Monday, February 27, 2012

Game 3: Ultima: Exodus (NES) - Foresight

There's one difference between RPGs on the computer/console and those on the tabletop that doesn't get highlighted nearly as often as others: the ideal of keeping player knowledge and character knowledge separate. In tabletop RPGs, keeping these two knowledge banks separate is cornerstone to the gaming experience, while in video games it remains mostly non-existent.

For those not familiar with these terms, character knowledge encompasses everything your character could possibly know in their lifetime from their perspective, and player knowledge is what you the player knows. This most often comes up when a player has knowledge that the character has no way of knowing within the game world. As an example, if your current character falls through an illusory floor to his death, your new character has no knowledge of this trap, and may fall in herself. Also, a rural farmhand turned adventurer shouldn't know the secret greetings of the thieves guild you may have learned with a previous rogue character. This goes beyond previous character knowledge into the realm of reading monster manuals for the best way to defeat an Iron Golem, or spying on a new player's character sheet to see if they truly are the ranger they claim to be. (These last two examples are still frowned upon by most gamers though, and discussed later.)

Focusing on the first two examples, we can see this concept doesn't translate well to video games. Aside from the fact there's no ever-watchful GM to keep you in check, there are many cheap deaths that will never allow you to progress without knowing they're there. In video games, playing the game is put above playing the character(s). It's rather expected to learn from your mistakes and prepare better for the adventure once more should the party be wiped out. Character knowledge is never encouraged; however, it is at times strictly enforced.
Pray? I think I'll try this strange thing you suggest...
There are many cases where dialogue options are locked until you've learned the correct piece of information. Sometimes, events don't take place, or items don't even appear until the character's have learned some vital clue. In Phantasy Star, I guess Alis didn't think a Hovercraft was useful until someone mentioned it, and that key behind her house was useless (read: not even there) unless she learns someone put it there. In Ultima: Exodus, I gained a new command after talking to a priest, the Pray command. Of course, praying sounds like something characters facing danger at every turn should already know all too well.

It seems that instead of characters being the point of a game, they are only a means for the player to learn how to beat it. Player knowledge reigns above character knowledge. Imagine if it weren't that way; it's acceptable to make maps of all the dungeons you're exploring, but should your characters die you'd have to throw them away and put aside any memory of the dungeon layout, traps, or treasures. Luckily it's not this way, and we're able to build our knowledge as we go, mapping a little more, learning from failure, and becoming familiar with how best to game the system. Sure we can choose not to do this by handicapping ourselves through creating imperfect characters, not picking the best dialogue choices, and not reloading after every failed attempt to get max HP for each level.
No? I guess I really can't run away then.
I mentioned in a previous post that save systems encourage this sort of behavior: stat-maxing, fixing gambling games, exploring alternative paths a character normally wouldn't take (seriously, who hasn't tried to kill Lord British... I'm sure even Richard Garriott tried (if he hasn't may he comment on this blog to say so)). There's really no way to get away from this because the more we play a game, the better we'll be at it through an increased understanding and foreknowledge. Unless we played a game up to and no further than the first game over screen (only saving and reloading for breaks), player knowledge will always affect our judgment.

However, there's part of comparison that still stands for video games, and other entertainment: spoilers. Many feel experiencing a game for the first time shouldn't be spoiled, so we strive to keep experienced knowledge out of the hands of new players. We warn others when discussing a game's inner workings in an open forum, and beating a game on one's own is often seen as better than eliciting help. Whether this is leads to a more enjoyable experience is hard to say when we're continuously trying to explore a dungeon that hundreds or thousands of others have already mapped, or solve a puzzle whose solution is just a few clicks away. Going it alone, as others have, may lead to camaraderie between peers; almost like a shared experience participated in by individuals, throughout the years, this experience is held higher than others. Having a fresh experience is a one time affair, and can never be recaptured again.
Well, I won't be trying this spot again.
With the amount of hours necessary to pour into a new game, how much is that first time really worth? It seems nearly priceless to most with sentiments abound of wanting to play a game again as if it were new, while others are content at playing through with guides on their lap. Personally, I enjoy figuring out a game on my own unless I'm completely stuck. So, I continue on.

For those wondering, why yes, my party did die... multiple times. I've made hardly any progress in the nearly 5 hours on Saturday night. I did learn the Pray ability, and tried it nearby to find myself the proud owner of a shiny new silver horn. Some NPCs hinted (not sure how they knew) that a silver horn would remove the snake blocking the path to Exodus. In one iteration I raised my level, which is the only way to get pirate enemies to spawn I learned. The only way to get a ship is to attack pirates and steal theirs. Somehow I ran across Fawn (still can't figure out how), and wow, this town has everything (when I say everything, it even has an inn to save). I was able to get a Bow for Chet, and stocked up on tools.
I was told to stay away, only one said he ever made it back, that number didn't go up
Some things I've learned, but my characters currently don't know: I've mapped a couple of caves, the whirlpool is a gateway to a place called Ambrosia, there's a town that's blocked off by NPC guards, the barriers damage for more than 550 HP, and I've found I need to level; however, leveling makes getting gold harder. I wonder if I should grind enough for the best armor, or continue to plunge into dungeons mostly unprepared for full exploration, making maps along the way for use in the next attempt. Aside from a hint of four marks, I really don't know why I'm going into these dungeons. There are also a few items mentioned: silver and gold pick axes, and a mystic sword and armor. At least grinding gets my characters somewhere because character progress feels more accomplishing than increasing my own knowledge of the game.
Oh, and I got horsies! Contrary to popular opinion, they do not make traveling faster


  1. Another area where character knowledge and player knowledge causes a problem is with stats. You could have a party of characters with barely enough intelligence to tie their own shoe laces, but who are able to solve complex puzzles because the player can. In many CRPGs wisdom and intelligence are only there to determine how many spells a character can memorise.

  2. Nice reflexion on the medium! I'm definitely one for first experiences in a video game. I really hate resorting to walkthroughs, mainly because you often find that the solution was not that far away (or was something you thought about but couldn't manage to do because of controls or counterintuitive commands) and you feel then that the accomplishment was stolen away from you.

    I agree on Wingnut's comment too. I remember playing tabletop RPG with a pretty dumb character and being told all the time by the GM that I couldn't have figured one thing or another by myself considering the intelligence level of my character. Was pretty frustrating, so I guess this kind of realism, however tempting it may be, has a steep price and may not be adapted to CRPGs.

    If I'm not mistaken, Fallout had a pretty interesting take on the subject in the dialogue trees. You could discuss nuclear physics if your character intelligence was sufficient, but couldn't utter multisyllabic words if he was stupid.

  3. Thinking on it more, and the last two comments (thanks guys), there's probably similarity between player skill vs. character skill in this as well.

    I do remember that it was possible to put 0 or 1 point in intelligence in the original Fallout at least, and all dialogue options from your character become grunts, incomprehensible phrases, or shouts. I think that's the most well done dialogue that actually took low level intelligence into account.

  4. If you have ever listened to Penny Arcade's podcasts of them playing D&D, they reference the fact that one of the player's characters has low wisdom, and he plays it up to hilarious effect (it's on their series of "Dark Sun" podcasts).

    1. Sounds fun. I remember when I first started role-playing I always wanted the best stats. After playing a while though, I enjoyed the quirks of my characters more than their level of perfection.

      I should get to listening podcasts. If only I didn't shun technology to such a degree that I don't have anything but my computer to play them on. Not purposeful shunning, more monetarily shunning.