A Small Strike Team Can Succeed Where an Entire Army Will Fail (repost)

Again, with the malware-splosion of the Apex Book Blog, I’ll be reposting things I did over there over here, for posterity’s sake! Here’s one I did about how small strike teams in video games…

A Small Strike Team Can Succeed Where An Entire Army Would Fail

I was playing Mass Effect last night to get myself prepared to finally – finally – tear into Mass Effect 2, and I was reminded of a pet peeve of mine in most RPGs. As a hero in an RPG game, I generally attract the help of other heroic people. They have big weapons, powerful special abilities, and would be very handy if the proverbial shit hit the fan against our mutual enemies. I think it’s great to have party members with me, to provide cover, and extra ass-kicking powers when I’m defeating the forces of evil. I love my party members. Literally. I fall in love with one of them, and usually get some awkwardly done sex scene wherein still-partially-clothed avatars with wooden facial expressions commence foreplay until a black screen cuts me out of the good stuff. Anyway, the point is I really like having them around. All of them.

So, when a game designer hands me a party member, I am always fascinated by the next screen, wherein I choose who gets to come with me. In Mass Effect, I never get to take more than two people with me. Everyone else stays in the comfort and safety of the ship, somewhere far off-screen, where they are of no use to me.

This annoys me. RPGs do this all the time. I never quite understood the notion that a small strike team could succeed in – for instance – charging directly into a massive army of Darkspawn at the heart of the capitol city to kill a dragon, in Dragon Age: Origins. You know what? Fighting a dragon in the end boss battle through wave after wave of enemy darkspawn is, to me, quintessentially the moment I want to have every one of my allies with me to help me kick dragon tail. Why would a small strike team do a better job charging through the war-torn streets past wave after wave of Darkspawn until the climactic battle at the highest peak in the city? Because the design team decided that you don’t get to have an army. It would – I presume – throw the balance off, create difficulties with processing power, and otherwise confuse the micro-managing sort of player that wants to give each member of the team a specific command each moment in combat.

Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, Neverwinter Nights 2, Baldur’s Gate, Fallout, Fallout 2, and uncounted others all are guilty of this same strange trait. Player choice is limited to forcing players to take their favorite party members along. Player choice is not extended to taking as many or as few party members along as one wants.

This could be a new way of looking at difficulty settings. Using a small strike team is “hard”, a medium one is “normal”, and every single ally who can hold a gun and walk is “easy”. This could also be a new way of looking at death. Another strange thing in these RPGs is what happens when someone dies. Someone can get knocked out in combat by losing all their health points, but they aren’t actually dead. There’s another way of handling that mechanic. At the end of combat they hop right back up again. Giving us a lot of NPCs and encouraging us to try to keep them alive is something that happens in first-person shooters. An emotional connection to our squad mates in an RPG-style dialogue system could really make the natural death of party members in a wartime scenario meaningful. Imagine having to decide between reloading to keep party members alive against an insurmountable boss battle that you finally, after hours of trying, won, or deciding that you don’t want to face that enemy for the twelfth time regardless of who bought the farm.

Another approach – which I like the best – is one of the reasons why a dusty, old RPG from way back in 1990 is still one of the best RPGs ever made. “Planescape: Torment” didn’t just throw a bunch of party members at you and let you pick and choose between them for your small strike team against crazy odds. No, instead, you begin the game with Morte. For the first few hours of gameplay, that floating skull is the only friend in the world. After a while, you earn people like Annah, Nordom, Dak’kon, Ignus, Fall-From-Grace, or Vhaillor. Honestly, you could play the whole game through twice and never even meet Vhaillor or Nordom, and Ignus might turn on you just before the last battle. The beauty of the game was that the individual characters were so well-written and so well-acted, you didn’t feel like you wanted to choose other party members. You accumulated them slowly, making you feel like you earned them instead of just being handed these party members. And, I played through that brilliant game more times than I can count, and I never recall being asked to choose which party member to let go so I could keep the one I have. And, nobody ever said the words “…a small strike team” just before a giant pitched battle with wave after wave of bloodthirsty creature.

I began this post talking about Mass Effect. It’s a great game, sure. I expect Mass Effect 2 will also be great. Dragon Age: Origins is great, too. But, are they great in the sense that Planescape: Torment was great? Limitations of game balancing and game technology are the things that mark the artistry of Planescape: Torment. There was an elegance to the game, perhaps the first RPG I know of where the ultimate goal of becoming a powerful, unkillable, behemoth of death and influence in the world around you existed solely so you could finally die. I still have those CDs floating around here. I still pull it up when the mood strikes and read through all the dialogue, meet all the characters. There will never be another game like Planescape: Torment. For a game to be a work of lasting art, I hope part of the definition is that no one will ever throw the concept of a “…a small strike team” around just to explain away the seems of the design. Because that’s fucking lame. And, Obisidian figured out how to solve that design problem ages ago.


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