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Conveniences are banal, pointless and self-defeating


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I don't expect to get much traction with the tweaker crowd here, but those who can think should be able to appreciate that shortcuts, simplifications, macros and streamlining in games diminish the experience. Under the banner of relieving players of menial tasks, they take away the satisfaction of the process. All that legwork, all that memorization and note-taking, how tiresome. At the logical extreme the makers of these conveniences would eliminate the process and just flash a big "YOU WIN" before the player. Like dating app-makers or the idiots who enthuse about driverless cars (except that the car makers are clever: they are peddling new hardware and software, and the futurology is just a colored smoke screen, a little hemp aerosol). Of course, moments of gameplay that are clearly dull or awkward ask for euthanasia. But effort as such is the essence of interaction. There is no substituting challenge for effort, no cutting out travel times in favor of harder combat encounters, for example. Expending time is also important. Because we exist as bodies, we can't take seriously anything that doesn't take some hustling, which is the visible form of time. The achievement after the hustling only confirms that the time was well-spent, it is not the aim. Had the purpose been to gain the best effort-to-result ratio, we could all have done better with more modest and nearer goals.

When it comes to gameplay, many features that historically, as they say, had given players delight, have been streamlined away. I haven't done very much playing of "golden box" games and the like, but I remember how involving and exciting it was to draw maps of areas, room by room, wall by wall. The area became mine, because I discovered it quite literally, piece by piece, like a new continent. This exploration and the incidents that happened on the way and made it memorable have been eliminated by automapping. Another feature that looks antediluvian now but was quite, quite interesting was text journals. The bits "spoken" by NPC, discovered inscriptions and rumors were contained in manuals that came with the games, in jumbled paragraphs.  It was impossible to read them from start to finish, but the player was called upon to open them at entry number such and such. This had three effects, at least: it made designers keep their texts short and exactly to the point, made the bits themselves memorable (many came with small hand-drawn vignettes, too) and combined two media, the videogame and the book. Books are physical, and this parallel existence substantiated the pretense of being in a different world. When the books and the other box "goodies," as those bonuses are fondly but generically called nowadays, were done away with, game worlds became sheer fantasies - no meat, just butter. At first their quality was maintained by strong talent, but the tendency towards irresponsible virtuality was planted with removal of these snags. Even some very immersive and detailed all-virtual worlds from the 90s, like that of Darklands, were already missing these hooks to an outside dimension. They were already self-contained the way nothing should be. 

Obviously this was all a great cultural shift, uneven and not known to anybody in full. There are probably experts on the history of computer games, and they probably suffer from experts' myopia. Nobody really knows how many crossroads humanity has run by, on how many it happened in the night and stumbled past them without even noticing. I spot some stages along the way, little thresholds, and the destiny of the written word also curiously wavered back and forth. Planescape: Torment, for example, can be seen as a point in game development when it was felt that a universe could be raised from words alone, tons and reams of inspired words. Everything drawn and recorded in that game is supported and enveloped in writing. Before no one would have wanted to make a graphical game with so much language - interactive novels had been just that, novels; after the decline of literacy made this kind of game impossible, and when one was attempted, it came out clearly anachronistic, weak and pointless (e.g. Tides of Numenara). Would I bring back those primordial features - the absence of a map, printed manuals, if I could? Yes, I would. The conflict here is not between old and new but between the good and the best. A virtual reality delivered on a plate may be good, so good that one forgets what can be even better - a genre that makes claims upon real life, involves the body and the brain so that an imaginary world can become real - or remain... The dating of hand-mapping and text aids speaks neither in favor of these features nor against them. Modernity is indifferent in this, and probably in everything else. 

Now, this being an obscure forum about modifying a very old RPG, oratory here is equivalent to lecturing down a tree hollow, so I'm wrapping up. The practical thrust of my address is to stop eliminating the features of the Infinity Engine games that make them believable and engaging. If you have ideas for how you can spare players doing this and that, put them in a sack and drown them. Come up with others, about how you can excite them and engage them. Quash your conveniences. If you want to eliminate travel between areas in favor of teleporting everywhere, stop. If you want to do away with shops so characters never have to move a foot to buy or sell equipment, cease and desist. If you want to erase spell schools and put all spells in one school, don't take the example of Microsoft, who has been eliminating Documents and Control Panel items and dumping every feature in one place. Less is not more. Easy is not sporty.

You may be erring on the opposite side, too. Instead of opening new interactions for players you may think it a good idea to burden them with features that have no continuation, no depth, no complication, no echo, no bounce and therefore no meaning for players. Mechanics like hunger and thirst, or age. I have thought about adding food and water and forcing players to eat and drink on a regular basis. So have others, no doubt. Make characters rest by a fire. There are inevitably mods like that for any role-playing game. Their creators think they are adding realism. But when the rest of the game world does not eat and drink, when there are no special encounters around these mechanics, when they are physically more cumbersome than in real life, adjusted for scale (all that clicking, and I can just stretch my arm, take a pear and bite it), they are simply pointless micromanagement. This is just what the well-meaning inventors of automapping and DIALOG.TLK and character auto scripts wanted to get rid of back in the day, no doubt, and ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They simply could not tell which features needed pruning, which - cutting, which - watering, which - pollinating and which ought to be left well enough alone. So how can one tell? Well, no how. Just anyone can't tell. It takes perspicacity, as Baeloth would say. It takes talent and ideas. Experience, learning and reflection help, too, but they are not everything. Then again, how many even have those? So if the only notions for improvement you have is another damnable conversion of one category into another, some ease-of-use or new dead bricks for players to carry, why don't you have a moment of truth with yourself, admit that you are not a creator and take off the modder jacket? Go do something else. Stop beating up a dust cloud and obscuring the work of those who contribute something meaningful with your totally irrelevant hard work and your countless dutiful updates.

Edited by temnix
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Guest Eraflure

Don't know about any of that but I sure am glad Beamdog created such a beautiful game for us to enjoy and discuss

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Stop beating up a dust cloud and obscuring the work of those who contribute something meaningful ...

Now that's what I call proper self-reflection, bravo!

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