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Nostalgia: When RPGs were a pain, yet several times more rewarding

Gone are the days when ingenuity was one of the cores to a painful yet rewarding RPG experience.

After reading an article here in Gamasutra that directly relates to the value of RPGs back during the day, I've realized how easy these games have suddenly become. I suppose the change is directly related to the idea that RPGs must simply tap into the market that doesn't wish to be burdened at all. Gaming after all, for many, is a task of liesure.

I miss old mechanics though.

For some reason, as a child, I could remember myself deeply immersed into the lives of the fictitious characters I encountered in classic RPGs like Quest for Glory and Dragon Lore II. For those who haven't experienced these games before I might as well provide you a brief background.

Quest for Glory I was the first game I ever bought for myself as a third-grader. It was almost like any modern RPG. You had three classes to choose from: a fighter, a mage or a thief. Points were also distributed among your character's initial stats-- and trust me, stats back then may be trivial to the same genre of games nowadays. I recall stats like climbing where leveling up of which was entirely based on practicing on a tree and slipping over 50 times before one could possibly get it right. I remember how almost every stat is tied to the idea of repetition leads to the perfection of the craft.

Another aspect of the game that I remember is the immersion. Back then, I was playing a remake of an 8-bit version. Nonetheless, remake though it might be, I was playing a 16-bit graphics quality version (generally ancient compared to today's standards) and in spite of that, I was hooked! I was seven years old and I was hooked to the idea that I was this unnamed hero in the middle of a German town who earns a living through cleaning the king's stables every morning, inspects a quest board in his spare time, does mundane tasks like picking flowers in the middle of a forest, interrogates the entire town for storyline progression etc.

I don't exactly know how the developers did it, but they certainly made me feel that every line of conversation was crucial to game completion. I hung on to every word in every riddle (since RPGs back then had a knack for making lives difficult) just so I could complete the game and import my character for the sequel. I could imagine that it was one of the first games that had that feature. All I could say is that it was brilliant, simple but brilliant.

I remember how the developers played upon the idea of puzzles throughout the four other sequels. I rememember how the gameplay of a thief varied from a warrior or a mage. I remember how crossing a chasm required a thief to search for a grappling hook and a mage to hold up sheets to serve as a sail while he cast a levitate spell. I remember how a hot air balloon can be created by using a tinderbox on a brazier on a gondola made of blankets sewn together.

It was these, these incredibly thought out puzzles tied to a storyline that kept me immersed. I suppose in a way, it made me feel as if I too was going through the difficulties that my hero had to face. Having been acquainted to the difficulty of puzzles things back then (such as how to enter Hugo's House of Horrors in the RPG line of predecessors), I'd like to say that I felt more rewarded completing those games than the ones that I now play. I suppose having to face difficulty in an intellectual way is part of the immersion sometimes. Spoon-fed answers to in-game trivias for me may at times degrade that sense of accomplishment.

Another game I'd like to reminisce about is Dragon Lore II. It's technically an action-rpg based on a dragon knight who lost his claim to the throne because his dragon ally had gone missing upon his father's death. Apparently, a dragon ally is required to compete in the coronation joust. It was one of the first "First person" games that I had encountered. It was revolutionary in my eyes in a way that it made use of pre-rendered 3d scenes which could be navigated through clicking compass arrows. It was a wonderful experience because it presented riddles which were once again crucial to storyline progression.

Sometimes the inability to solve certain puzzles within a certain time period (in-game days) made the game impossible to complete with a happy ending. I even remember following a clue from a crystal ball given to me in that game. It left a really vague hint for my character. It mentioned something about bringing light to the darkness. All I could remember is that it's incredibly trivial based on today's standards. Anyway, it required me to bring a lamp/torch at night for a statue to hold. Using it upon the statue opened up the wall behind my character, a secret passage.

This secret passage led to a somewhat impossible subterranean labyrinth. Mind you, I didn't have a map since apparently, back then, walkthroughs have yet to be invented. I had a yellow pad paper beside me and I found myself listing down all the paths I took till I managed to fill the entire page. I got lost. So lost in fact that it haunted me for five more years of my life. The story was just powerful enough to make me wonder: "What the heck happened to Werner Von Wallenrod."

My last playthrough left me in a dead end. I returned from the labyrinth without figuring out where it was supposed to lead me and I ended up competing in another knightly tournament. This time however, I didn't see the unexpected turn of events that would lead my character's friend dying without any form of healing magic to help her. This ended the game for me. No, I didn't quit on it. It literally led me to a dead end that required me to load up on my save files.

Anyway, five years later, I stumbled upon the map for the labyrinth. Frustrating as the game might have been, the effort I placed on solving every puzzle without any walkthrough made me want to relive the experience. It was a blast.

I suppose the point for this blog is deeply rooted in a specific idea: games are just getting too easy and too reflex-heavy. In a way, gone are the days when plots were made interesting because a gamer ultimately feared that a wrong dialogue choice would change the course of the story forever. Gone were the days when interactive game assets weren't marked, when solutions to plots relied entirely upon the gamer's ingenuity. I miss that. It was what made my childhood gaming experience memorable. Aside from powerful character development and storytelling, it was what immortalized RPG's for me.

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