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Why did Telltale’s Game of Thrones Fail where the Wolf Among Us Succeeded

Annedey

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So after a 4 years wait, it is finally here. Telltale just confirmed that The Wolf Among Us 2 is coming. In 2018, without any more precise date, sure. But, hey, when you have been waiting for years for just a sign, it’s like Christmas in July. I loved The Wolf Among Us. It is a fine game, set in a wonderful atmosphere, which gives hours of fun. It also made me discover Fables, probably my favorite comic and one of the few I can effectively follow.

So in 2014, Telltale’s Game of Thrones was released. Since I was still in my show-loving period I was eager to play this game. Especially when I learned that we would play a northern family loyal to the Starks. Unfortunately, the actual experience ended-up being disappointing.

With all those good news about The Wolf Among Us, I started rethinking about both experiences. Why did I have such a different way of seeing them despite the fact that the gaming system was so similar? I came to the conclusion that it is a question of narrative. So now let’s buckle up and dive right in into the Telltale game series and why it can be either great or meh.

Telltale and the ‘Revival’ of Point and Clicks

The Telltale games all work on the same system. You control one character at the time. You decide their dialogue. With them you play through what we can only call interactive cut-scenes that can change a little depending on your choice and if you miss an action or not. There are also more traditional game moments where you wander in a delimited map looking for things or characters to speak to. More importantly, there are moment where you might make important decisions that will impact the rest of the game.

Am I going to threaten someone in my fake sane persona or give them the fright of their life?

There are no real enigmas or really challenging decisions, though. Also despise what a first time player might think, you can’t influence the plot that much. It is going somewhere specific, and if your choices veer too far away from it you will be taken back to the correct road.

So, the Telltales games aren’t really point and click in the traditional understanding of the genre. I think it would be more correct to call them ‘interactive movies’. Hell, you can play with the American controls on a French keyboard (an AZERTY keyboard) without being really disturbed by it.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the gaming experience of the Telltale’s games. When done correctly they are incredibly immersive and just straight up fun. After all, not everyone is a fan of FPS, TPS, or beat them all. But it is important to be honest about what the game is and isn’t. What it is, is a fun experience that will not make you try and retry a level in order to progress in the narrative.

The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones, what are they about?

Even if they both operate on the same gaming system, The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones are different. In one game you only incarnate one character and try to solve a crime mystery. In the other, you play 5 different characters and you try to save your family from destruction.

Bigby Wolf or the Sheriff of Fabletown

The crime story is The Wolf Among Us. Telltale got the rights to make a video game out Fables. However, it takes place before the beginning of the comics. For those of you who might not know it, Fables is a comics series following famous characters of fairytales. They are now living in our world, after having been cast away from theirs by the Adversary. They have two structures Fabletown, in NY, for the human looking ones and the Farm, somewhere in the American countryside, for the others. After the escape, every Fables character who managed to made it to our world was granted amnesty and now Bluebeard lives next door to Briar Rose.

The player controls Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown. Bigby is actually none other than the Big Bad Wolf in human form (even if he can take back his wolf form at will), which makes him a brilliant agent of the law for Fabletown. However his case is a bit special since he is forbidden to go to the Farm. Indeed, his past crimes against the the non-human looking community were too big to be forgotten, and his own amnesty was…let’s say conditional.

If someone had told me that the Big Bad Wolf would one day be one of my favorite characters…

The game starts with Bigby being sent to apply the day-to-day law at “Get a glamour spell or go to the Farm,” but he is disturbed by one resident of Fabletown assaulting another. He steps in, fights with the Woodsman and saves Faith, a sex worker who, we will discover later, is more famously known under the name of Donkey Skin. She seems to be in some sort of bigger trouble but refuses to talk about it. Bigby goes back to the headquarters of Fabletown, where he meats with various characters (Snow White, Colin, etc). In the evening he discovers the severed head of a woman.

The point will then be to find out who is responsible, to stop them from doing it again, and bring justice to Fabletown. To do so you will dive right into the misery of Fabletown and its hypocrisy. What is justice? What is fair? What is right? And more importantly are you the best person for the job? Are you still at heart the Big Bad Wolf in sheeps clothing or are you a changed man(wolf)? The game is very much Bigby’s personal journey of rediscovery. And of the balance between what he is ready to do to get where he wants and what people expect of him.

More than a crime story, Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us is a game that explores morality, specifically that belonging to its main character and therefore yours.

The Forresters Remember

Game of Thrones is a family management game (sorry I don’t know what to call it otherwise). The game starts at the Red Wedding, which is where Lord Forrester, his oldest son, and his squire are. They get massacred, except for Gared, the squire. He comes back to the Forrester home castle. From this point onward you play different members of House Forrester and try to prevent the total annihilation of your family.

The characters that you are going to play are the ones in Red.

Expect for Mira, all the characters are at one point or another at Ironrath, their home castle. But you will also go to King’s Landing, Essos, The Wall, and North of the Wall. You will also cross paths with characters from the show: Ramsay Sue, Jonny Cardboard, Marg Bolelyn, Deadpan Card-born, and—of course—Saint Tyrion. The game takes place between season 3 and season 4.

Every character will have a different storyline. Mira will try to influence the court in King’s Landing. Asher has to find troops in Essos. Gared goes North to find the North Grove (what is this thing, it isn’t in the books, right?). Ethan and Rodrick will try to manage their estate to the best of their capabilities and discover who are traitors to their family. You will fight, scheme, lie, and form political alliances in order to have the Forrester House survive.

The playable characters are engaging (I lied I don’t care about Gared, I really don’t) especially Ethan, Mira, and Asher. They have distinct personalities but are a united family and care about each other. Ethan in particular is fascinating; he is a bookish boy with a love for music but he wants to do well, be honorable, and be up to the task. It is the kind of character we don’t get to play all that often, and it was great.

However, one major difference between The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones is the ending. The former solves the murder mystery while leaving some doubt about a particular character’s identity, but the latter ends on a cliffhanger in which you have no idea if you have saved your family or not.

How Well Do the Storylines Work with the Gaming System?

So now that I have explained the gaming system and the core of both stories, it is time to ask the question: how well do they fit together? Or to word it differently: why does The Wolf Among Us fit better than Game of Thrones?

Film Noir and Morality

The ambiance in The Wolf Among Us is fantastic. The color palette chosen for the game, a neon violet dark pink, gives a modern film noir atmosphere to the game. The choice of OC for the game was great. Donkey Skin, Bloody Mary, the Jersey Devil, and even the little Mermaid have original stories which are grimmer (no pun intended) than usual. It helps make the whole thing less comfortable for the audience. It’s not just any crime game, it’s a fully fleshed film noir with corruption, etc. The focus on the misery of some of Fabletown and the hypocrisy of the system is a very nice idea. It suits the subject very well. A perfect environment to develop Bigby’s dilemmas.

This opening though.

The fanservice is also left to a minimum. Snow White is here, Flycatcher, Jack and Colin too, also Beauty and the Beast. Even if I didn’t really like having B&B in, it didn’t tie very well with the rest of the comics. But fan favorites such as Blue Boy, Prince Charming, Frau Totenkinder, and Cinderella are missing. Or if they are mentioned, it’s more in the form of easter eggs.

Long story shorts The Wolf Among Us is allowed to exist on its own. Don’t know the slightest thing about Fables? You can still play the game and enjoy the characters and the narration.

Speaking of which, since the game is focused on the ambiance and on the moral dilemma the fact, that you can’t change the ending all that much doesn’t matter. It is how you get there that matters. Who did you save? Who did you comfort? Did you abandon anyone? Your final choice regarding the Crooked Man’s fate, without changing the face of the world, is the ultimate representation of what the game stands for. Who are you?

This is one hell of the great game for someone who likes the genre. It uses the gaming system marvelously to uphold what it is trying to say. The same, however, cannot be said for Game of Thrones.

Cliffhanger and Dramatic SatisfactionTM

Never in my life have I been so frustrated by a fixed end-game. I mean, it’s less fixed than The Wolf Among Us, but by god how awfully forced did the Game of Thrones’s one feel. Unfortunately for the game it decided to follow the show footsteps (and that’s why I choose to use the Book Snob Glossary for the show characters’s names). The ambiance is the exact same as in the show. Some of your characters will get killed mercilessly for shock value. Ethan for example, is killed by Ramsay Sue at the end of episode one. Sure, it made you more motivated to win the game and save your family. But since the game close on a cliffhanger you are robbed of your own motivation.

RIP Ethan Forrester, your death will have no meaning in the end.

Speaking of being robbed. Every time you try to manage something that is supposed to help the family get out of the shit river they are drowning in, it is going to be taken from you in the most gruesome way. For example, I had managed to secure Rodrick’s betrothal to Elaena Glenmore and gain men for a future battle. Boy was I proud. But no, Ramsay Sue teleported behind by castle and butchered my brother-in-law. I promised my loyalty to Margaery? Could have promised it to Cersei and it wouldn’t have changed a damn thing. It was to a point that when Mira was attacked in King’s Landing I ended-up thinking, “Whatever I do with this knife it’s coming back to bite me in the ass anyway, so I don’t care.”

How many characters die in this? I have 3 of my point of view characters who died (I think two at least must die). Lady Forrester dies. The entire Forrester Household dies. If you kill the character that your audience cares about just to prove that you are daring and that your world is terrible, you are not doing a good writing job. You can finish The Wolf Among Us with only 4 dead characters; all of them victims of the same ‘killer’.

On top of that, there is nearly no way to make the experience morally relevant as it is in The Wolf Among Us. The experience is ultimately little more than frustrating. And yet when it does bother to explore morality, it does so well. Rodrick face to face with Gryff Whitehill is great, Mira’s execution also. But they are tiny lights in something that wanted to look like the show too much to be fully fleshed out.

For a final anecdotal example, the game has the same penchant for sentences that sound badass, just like the show.

Cersei and Daenerys at their finest.

Conclusion

By telling a story without a clear interest other than the shock value, Telltale failed to propose a good quality gaming experience. In other Telltale games (The Walking Dead, Batman), they always get interesting when they focus on the character and their psyche. They did that marvelously well in The Wolf Among Us. They missed the point completely in Game of Thrones.

And that’s why if you ever want to try the Telltale experience, I would advise you to skip Game of Thrones and go directly to The Wolf Among Us. It’s a much better experience and won’t leave you frustrated.


Images Courtesy of Telltale

Annedey is a (French) writer and college student in public affairs who has a high predisposition to do something else than her actual college work. Theater/movie/book/Tv-show-enthusiast, she can sometimes become over-attached to cultural productions leading to the unfortunate creation of bitterness that mixes quite badly with a clear tendency to swear.

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Dschehuti NeferCynical ClassicistBlackmambaukRichard Martindell Jr.The Dragon Demands Recent comment authors
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The Dragon Demands
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The Dragon Demands

I thought Telltale’s Game of Thrones had respect for the source material.

Palpad100 .
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Palpad100 .

Nope. Almost nada. Seriously Jon Snow appears in this game in a place he shouldn’t be in (as in another castle that is not castle black), a Lannister that shouldn’t exist, their characterization of the slave city’s, etc…

Blackmambauk
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Blackmambauk

Even more frustrating since one of GRM’s personal assistants was on hand to help them write it.

The Dragon Demands
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The Dragon Demands

I thought they put in more effort than the TV writers did. A good experiment.

Erin
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Erin

Ohh, I’ve been hoping to see Telltale’s GoT discussed here! I was disappointed by it as well, and I wasn’t sure if it was just because season 2 of the Walking Dead game pretty much singlehandedly soured me on the studio’s output. I feel like it peaked midway, during the attempted peace talks with the Whitehills. If I had to pick a moment that represents the issues I had (outside of what already plagues the show universe), I would point at the moment where Rodrick is given the “choice” of stabbing Ramsay Sue or not. That was the moment where… Read more »

Will113
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Will113

That traitor twist was baffling and the justification was very weak.

Erin
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Erin

And it got even worse in the final moments of the season, when Talia (who had cried for the traitor’s blood just an episode before, and becomes angry if you spare him) comes to Rodrick/Asher’s rescue with a spared traitor. Like, did that actually happen or am I misremembering? I executed my traitor, so Talia appeared with my sentinel instead.

Blackmambauk
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Blackmambauk

That was the moment where the game became numb to me. It just flattened the whole plot for me in how nonsensical it was and destroyed all characterization of the characters in question.

Will113
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Will113

I think the problem with Telltale is they promise a level of narrative choice which can’t really be achieved, and the options they give you don’t really matter. They’ve been making these games for five years now and the flaws have kind of become more obvious.
I agree that the tone and lack of real choice really didn’t help thier Game of Thrones game.

Dschehuti Nefer
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Dschehuti Nefer

So now I have to play The Wolf among us, eh? Still got it from a Humble Bundle, but never touched it. I did play the GoT telltale game though. And while I was disappointed, I was because it contained a lot of wasted potential. I even have written down a review of the game for the ranters at Westeros.org, so if it’s all right, I just copypaste it here so that I don’t need to remember what I liked or disliked all those years ago^^ Mechanics Over the course of my playthrough I stopped calling it game and this… Read more »

Cynical Classicist
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Cynical Classicist

So like the show it’s going with Marg is better then the evil Cersei even though what we see and analyze doesn’t really match up with this. And it’s got the whole if you’re a main character and get stabbed tis’ merely a flesh wound.

And Ramsay… he’s such completely powerful and doesn’t suffer any setbacks because he is just such a capable guy. Are the Forresters the only Northern House who don’t like the Boltons?

Dschehuti Nefer
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Dschehuti Nefer

I faintly remember that the “The North remembers” tagline was still supposed to mean something at the time of the publishing of the game. Therefore I think it was mentioned that the Northern lords are all unhappy with the Boltons, but they are portrayed as so ludicrously powerful that no one dared to rebel.
Though the only other house explicitly mentioned is this of your Glenmoore neighbours and as I described, its Lord only does what makes you the most trouble despite their claims to remain neutral.

Blackmambauk
Member
Blackmambauk

The biggest mistake Telltale made with Game of Thrones was setting it in the show’s canon and not their own version of Game of Thrones. One that wasn’t beholden to either the book or show like Batman wasn’t beholden to any of the comic books or adaptation or Guardian isn’t beholden to the MCU films either. By putting it in the shows canon, they basically handicapped themselves with what they could do with the Forrester, i.e they can’t kill or get revenge on Ramsay at any point because that’s for the Starks. They can’t get Dany’s help proper because she’s… Read more »

Blackmambauk
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Blackmambauk

Oh also wanted to note, there are a few typos in the article that i spotted like despite missing the t. One word having its capital italic format. Nothing that a quick edit would sort but just caught my eye.

Richard Martindell Jr.
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Richard Martindell Jr.

I think the biggest part of why GoT failed compared to WAU was that when you kill a character off, you’re killing off their story line. Is the overall story really good with this character ending here? For most of the books and TV show of Game of Thrones, the answer seems to be yes. But for the game, man there were just a lot of time I couldn’t believe it was just being thrown away. The most egregious being Mira and Rodrik. It wouldn’t be so bad if Asher wasn’t taken as such a replacement, but it didn’t feel… Read more »

Gaming

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey And The Double-Edged Sword of Industry Trends

Griffin

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey has been out for—depending on what version your purchased—either just over two weeks or a little over one. As someone who had spare Amazon Points, and a biting curiosity for what this game could actually be in practice, I picked up the Gold edition and started playing on the 1st. Much the pre-release information released touted player choice and romanceable characters, which as a long-time fan of both Assassin’s Creed and Bioware RPGs made my head spin a little bit.

In this topsy-turvy period of gaming we exist in, where Bungie has abandoned narrative storytelling and gregorian chanting, Bioware is basically dropping dialog trees and companions for their make-or-break Destiny-like title Anthem, and Bethesda’s Fallout 76 is being comically overshadowed by no less than four independent industry-quality mod projects for the previous two iterations of said franchise, it was inevitable that this confusing reversal of company trends would actually swing the “other” way for something as profoundly huge as Ubisoft.

Industry trends have been shifting around a lot as of late, the most notable of which are that nearly every recent triple-A release needs to have some level of open-world and RPG elements (God of War, Prey, Destiny, The Division, Spider-Man, Far Cry 5, Final Fantasy XV, Monster Hunter: World, Shadow of Mordor/War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Breath of the Wild, Batman: Arkham Knight, etc) if they didn’t already have one or both elements already (Fallout 4, both Deus Ex prequels, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Dark Souls, etc). And sometimes, there’s a game that epitomizes nearly every industry trend so almost-perfectly that it becomes a weird sort of standard. In this case, it’s The Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 is a modern masterpiece of pure ambition, technical prowess, beautiful art design, and legitimately mature, morally complex narrative storytelling. It is basically impossible to replicate. Here’s the thing about industry trends, though: developers and publishers always lean hard into them. And when I say hard, I mean to the absurd. It’s something we’ve happen again and again with Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode, the Arkham-style Freeflow combat, and of course PUBG’s popularization of the Battle Royale.

For an even stranger example, the rogue-like sub-genre has somehow managed to work its way up from indie games (Rogue Legacy, FTL, Into the Breach, Darkest Dungeon, etc) to, of all things, the most recent and genuinely excellent Hitman.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a game that really, really tries to go for broke into these trends, except not in way that the vast majority of gamers would assume. Ubisoft is basically known as “those guys that make the open worlds with the towers” at this point, so if they’ve already gotten that part down (mostly, anyway), then…that would mean that they’d need to go for the other half of where the industry is headed: the RPG. And oh boy, did they ever go for it. Like, really went for it.

The RPG, especially the branching narrative, dialog-heavy, romancing variety has been a niche thing for a long, long time. Think the original Fallouts and New Vegas, Planescape: Torment, Deus Ex, both KOTOR games (but especially the second one) and…pretty much every game where Chris Avellone was a writer…? Weird.

The biggest reason for that, for a very long time, was because the amount of time, bandwidth and talent it took to actually do one of those right wasn’t worth dumping triple-A budgets into because it just wasn’t profitable. But now, it apparently is. Hilariously, I think it’s because we’ve reached a point where creating a complex branching narrative is easier and less costly than building a super-massive open world.

I’m about 75 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey on PC, running at an almost locked 60fps at 4k, and at this point, while not knowing really how far I am from completing the main story (because exploring is too fun), I can confidently say that it’s a very bold attempt at branching narrative storytelling…specifically for a franchise who has literally never done that before. And that’s a great thing. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does not reinvent the wheel, and nor does it attempt to do that. It doesn’t introduce new gameplay elements that I haven’t seen before, but that was probably for the best. It’s also one of the smoothest PC ports I’ve played in a long time. I’ve experienced literally one crash, and the game’s autosave system is so forgiving that I lost maybe two minutes of progress. Load times are fast, and the visuals are just phenomenal.

For contrast, the last Assassin’s Creed game I played was the hilariously broken and inconsequential Unity, which was baffling to me at the time. How could you possibly fail at making an interesting Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution? After that, I stopped buying them, despite the fact that I’d been hooked ever since Assassin’s Creed II.

The element that actually sold me back on Assassin’s Creed wasn’t just the dialog options, or the romance, or even the inherent promise of some really, really, really queer stuff within the ancient Greek world (in which the negativity towards sapphic women has basically been nuked from orbit within the world of the game because why the hell not?) but rather the option to choose the gender of my protagonist. I’ve always leaned towards picking the female option in RPGs, since for whatever reason that makes it easier for me to get immersed in the narrative.

The in-universe reason for why the Animus (the thing that lets you explore different parts of history via 3D projections of genetic memories blah blah blah) can even let you choose from two different options and still have the same basic narrative is…not explained. At least, not yet. But the game’s meta-narrative does a lot to basically say “that’s not how this or games work anymore; isn’t this more fun?”. And yes, it is.

What Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does best is streamlining. If you’re at all familiar with the Nemesis system from Shadow of Mordor and its mess of a sequel, then that’s basically what they integrated into Odyssey with their Bounty Hunters. They’re basically periodic mini-bosses that help keep gameplay varied and interesting. Except it’s not as complex (there aren’t like 40 different weaknesses and immunities to memorize at all times) and the camera doesn’t freeze and zoom in every time one shows up to fight you. Which is better, since, much like in Shadow of Mordor, Odyssey will have moments where three to five bounty hunters will show up one after the other to take you down.

The dialog options in the game aren’t what anyone would call complex, and that’s not really an issue with me. Interestingly enough, it operates a lot more like Mass Effect 3’s much maligned reduced dialog than anything else. You get a choice here or there, but a lot of the dialog is automatic. There are also icons to denote the outcomes and tone of each choice: a scale typically means lying, while a red hand with a jabbing index finger means a threat. It’s simple, but effective.

On the other hand, the romance dialog is pretty hit or miss, and I honestly kind of love that it is. Mass Effect: Andromeda typically chose to portray your character as an awkward romantic whenever you chose the “flirt” option in dialog, which was purposeful. In Odyssey, your protagonist’s flirting skills range from extremely creepy to genuinely sweet with very little in between. In one particular quest, I was asked by Spartan woman’s mother to show her daughter the importance of training…which somehow translated to the game almost railroading me into banging the daughter. You can always opt out, of course, but there was just something really endearing from an outside perspective of how the dialog prompts popped up and both of them were labeled as “flirt”.

This is the kind of thing that would only show up in a game where the development teams are really working outside of their wheelhouse, but doing their absolute best to deliver an experience that is as close to The Witcher 3 without actually being The Witcher 3. And I mean, if you’re going to emulate anything, holy crap it’s hard to find a better thing to riff off of. Seriously, for a decent chunk of the game you’re trying to find a woman all across the Greek world, and you keep running into people who knew her in the past…which is then instantly followed up by a flashback with that interaction. Unlike those Ciri sequences in The Witcher 3, you don’t play as the person you’re trying to find, but the intent is still clear.

As for combat, it’s a blast. It feels a lot like a slightly cheesier version of April’s God of War mashed up with the at times overly-complex peak of Arkham Knight’s FreeFlow system. Snipe, evade, counter, hit, hit, evade, counter, special move, hit, evade, headshot, etc. There’s even a mechanic where if you perform a “Perfect Dodge”, you slow time for a couple seconds. You know, just like Bayonetta 2. Which I loved.

In other words: speccing right makes you feel invincible until you make one mistake, and then you die. The stealth system is a lot more forgiving than previous Assassin’s Creed titles, and by extension much more fun to mess around in. It gives you a ton of tools to play with inside of that sandbox, and unlike the problem that every Metal Gear Solid game had except for arguably Phantom Pain, you aren’t “punished” for using any of them.

As for the characters you meet, Assassin’s Creed has always had so much fun in introducing the protagonists to important historical figures. It doesn’t always work (see: most of Assassin’s Creed III), but rarely has any game measured up quite as well as Ezio Auditore’s deep friendship with Leonardo Da Vinci. In Odyssey, you meet (I’m gonna use the game’s spelling here, so…) Hippokrates, Demosthenes, Alkibades, Sokrates, Pythagoras, Perikles, Euripides (the inner theater nerd in me couldn’t stop laughing), and history’s most famous liar: Herodotus. You meet a bunch of other people too, but those are just the ones at the top of my head that I can recall actually being real. Are they accurate representations? I give it a decent chance that they are, especially Euripides and Sokrates. They are also extremely fun to interact with, and you’re introduced to them in a manner that is surprisingly organic, and rather reminiscent of how historical figures popped up during Ezio’s adventures.

Above all, the biggest accomplishment that Odyssey has in the character front is their protagonist. At least, Kassandra, the female option. Melissanthi Mahut’s performance is evocative, engaging, and genuinely charming throughout. That’s really not an easy thing to pull off when dialog options are involved, and the last time I saw it happen this consistently was, surprise, The Witcher 3. The gameplay I’ve seen of Alexios, the male option, seems…far less personable. Michael Antonakos’s performance never seems to veer away from “gruff dude grunting”, which I guess has its following but seems kind of weird when put up next to his counterpart. On the other hand, that stark dichotomy does enhance a different aspect of the game that I’m not going to spoil. It’s something that you probably expected, but not in how well it was executed.

Speaking of voice actors, there are a lot in this game, and I only recognized one. Elias Toufexis, the unmistakable voice of Adam Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, plays both King Leonidas in flashbacks, as well as, confusingly, the protagonist’s father Nikolaos…who, unlike the protagonist, doesn’t have any direct lineage to Leonidas. I just thought it was funny that the one voice I actually recognized was one of the most recognizable voices in gaming.

Odyssey is about eighty different systems layered on top of each other in a manner that is clearly imperfect, but not to the point where the cracks in the plaster are distracting or harmful to the overall experience. It’s a great game, and if the industry continues to follow these trends, as they almost certainly will, then we’re in for quite the widespread rebirth and adoption of both the Immersive Sim and morally complex branching narrative RPGs. Which, considering the presentation we’ve seen of Red Dead Redemption 2’s first-person perspective…well, that future might be about two weeks out.


Image courtesy of Ubisoft

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Gaming

Warriors, Mages and Rogues – Do we need them?

Michał

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Warriors, rogues and mages. Most people who have played any role-playing games, particularly of the video variety, are familiar with those words. We take them for granted as basic building blocks for traditional fantasy games. And yet, are they? Or rather, should they be? Are they really useful to us? I don’t think they are, and I’ll try to elaborate. If it sounds incredibly specific to you… that is what I am for, I suppose.

Now, here at the outset I should mention that what I’m talking about applies more to video games than tabletop games. The latter have largely moved away from this model, except for Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), which holds on to it despite having many more classes. But every so often, I see people claim that it’s worthwhile, and I don’t really think it is. And there are still some systems that do use it, whether because they imitate D&D or for some other reason.

Let’s start by asking a question – why do we even use classes in games? There are many answers to this question, and once again they depend on what kind of game we’re even talking about. I’ll simply answer them as I see them.

The purpose, in my view, is mainly ease of use. This is particularly important in video games, where it’s much easier for players to tick a box than try to figure out who they want to play and juggle dozens of options.

The other one is a bit trickier. I’m not sure how much I believe it, really. But having classes lets us introduce stronger themes and more definition to our characters. Having a “paladin” class that swears oaths and derives power from them is different than just picking some fighting skills, some support and healing magic, and calling ourselves a paladin. I’m not going to say you need classes for this, but they do help and it’s a reason why people like them.

The Warrior

This one really shouldn’t be much of a question. Everyone knows what a warrior is, right? What would fantasy, especially fantasy gaming, be without people who go and hit things with weapons? And, well, that’s just the thing. To call someone a “warrior” in a fantasy game is to say practically nothing.

After all, don’t most fantasy protagonist fight, especially in games? Many of them will use weapons, too, unless they rely on magic entirely. So what defines a warrior? Most would say it’s a focus on combat as a way of life and their main approach to challenges or problems.

Seems sensible, but it brings us to a fairly common problem, namely, the image of a warrior who’s a big, dumb door-opener incapable of tying their shoelaces. Now obviously it’s not a hard archetype to find in fiction, but pushing players into playing them is still questionable.

In some contexts, particularly video games, the “warrior” class has a tendency to revolve around heavy armor, heavy weapons, and being a brick wall between  your allies and your enemies. Or just a brick wall, if you don’t happen to have allies. This cuts out a great deal of possible space that might belong to the “warrior” class. It’s usually shuffled off to the rogue class, which doesn’t help, as I’ll outline below.

The warrior class thus ends up both too broad and too narrow, if you can believe that. It’s so conceptually broad as to not mean much; in practice it can only cover so much, because of brutal necessities of resource management.

If it does try to cover everything, as the D&D fighter class has been moving towards, well, why do we have classes to begin with? If we get a blank slate “martial” character that we customize by picking different abilities, seems to me like we’re playing a point-buy game with extra steps. But the warrior’s non-combat skills still often suffer for it. As, again, we see in D&D time and again. It seems the second edition of Pathfinder might finally break the curse. But it also proudly displays the other problem—the class has no identity and merely serves as a toolbox.

The Rogue

 

The elusive rogue class. Elusive in more ways than one, really. We could say the rogue class began its life as the old-timey D&D thief, but I’m always wary of making such statements about the old games. It’s not like I’m very familiar with them. Either way, it’s grown since then. Or has it?

I don’t think it has, really, which is the whole problem. Now, the archetype of a thief, burglar, and generally someone who can get to places without ever being seen exists for a reason. The problem is that while the rogue might have started this way, it’s no longer just that. This baggage hangs over it nonetheless.

Consider what I said about warriors above. They trend towards two things: focusing on combat skills and heavy armament. Therefore, rogues should focus on non-combat skills and light armor. Sounds nice in theory, but practice doesn’t quite follow suit.

You see, while I accused the warrior archetype of not really meaning anything, the rogue has it far worse. In too many cases, it has to cover every concept more subtle than a man in full plate smashing everything with a heavy sword as big as he is. After all, that’s how two-handed weapons work. Everything more subtle in combat or out of it has to be a rogue.

Which, well, it really can’t be without becoming even more of a “point-buy with extra steps” class than the warrior. There’s just too many concepts that aren’t actually that close to one another. To say nothing of the line being blurry. And yet, often-times I don’t really see the rogue class even try. It skips over all this grey area and hangs onto the thief-shaped baggage. They use stealth and the melee weapons they wield tend to be daggers.

Thus, much like with warriors, we have two sort of opposite problems. The rogue class, too, is broad in concept but very narrow in practice. If someone isn’t combat-focused or heavy-weight enough, they’re clearly a rogue. And yet, they can’t be a rogue either unless they use stealth and stab people.

This creates a large swath of character concepts that the warrior/rogue/mage model doesn’t cover. Take Geralt of Rivia, for instance. Is he a warrior? Probably, but he uses light armor and knows a lot about alchemy, not to mention Signs. He thus hangs awkwardly between those two concepts. Even D&D has a better place for him as a ranger, or it would if so many of its editions didn’t insist that rangers must either shoot a bow or dual-wield. But D&D classes are a topic for another day.

Or take Conan, the ultimate barbarian hero and one of the first fantasy protagonist there ever were. Is he a warrior? Surely, since he performs great feats of martial prowess. But he’s also an accomplished thief and burglar, able to move as quietly as a prowling cat. So I suppose he’s a warrior with some thief skills. And if a warrior can learn stealth to such a degree, what does that make the rogue? It only counts if you leap out of stealth to sink a dagger in someone’s back?

In a similar vein, rogues eclipse characters who specialize in non-combat and non-magical skills but aren’t stealthy. Sages, explorers, diplomats…they all have to bear the baggage if they want to be rogues. Of course, here we also run head-first into how absolutely arbitrary the combat/non-combat distinction is. But here we must also remember that in video games, it’s inevitable as they will likely focus on combat much more.

Let’s be clear that there’s nothing wrong with the archetype of a thief or assassin who relies on stealth to either steer clear of danger or deal lethal strikes. But that’s not the only alternative to what the warrior has become. And yet, it very often is, because the middle ground I described doesn’t seem to exist.

The Mage

Mages occupy a different spot than the other two “classics.” They use magic, which sets them apart. And magic does work differently in different games. Thus it’s somewhat trickier to discuss. But is their use of magic distinct enough?

The answer, as it so often happens, is “it depends.” While the abilities of characters who fall into the warrior and rogue molds are somewhat predictable, mages can be many things. Once again, we must consider whether we’re talking about video or tabletop games. In the former, mages often fall into an “Area of Effect (AoE) damage and healing” routine. In tabletop games, their abilities can be broader, running into the balance issues that come with it.

Magic is distinct enough from mundane skill that separating mages looks more natural. In some games, like the Dragon Age series, being a mage is a distinct status. You either have magic or you do not. And yet, in that very same series, all the possible potential of magic boils down to “stand in the back and wave a stick to make magic happen.”

Mages are also often arbitrarily barred from more mundane forms of skill, but here we walk the fine line of balance between them and the others. Letting mages do too much bears the risk of making them superior to the other characters, something that can happen regardless.

Of course, as always we have to consider resources and time. It would be nice to have different ways to portray different forms of magic, but there’s only so much game designers can create, balance, and test.

We spent some time talking about how warriors and rogues mix, but what about mages? Here, once again, there’s no one answer. Mixing magic with mundane skill is often reserved for very specific archetypes, like “spellsword.” “nightblade,” or other similar types. Not always, of course. But it’s hard to argue that there’s a tendency to fence off magic skills somewhat. Games that let us learn magic freely often don’t use classes at all. Though the warrior/rogue/mage model sadly exists even in games that offer free character development.

Bringing it together

Having outlined all those problems, what do I think it adds up to? The warrior/rogue/mage model is, in short, both too many and too few classes. If they’re strongly defined, it gets us stuck in the “warrior tanks, rogue stabs or shoots, mage does AoE and healing” rut or something similar. If they’re not, they end up not meaning much. Getting diverse character concepts out of just these three requires multiclassing, subclasses, poaching features, or other means that make you wonder about the purpose of it all. Why not just dispense with it and build our characters from scratch?

Moreover, I cannot help but see these three categories as artificial as time goes by. They don’t really portray anything but themselves. It’s a feedback loop at this point, with warrior/rogue/mage trio being accepted as the way of things even as they constrain our imagination.

What else would I do? That’s a big question. Ideas are, of course, cheap. But even if you look at a game like League of Legends, I think it manages to have broad categories of characters without falling into those traps. Bearing in mind, of course, that it’s a MOBA and thus its lessons mostly apply to similar games. Nonetheless, if we want classes rather than a more freeform type of advancement, more of them but with some actual weight seem like a better solution. D&D has moved in that direction… and done so poorly, but still.

If we do want very few, broad classes rather than specific ones or no classes at all, why stick to this warrior/rogue/mage model? Why not try something like strong hero, quick hero, and smart hero? Those are actual fictional archetypes that we see again and again.

I know the three are classic and they’re not going anywhere. And I know people like them. But I wouldn’t be myself if I didn’t try to poke holes in tried and true archetypes like that. I hope I gave you some food for thought.


Images courtesy of Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, and BioWare

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