I think what stands out the most about Risen 2, looking back, is that there doesn’t seem to be any sailing in it. Maybe there’s some in there somewhere, I confess I didn’t play all the way through because I got kinda depressed after getting to the third or fourth colony town indistinguishable from the last. But there’s something inherently wrong about a pirate game that takes place entirely on land. Because half the people you meet aren’t pirates in that case, are they? They’re just colonists with funny accents. Seems like an opportunity was missed to have maybe a nice little sailing mechanic bridging the RPG bits where you arrange your sails according to the wind and have the odd sea battle. You know. Wind Waker – big world style.

I was psyched to play an RPG set in absolutely bloody anything besides the standard fantasy setting (or the increasingly standard sci-fi setting), not just because the story and visuals would maybe be something different for once but also because it might be encouraged to mess around with gameplay besides the usual routine of stab a bunch of things then sell all their trousers. As much as I keep hearing that game developers these days just don’t care about story, one can’t get away from the fact that story, setting and context all define the gameplay. Some might say they’re the very first thing that do so when one first formulates the idea. Here’s a quick experiment. How would you design a game based upon the life of Muhammad Ali? Your first thought was probably that it would have to be a boxing game, wasn’t it. Either that or a smack talk simulator. See what I mean? Story first, then gameplay from that. And there’ll be no cover-based shooting no matter how much the publisher thinks it’d sell.

You look at the standard fantasy setting and a lot of that immediately dictates the gameplay, too. It’s probably going to be a pre-industrial medieval sort of arrangement, so the combat will be sword-based. And the thing about a game set in a fantasy world is that the story is going to be largely about the world as a whole, since unlike real-world games you can’t rely on the player’s existing knowledge of the world and need to spend most of your time giving out exposition. So that will usually mean that the plot is about the entire world being under threat by something hideous, probably an army of baddies so there’ll be plenty of things to kill, and you’ll be a wandering adventurer in an appropriate position to explore the shit out of everything.

Bearing all that in mind the gameplay of Risen 2 is to a certain degree informed by its pirate setting. The skills you learn are mostly those of a roguish corsair, like using a cutlass, or fighting dirty, or training a monkey to burgle a house (no, seriously). Just feels like they could have gone a bit deeper with it, is all. A pirate game where you don’t spend any time on a ship (at sea, I mean, not parked in a cove somewhere) is like a paper-scissors-stone simulator in which you aren’t issued an index finger.

But I’ll reiterate one thing from the video: pirates have way more personality than elves. I reflected on this at one point in Risen 2 while two pirate captains were brokering an exchange of rum and gold, exchanging foul-mouthed insults with each other and breaking into raucous laughter when agreement was reached. And it occurred to me that you’d never see two elves talk like that. Possibly as a consequence of fantasy stories being about the world, a lot of those games fall short in giving most of their characters much in the way of personality.


A lot of that comes down to motivation, and being so focused on keeping the story and gameplay flowing that they forget to satisfactorily establish why characters – especially protagonists – are doing what they’re doing. So in the interests of addressing that I’d like to conclude (read: pad) this column by listing off a few examples of character motivations that do not in the slightest bit count as an interesting personality.

Because the World Must Be Saved!

Okay, fair enough, you can’t say a character has no stake when the world they live in is about to blow up, but I’d still like to know what’s driving them. You and I get told the world is going to end every bloody minute, either by terrorism or nuclear war or people not recycling, but none of us have left our comfortable routines to sort shit out, because the concept is just too big for us to get our heads around. There’s got to be something more behind the character’s decision to set off on the grand adventure. Do they have something to prove? Do they just really hate living with their mum?

Because an authority figure told them to.

Even if the King of Bumfuckia (or, come to think of it, the commander of your military organization in the plots of most shooters) is a noble twinkly-eyed benevolent guardian and teacher of his subjects, blindly following his every slightest command is still rather unhealthy behavior. Such a character has no personality because they have no mind of their own. One thing about Risen 2‘s story I liked is that, while the protagonist is initially sent by the Inquisition to go undercover as a pirate, I get the strong impression as the game proceeds that he’s gradually becoming the mask and increasingly inclined to tell the Inquisition to go suck a crow’s nest.

Because they’re just “good”.

Usually offered as a reason why the character goes out of his way to rescue the imperilled wife of some bloke he’s never met and will never meet again, or indeed save a kingdom they show no sign of familiarity for. Anyone who risks their own life and expends potentially vital resources to save something they might not have any stake in simply because they were asked nicely is probably a complete arsehead. And it’s not even being “good”, strictly speaking. It’s like giving money to random charity workers canvassing on street corners. That doesn’t make you a good person. You wouldn’t have spared a single thought for the orphans if you hadn’t been badgered about it. You’re doing it to temporarily feel good about yourself, a sort of moral masturbation. And if a wandering adventurer doesn’t take time out to rescue every imperilled wife in the kingdom then he’s clearly only taking on an isolated case to gain XP and a pair of the husband’s old armoured trousers.

Because it’s the only way to proceed in the game.

Hopefully this one’s self-explanatory, but there’s one fairly big exception, and that’s Bioshock. That’s a very, very isolated case, though. Is your game story actively deconstructing the very concept of linear gameplay? No? Didn’t think so. So shut up and give your hero daddy issues or something.

Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is

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