I am not a big fan of the Bioware single player RPGs. It’s not through lack of trying; the only one I can think of offhand that I haven’t played is Mass Effect 3 (because fuck you, EA, I don’t buy PC games except through Steam). I want to like them, because I want to believe their marketing hype, their claims to be the ultimate storytelling RPGs. I’d like to play that game. Instead, I’ve played a lot of flabby mass-produced RPG-flavored visual novels.
Leaving aside the unreconstructed racism, the awkward dialogue, the clumsy setting design and the sluggish pacing, the thing that really drives me away from Bioware’s games is the lack of system play.
I’ve got this theory about designing games for first-use and re-use. When you play a game once, you’re playing for content. Content play is when you want to see what happens next in the story. It’s when you’re eager to see the next dungeon, and you’re digging through dialogue trees to hear the NPC’s life story. It’s what you’re doing when you see what the shop in the new village has for sale, and what you’re doing when you go on a side-quest to unlock the NPC’s love-and-marriage options. Content play is everything the narrative designer wanted you to see, hopefully in the order he wanted you to see it.
System play is what you’re doing the second time through the game, and every time thereafter. You’re playing to try out different combinations of abilities. You’re playing to master a boss fight and get an S-Rank or 100% or Flawless Victory. It’s what you’re doing when you discover the crafting system can be used to make items of absurd, cataclysmic power — more than you’ll ever need to win the game — and you start unpacking the crafting mechanics to find the optimal paths through it. It’s what you’re doing when you min/max your character, when you figure out the best path through the Sphere Grid, when you learn that certain items have hidden bonuses in rare circumstances, and you start writing down your damage numbers to track it.
When I played Knights of the Old Republic, because it was highly acclaimed and many friends told me to play it, I was initially enthusiastic. I leveled up and was allowed to make character customization choices, and after doing so I couldn’t wait to try my choices out in real fights. That was the moment of disillusionment, right there, as I tricked out my dual-saber badass and waited for the chance to chop up a bad guy. Because that chance never came.
Fights in KOTOR were part of the narrative. If the narrative didn’t call for a fight, there was no fight. You couldn’t just go looking for trouble. Did your quest take you out to fight sandpeople or droids or sith dudes or whomever? Then you get to fight them. Otherwise, go talk to civilians about their lost kittens. God forbid you pick any of the customization options that made you better at fighting evil Force-users; you get to fight like, one of those per chapter.
KOTOR, in what would be an ongoing issue, had essentially no system play. The system existed to nail the ‘RPG’ bullet point on the box, but in practice, it could have been a Type-Moon visual novel. If you didn’t win a fight, it was because you failed to fully explore the annoyingly mundane side quests. The total XP available in the game was finite; you will be the right level at each checkpoint, with the right stats and the right combat abilities. Any choices you make about the system are just flavor.
I remember being thrilled in Mass Effect 1 when I landed on a planet and found what was clearly a pre-fab copy of a building, inhabited by random enemies. I assumed that I’d be able to land on any planet, and similar buildings would be randomly seeded around the place, and I could come back and fight more dudes whenever I wanted. I shouldn’t have gotten so excited; Bioware was on the job, ready to disappoint me. If I could fight anyone as much as I wanted, I might upset the expected power levels at my next narrative event. (Since the customization in ME1 was effectively nonexistent, this was not actually all that bad.)
Monster Hunter Tri is the mirror-universe version of a Bioware RPG.
When you play a Bioware RPG, it feels like the design team built a content arc, and then hung some flimsy system bits onto it, like tinsel on a Christmas tree. You know that the content is the game’s heart, and if the system is minimal (ME1), clumsy (Jade Empire) or actively bad (Dragon Age), that’s fine; you didn’t come for that anyway. You wanted to have blue alien sex or talk about racism with lily white (but oh-so-marginalized) elves.
When you play Monster Hunter Tri, you are playing a muscular, brutal, highly refined game system with some vague fantasy trappings draped over and around it. The systems come first. The systems are king. They are in charge, and the content gets the fuck in line behind the game systems where it belongs, and it keeps its goddamn mouth shut if it knows what’s good for it.
You get the impression, playing it, that the skin could be literally anything. You could be a space explorer on an alien planet, or a caveman in paleolithic times, or a Pictish warrior in Scotland. It doesn’t matter. At one point, someone watching over my shoulder said, ‘So is this a… dinosaur hunting simulator?’ Until that moment, I had not realized all the monsters were dinosaurs. That’s how little it mattered.
The game loop is like this: you go on a quest. The quest is usually ‘Kill 10 of these guys’ or ‘Get 10 of this item’. You’re dropped off in an extremely limited hunting area. Open world games? MH3 sneers at your open world. This world is so closed you don’t even walk to the hunting area; you’re magically teleported there when you start the quest. How did you get to the desert from your lush tropical island? Shut your goddamn mouth, that’s how. You go out and fight monsters. You gather items from their corpses in a very visceral animation sequence. You pick flowers and mine ore and catch bugs and dig in the dirt. You fill up your bag with dozens of different types of item, and then you can’t carry anything else, so you finish up your quest and you’re taken instantly back to the village.
You look at your haul, and you see that you’ve got 12 of the Random Claw Thing, and 21 of the Random Fang Thing, but you need another item, the Random Hide Thing, to craft a brand new weapon or a brand new piece of armor. You empty out your bag — not to sell, never to sell, but to hoard in your item stash for possible future use — and you take another quest. The kill-10 part of the quest is almost an afterthought now. You kill the last monster after you’re finished with everything else you wanted to do. You have to get that Random Hide, and on the way you pick up a Mysterious Mushroom, and you start wondering what that’s for. Maybe some kind of potion. Maybe some kind of poison bomb? Better get ten.
Just when you start to wonder what it’s all for, why you’re trying to master the clumsy controls and the byzantine crafting systems, it’s time for the main event. MH3 is a game about boss fights. Lots and lots of boss fights. After you beat a boss for the first time, congratulations! You might get attacked by that boss at any time now! While killing 10 of whatever, or mining, or whatever you’re doing. Hello! Boss time!
Boss fights are where the game’s various mechanics and concepts all come together. You heft that big fucking sword and when it connects with the giant lizard-fish-dinosaur’s face, and he recoils and flops down on his back twitching, stunned, and you feel it like a shock up through your wrists, you’re sold. You can’t wait to swing that sword again. You start learning combos so that you can hit that lizard’s face two or three times in a row. You try out the giant hammer and learn that if you hit the lizard just right, he will be knocked unconscious for a while, and you can go up and pound his face into the ground at your leisure.
And then you hear a crunching noise and, no shit, part of the lizard breaks right the fuck off and falls on the ground. You hit him in the tail with your giant sword and you cut it off and now you can harvest lizard parts off it.
Now you know why you’re gathering bugs to crush into potions to make buff items, and why you’re warding off thieving anthropomorphic cats while you try to cut chunks of meat off miniature dinosaurs. You know why you have to go grind a quest over and over to get more ore and more spider webs and more healing herbs. You’re ready to do whatever it takes to get that moment again, that satisfying crunch as your absurd slab of sharpened metal shatters that giant bird’s claws and sends it limping off to its lair.
The same someone, watching over my shoulder, asked: “Where’s the monster’s health bar? How do you know how injured it is?”
See how it’s limping? See how the frill around its head is all torn up and battered? See the steam of its breath as it gets more and more exhausted, and the running drool leaking from its mouth? See how it’s got no tail? That’s how. Health bars are for games that don’t have the meaty thud of a hammer bigger than your character slamming into a monster’s face.
If Bioware games are all content and no system, MH3 is all system and no content. The story? Uh, there’s a water monster, I think? And a village? Shit, I have no idea. The story is that there’s a bunch of goddamn boss fights and you’re going to fight those goddamn bosses. Characterization, setting, plot: these things are for other, lesser games. Games for children.
Inevitably, when talking about the endgame in an MMO, someone will chime in with ‘it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.’ I’ve always had contempt for that particular aphorism, because the journey in, say, World of Warcraft, is built out of tired tropes and repetitive quests. I’m sure there are people for whom the 1 to 70 grind in the Burning Crusade era of WoW was pure bliss, who eagerly took quests hoping to find out more about the Story Of Those NPCs Who Are More Important Than You. I was not those people. I wanted to run instances and raid, because the journey was dull as shit, and the destination was challenging system-based gameplay.
So here’s MH3: it’s the journey, man, not the destination. Because there is no destination. Not anymore; the game had an online multiplayer component where the difficulty curve became a difficulty wall, where being ground up and spit out was the best you could hope for. But now that online component is gone, shut down last May. That’s three major boss fights that are no longer available, and a whole host of equipment, loot, and quests that are gone permanently.
Developers: unless you are actually making a MMO, don’t host gameplay on your own servers. Peer-to-peer is just fine for a four-person, instanced mission. I’m looking at MH3 here, but the same is true for all the various incarnations of Phantasy Star Online. Action games have been able to get four people together on an ad-hoc basis to kill monsters for almost twenty years. By making MH3 rely on centralized matchmaking servers, the developers gave it a finite lifespan — a mistake in an age of long-tail retro gaming revivals, where you can find people playing Quake 1 and Diablo 1 at all hours of the day and night.
So it has to be about the journey. There is no real final boss, not anymore. There’s a hard fight at the end of the story, but we already know how much the story matters in this world of face-smashing and corpse-chopping. Who cares that you saved the village? Where’s the next challenge, goddamn it?!
But the journey works, in this case, because the journey is comprised almost entirely of boss fights. Every one is a new puzzle to solve, a new chance to hack wings and tails and fangs and tusks off, a new opportunity to carve weird organs out of a still-twitching corpse. You fight that first boss, the Great Jaggi, who will later be little more than a nuisance, and either you get it or you don’t. Either hitting that guy with your transforming steampunk sword/axe/chainsaw/gun (yes that is a thing) and making him reel backwards in agony is your thing, or it isn’t.
And if it isn’t, you won’t like MH3. And also, you may want to reconsider your life choices.