Thursday, December 5, 2013

Five Minutes of Divine Divinity

I don't bother with so-called "action" RPGs much (if you've played Diablo you've played 'em all) so I'm not sure what possessed me to pick up Divine Divinity. However, I did spend a bit of time nukin' nasties in Torchlight and as a result of some bundled sale on GoG, Divine Divinity made its way into my collection and is therefore beckoning me to justify the $2-3 I must've spent by at least running the stupid thing once or twice. After five or ten minutes and fireballing down a dozen or so skeletons I realized I'd forgotten to enter a character name so that's about it for now.
I feel that I've given the game a fair shake. Call me jaded but I can pretty much see where it's going and I've been there a few times already. It's not that golden of an oldie - not a bad game in any technical sense, but then the ARPG formula is so simplistic by definition that it's hard to get wrong. Or at least wrong-er than any of the other endless Diablo copycats out there. My glorious abortion of divinity has however prompted a couple of thoughts.

Thought the first:
Can we at some point please stop humping Tolkien's corpse? Two or three dialogues into things, I'm told by an NPC to go fetch something from a snooty elf but it might take some convincing because he's an elf and you know how elves are. Yes.
Yes, unfortunately I know entirely too well how elves are. I have praised in the past both the whimsical, graceful good-nature of the Sindar and the pride and dignity of the Noldor. However, unless you're working under the umbrella of a licensed fictional universe, you need not outright copy these motifs even if you're copying gameplay. Diablo became memorable because it broke away from the largely Tokien-inspired Forgotten Realms and cobbled its own dusty, hopeless setting out of medieval Christian iconography. Most other game worlds at least tried to put their own spin on things and even in 2002 you'd have been better off avoiding elves and goblins altogether. For instance, if you're selling a product dubbed doubly divine featuring a decidedly non-androgynous angel performing a strip-tease on the box cover, you may want to speak of heavens and hells, Faustian bargains and fallen angels to grab my attention... or at least don't outright tell me that I already know what your elves are like.

Secondary cogitations:
One nice aspect of Divine Divinity at first glance is its relative blurring of the RPG/ARPG line. With more of an InfinityEngine-ish than Diablo-ish interface and dialogues, it throws an uncomfortable light on its contemporary NWN's own simplicity, not to mention on predecessors like Icewind Dale. What exactly do game designers and reviewers mean when they spout a designation like "ARPG" - more monsters to fight? NWN itself featured hordes of goblins and endlessly-spawning imps. Less dialogue? Without meaningful consequences, less is more. So many dialogues in RPGs are nothing but pre-fight rituals and even where choice seems possible there's always one "right" choice. You don't gain much by clicking through an endless branching dialogue only to find out you have to hit that goblin over the head anyway or you don't get paid. Is "action" supposed to be a condemnation of a streamlined combat system? Not in my book. If your game limits me to shooting fireballs or swinging a sword anyway, then I'd much rather have the more fluid Diablo-ish click-casting than an unjustifiable target-lock mechanic. Fewer classes? Everything D&D-inspired is still based on either a nuker/tank/healer group dynamic or a purely cosmetic hitter/shooter/fireballer single-character split so you may as well be honest about it.

Lack of backstory or immersion seems a more constant delineation of "action" than anything else, and here's where ARPGs limit themselves unnecessarily. Much information can be conveyed without sifting through NPC dialogues, through voice-overs, snippets of overheard conversations, or simple observation. There's no real need to stop the player in his tracks and put him through the ritual of watching your oh-so-clever cinematic. Games like Half-Life or Stalker showed how even the most basic concept of gunning down zombies can be spiced up with world events which play out as you advance through gameplay. It should be role-playing, not role-saying, as I'm so fond of repeating, and it's more the lack of variation and consequences which makes ARPGs so uninteresting than a lack of explanation. This flaw, however, is shared by supposed high-brow RPGs as well.

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