Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Witcher and Ultima VII are like opposite ends of the Isometric RPG timeline

at 7:27 PM
It's serendipitous that I chose Ultima VII: The Black Gate as my buy-one-get-one-free with The Witcher, as Black Gate is one of the original (if not the first) real-time isometric RPGs, while The Witcher seems to mark the place where the genre transcends itself and merges into the broader BioWare/Bethesda trend of modern WRPGs. Alongside first person games like the Elder Scrolls series and Ultima Underworld, the isometric style dominated PC RPGs for over a decade, providing us with your basic list of citations of classic WRPGS: Fallout, Arcanum, Planescape: Torment, Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Diablo, and Whatever.Com.

Something something something we could talk about how the genre goes back to Rogue and Adventure and how it obviously spawned originally from tabletop games. Anyway, some of the big deals about Ultima VII here in video game world are that it does away with grid-based movement, automates turn-based combat in a real-time format, and introduces investigative dialogue trees (i.e. the player learns keywords that then become choices in future conversations). That's a short list, and I'm skimping here because Western RPGs are far from my area of expertise, but the idea is that Black Gate really cut back on the discretized feel of RPGs up to that point. The isometric style was a giant leap in the direction of real-time cinematic gameplay, even if it was still turn-based and heavily governed by off-screen calculations. It was a much bigger step away from tabletop than, say, the early Wizardry games. I realize this has little to do with isometric graphics, but, well, that's just how it happened. I'm not lying with the above list of examples (or the many more Internet and I could cite) - these games are bound by far more than their visual style, even if it is the most immediately recognizable characteristic. 

With that in mind, I should note that while Diablo II and its isometric dungeon-crawling progeny like Fate, Torchlight, and Sacred are certainly influenced by the WRPG trend born of Ultima VII, their hard real-time action and dungeon-crawling focus pretty significantly distinguish the gameplay to the point where most gamers put them in a subclass of their own. We'll just call them action-RPGs or dungeon-crawlers. 

Not that Knights of the Old Republic and Fallout 3 aren't already closely tied to the classic isometric RPGs of yore, but The Witcher really brings it all back home in that the player can literally switch back and forth between traditional fixed-overhead-camera point-and-click Baldur's Gate gameplay and over-the-shoulder free-look WASD Mass Effect action. The combat is somewhat turn-based, offering a command pause for complex actions (like using spells or potions) and syncing attack strings to rhythmic clicks instead of waiting on one-to-one inputs like The Witcher 2. The classic hub structure is present, latching the player to a temporary home base while they fan out completing quests, but the environments are thoroughly interconnected and deviate from the dungeon model. Dialogue trees, now not as Zorkily arbitrary as Ultima VII, are the fundamental means of fleshing out the story. It all comes together as a very explicit Farewell to Isometry; a changing of the guards. Playing it in 2013, six years after its original release and loooong since any mainstream isometric RPG, is enough to make one nostalgic for the old days. 

Playing The Witcher back to back with Ultima VII gives an interesting look at how far we've come - and in particular, how not that far we've come. It's funny - all those little gripes I listed about Ultima VII yesterday are totally and amazingly resolved in The Witcher (most of them were resolved by, uh, 1994), yet the latter game doesn't seem particularly better. Oh, it's way funner, and I'm far more engaged already. While last night I had to force myself to make it through a half hour of Black Gate, I played The Witcher for two hours straight and was barely able to put it down. But there's nothing driving me to play Witcher instead of Ultima, nothing I'm particularly anxious to experience, discover, or overcome - it's just easier to play. Somehow, in the 15 years that passed between these two games, no new means of interaction have become standard. The medium, or at least this subset thereof, is still offering players the same choices it has been for decades. This really isn't an inherently good or bad thing, but it's certainly an observation warranting reflection. 

Not here on this blog though!

Aside: off-topic, but this isn't really worth another post. The Witcher is notable as a great jumping-on point for isometric RPGs. The genre is notoriously inapproachable, with the general consensus that if you aren't willing to learn the AD&D rulebook, you don't deserve to get anything out of these games. While mastery of The Witcher may not make Icewind Dale any easier, it at least provides a semblance of the experience at a perfectly palatable learning curve.

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