The issue of combat as RPG filler

…fights will always be a part of the kind of narrative games based on adventure fiction, but hard-wiring combat into a game’s mechanics in ways that force it to be a regular necessity is something we’ll look back on as an inexplicable artifact of the time.

– Jody Macgregor, Why too much combat hurts great RPGs (PC Gamer)

Just a couple weeks ago, I mused about Pillars of Eternity and its nostalgia play. Now, I’m looking at a Pillars-centric article full of gems about how the game sours that nostalgia by peppering it with (in most cases unavoidable) combat.

It’s a great read. I didn’t even know there was an achievement for completing the game with a kill count of below 175, but then, I killed everything. I played a paladin, as I always do, making her one of the Shieldbearers of St. Elcga – that order renowned for diplomacy. I roleplayed. And still I killed everything. Everything that wanted to kill me, that is.

Perhaps my 40+ hours in Eora would have been more like 20 hours (or less) if I hadn’t. But how would that fly with modern gamers?

Many already knock the Call of Duty games for their length (talking single-player here), and that’s one of the most popcorny, zero-pretension franchises I know of. As Jody puts it, games like Pillars are a beast so different, that padding out their length with “the same actions for half that run-time because somewhere a number is going up” makes no sense at all.

I feel her. Because I suffered through Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader – one of the ultimate cases of an old-school, narrative-driven RPG gutted by a combat overdose that rivals Diablo’s.

That is, of course, a polar example. But it illustrates the point that combat is filler. In Lionheart, it was practically all you saw from town to town. So also in every classic JRPG ever; would those games have been improved with less fighting?

What about Wasteland 2? A game pervaded by strong narrative, avoidable random encounters, and peaceful solutions to confrontations. Would it have done better with even less emphasis on the combat?

(I don’t think so. The XCOM-like gameplay was one of the big draws, and a big reason why I played through more than once with different party makeups.)

Combat is filler, yes, but it’s also one of the most economical ways to add replayability. If devs cut down on mandatory combat, they have to fill the white space with something. What’s that in an RPG – more narrative? More scripted content? Ideal, but hardly cost-effective.

And so we come to what makes or breaks a game’s combat: battle systems. But that’s another story. Suffice it to say that going overboard with the system, like in certain Final Fantasy installments, can rot a game as much as any surfeit of unavoidable fighting.

So, no, “a hundred killing sprees don’t improve games where the appeal is in agonizing over the right conversation choice”. But perhaps fifty do. It’s about balancing moderation with what sells. Besides, modern gamers need visual stimulation, and gratuitous, visceral combat sells. We’ll just have to roll with it.


8 Responses to “The issue of combat as RPG filler”

  1. Not every RPG can have as few necessary encounters as Planescape: Torment, but, then again, maybe they should! I think more RPGs should at least allow options for diplomatic minigames and stealthing your way through.

    • Planescape was before my time, but I did hear that complaint about Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s mandatory boss fights. For a game with so much stealthing and diplomacy, it was a surprise.

      I’m divided on minigames, though. They’re great as a roleplaying dynamic, but on a meta level, they’d probably become filler after a while as well – especially if the game makes them a barrier to good stuff. Oblivion’s nightmarish lockpicking comes to mind.

      • Planescape only has four required kills. You should give it a shot.

        And games will always have some degree of filler, otherwise they are just movies. The key is making that filler not feel like it, and fighting, too often, feels forced and out of place for certain roleplaying. Needs alternatives, not to be removed entirely.

      • Excellent point – no argument there. Which is why, if we absolutely have to fight, combat systems are everything. XCOM’s, for example, is such that I grew to see the base management as the filler instead.

        And wow, four kills! I seem to recall I finished Dishonored with zero, though.

      • Oh, you probably did, but Planescape isn’t really a stealth game, so much as it is the best written dialogue in gaming. You can talk your way around or out of a lot of trouble!

      • Ha, some old-school buff I am! I knew it’s legendary, but practically completing it with speech? Going to look for a copy come the weekend.

      • It’s on GOG if you’d like to go the digital route. Make sure to look up some mods. The game is ancient, so any texture improvement is a huge boost. Plus, I think there’s an unofficial patch that adds in some unfinished content.

      • Thanks for the heads-up! Before I go into modding, may the gods grant me the fortitude to accept the pixels.

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