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Minor spoilers for some quest points in Divinity: Original Sin

Butch:

Another day of up at three. This is starting to get to me.

What did I do? Yes. Played.

Went and talked to the lieutenant in hopes for more quests, but just got XP for the archaeologist and notes on quests I had. Then trucked back out West. Explored a basement, got some loot. Found a place that was all red and foreboding and said “nope” cuz I was tired. Then I found some burial mound that had a twin somewhere and a puzzle and said “nope” cuz I was tired. So I tried to find the lighthouse, which is right by the water down there, and fought to the base of it and now I’m about to go in it.

One of those sessions.

Did you get to the lighthouse? Cuz the monster that was at the base of it amused me.

Anyway, this session made me notice something that’s always bugged me about role playing games in general, from D&D to Horizon, and I figure it’s worth discussing after lo our many years of playing these games: Role playing games always seem to give a disproportionate amount of XP for killing stuff. Whole time I was in Cyseal, barely any XP. Took me forever just to get to level three. Now? Level five. Boom. And I DID stuff in Cyseal, man! Lots of stuff! Completed a whole ton of quests! And yet what I’m getting XP for is killing undead clubbers.

Now….I don’t have a problem with that in a game that is focused primarily on combat. Some fighty game like those ones we don’t play like Destiny or Overwatch or something, where what you DO is fight, then ok, fine, give all the XP for fighting. But games like this, or Horizon, or the Witcher, or Mass Effect, or or or going all the way back to the D&D campaigns Mr. O used to run in college AREN’T primarily about fighting. The POINT of all those games is to tell a story, to do things as a character. It’s jarring to spend all of this time moving story along, completing story/theme quests for nothing, then to get rewarded for doing something that is PART of the game but, I think, the part of the game that isn’t as important.

I think it’s just something that was baked into the whole idea of RPGs way back when you got D&D in red boxes with plastic dice. You get XP for killing. That’s just so what RPGs DO that there isn’t enough thought given to “well, SHOULD that be what every RPG does?” And I would argue “why no, no it should not be.”

And yet it is. Over and over and over again.

What say you? Will you rise for XP reform? BE FOR XP REFORM!

Man, I’m tired.

Feminina:

Oh man. That’s rough. 3am is not when humans were intended to get up.

We also played! Got distracted by a marker on the map for ‘Evelyn’s Cave’, which is way up away from the beach behind some impenetrable rocks. We wandered around for a while anyway, getting in fights with things we could actually defeat. Since you have also been to the lighthouse, I assume you wandered that way as well: the lighthouse is where we ended up last night.

Those ticking bomb zombies are nasty if they get close, but kind of awesome if you can explode them while they’re over near a bunch of their friends. We also reached level 5! We’re IN THE SAME PLACE, man.

As for XP and awarding it disproportionately for killing over other activities, I think we’ve talked about that some in the past, or at least talked around the edges of it…I remember we commented somewhat approvingly when some games (TW3 and Horizon come to mind) give you rather meager XP for killing random things you happen across, to the point that we pretty quickly decide it really isn’t worth our time (and healing resources) to get in fights with everything we see just for the sake of fighting. We appreciated that these games took some of the focus off combat purely for the sake of combat: sure, you get XP for killing that passing monster, but if it’s only 10 points, why bother?

Even there, though, the focus does largely remain on combat for the sake of a story…you get XP for finishing stories/quests, but also and significantly, specifically for defeating the major fighty thing that the story involves.

I do feel like you got healthy amounts of XP for completing non-combat quests in those games, too, but there weren’t nearly as many of them. And we did definitely get XP for sneaking and breaking into houses and stuff in Cyseal, but yeah, not as much or as often.

It’s kind of about time usage, really: you can easily complete two or three combats in a single game session and really pile up that XP, but to accumulate a similar amount from non-combat activities you have to spend a lot more time on the job. Talking to people, looking around, opening doors, talking to more people…they do reward that stuff in the end (as they should), but it’s so much more time-intensive than just fighting skeletons for 10 minutes that it can feel unproductive by comparison.

Which maybe relates back to a larger point, which is not really about XP, but about combat as the main mechanism for accomplishing things in role playing games, and what games with other major mechanisms might look like. As you said, D&D in the original box was based on combat, and to a large extent all the games descended (however distantly) from D&D follow that approach. They put in more and more other stuff around the edges, and we enjoy the other stuff more and more (romance! fancy dress balls! heists!), but a significant percentage of playing time still remains focused on combat.

This game, at least as far as we’ve played so far, seems to be doing a lot to try out getting away from combat and making non-combat mechanisms apply. And we seem to mostly be liking that, but maybe they haven’t quite worked out the balance in terms of how to reward those other activities. Triple XP for non-combat quests? XP awarded per person you talk to? Per dialogue option chosen? Per fact discovered?

And certainly combat focus is not bad. I mean, I like game combat. If I spend too many game sessions without any combat, I start to want to get in some fights, because…it’s obvious, it’s satisfying, it lets you use all the cool skills and equipment you’ve picked up…it’s so clearly THE GAME.

Of course, if I spend too many game sessions doing nothing but combat, I get really tired of it, which is why I play RPGs instead of straight fighting games.

Butch:

Ah, see, the cave is only accessible if you go through the gate out of the harbor, the one where they’re all “Uh….maybe you want to level up?” You know, the one I went through the other day because there was a quest marker up there, wanted to find other stuff, etc, found traps, got dead a lot? Well, the traps and the getting dead was the approach to that cave!

Later. We should go LATER.

Get. The. Fuck. Out. We’re both in the lighthouse courtyard at level 5?

What are the ODDS?

That is the best. And I do love the little spazzy guys who always go “I’m wet! Can’t explode! I’m wet!” Poor guys. One trick, and it doesn’t work when it rains.

Did you fight the ghoul that guards the lighthouse? Because naming the ghoul that guards the lighthouse “The Ghoul that Guards the Lighthouse” was RPG gold.

I guess when that’s your name, you pretty much know your career path early in life. Though I guess some members of his family might have bucked the trend.

“Get your cheese here! Good cheese here!”
“Hey man, I’m new in town. What’s your name?”
“The Ghoul that Guards the Cemetery.”
[Long Pause] “Then shouldn’t you be guarding-“
“Hey man! I gotta be me!”

I dunno man, do you get significant XP for stories? Sure, I occasionally got 90 or 180 when I talked to someone or found a thing, but man, I was getting, like 475 every time I killed even the wimpiest of things. I was talking before I went all fighting that it was taking me forever to level up, and said “man this game is stingy with XP,” and now I’ve picked up two damn levels in the last three playing sessions. Why? Cuz I went fighting.

And while, true, you did get rather meager XP for random shit in those games, they STILL pushed you towards non story combat if you really wanted to level. See monster contracts (which were fun, yes, but still) and hunting grounds (which weren’t).

Barely any. Especially when you need about 18000 XP (seriously) to level. What’s 90? Drop in the bucket.

I guess it could be about time spent. But I gotta say, I was greatly underwhelmed with the XP haul for getting into Evelyn’s house. I was expecting that to be a “+5000! Level!” deal (I even compared it to a “get out of the hinterlands” or “and now to the Sundom!” moment), but no. And that WAS a big milestone! It took forever to get to that point! And…meh. The only time I noticed a big XP boost from a non combat thing was picking up the head, and when that happened, I was surprised. Like, 2150 for THAT?

The game…Oh, indeed. Combat’s fine, and there’s not even anything wrong with focusing on combat, and rewarding combat, in an RPG. Even tabletop D&D, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Ok, look, this is really just gonna be a series of thinly veiled excuses for me to DM a whole lot of really awesome, intricate, fun fights, so roll up a bunch of badasses and let’s get our fight on.” That’s fun from time to time! And, if that’s how you’re gonna play it, then fine! Reward combat!

But don’t do that if your game ISN’T that kind of campaign. And this isn’t. Which is why we’re playing it.

Indeed, role playing. So hopefully there’s something in this lighthouse.

Feminina:

Hm…yeah, it’s true. I don’t really pay attention to XP numbers, but based on your reports, there’s definitely a pattern of “kill one thing, and BONANZA! Break into one house and…90.”

Well, we’ve also discussed overpowered danger as a means of keeping players on track, and Cyseal is an introductory area, so maybe this is how they planned to keep you more or less on track for the overall story.

If you could get to level 10 just wandering around town asking questions, you could charge on out whatever gate you wanted and destroy everything you saw even if it was ‘too early’ for you to be in that area yet. If they keep the city XP down, they keep the levels down until you get out on the trail.

Now, could they just have let you build up levels in town and then put dangers appropriate for those levels out there, in order to achieve the same effect without the obvious devaluing of non-combat activity? Yes. Yes they could have.

Butch:

Yes, yes they could have.

But I’m gonna cut them some slack. This was their first game, and, by all accounts, they did better in the sequel. When you’re doing something for the first time, you generally cling to what you know. They were unlikely to break the mold of RPG tradition in their first game. At least not well.

As an asterisk: I could be missing something, because I have noticed that sometimes XP pops, or at least the XP noise pops, when you’re in dialog and it’s hard to read the numbers (indeed, one thing I hope they’ve fixed in the sequel is too much shit happening during dialog. Whither, your poor archeologist). So maybe I missed, like 8000 for Esmerelda, but I doubt it. I was at level three forever.

Feminina:

It’s true, you gotta cut some slack. They’re trying something complicated and not every piece of it will work. We’re mainly enjoying it, quibbles aside (and yeah, seriously, we must drink to the improbable happening that is both of us being in the same place at the same time at the same level: unheard of!).

Next game: massive XP awards for conversations! Or 90 XP for killing something. Either way.

Because it is true: if the game is going to lean so heavily on mandatory, non-combat things–so much talking and poking around!–it should value that activity as highly as it values optional combat things (like digging up a bunch of graves that you totally don’t have to dig up, but which may result in battle with enraged zombies).

Butch:

Exactly! Reward what you deem is important as a game maker.

Though regarding combat, I noticed something else last night: I’m not having that much trouble with it. You guys were burning through resurrect spells, so I bought a ton, and I used two. I BARELY lost Madora by the dungeon with the puzzle, and I lost Scarlett once just because I forgot she was poisoned. True, there were a couple fights that I got wiped out, but that was because I, perhaps, went to a beach they warned me not to go to and I got destroyed. That’s not because I did the fight wrong, it’s cuz I went to the wrong damn beach.

Now, I’m not any better at games than you or Mr. O, so I wonder what’s up. Is it just the distraction of two screens? Is it harder to cooperate? Odd.

Feminina:

We didn’t have that much trouble with it last night. And earlier, while some of it was tackling things that were kind of too tough for us, a LOT of it was stupid errors like walking into ooze or burning corpses, misjudging the coverage of an area attack, etc.

I think that is partly a confusion of the split screen, since I (I can’t speak for Mr. O’) am sometimes distracted by watching the movement on the wrong screen, and will unconsciously assume that I’m controlling the character on that side because it’s the one I’m looking at, and thus wind up NOT looking where the character I’m actually controlling is walking, and running into things. I need to get used to the game enough to be able to reliably keep track of which screen I’m in. I’m getting better, but it’s a different view, and different things to keep track of, and it has led to some fatal errors. Kind of like hitting circle to back out of a conversation and instead taking a punch at someone, or whatever, but on a somewhat larger scale.

Last night we didn’t die at all except for the time we’d just finished a fight and were looking around and Delios (our Roderick) walked into a trap that killed me and Wolgraff. You know, accidents. Combat was fine, though! Even with The Ghoul that Guards the Lighthouse, which I agree is a great name.

Butch:

But it’s still turn based, right?

Once, I finished the fight and Scarlett was down to MAYBE 2 hit points. Like, her whole bar was black. And I was just “No one move! No…one…breathe…until…regeneration….”

Because you never know if there’s ooze right there. And it doesn’t save….

Feminina:

Oh yeah, it’s still the same turn-based combat. If everyone is close together, it’s not even in splitscreen. I don’t even want to think about how confusing it would be in real time. Most of the terrible accidents happen afterwards, in real time, when we’re just wandering around and stumbling into things.

I mean, I may have set the party on fire during combat that one time, but that was an unusual event!

Butch:

Wandering into things when you haven’t saved.

We’re too used to saves happening when we win a fight.

Did you fight the ghoul?

It’s play practice day. Here I sit.

Feminina:

Yes! We are too used to that! We really need to get back into the ‘save early and often’ mentality.

It’s a little annoying though, I don’t know if this is universal or a quirk of our system, but ‘quick save’ is not quick–it takes about 30 seconds which is roughly eternity for impatient people, and so I think we kind of put it off just because it feels like hassle.

Of course we regret that later, and we have gotten more into the ‘save after every significant event’ habit, but it’s not completely EASY.

Oh, and yes, we fought the ghoul. It was a pretty good battle for us: we successfully exploded the ticking bomb guys far away from us, and resisted being set on fire by the archers. Yay us!

Butch:

I did notice that I was rushing once, hit quick save, did something stupid and died before it said save successful. Thought I was screwed but it worked, so I don’t think you have to sit still for those thirty seconds. Cuz it does that for me too. Just hit save and go.

So the ghoul.

This game, for a game with good themes, has a rather playful, yet intentionally odd, aesthetic. Zixzax or whatever, the ghoul, talking to animals…. sometimes it feels like one of those tripped out Jim Henson movies from the 80s like labyrinth or the dark crystal. Which I kinda like cuz it’s able to be slightly creepy but not in the usual dark game way.

But then, I liked those weird assed movies. That aesthetic isn’t for everyone.

Feminina:

There is a goofiness to it that one feels still allows for the humor to become dark. Like, “this is weird and silly, haha, but hang on…is that some sort of genuinely disturbing nightmare issue I see arising?”

Not that I’ve actually observed this, but I could imagine it occurring at some point as we proceed.

Butch:

Oh certainly. Indeed, the “goofy turned dark” thing can turn very dark and unsettling. Look at the trope of the scary clown, which is a trope because, well, clowns can be really fucking scary.

Those Jim Henson movies sure were disturbing.

Has the potential for cool stuff. Especially as we don’t often see this sort of dark in video games.

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