D20: Has modern RPG design ruined old-school fun?


By on September 10, 2012 at 4:49 pm

About this time last year I wrote a column about the fact that sometimes you can go back and revisit old games and still be impressed by how forward thinking, clever or good they are — despite any technological failings they may have.

In that particular case I was talking about Gothic 3, an ingenious but stunningly ugly game. This month I’ve had the somewhat dubious privilege of reviewing a game that has long been on my radar. Unfortunately the long wait for this “old-school” RPG has done it no favours, and unlike the case with Gothic 3, it has shown me that sometimes you definitely can’t go back.

The game in question is the long in-gestation Inquisitor, a Czech-developed isometric RPG with hundreds of hours of play, a massive story and interesting world. On paper it sounds like something that is right up my alley. I like rooting for the underdog, so a game that has spent 10 years in development and three years translating the 5000 odd pages of text should instantly fall into my good graces, but unfortunately nearly everything about Inquisitor simply seems to rub me the wrong way, triggering nausea rather than nostalgia.

Many of the classic isometric RPGs were, and still remain, rewarding — packing their maps with secret locations, encounters and stashes to reward the player for slowly lumbering around, but many others simply used large maps and slow movement speeds to extend the length of the game.

The first mission of Inquisitor –- the very first mission — takes forever. You can’t go into a town until all of the giant bats in the area have been dispatched. Completing the quest entails slowly walking around the entire map searching for bats, then heading back to the quest giver to check if you’ve killed them all because there is no indicator of numbers or locations.

Character creation is a hit and miss affair that all but entails multiple restarts until you finally work out how to properly min-max a character — and you’ll want to min-max, because the difficulty level is such that anything other than Easy inevitably results in death when you meet your first bat.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have minded the slog. I would have happily hunted down all of the bats and not batted an eyelid at a single opening quest taking half an hour of aimless wandering and click-to-kill combat but now — when the pace and interactivity of even the least ambitious RPG has increased exponentially — it’s hard not to look at old mechanics with a mix of melancholy and disdain.

Even the reams of well written, interesting text have begun to grate because I have become so used to voice acting and short, punchy paragraphs and brief snippets of incidental text.

I hate when someone uses the term “dumbed down” when referring to a game, as it usually has something to do with a platform bias or someone simply being a troll, but hate it as I do, I still feel it’s appropriate to use here — albeit in a slightly different context.

I don’t feel that games have been dumbed down, so much as I have.

Tasks I wouldn’t have shirked a decade ago now seem daunting and pointless thanks to the instant gratification of modern gaming, and the pace at which the story and action are delivered. Mechanics for the most part have been simplified, to the point of easy accessibility and malleability. Difficulty levels have been calibrated to entertain rather than challenge.

I’m not sure whether this indicates a failing on my part, on or the part of modern gaming. As an ever-evolving form, gaming is always going to redefine the way in which story and action are delivered. But have we lost simple pleasures under a slick veneer and instant gratification, or have I simply become too used to having content fed to me rather than hunting it down? Enquiring minds want to know.

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17 comments (Leave your own)

I started playing Planescape: Torment a little while ago after buying it on GoG. I found the lack of voice acting quite compelling, because I could intuit the voice of the character from the written dialogue. The slower pace was also refreshing, although it’s more tactical than simply slow. I get tired of action games, FPS and 3PS where you constantly just blam things in the face.

Of course maybe Inquisitor is just horrifically boring, I can’t speak to that, never having played it, however I do think oldschool RPGs in general still have something to offer.


No, I think you’re right.

I’ve always considered myself a gamer who enjoys the spectacle of gaming, not the satisfaction of my 400th headshot/explosion in 3 minutes of online play. I despise Call of Duty 3 onwards for numbing the brains of millions of gamers Being captured in the story, wanting to know more and forgetting that I’ve wasted 3/4 of a day chasing ghosts, or space marines, or reapers, or… well. You get the idea. Is to me what gaming should be about. Theater. Not necessarily action, although they do go hand in hand in a lot of instances.

Games I remember loving as a kid – for their huge worlds (comparatively) and their engrossing story lines have lost their charm as a result of my “instant gratification” look at life. I think it’s also got something to do with how much time i have available for 100% time invested gaming.

Companies like EA pumping out games like NBA 400 and Call of Duty 29, Battlefield eleven hundred and FIFA 10 million probably havent helped the industry, nor the consumers either.



So very true about what you said, that’s gaming as a business, not for gaming’s sake. Also, the game in question, Inquisitor, doesn’t seem nostalgic so much as badly designed. I haven’t played much of Baldur’s Gate 2, and I’ve never played Icewind Dale anything, but I get the sense their design was a tad better.


I’ve found that somewhere along the line I’ve stopped giving a shit about stories in gaming as much as I used to, playing through SWTOR and GW2 to max level I think I did about 10 levels of listening to their stupid voice acted cut scenes and then I just started skipping them so i could go back to actually playing the game.

Likewise, when I picked up Mass Effect a few months back to see what I had missed out on, I found myself spending 90% of the time spamming through cutscenes and screaming “JUST LET ME FUCKING PLAY THE GAME!!!”, I think I quit after 3 hours and I’ve never touched it since..

Maybe I just read too much and the quality if the writing in games is horribly bad, dunno.


I should probably note as well that one of the major reasons I hate voice acted cutscenes etc now is that games just don’t make me care any more, it always turns from a story about your character to “go clean up our shit, oh and have a worthless title to go with it”.


If it were real life I could see a problem in people not having to work for their rewards, but in games we play for entertainment I just call it good common sense. It’s a positive evolution away from the older designs that I think were simply modeling real life effort/reward scenarios because that’s what people knew.
Sure there’s disticntions to be made between punishing design and deliberate slow pacing but I don’t think that’s what the article was about.


You don’t have to do the bat quest. Telling him to fuck off does not ruin your game, he just lets you into the town..

Oh well, you probably shouldn’t bother with something that looks like an “old-school” RPG if all you want is a new action game with lots of visceral action, some immersive cutscenes, dark choices and sexy QTEs.


Sometimes I wonder why you guys even bother posting intellectual content on this site…

And to the guy who couldn’t stand mass effect, I bet you love COD.


I don’t recall badly done quests about hunting bats, which can easily kill you at level one, as being a major part of old school rpgs.

Except for the Blue Rose game. But I suspect I was doing that all wrong…



And to the guy who couldn’t stand mass effect, I bet you love COD.

Haven’t played a CoD game since the original Modern Warfare (which I didn’t and don’t own), it’s nice to know however that anyone who disagrees with your stance on something is automatically a CoD kiddy… rather amusing considering your statement about intellectual content.

Thanks for lowering the bar (and bitching about other people doing it).


Thanks for the article. Love stuff that makes me think.

I am currently at this moment playing Planescape Torment for the first time. I’ve been playing PC games since the early 90s from point-and-click adventures to FPS and some RPG, so I’ve played my fair share and experienced how gaming has evolved.

From my perspective, the majority of modern games are more about the experience of gameplay than story (there are exceptions!). Your interaction with the game is more guided in the sense that your experiences are felt more through the gameplay mechanics than the quest to find your own personal interpretation of character experience and story. This is a sad thing really because I have especially noticed something in my playing of Planescape Torment that I’d forgotten about. The experience is like reading a book in the sense that your experience of the game is more about the visions that are invoked and created in your head from the words you read, rather than a blatant simplistic graphical representation of what is occurring. For example, in PlanescapeT I’ve just walked into a gallery full of artwork of representations of the different Planes – the graphics are that bad that you really can’t make out the images on screen terribly well, however the artwork descriptions invoke scenes in my head that are so individual and special that they would possibly be diminished in any other manner. There is an invitation there to experience something that I help create through my own individual interpretations. I believe this ‘invitation’ is not often felt in modern games.

I may be old-school but I strongly believe that story *is everything*. A good game for me is one that is not guided solely through the experience and interactions of gameplay mechanics but one that entices my mind into majestic scenes and the experience of human expression that is formed independently and uniquely in my mind.

I think of recent games like Skyrim which I felt had such incredible potential when you consider the depth of the lore yet the actual game is so focused on gameplay with often shallow interactions with characters and such a hollow main quest, and I realise that these old games had a charm that I don’t feel now. My recent decision to play PlanescapeT (philosophically speaking a very deep game) has proven to myself that it’s not just some nostalgic over-sentimentalist bias for the ‘good old days’.

Some things have become better but I do believe there has perhaps been a price to pay. There are exceptions but so few.


I also find the writing in games terrible. I played SWTOR as bounty hunter and found the class story line not interesting at all. Games especially rpgs really need some better story writing.

It really saddens me when I look at the current state of the gaming industry where you have a game like COD being the top selling game. The big gaming companies are keeping the status quo and not risking innovating games. IMHO there is so much more potential with what games can do.



my point, although said with a little bit of pepper, is that you should have stuck it out. Because as a pure GAME, Mass Effect isn’t exactly the most brilliant thing ever. But as a package, the experience it delivers rivals pretty much anything I’ve ever played in terms of its content and delivery.



I couldn’t agree more with what you said. And by the same token,


I had the same experience with Mass Effect (and also Dragon Age:O) where before long I just started clicking through the dialogue, which didn’t grab me at all, and actually made me really frustrated, and I quit a few hours in.

I play almost exclusively old(ish) school RPGs and love deep characters and complex story lines. I really liked the BG method of having only the first line of dialogue spoken, leaving you to read the rest. I get so tired of extended cut scenes, waiting through voice acting… I think its also about the game “director” having some subtlety, not just telling you everything, letting you realise such and such a person has this personality, might have a motive, things like that.

Games that are awesome leave space for your own imagination to contribute. That’s why old school games were (are) so addictive and left you daydreaming about them when you weren’t playing.



my point, although said with a little bit of pepper, is that you should have stuck it out. Because as a pure GAME, Mass Effect isn’t exactly the most brilliant thing ever. But as a package, the experience it delivers rivals pretty much anything I’ve ever played in terms of its content and delivery.

As far as I’m concerned, playing the game for 3+ hours IS giving it a chance. I don’t care if the game gets good 25 hours into the story… because as far as I’m concerned it’s just rubbish if it takes that long to grab my interest.

The same applies to books, if I’m 2-3 chapters in and I’m not feeling empathy for a character or interested in the story then it goes in the rubbish, unfortunately it happens a LOT more with games than it does with books. I can only remember a handful of novels in the last decade that I didn’t finish reading (including some total rubbish) yet I find that the majority of games hyped for their story just fall dramatically short.

It’s a very fine line because I LOVED Oblivion but I only played Skyrim for 2 weeks and didn’t do more than half the main storyline because I just didn’t care. There’s something seriously wrong with developers when I can play through Baldurs Gate 2 about 8 times but I can’t finish Skyrim or Mass Effect once.

Quality seems to be going down, and the masses are lapping it up like cheap gruel from a trough.


I hated Oblivion, like Fallout 1, 2, disliked (but didn’t hate) Fallout 3, never played PS:T (an evil I must address at some point), never played Skyrim and probably never will since I don’t want to ever again sink incredible hours in a single game. Having said that, I’m replaying Eschalon: Books I and II as they’re modern takes of the classic isometric RPG and since they’re made by an indie developer, they’re not overproduced with cutscenes galore but still have that old-school flavour I seem to miss in modern titles.


I actually agree with Nekosan.

Mass Effect 1 was terrible, even though ME2 and 3 were great, because the starting hours were so poor. Also, no Kelly.

But regardless, the start of any game must pull you in, and defines the entire experience. Playwrights, screenwriters, and authors have known this for decades/centuries, so I don’t see why games writers should get off the hook here.

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