Anti/Villain

Anti/Villain
Stop Killing the Foozle!

Rowan Kaiser | 13 Jul 2010 13:00
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These two games are both "Hall of Fame"-caliber, and both demonstrate that it's possible to make plot-driven games without one-dimensional Foozles. The daring formal experimentation of Ultima IV & VI isn't always necessary to break out of Kill-the-Foozle mode, though it would not be unwelcome should it make a comeback. The BioWare/Fallout model of PC RPGs, with their focus on towns and characters instead of massive dungeon crawls seem like they'd be perfect for a more experimental, antagonist-free storyline.

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However, there is a thriving set of games partially descended from the Foozle-less Ultimas: MMOGs. In more than one sense, these are the spiritual successors to the middle games in the Ultima series. In addition to their obvious derivation from Ultima Online, they also offer similar experiences in that you can be satisfied by playing the game in multiple different fashions. An MMOG player can engage in the equivalent of the main plot and complete the hardest quests and top-tier raids with a well-geared party, yes, but they can also play entirely socially, interacting with other players safely in towns. You can play for PVP, or solo exploration, or constantly build new characters. The huge, relatively static worlds built for exploration and interaction offer much more than "beating" the game. Likewise, Ultima VI can be played with a mind towards finishing the game, but great joy can also be found in searching a meaningless dungeon, discovering a new conversation option with a previously reticent non-player character, going on a psychopathic killing spree, or baking bread for profit.

Part of the reason that the Foozle-less Ultima games were so refreshing was that they felt naturalistic. The game world felt bigger because it was bigger, yes, but the lack of a Foozle lifted a constraint from the storyline and from the player trying to follow that storyline. It was possible to relax and try to see the game world as the end, instead of the means to a storyline-fulfilling end. It took me over a decade to actually finish Ultima VIM, yet I say it's one of my all-time favorite games, and have since my first few attempts at finishing it. In this way, MMOGs both fulfill the promise of these games at the same time as they disappoint. The open-ended world and emphasis on finding your own way through the game bring to mind the classic Ultimas.

Yet, as most MMOG players can tell you, there's not much sense of relaxation. There's always something you should be doing - a daily quest, a grind for better items or more gold, or a raid you can't miss - and there's always someone telling you that you could be doing it better. Those anxiety-inducing interactions and also the psychological tricks of "grinding" aren't particularly welcome in single-player RPGs, and they offer a very different experience from the comfortable exploration of single-player RPGs like the Ultima series.

We may not see a mainstream, single-player, story-based game without a Foozle to kill for a long time. Although Ultima IV & VI provided examples of how it could be done effectively, the example wasn't followed by game designers. Although other games have experimented with the role of the antagonist, which is welcome, they still aren't daring enough to eliminate the Foozle entirely. And while multi-player games with static worlds can recreate some of the joys of the Foozle-less games, they don't provide entirely similar experiences. Perhaps someday, as the game industry moves away from narratives in which the player's victories derive from successful application of violence, games as daring as Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar and Ultima VI: The False Prophet will reappear and players can stop killing the Foozle.

Rowan Kaiser is a fashionably underemployed freelance writer living the Bay Area. He blogs at renaissancegamer.blogspot.com, tweets @rowankaiser, and is currently working on a book about the history of videogames.

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