Another look at RPGs, this time from an isometric view

Posted by: Randy at 8/6/2008 3:41 AM

Egged on by those fiesty Penny Arcade chaps, I took a quick peek around their newfangled digital distribution center, the Greenhouse.  It's safe to say that quantity is not their aim, since -- into its second month -- Penny Arcade's Greenhouse has only two (count 'em!) indie-bred games basking in the environmentally-controlled and drip-irrigated warmth:  Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One (natch); and Eschalon: Book I, a game voted "Best RPG, Readers Choice" from RPGWatch.

Tycho unabashedly let it appeal to his sense of nostalgia, albeit with a meaningful contemporary twist, in his August 4th post.  And RPGWatch likewise loaded its nostalgia cannon in the opening salvo of its first impressions from nine months ago, as well.

Well, guess what?  I'm immune to nostalgia in computer RPGs... [Read the rest of "Another look at RPGs, this time from an isometric view" in our blog section.]

...since I snobbishly -- needlessly, I'll admit it -- maintained my tabletop roleplaying game purity for years, completely snubbing any 20-sided dice making a sojourn from my living room coffee table to the PC.  No, I hadn't actually had a bona fide tabletop roleplaying session since AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) 2nd Edition.  Yet I never even shook hands with a computer RPG until nearly 10 years later with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.  But, like enough kids my age in 2002, an entire nearly-jobless summer was invested into Morrowind's island of Vvardenfell, from Seyda Neen to Dagoth Ur, there and back again.

Yet I've never been fully convinced by the whole 'isometric view' thing.  In my idealized perception of what roleplaying games are and/or should be on a computer, a view from the treetops never let me get into a character's head.  If I can't see what they see from where they're seeing it and how they're seeing it, then it's hard for me to see the point.

Yet I took a chance on Tycho's recommendation of Eschalon.  I was nearly sweating, fingernails clawing into my palms during the download phase -- and all I was doing at that point was downloading the demo.  Nothing that could even be misconstrued as a prenuptial agreement between me and the game's developers.  Yet chemical resistances were coursing up my carotid artery and carrying nagging doubt right back down my aorta.

But as I logged into that first game, with the tumbling sound of six-sided dice dancing on my digitized character sheet, with the moonlit soundtrack coursing its way through the woods, with the taughtly-written character development details ... I was already being struck with a sense of nostalgia for a computer roleplaying game when I had no basis for nostalgia and computer roleplaying games.  It made no sense.

That wouldn't have sealed the deal though.  Not a misplaced sense of pseudo-nostalgia.  I could have turned back at that moment and eventually convinced myself that I'd been completely unmoved.  It might've taken a week, but I'd later describe my experience as "nonplussed."  But then the story startled me from the very beginning.  Not only did it open up with an overbaked amnesia cliche (something I'd railed against only one week prior), but I was being whirlpooled into this overused you-wake-up-and-have-no-idea-who-you-are convention, already sucked in beyond the event horizon.   Somehow (!), I was falling for it.  And it was from nothing less than the cleanly-penned authorial tone of the text.  It sure wasn't the graphics luring me in.  And it sure wasn't the off-handed turn-based movement scheme.  But there was something about the writing... 

...Only an hour into the demo, perhaps, and already I'm wondering if my character isn't perhaps retracing something out of Memento, where his past non-amnesiac self might've left notes about himself in safeguarded areas, knowing he'd find them, hoping that he'd piece together this puzzle of self-identity.  And in one of the letters my character opens, it's explained that he's a far superior warrior than he can conceive right now -- a serum he'd taken (been given?) has dumbed down his abilities, and they'll only unlock again with time and rediscovery.  So now I'm thinking I could've named my character Jason Bourne.  And then, in that very same letter, my character's given the option to eventually settle down with my new, non-Bourne identity, or to pursue a path of greater struggle that will lead to Eschalon's culmination.  So now I'm thinking that I'm being verbally presented a "red pill, blue pill" scenario, perhaps the first since the Matrix that's made the blue pill sound the least bit compelling.  And as I stroll about the town, speaking with the sensibly-realized and carefully-opinionated people, taking in their varied and choreographed stances on a distant and draining war, now I'm thinking that I might be milling about in an RPG ripped from the headlines of American newspapers.

So this is what the tip of an iceberg feels like, eh?  This is becoming one of those blindsiding epiphanies that videogamers have launched at them every once in a great while.  They're all individualized and no one can argue with you when it happens.  And this is one of those turning points for me.  Going from 'huh-uh,' to 'aha,' to 'mm-hm.'  Is this the perfect RPG?  I doubt that.  Severely.  But is it the perfect RPG for me right now?  I have no doubts about that.

When I was determined to take an indie dip this week, I was convinced (no less than 24 hours ago) that it would be with this week's XBLA star-for-the-moment, Braid.  But now, it looks as though Eschalon is going to exploit this bone dislocation made in my preconceived notions about isometric computer roleplaying games, gradually turning it into a hairline fracture of regretting at least a decade of missed roleplaying game opportunities, and eventually (I'm sorely anticipating) hitting me with the bone-breaking revelation that I've been sapped with one of the most sharply-written adventures ever to grace any roleplaying game -- tabletops included.