Last week I was perusing my eldest son’s collection of Nintendo Switch games and I saw that he had Octopath Traveller. It was a game that interested me when it was released, so I decided to pull it down and play it on my Switch Lite. It sat in my system for a few days before I found time to turn it on and dive in, and I discovered something.
I did not enjoy it. Not even a little bit.
The opening of the story consists of the character being railroaded from point to point, while endless forced interactions scroll by via text dumps. There are several times when there was something interesting on screen I wanted to go take a look at but, nope, the scene ended up shifting and I was off to the next “conversation.”
It was rather boring, to be honest. Not to mention frustrating.
This surprised me because, when I’m playing a table top role playing game, I love those parts of the game. When the party is new to a location and starts talking to people, looks for a shop, or tries to find a job it feels like a whole world is opening up! And, in a sense, it is, because the world is being formed as the players interact with it. The imaginations of the Game Master and the other Players combine to create something new. And, often, unexpected.
Video role playing games try to create a facsimile of those moments but, for me, it falls flat. In a video game the Non Player Characters are pre-generated, and their interactions with players are limited to the options programmed into them. Once they run through the script there’s nothing else to say. Sometimes an NPC will change locations, which leads to a new list of interactions players can have with them, but many times they just stay in the same space for ever. Repeating the same old lines. As much as video games are amazing, the woodeness of the in-game residents shatters some of the immersion.
NPCs in table top games, however, deepen the immersion. At my tables the parties have met one character’s over-critical mother, a cousin who enjoys his work as a carpenter, two different Bugbears who wanted to be in the restaurant business 1, a shop keeper who is “thrilled” the party is still alive, soldiers who think the paladin is a wannabe, gnomish revolutionaries, and a semi-deranged professor which the party rubbed the wrong way. My parties have taken these people out to lunch, used them to play pranks, gotten them jobs, defended them from bigots, and even invited them to join them on their journey. The more the players interact with them, the more fleshed out they become–gaining back stories and having their desires expanded upon. It is the opposite of the way video game NPCs work.
And that’s the difference. In a video game RPG, the explorations of the player’s place in the world is pre-programmed, and the NPCs are only there to nudge the player down the road. In a table top RPG even the most detailed town or region can’t predict every way a party member might ask, “Is there any place I can…?” No GM can predict how any given NPC is going to react to how the party portrays themselves or interacts with others. The chaos around the table, as everyone begins to fill in the space with their imaginations, makes the world feel lived in. That is the game.
I can play a multi-hour session a table top RPG where almost nothing happens which requires the game mechanics to be invoked. People have conversations, they go shopping, they hunt rumors, share recipes 2, and buy equipment. I’ve spent time trying to sell the party a cart, hinting at exotic ingredients which would fetch a good price, and negotiating a mortgage. And it was all fun. But when the same types of interactions take place in video game RPG I’m tend to get bored after a while, because the NPC can never feel like actual people.
The sheer depth of imagination needed to play the game is one reason why I’m so looking forward to playing with my younger son, and am bummed I was away from the hobby when my older children were growing up. With the youngest we’re going to go on adventure we make up. And it’ll be awesome 3.
This seems to be a thing in my worlds. I don’t know why. ↩
I once was the GM for a session where a character tried to explain what a donut was to a baker. It lasted two hours. ↩
We already did a short game of Hero Kids, where Bump helped a baker whose basement had been overrun by giant rats. He got paid in rolls. ↩