PC Gamer

Getting Doom to run on devices that were not designed to run Doom is a satisfying pursuit, and YouTuber vexal knows this better than most. Only vexal's Doom experiments – or at least the one where he uses toasters as an input device – are not real. It looks feasible, but sadly, it's not real.

That doesn't take the shine off his latest video, which has a Porsche 911 running Classic Doom. It took me a few watches to be convinced that it is fake, because vexal's droll delivery and the fact that Doom has been known to run on anything from ATM machines to oscilloscopes makes it seem real. But alas, it's not. We'll get there, though. I believe it.

PC Gamer

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the latest in an ongoing series of post-launch campaigns for the very beautiful and very fun platformer. Announced last month as part of a (rather confusing) re-structure of how DLC will be doled out for the game, Yacht Club Games has announced that Specter of Torment will release in April – though it'll most likely release first for the Nintendo Switch next month.

The announcement was made on Twitter, where a nice animated .gif also featured. In case you missed the news last month, Yacht Club Games is splitting each of Shovel Knight's campaigns into standalone games, though people who already own the base will continue to get the expansions for free. Other bonuses are afoot as well, including local co-op and a local "battle mode".

PC Gamer

This week on the Mod Roundup, a mod lets you uncap your FPS and removes FOV limits for id Tech 5 games such as Rage, Wolfenstein: The New Order, and Wolfenstein: The Old Blood. Plus, a new release of The Dark Mod arrives with a level editor, an introductory mission, and other goodies. Finally, a Fallout 4 mod lets you rename just about any item you like.

Here are the most promising mods we've seen this week.

id5 Tweaker

Download link

This mod for id Tech 5 games does a lot of nifty things—in particular, it lets you change the FPS limit in games like Wolfenstein: The New Order and Rage. You can also widen your FOV, rebind any action to any key and disable the minimap (in Rage), and it also bundles various config files into a single file. There's a lot of commands to learn and installation instructions here, so read carefully.

The Dark Mod 2.05

Download link

The Dark Mod, originally a Thief-inspired mod for Doom 3 (now a free standalone game) has been around since 2009 and won our award for Mod of the Year in 2013. And it's still being improved! The latest release includes a level editor and the first of three planned story missions. There are also some performance increases and new assets. Note: old saves are not compatible with the new version, so if you upgrade you'll lose your progress.

Rename Anything, for Fallout 4

Download link

This mod simply does what it says: it gives you the ability to rename Fallout 4's items directly from your Pip-Boy menu. Weapons, notes, clothing, keys, holotapes—you name it, you can rename it. This makes finding your favorite items much easier, and the vanilla 26-character limit has been removed so you can make names as long as you like. Requires the Fallout 4 Script Extender.

PC Gamer

It's time to fire up the speculograph and attempt to divine Bethesda's future, as executive producer Todd Howard has revealed that the company has three unannounced projects in the works. When asked by Glixel what Bethesda had in the pipeline, aside from Fallout 4 VR and the Nintendo Switch version of Skyrim, Howard said that two of the games were "classically" Bethesda, but on an even larger scale than their previous titles, while the third was a mobile game—something like Fallout Shelter. Here's the full quote:

"We've got a good number of projects on the go. We're bigger now and we do want to be putting out more stuff. We have two larger projects that are more classically the scale of what we do, but even bigger. We overlap the projects so we're working on them at the same time, but they're staggered. I can't talk a lot about them, but I can say that they're bigger than anything we've ever done. They're a bit different, but definitely in the wheelhouse that people are used to from us."

That wheelhouse would be fantasy and post-apocalyptically themed, if such a thing were possible of a wheelhouse, and god what even is a wheelhouse now I think about it. Surely one of the two "classically" Bethesda games is Elder Scrolls VI, although Howard saying the games are "a bit different" from their usual fare does give me pause. It's also possible, of course, that he's simply referring to Bethesda-published games, rather than Beth-developed ones, so those of you holding out for that Rage or Rogue Warrior sequel might finally be in luck.

PC Gamer

If Minecraft were on the Super NES, it might look something like Terraria, Re-Logic's lovely crafting sandbox RPG that launched around six years ago on PC. While the popularity of most games dwindles over the years, Terraria's fanbase has only grown in size, so it comes as little surprise to hear that it's sold over 20 million copies since its release.

Interestingly, 8.5 million of the 20.5 million copies sold have been in the last 18 months, since version 1.3 was unleashed on PC. That update is coming to consoles and mobile platforms shortly, the announcement post reveals, so if you're not playing it on PC you'll soon be able to tinker with Terraria's latest evolution, which has been gestating on desktops and laptops for a year-and-a-half now.

In the years since its release, Terraria's NPC, enemy, boss and biome counts have ballooned massively, while extra modes, events and other bits have been added to the ever-expanding sandbox too. If you're one of its 20+ million players, you might want to take a look at our Terraria mod roundup.

PC Gamer

I won't lie: the mod that lets you repair and ride a customizable motorcycle around Fallout 4 is a wee bit janky at the moment, but with a little more work it could easily become indispensable. The Driveable Motorcycle Mod spawns a rusty 'ol hog in the parking lot behind the Museum of Freedom, and after repairing it with screws, adhesive, oil, and a few other odds and ends, you can hop on and take it for a spin.

It's not the most convincing experience, and the camera and animation could use a little more tweaking. Plus, your head might disappear when you get off the bike, which is a bit of a bug (if your head vanishes, just climb back on and off and it should reappear). Still, it's fun, the bike has some nice sound effects, and there's something pretty badass about cruising around the streets of Boston on a motorcycle.

It took a few tries for me to get the mod working. When I installed it with the Nexus Mod Manager the bike never appeared, but manually stuffing the files into the Fallout 4 data folder worked just fine. You also need to add the following lines to your fallout4.ini file:

[Camera]bApplyCameraNodeAnimations=0

After that, just fix up the bike, climb on, and start rolling. It comes with a holotape to change settings like riding speed, and you can craft additional equipment like lights and paint at a chemistry station. The bike also shows on your minimap, if you happen to forget where you parked it. Best of all, you can even build a cart for Dogmeat to sit in, and pull him around town with you.

PC Gamer

Dark Souls 3 has big crabs and I don’t know why. I’m not angry about it or anything. It’s just that the President of From Software and director of the original Dark Souls once asked an artist to depict a dragon with “... the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin.”

And in Dark Souls 3, we’ve arrived at, ‘Make the crabs, but also make them large.” In a series lauded for attention to detail, and which tells its stories almost purely through world and character design, why are there so many big-ass crabs running around?

The ecology of Dark Souls crabs 

The Crucifixion Woods are a gaseous rotting swamp quietly portraying a story of spiritual practice gone straight up heretical. Hence all the dead folks and crucifixes and mangled lycanthropes nailed to them. In the heart of the swamp, a shallow pool covers the center third of the area. Great Crabs patrol the water, doing that nasty thing they do with their wack mouths, which comes off as the crab equivalent of licking one’s lips. Have I mentioned that I think crabs are gross?

Crabs are gross.

An otherwise innocuous cameo, the Great Crabs’ appearance in the Crucifixion Woods works for me. It’s a classic vignette: the ruins of knowledge and civilization consumed by natural forces. Oh damn, we’re all going to die, and it’s the trees’ fault. Check out all these dead folks and turned over buildings, and the crabs are big now, which is irregular. Over time, they probably grew to fill out all the free space and defend themselves from angry werewolf men. Nature is a persistent crab, scuttling sideways like a low budget Exorcist cosplay and pooping wherever the heck it wants.

But further into Dark Souls 3, From Software shakes up the crab meta. Beneath the Catacombs, the Smouldering Lake hides another civilization lost to time and excess. The chaos flame is fading, and so the demons it created are fading with it. For those unfamiliar with the lore, it’s a big magic candle someone powerful lit a long time ago that accidentally made hell. Now crabs live there. In a pressure cooker underworld. Crabs.

Despite all of time and space converging and colliding, a ballista shooting arrows the length of a minivan, the presence of an aggressive Dune-worthy magma worm, and the above average temperatures produced by lava and demon magic, Great Crabs can be found roaming the magma plain hungry and dull and gross as ever. How they maintain their chill, I have no idea.

I figured they wouldn’t show up again, but in the Ashes of Ariandel DLC, an icy wasteland pocket universe the ‘forlorn’ call home, what else wanders the icy plain at the bottom of a crevasse but some Great Crabs? It’s unlikely that crabs can be forlorn since they’re always roaming in packs, so I prefer to imagine them wandering through a cryptic interdimensional portal by pure chance. Just walking sideways through a magical scrap of painting into a rotting ice world. Normal everyday crab stuff.

Gif source: GamingWithSwift

Imagine Miyazaki, fingers steepled and head bowed in deep thought: “Make the crabs, and make them large again, yes, but this time,’ he pauses, looking up. His eyes widen, ‘This time, make them cold.’

Crabs in other games 

We’ve been cracking crabs open in games for decades now. In Skyrim, Mudcrabs pose a decent threat early on, territorial and coordinated as they are. In Metal Slug 3 we mowed down hundreds of huge crustaceans, and in Everquest 2 a supersized crab pinched players to death regularly. The archetype was cemented during Sony’s 2006 E3 press conference when a presenter showing off Genji 2 pointed out that the key to defeating a giant crab enemy was to “attack its weak point for massive damage” with overbearing press conference sincerity. Crabs and weak points go well together.

As ridiculous as it sounds on a stage in front of a live audience, crabs really do make great videogame enemies. Their thick carapace functions as a shield without the need for silly magic logic, and it implies you’ll need to take them down through pure attrition or by finding a chink in their armor. Their two huge claws are intimidating—no one wants to be pinched—easy to track, and can be destroyed independently without killing the crab outright. Great for boss stages.

Meet Claude, your new crab boss.

Crabs are also quick, capable of moving in erratic and unfamiliar patterns, which bolsters the potential for a surprising move set. And of course, they’re monstrous. Eight legs, eyeballs on stalks, grimy algae coated shells—nature did the concept art for us. Do we need to see the mouth video again? I’ll do it.

But Dark Souls 3’s crabs don’t evolve the archetype or comment on it in a significant way. Their inclusion in the game feels like an in-joke. Check out this dumb videogame enemy in Dark Souls, a series people swear isn’t dumb.

We all had that friend that quoted Austin Powers just a few too many times a day. Dark Souls 3 is that friend, but crabs.

Using the crab cliche as a playful jab in the ribs of fascinated lore hunters as a gesture that means 'not everything needs explanation, nerds' would be endearing, especially three games in. But the ice crab appearance in Ashes of Ariandel is so blindingly hamfisted that it irreversibly inflates the joke from elbow jab to kick in the pants status. We all had that friend that quoted Austin Powers just a few too many times a day. Dark Souls 3 is that friend, but crabs.

A more likely answer is that From Software is stretched too thin on their near yearly Souls schedule and couldn’t afford the time to create more enemies or invest millions in crab lore development. Miyazaki must have a Crab Origins notebook somewhere.

Without much recourse or energy to puzzle out the crab infestation myself, I turned to the Dark Souls lore experts, who all have better things to do.

Investigating the lore 

Who better to ask than VaatiVidya, arguably one of the best Dark Souls YouTubers whose Prepare to Cry series delves into individual character stories with scholarly precision and pseudo-ASMR voicework.

VaatiVidya could not be reached for immediate comment, though I’m certain Prepare to Crab is in the early outline process and that this work will no doubt serve as the foundation for any further lore theories coming from Vaati’s direction.

Famed Dark Souls streamer and Let’s Player EpicNameBro did reply to my initial tweet, confirming that he agrees there is an abundance of crabs and that the amount of water and overbearing wetness might be a clue.

However, when asked to elaborate that if, indeed, the excess of crabs in Dark Souls 3 is "like a day at the beach, I mean, c'mon," EpicNameBro did not reply. From Software must be paying these guys to keep their mandibles shut.

Dark Souls wikis didn’t reveal much either. They note the crabs’ locations, their hit points, their weaknesses, and make the same reference to “massive damage” I eventually will, but there’s no theories as to why they crop up all over. The Dark Souls 3 subreddit is as mystified as I am, though they used their collaborative power to at least put out a bonkers theory (and some good jokes).

Click for the full thread.

IAmKickSix’s theory draws a connection between where the player runs into crabs with where they meet the powerful characters who found the Souls of Lords within the first flame before the original Dark Souls, which led to the creation of man.

What I m saying is that some angry old gods gave birth to crabs and they re pissed off.

I’m reminded of the first Japanese folktale that came up when I googled “crab japanese folktale.” In The Crab and the Monkey, a monkey makes a trade with the crab for a persimmon seed. The monkey plants a tree, promising to share the bounty when fruit eventually grows. Instead, the monkey chills in the tree and eats all the fruit and the crab dies of emotional trauma, but not before giving birth to a vengeful litter of baby crabs. I won’t spoil the ending.

It’s possible to draw parallels between the monkey as man draining the world of its resources, or persimmons, despite the potential for balance. Got to keep lighting that fire guys, right? And the crab, a stand-in for Dark Souls’ demigods, falls due to this imbalance, but not before giving birth to an army of baby crabs that swear revenge? What I’m saying is that some angry old gods gave birth to crabs and they’re pissed off. Such is the life of a lore hunter.

Crabs may not fill out the Dark Souls lore, and it’s a tough truth to swallow, but perhaps it’s about what the crab represents, not what it literally is.

Crabs: astrological doombringers? 

In astrology, Cancer is a crab sign that commonly represents water. Yeah, it’s where crabs live. More interesting though, is that according to historian Farrin Chwalkowski, Cancer was considered a “dark sign” in ancient times because it was typically hard to make out in the night sky. In the Dark Souls mythos, the Darksign represents an accursed undead, the player.

YouTuber AGRcactus flies into the Darksign eclipse.

Near the end of Dark Souls 3, a Darksign appears in the sky signifying the fire fading, the convergence of all of space and time. In that sense, crabs are a symbol for the undead curse, the promise that eventually humanity will fade and a new era will begin, the promise that we’re all going to die someday. And as we only just found out, the Darksign also represents The Ringed City from the final DLC, an ancient civilization toward which all the timelines are converging. I suspect a crab cameo. Maybe a final boss? It’s totally possible.

In Greek mythology, Hercules killed a giant crab during his fight with the hydra, one of the more intimidating creatures in the original Dark Souls. Hera sent the crab as a distraction, it pinched Hercules’ foot, and he crushed it without much issue. Here, the crab represents the helpful sidekick, the proto-henchman, and for such an underdog to go from a weak side character to one of the biggest, most dangerous creatures in Dark Souls 3 is one hell of a reversal.

Crab conclusion 

In tandem with the Darksign association, From Software is attempting to evoke an apocalypse event in an implicit, nearly subconscious way by pulling from popular mythologies. The natural order has been flipped, the end is nigh, check out these huge crustaceans.  

It fails. They’re crabs.

But I do appreciate propping up something as mundane as a fancy dinner people pull from the abyss on the daily. Despite Dark Souls 3’s annoying fondness for the big suckers, their lack of contribution to our precious lore beyond serving as an apocalyptic symbol, and their failure to evolve the crab videogame archetype at all, crabs deserve a chance to crack our shells for awhile.

PC Gamer

The League of Legends LCS continues to dominate the headlines at the moment, but there are actually a fair few other events taking place this weekend. There’s plenty of action from the CS:GO: DreamHack Masters to the Heroes of the Storm: Global Championship. We even have the Hearthstone Winter Playoffs to look forward to. All the details on this weekend’s events can be found below.

League of Legends: 2017 EU LCS Spring Split

H2K Gaming bounced back from their tough loss against G2 by beating Team ROCCAT, while G2 Esports earned its sixth straight series win after sweeping Origen 2-0. The Giants and ROCCAT are still the underdogs of the tournament, but both teams are determined to improve their scores this weekend where they’ll face H2K and Splyce. The competition’s looking extremely fierce and we can expect to see some exciting games as we go into week five. This week’s schedule and stream can be found over on LoL Esports.

League of Legends: 2017 NA LCS Spring Split

Echo Fox had another fantastic week as jungler Akaadian snowballed his team with an early advantage that allowed him to apply pressure all other the map. Team Dignitas even managed to secure their second win when they defeated in EnVy 2-0. Meanwhile, Team Liquid narrowly lost their match against Cloud9, but Piglet and Reignover showed great potential with their jungle and AD carry plays. The full schedule and stream can be found over on LoL Esports.

CS:GO: DreamHack Masters Las Vegas 2017

Following the success of the first ever DreamHack Masters in Malmö, DreamHack has taken their explosive CS:GO tournament to Las Vegas. The World’s best CS:GO teams have been busy battling it out at the iconic MGM Grand and Garden Arena for their chance to win the $450,000 prize pool. The competition is set to be fierce and we will find out whether anyone has what it takes to beat the current titleholders Ninjas in Pyjamas. The full schedule can be found here, while the stream can be found by heading over to Twitch.

Hearthstone: 2017 HCT Americas Winter Playoffs

Last weekend the European branch of the Hearthstone Championship Tour kicked off and determined which four players (Pavel, Neirea, GreenSheep, and ShtanUdachi) would be competing at the Hearthstone Winter Championship in the Bahamas, as well as crowning Pavel the HCT EU Winter Champion. This weekend we’ll see which players have what it takes to represent the Americas and be crowned the HCT Americas Winter Champion. The matches kick off on Saturday at 08:00 PST / 17:00 CET, and continue Sunday at 09:00 PST / 18:00 CET. You can find the weekend’s schedule and official stream here.

Heroes of the Storm: Global ChampionshipSeven teams have booked their ticket to the Western Clash at IEM Katowice. Tempo Storm, Team 8, and Gale Force eSports from North America made the cut during week four of play. Misfits secured their spot after defeating Team expert 3-0, while fellow European teams Fnatic and Team Dignitas will also be joining them. Both NA and EU schedules can be found here, while the stream can be viewed by heading over to Twitch

PC Gamer

Erik Wolpaw, a long-time Valve writer who has worked on game series including Half-Life 2, Left 4 Dead, and Portal, revealed today that he is no longer with the company. Marc Laidlaw, himself a former Valve writer, let the news slip on Twitter, while Wolpaw confirmed it in a status update on his Facebook page

Wolpaw joined Valve in 2004, and has credits on Half-Life: Episode One and Two, Left 4 Dead, Portal, and Portal 2. Prior to that, he was with Double-Fine, where he co-wrote the outstanding platform-adventure Psychonauts, and before that he was one-half of the brilliant (and sadly defunct) gaming site Old Man Murray. He's currently involved in the development of Psychonauts 2, which was successfully crowdfunded in early 2016.

A reason for Wolpaw's departure wasn't given, but it does appear to be legitimate this time around. A report that he had left Valve also surfaced last summer, but in that case it turned out that he'd just called in sick for the day. 

I've emailed Valve for more information, and will update if and when I received a reply. 

Update: The report originally stated that writer Jay Pinkterton had also left the company, but apparently not.

PC Gamer

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 301. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

Imagine a roleplaying game in which you aren’t Champion of the Realm, but a homely bystander such as an innkeeper or a carpenter’s apprentice. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t able to hand-craft your own posse of adventurers, fussing over everything from eye colour to movement modifiers, but must do your best with the character or characters you’re given. Imagine an RPG in which you aren’t there to save the world but simply find your way through it, as cleverly as you can. If there’s a common theme to my discussions with developers about the future of roleplaying games, it’s that the old “pick your stats, level up by killing stuff, decide the fate of the universe” premise is in sore need of an overhaul, or at least some decent alternatives.

“There have been dozens of attempts to reinvent the RPG story, but the heart of the gameplay is always bodding from one combat to the next, gathering rewards that make you better at combat,” says Alexis Kennedy, creative director for Failbetter’s acclaimed Sunless Sea, who now divides his time between the forthcoming boardgame Cultist Simulator and freelance design work for major studios like BioWare. “So characters tend to be warrior-adventurers and stories tend to have a big showdown fight conclusion and generally you’re combing the countryside for things to fight. That’s a really compelling core, and it’s been perfected, but I like seeing other activities emphasised in RPGs. There are other loops than these.”

“I feel like in spite of what some people have been saying, there’s been a lack of really amazing RPGs for a few years now,” says Katherine Holden, a Cumbria based manga artist and designer whose projects include the RPG series Vacant Sky. “I’m sure that’ll be an unpopular opinion, but I feel like all these ‘create your own character, run around doing busywork in a sandbox and meet NPCs who all fall over themselves to give you power and authority’ games get a little tiresome after a while.” Holden points to 2015’s incredibly accomplished but slightly uninspiring Dragon Age: Inquisition as evidence of this stagnation. “Inquisition wasn’t bad, but it was such a shallow, toothless game compared to Dragon Age II, which featured deeply flawed, yet likeable characters and also a very timely story about refugees, prejudice and religious tension.”

Subverting well-worn approaches to RPG design is both artistically desirable and profitable, says Tyler Sigman, the co-president of British Columbia developer Red Hook and designer of the masterfully unpleasant Darkest Dungeon, a game that uses psychological modifiers such as paranoia and claustrophobia to unsettle the otherwise familiar turn-based party combat. “People are quite open to new experiences that make them think about the whole party-building and dungeon crawling thing they’ve been doing for 30 years, but in a new way. Remember Ultima IV? It totally did that at the time: suddenly putting the burden of morality on the player, whereas other games had sort of assumed that since you are The Chosen One, you can do whatever you want.”

Go with the flow

The perennial answer to the question “how should X videogame genre evolve?” is to add more choice—more unlocks to pick at, more variables to explore, more ground to cover. “Roleplaying games nowadays allow players to immerse themselves in the game world, but that immersion is still plagued by numerous constraints,” says Marcin Blacha, narrative director on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt at CD Projekt RED. “Sometimes the story forces particular behaviour on the character and you need to surrender yourself to the flow of events to advance to the next chapter. There are a lot of things that aren’t interactive, and the systems fuelling the RPG elements are full of limiting conventions that we decide to turn a blind eye to in the long run.”

Blacha doesn’t think every game needs to be as gargantuan and packed with opportunity as The Witcher 3, and notes that credible, stirring character relationships are just as important as breadth. But he suggests that the key difference between RPGs today and those ten years from now will be the sheer quantity of options. “Because roleplaying gamers love to have options available to them. Just ask anyone who spent hours creating their perfect avatar over and over again before even touching the story. The Holy Grail developers will be striving towards will be a game in which, upon reaching the top of a mountain, you see a breathtaking vista and revel in the thought of the possibilities that await you—as far as the eye can see and beyond.”

The Witcher 3 is a tremendous game, and several of my interviewees cite it as an inspiration and a model. But it’s worth noting that CD Projekt’s achievement rests not just on its number of choices, but on having specific options in specific narrative scenarios—an assortment of deftly told side-stories with multiple endings that revolve around the villages and towns you’ll visit while scouring troubled kingdoms for your adopted daughter. The game may be a sprawling epic, but it’s an epic composed of brilliantly directed moments—tiny decisions that add up to more than their sum. “I think that game has set a new standard for making all quests dramatically meaningful,” notes Tyler Sigman. “It’s amazing how much care and attention seems to have gone into every single sidequest.”

Meaningful choice, he goes on, should take precedence over scope or variety for its own sake. “Skyrim blew my mind with all the emergent things, the great open world—I played it many times with different characters and never even came close to finishing it. I just wandered around and created my own stories. But I think the next level of achievement in games like that might be to slightly reduce the amount of things that you can do, but make each one a little deeper. I’d rather have fewer NPCs simulated, for example, but for each one to be more meaningful. It kills the immersion when you murder someone, and their buddy comes in to sleep and doesn’t even notice the body.”

Another of The Witcher 3’s accomplishments is to walk the line between a character you define and an existing character with a past and a given purpose. A taciturn mercenary, Geralt of Rivia is dispassionate and detached enough that you feel able to make your own decisions about his actions in most situations, but his gravelly personality bleeds through to the player over time, colouring your approach. By the end of the game, acting just as Geralt would in any given situation feels as important as acting freely. It’s a reminder that, for all the talk of “maximising interactivity”, one of the most entertaining, enlightening things an RPG designer can do is guide or even require you to act a certain way. 

“I really like how, in Japanese RPGs, you don’t make a character—you are given a role to play,” says Kate Holden. “Whether you like it or not, that’s the person you’re playing and you need to empathise with that to get the most out of the game.” 

RPGs should do more to inspire this kind of empathy, she adds, rather than letting players customise their protagonists as they please. “There’s so much to learn from stepping into the role of somebody you’re not, or at least, don’t think you are. Wearing that mask can help you to discover so much about yourself.”

Holden points to Dragon Age II, again, as an act to follow here. “From the beginning, it sets you up as a refugee, an immigrant, and then it forces you to work with people who are really cool, really nice, really strong, but who hold some ideas and prejudices that are actually kind of terrible. Merrill is an absolute sweetheart who just wants to be loved and to see her people, the elves, stop being abused and marginalised, to have some pride in their heritage. The problem is, she embraces dark forces beyond her comprehension to this end, and stubbornly ignores the warnings she is given about the risks.”

Local hero

There’s something to be said for telling a story on a more modest stage, too. In casting you as a saviour or destroyer of worlds, many RPG stories sacrifice a sense of credibility and intimacy. For Michelle Juett Silva, one half of Salt and Sanctuary developer Ska Studios, narrative-driven adventure titles such as Dontnod’s smalltown sci-fi drama Life is Strange have much to offer developers like CD Projekt. “RPG lends itself to fantasy a lot, we see a lot of fantasy or cyberpunk, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of ‘slice-of-life’ fiction,” she says. “I would really love to be able to see day-to-day kind of stuff, maybe diving into relationship issues, just things you deal with on a daily basis. A closer view on individuals, rather than ‘you are the hero, you are the Inquisitor who saves the world’.”

Another way of encouraging players to empathise would be to take the emphasis off battle for narrative and character progression. Asked about specific areas for innovation, Alexis Kennedy points to “non-combat, long-term activities—finding or making your place in the world”. That might mean intrigue, training, base-building, choosing sides, or growing old, he says. “Things which are commonplace in novels or even board games, but tend to be plot-driven or absent in games. 

“There have been dozens of attempts to do this, and some have been pretty good, but generally it tends to be ‘downtime’—a base or hub you go in between playing the actual game, to move furniture around or hoover up resources. It’s a genuinely hard design problem to crack, especially alongside the current gameplay focus, and I wouldn’t say it’s been neglected—but there’s tremendous opportunity for innovation.”

“I think we have thoroughly explored combat,” adds Chris Payne, a Traveller’s Tales veteran and managing director at Welsh indie Quantum Soup, which was formed to work on original narrative-driven games. “So much combat! Don’t get me wrong, good combat is fun, but there’s a limit to how much story you can tell with it.” Evolving away from fighting as a narrative device is tricky, he adds, because it’s relatively straightforward to model—a primarily physical, inherently dramatic affair that produces digestible binary outcomes. “I’m hoping to see more studios experimenting with new forms of character interaction, but the trouble is you’re moving away from a physical model of weapon range, damage, and bullet trajectories into a much woollier psychological model, where it’s harder for the player to understand the effects of different choices.

“And if you expose the mechanics—like Fable’s opinion modifiers popping up like damage reports—then it kills the illusion of interacting with real people. There’s a lot of work to be done there.” Payne’s hope is that the increasing sophistication of videogame acting will help subtler kinds of encounter take priority in RPG design. “I’m pleased to see Ninja Theory’s amazing performance capture work, because a good actor can communicate a lot about what’s going on in their character’s head. As game characters get better, we can rely more on performance to convey the mechanics of character interaction—reading a character’s face to see if they liked what you did, instead of text messages saying ‘Solas approves’.”

Can new technology such as virtual reality play a part in all this? Possibly. Payne thinks VR has a lot of untapped potential. The sense of being present “applies to characters as well as places,” he says. “When I first played the Oculus Rift intro experience, and you’re spawned face-to-face with a photorealistic alien—that was quite a shock. Having a character like that inside your personal space, looking directly at you is incredibly powerful. Imagine a character equipped with AI that responds to your virtual body language, so it might step back if you get too close. Or it might not, and just look you in the eye and demand you back off.” Again, this could support better performance-driven storytelling and dispense with clunky interfaces. “There’s definitely potential to get away from the trusty multiple choice dialogue selector in VR.”

Ska Studios’ James Silva is less impressed, noting that enabling player movement without confusion or discomfort is still a “huge barrier to feeling present in a VR world, and being able to explore it”. This is a problem all first-person VR games share, and in theory RPGs are an easier fit because the pace is slower. But RPGs also typically involve more to-ing and fro-ing, and it’s hard to imagine roving the moors of Skyrim comfortably using a look-and-click teleport-jump, let alone the Vive’s room-scale motion-tracking. 

In a perhaps telling show of how transformative VR really is, Ska Studios’ founders have spent a fair chunk of their time in virtual reality playing Dungeons & Dragons via the AltspaceVR platform—poring over a lovingly recreated simulation of the classic table-top game. “It’s this crazy ouroboros of technology where we all want to be there in person playing this analogue, real-feeling game —none of these icons on a battlefield or anything like that,” says James Silva. “So we’re going to do VR and now we’re all present again, but none of it is real!”

Engine room

Katherine Holden also confesses to feeling “a little leery” about VR’s applications for RPGs, commenting that the bigger tech revolution for indie developers, at least, is the current plethora of free, high-quality game engines. “Unreal Engine and Unity in particular allow even a small-time dev to be on even tech footing with the big kids,” she says. “Mostly I develop lower end kind of games, so unless tech is viable for Joe Average on their serviceable but long-in-the-tooth i5 machine, it’s often not really relevant for me.” InXile CEO Brian Fargo also talks up the lower bar of entry for underfunded teams who are looking to make a splash alongside the likes of Bethesda. “We’re making gigantic strides in presentation and immersion,” he says. “And as hardware improves this becomes more accessible too, meaning even non-AAA developers can make some amazing-looking games.”

Gloomiest of all on the subject of VR is Alexis Kennedy. “I’m going to make some preposterously specific predictions,” he says. “Half-hearted VR support will start showing up in some big RPGs, and generate forum threads full of people angry that it’s only half-hearted. There will be some carefully budget VR-first indie RPGs which are in other respects extremely traditional, and which will do OK. There will be a high-profile indie Kickstarter by AAA veterans for, approximately, VR-first off-brand Skyrim, which will make like a million dollars on a half-million ask despite commenters pointing out that’s not remotely enough money, and ride the hype train right off a cliff.”

Kennedy does allow that “better pipeline technology—voice synthesis, say, or better content tools, or smart use of procedural generation to create raw material for creators to customise—means the cost of RPG content will gradually drop off in real terms, and the sophistication of content will continue to improve.” But he also argues that roleplaying games are too heavily rooted in convention and nostalgia to benefit greatly from injections of exotic hardware. “RPGs are a bundle of beloved traditions. If you radically change one tradition, the others suddenly make less sense. The games which are transformed by technology will be more innovative forms which have repurposed RPG mechanics and are no longer really recognisable as RPGs.”

If RPGs are bundles of beloved traditions, there’s plenty left to achieve within the ambit of those traditions. There will always be a place for RPGs in which you don the armour of a legend, mix-and-match abilities to create devastating class builds, and make decisions that shape the story without interference as you tour a vast, opulent landscape. But my conversations with developers reveal a hunger for more provocative, directed and personal experiences, that aren’t as beholden to the old stereotypes or notions of ‘freedom’ and ‘fantasy’—games in which ‘choice’ doesn’t just mean reshuffling your party composition, or trying to work out which dialogue responses will lead to the greatest reward.

“I’ve always found the definition of a ‘roleplaying game’ a bit frustrating myself, because the actual mechanic that defines the ‘genre’ doesn’t reflect what makes a great RPG to me,” Katherine Holden says. “The actual definition of an RPG seems to be: you have numbers that represent your abilities, you gain a resource called experience for doing things—usually, for making stuff die—and that makes your numbers go up. I’ve always felt this is a million miles away from the actual experience of playing a role, stepping into the shoes of another person.” 

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