Good Old Reviews
The Pen is Mightier Than the Polygon: Why Words Matter

Stew Shearer | 4 Oct 2014 12:00
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"A picture is worth a thousand words."

If ever there was a cliché adage, it's that one. As tired as it sounds, however, it's often very true. For most people, sight is their primary way of experiencing the world and, in turn, the bulk of our art and culture is grounded in the assumption that you have a working set of eyes. Video games especially fall under this umbrella. For much of their history, the growth of games has been judged by the progress of their visuals. A new high resolution game comes out and gamers marvel at its accomplishments or a new console is announced and we wonder how much closer its graphics will creep toward the uncanny valley.

It also would be no stretch to say that this model is killing the game industry. As great as it can be to play a title filled with shiny visuals that push hardware to its limits, it's no secret that actually putting these beasts together has become an affair so expensive that it's become prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of studios and publishers. A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it sure as hell isn't worth $20 million.

Nor is it worth the drastic lack of variety that's been emerging as a byproduct of everyone and their uncle trying to milk the same, reliably safe cow. One thing that's been a constant throughout the course of my retro adventures has been this nagging thought that so many of the games I've played and reviewed would never be made today. PlaneScape: Torment, for instance, is the sort of the game that I would never expect to see released as a AAA title backed by a big bucks publisher. It's just too weird and would pose too much of a financial risk.

Moreover, I'm not sure if a PlaneScape released today would even be the same game Black Isle Studios produced back in 1999. To be sure, video games have been able to make wonderful use of the industry's improving visual capabilities and production values. The Last of Us, for instance, probably ranks as one of my favorite games of all time based solely on the strength of Naughty Dog's wonderfully executed narrative. As good as it was, however, it's also a relatively simple story. I was nowhere near the creative process on that game, but I'm still willing to bet that "linear tale of a guy and teenage girl travelling across post-apocalypse countryside" is a tad easier to translate into a shiny looking game than "tale of amnesiac immortal on quest in surreal fantasy land to discover true nature with heavy emphasis on player choice."

PlaneScape was able to do what it did because, despite being a "video" game, the majority of its storytelling occurred via thick chunks of text. Its script famously contained around 800,000 words and, while there are certainly modern day equivalents, you'd be hard pressed to find many that used words to construct their world quite so skillfully as some of the games of yesteryear. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, boasts a script of about 750,000 words and, much like PlaneScape, devotes much of its attention to giving the player wide ranging dialogue options and moments of decision making that can significantly alter how the game ends.

The big difference between them is that PlaneScape: Torment is a 2D isometric RPG, while Dragon Age: Origins takes place in a detailed, fully 3D world. And while some might count that as a point in Origins corner, it becomes less of a boon when you consider that it took BioWare the better part of a decade to make it compared to PlaneScape which was completed in a drastically leaner two.

And while there are examples of other modern "choice" games that took less time to complete than Dragon Age , one of their frequent defining traits is a reliance on relatively simple, black and white decision points. Dragon Age 2, for instance, was completed in a fraction of its predecessor's development time and, while it has its fans, suffers from limited choices, most of which are ultimately designed to railroad you toward a sadly static conclusion. Granted, the game also contains a lot of evidence pointing to a rushed development cycle. Even so, it's hard not to draw conclusions when the addition of a more cinematic, voiced protagonist goes hand-in-hand with simplified player choice.

The biggest shame of it all is that employing text doesn't just make games cheaper and easier to make. When used well it can be just as, if not more effective than visuals and voice acting. Playing PlaneScape, I never felt like I was trapped in a lesser experience because it wasn't fully voiced, reused sprites, and had flat, pre-rendered backgrounds. The fact that the game was brilliantly written was more than enough to hold me for the duration of my play time. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the game's flair for descriptive writing was far more effective when it came to crafting its world than graphics alone ever could have been.

I suppose this could all just sound like the tired ranting of another gamer pining after a bygone era. That said, I don't think it's just me. Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2, Torment: Tides of Numenara; these were all substantial crowdfunding successes that sold themselves as a return to those days when the written and read word were still the driving force behind role-playing games. If their wild success is indicative of anything, it's that there's still an audience hungry for experiences built on that other cliché notion that less can sometimes amount to infinitely more.

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Come back next week for my review of Front Mission 3! In the mean time, feel free to PM me with comments, suggestions and ideas for future reviews.

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