pen-and-paper RPG. I don't know if this is a joke, or a hoax, or a prank. I don't know if Yahtzee wrote this and then sat back, satisfied at a guaranteed negative response from angry gamers. But frankly, it's in line with the persona he's established, whether or not that persona reflects his actual viewpoint (I'm pretty sure it does).

Block 1: It is impossible to give a shit about someone else's pen and paper roleplaying character 

The first point of Yahtzee's dissection of traditional gaming versus video gaming is reliant on the fact that you (the reader) cannot stand anyone who likes traditional games. To quote the article: "presumably you'd give a shit if you were playing in the same campaign, are the individual in question's psychologist, or are keen enough on fucking them that you're willing to absorb whatever twaddle comes out of their mouth". Apparently, "no-one outside of the above small and very exclusive list gives a shit".

This is a pretty impressive generalization. It's more impressive considering that we're reading his column about video games in order for him to tell us about things he finds uninteresting. In fact, I would say that a column about video games is the glass house of "being boring". But there are reasons that he feels these characters are boring, at least, so it's not like he's pulling this out of nowhere:

Block 2: When what you're describing is limited only by what the human mind can conjure and put into sputteringly eager words, then nothing you say has any weight

Yahtzee, you know pen and paper games have rules, right? You've listed a bunch of examples of how you should just "make something up better", yet the whole point of the exercise is that you're working with situations where you're restricted by your character's abilities and available options. Unless you're talking about freeform RPGs, but freeform RPGs don't even really require a pen and paper unless you want to take notes on details. The stories created by rules and restrictions are called Emergent Stories, and they rely upon the fact that games do, in fact, have systems in place to determine what does and doesn't happen.

"Oh, your dark elf ranger successfully pierced all seven eyeballs of Yushg, guardian of Emperor Buaristein's Tomb, did he? How interesting. Hey, did you know that Horace the pig has stolen the silver buckles from the cuban heeled boots of the anti-life equation? I just made that up in my head. Do you see how this works?"

Yeah, okay, Yahtzee, except one of those was based on working within the limitations of a scenario and the influence of random chance, and the other is you just making something up. The whole point of an "RPG" as a role-playing exercise is that you can get outcomes other than what's expected, and you can find things to do within the scenario that rely on improvisation and problem-solving skills. The system and the rules are there in order to provide structure and tension to the narrative, and while, yes, it may all come down to random numbers and not actual skill, that's true of computer RPGs too.

This isn't a minor quibble, or some little tidbit that I'm taking undue offense to. This is the foundation of his article. His article is based around the fact that pen-and-paper games have "no limitations" while video games do. Pen-and-paper games as a medium do not have the same limitations as individual video games, but that's what the DM is for. A scenario or adventure is the equivalent of an individual game. His argument that you can technically do anything because it's all in your imagination is like saying that you can do anything in videogames because, I mean, technically you could just learn how to model and code and stuff and you could do whatever you want. Or you could use cheats and console commands, because using those things is the equivalent of a DM "making rocks fall": something that breaks the game because you're not supposed to be doing it.

What's funniest to me about this is that, when Roger Ebert made a bunch of sweeping generalizations about video games, lots of gamers - including Yahtzee himself - came out of the woodwork to establish the fact that Ebert's criticisms of games as a medium were based on an outdated, half-understood concept that he'd never done the research to actually fix. The problem with Ebert's argument was that it was dismissive of all these games based on evidence that hadn't been true for the past 20 years or so, and it was frustratingly obvious that he just hadn't put any time or effort into learning about his subject before he decided that it was trash. It was something we'd expect from a half-baked poster on a forum, but not from someone who was largely respected and well-thought-of by the community. The obvious lack of effort put into the dismissal was worse than the dismissal itself, not because of what it implied for gaming but because of how ridiculous the reviewer came off as being.

"I could say that his area of expertise is cinema and therefore his opinion on videogames is about as relevant as that of your grumpy aunt Hildy." The fact that Roger Ebert voiced his opinions about something that he clearly knows nothing about is why people took offense and/or mocked him. There is a lesson to be learned from this, but I cannot think of what it is.

Block 3: Because in a video game the role playing is a directed experience within a fixed world that large numbers of other people can also access, and which cannot be modified by the DM getting bored and declaring that rocks fall from the ceiling and kill all the goblins you've used up half an hour trying to kill
I'm starting to believe that Yahtzee learned about RPGs entirely through webcomics.

Yahtzee's argument about video games is that they're interesting in role-playing terms because you can compare and contrast your experience with other people: "I relish talking to other people playing the games at the same time, learning how their character's turning out and what quests they've been doing that I skipped". I'll accept that. It's true that the fact that a video game is a shared product, rather than an adventure experienced by a single group and then probably never run again, is going to give it a social connection that many pen-and-paper games don't have.

On the other hand, you're really stretching if you think that quests in a computer RPG are going to be really that different. Perhaps if you're talking about Planescape: Torment and it's the age before Gamefaqs you can get some legitimately hard-to-find dialogue options, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Mass Effect's different paths can be fairly easily predicted (in one of them you are nice to people, in another one you punch them, the same things happen either way). But anyways, in general, it's feasible that the rules and structure of a computer RPG could give them a sort of social bonus not experienced in pen-and-paper RPGs, but that stems largely from the fact that pen-and-paper adventures are not mass produced.

However, this was not always the case. Back in the days of AD&D, there were a bunch of official modules (and even later editions have well-known modules like 3e's "Sunless Citadel"), and those were shared experiences, because players would get together and talk about what they'd found and how they reacted, and DMs would get together and talk about what their players did. The rules established by the module sets the consistency that the players' interactions rely upon. They have tools, they have targets, they have potential responses. The DM's job is to make those things fit together in a logical pattern based on the information given to him, not just to "make things up".

Block 4: As I mentioned in my discussion of Dragon Age 2, I do like to try to get into a character, filling in backstory the game doesn't give in my own head. 

"In my own head" sounds a lot like imagination to me. However, let's give Yahtzee the benefit of the doubt. He's an experienced gamer, and he knows what he's dealing with, so I'm confident he can make good use of the game's limitations in order to craft a character who fits the scenario and has logical, developed interactions with different factions and viewpoints.

"For some reason, the one I kept coming back to was a rather ugly metallic pipe running horizontally along the middle of the face and feeding up the nostrils, like one of those oxygen tubes they might put on you in the hospital. At first I thought it seemed ungainly, but then I realized, if anyone saw this bloke, the first question to leap to their heads would be "What's with the face tube thing?" It was a feature. A talking point. Backstory. So I ran with it."

sorry, what

"During the game I played Light Side but took every conversation option in which I grumblingly demanded hasty payment. My history had left me with a strong moral compass and hatred of pirates, but with the constant need for medication and the money to pay for it, I was also coldly realistic in my approach to working for hire."

Okay, so, I didn't post the entire backstory he wrote up, but he based it on the fact that his character (a) looked young and (b) had a pipe in his face. And part of that backstory was that he is sick (not part of the game rules) and requires medication (not part of the game rules) and has to earn more credits to afford his medication (not part of the game rules) because otherwise he'll die (not in game).

His article is about how pen and paper stories are awful because there's no restrictions on them (which wasn't true to begin with) and now he's telling us about his character's backstory that has nothing to do with the game, nothing to do with the system, and everything to do with the character appearance he chose. The only "game" part of this whole thing is that he makes choices in quests that involve getting paid faster. Even though the rewards he receives from quests have nothing to do with his backstory, since that's in his head and not part of the game. Meanwhile, if this was, say, GURPS, all the elements of his backstory would be part of the game system (in the form of perks and flaws). It would be part of an established, logical ruleset, rather than something he'd simply made up.

Block 5: See, to get into role playing games you have to know how to role play.

That's true, Yahtzee. You do. That's why "writing backstories" like you just did is a pretty standard part of making characters for a pen and paper role-playing game. It's also a part of the game that can be the most problematic, because it's one of the few parts where "the rules" don't apply, which means that players can orchestrate events without the guiding hands of probability and chance to make their story more feasible or more likely. "Writing backstory" is something that exists outside of the game rules. It is something that exists only in your head.

So here's what you're doing, Yahtzee, and there's nothing wrong with it per se. You're using your imagination to fill gaps between established content. You're given certain information about your character's actions that are solidly established by the game system: you've done x quest, you have responses y and z. You're using the backstory you made up (in your head) to determine which choices you make, and you're creating internal dialogue for your character (in your head) to connect those choices to the character's backstory. That's fine. A lot of people do that. It's something that can make a somewhat content-devoid game more interesting and more lively. You use your imagination to fill in where the game cannot take you. Games, at least at present, cannot provide realistically varied and reactive conversations about every possible topic. Nobody in-game is going to ask you about your face-tube, because that's a non-factor. To make up for it, you had to use your imagination (in your head) to make it part of the game experience.

What I just described is the entire basis of pen-and-paper RPGs. It's the combination of "hard" and "soft" content: hard content like rules, dice, and stats versus soft content like characterization, interaction, and roleplaying. The hard content is used to provide a shape for the soft content; it establishes limitations on what you can and can't do based on the reality of the scenario. You certainly can't "do anything", because you don't need to drop $60 on a 300-page book to tell you to "do anything". You're working within the scenario provided for you by the referee, GM, or DM, which is exactly the same as working within the confines of a scenario provided by a video game developer except that it's more adaptive. Hell, most of the developers you admire, like Chris Avellone and J.E. Sawyer, still use pen-and-paper to set the standard for adaptive scenarios with open-ended responses.

Block 6: It's a short step from the above to writing fan fiction, and that never ends well for anyone.
i can't believe you got paid to write this


  1. I laughed out loud at the fan fiction sentence in his article. Seriously, after reading his "backround"?

    1. He got sort of self-aware at the end, but it didn't really undo the fact that he'd just spent one page being totally wrong about RPGs and spent another page telling us about the background of his Star Wars character like we were supposed to care. Really, I was laughing the whole way through it.

    2. seriously, there is anyone surprised that subjectivity and fluctuations of written output exist? Noone is objectively right because truth is a thought and not a fact. And even if someone comes close to consistency, if we ignore life itself is change, people can and do do make articles based on a mix of ideas.

  2. I mentioned on Twitter that it seemed like sarcastic ironic meta-humor, which is completely how I read the article. Yahtzee often closes his Extra Punctuation articles with a ludicrous joke, but the last three or four paragraphs seem like a setup for the final gag. I completely thought he was joking by this point.

    That aside, I see your point and Yahtzee's fault in failing to see that pen-and-paper games share pretty much the same RPG elements, with the only difference being that video games have a more readily-accessible character ID system.

    I thought that his main point was that MMORPG players largely don't play a role anymore, and that the ones who do are often shunted to the side to hang on a single underpopulated server. I remember playing a character straight in an MMORPG; at the end of my jargon-filled expository speech, I'd get a response of "A/S/L?" or "buff plz." This kind of indifference to the actual fantasy of pretending to be someone is why I think he made his "block 1" statement of no one actually giving a shit about someone else's character in an RPG; he's just taken the MMO model and extended it to pen-and-paper. Not being at all familiar with tabletop RPGs, I let his allegations slide.

    1. As I said, he tries to turn it around a bit to make the fact that he's shilling his book more palatable and less hypocritical, but "you nerds are dumb, but my nerd interests are cool" is basically a summary of Yahtzee as a person. Every single thing he's ever written or done has contributed to him both being the nerdiest, most boring person possible and also looking down on other nerds for being boring. Again, unless literally everything he's ever written prior was a joke, there's nothing about this article that's out of line with his established traits.

  3. I think the "rules-irrelevant" thing is, for me, why role-playing in computer RPGs has always seemed really hollow and boring to me. You can imagine, in your head, some sort of dopey gimmick for your character, but to the extent that there aren't rules that cover it, is it ever interesting?

    I don't play MMOs, but it seems particularly pointless to try to role-play in a game where the desire to earn levels and gear as quickly as possible means that everybody uses the same handful of optimal, functionally-identical builds. Playing pretend isn't interesting to me.

  4. Here's somebody who really wouldn't agree with what Yahtzee said:

    Now, I don't agree with everything he says, but I do agree with him that video games have yet to reach the realm of Pen and Paper when it comes to roleplaying. Especially since the Old Republic wouldn't acknowledge that much of the backstory Yahtzee made up for that character he brought up.


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