In 2019, Disco Elysium pushed the RPG genre until people said it wasn’t really an RPG at all. They called it an adventure game or a visual novel. Disco Elysium was truly an RPG of course – one with its roots in the classic CRPG Planescape: Torment and the tabletop RPG genre with real dice – but it was revolutionary enough to navigate to the edge of our practical definitions. It was like proof of a thriving genre.
While games directly influenced by Disco will take a while to arrive, it looked like the product of an overgrown RPG greenhouse. Was that same climate about to produce even more fruit of unusual proportions?
Maybe not. In contrast, in 2021, the genre felt secure and predictable. For starters, it was dominated by remasters, re-releases, and ports. In addition to Disco Elysium’s own Final Cut, there was Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Diablo 2: Resurrected, Final Fantasy pixel remasters, Nier Replicant, Legend of Mana HD, Geneforge 1 – Mutagen, more Kingdom Hearts games on PC that any human could ever actually play, and Skyrim Anniversary Edition incremental update. Further on, we can look forward to the next gen edition of The Witcher 3 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Remake.
There is nothing inherently wrong with reissuing old games. In the old days, the classics were often lost, either hard to find or hard to run on modern machines, with the history of the medium evaporating behind us. While games are still systematically taken off the list these days, overall the industry is better able to preserve and promote its own history than it was before. (And enjoy it, of course.)
What’s surprising is that most of the new RPGs released between the herd of 2021 re-releases didn’t seem like the future, either. They turned to celebrations of the past, the kind of games that will inevitably be described as “love letters”.
Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous is a particularly glaring example, a tribute to Baldur’s Gate with a layer of strategy from Heroes of Might & Magic, a chapter set in an extraplanar city that would be comfortable in Planescape, and two dungeons that refer to the chests of Fallout .
We also had to the east, which is a love letter to Earthbound and The Legend of Zelda, Shut in, which is a love letter to Fallout and STALKER, Monster crown, which is a love letter to Pokémon and Dragon Quest monsters, and Solasta: crown of the magisterium, which is a love letter to Neverwinter Nights and every D&D campaign led by a teenage Dungeon Master. These are RPGs so old-fashioned they should come with a pair of suspenders and a hat.
These aren’t bad games, they just repeat past successes. RPGs, like the fantasy fiction they came from, have always tended to look backwards.
When drawing inspiration from legends and history, in the words of grumpy professional Michael Moorcock, traditional fantasy can be “sentimental, slightly distanced, often melancholy, a little retrospective.” Fantasy presents worlds where the old means better and where the lost empires of the distant past are idealized, and these attitudes can echo in the culture around fantasy as well.
Even sci-fi RPGs tend to seek their inspiration. This year’s Encased, a tribute to Fallout isometrics, is a perfect example. Where Fallout contrasted a post-apocalypse of Mad Max with the raygun optimism of 50s and 60s sci-fi, Encased combines Mad Max with dystopian 70s fiction, trading jetpacks for suits. They are retrofutures and alternative pasts rather than visions of tomorrow.
Familiar settings can still make great games, but they’re also usually combined with familiar formats. Characters that regularly go from zero to heroes, journeys through a dangerous wilderness to a safe settlement slightly larger than the last, loot to collect and sell, factions to side with or alienate, underground areas full of monsters, at least one side quest with zombies. They’re fun, and predictable, from second servings of meals we’ve already eaten.
To concern Ruined King: A League of Legends Story, which is essentially developer Airship Syndicate redefining its previous RPG Battle Chasers: Nightwar, smoothly replacing one generic fantasy cartoon license with another.
However, not every RPG that looked back to 2021 was a pure tribute or a love letter. Gamedec, a cyberpunk RPG about a detective who solves mysteries in games, has taken on everything from Stardew Valley to Star Citizen (its protagonist collects expensive spaceships for a video game that remains unfinished even in the 22nd century). More pointed was Get in the car, loser!, who reversed the arrogant heterosexuality of Final Fantasy 15’s team of playable brothers and bikini mechanic for guys to ogle. On the other hand, get in the car, loser! is a self-proclaimed lesbian travel RPG with a diverse enough cast that the middle commentary section pokes fun at itself into a shriveled raisin.
There is value in the parody and the commentary, in the criticism that comes from inside the house. Maybe that can help clear the deck for more RPGs that feel like breakthroughs for the form of it. I’ve only played a few this year. Oddly enough, they were both games about dealing with the past.
Look back and move on
Wild myth is a tactical RPG that is more concerned with simulating the tangled inter-character relationships of long-running D&D games than their races. His adventurers never earn gold, but they develop rivalries and romances, have children, and retire. When you complete one Wildermyth campaign and start another, some of those legacy heroes can return to join the new cast, leveled up and rejuvenated again. Fragments of their past remain, however. They retain selected abilities and are haunted by the effects of ancient adventures. One of my warriors, infected with a gorgon seed, returned with a stone crust still on her face and a prosthesis replacing the leg she had lost in a battle against thick and thin.
You can also choose to forget about certain characters, making sure they never come back. Or if you’re not spending Legacy Points to preserve someone’s last iteration at the end of a campaign, make that story non-canon, reverting to its previous state. It’s up to you to decide whether your characters keep growing and changing, or revert to an iconic version.
One of my inherited heroes fell from a tapestry depicting myths and legends in the middle of a subsequent match. Her memories were blurred and she didn’t seem convinced that this new generation of heroes was more real than others she claimed to have encountered in the lost years between the two. I’ve never played a video game that so perfectly mimics the feeling of bringing an old D&D character to a new table where your previous adventures cease to feel valid and you find your assumptions and story in conflict with the world in which one you find yourself in and the dynamic cast of the group that.
Surprisingly, the other innovative RPG I played in 2021 is based on a Skyrim mod from 2015. The forgotten city only keeps a few pieces of the parent game that worked – archery is Skyrim’s most obvious, and NPC planning is a clue to Elder Scrolls DNA as well.
The difference is when the guards say things you’ve heard before in Whiterun it’s awkward, whereas in The Forgotten City it fits the theme. It’s a game about getting caught in a time loop. You are pulled through the ages to a cursed Roman colony where the punishment for any crime results in the death of everyone. To lift the curse, each time that happens you are once again pulled back to start the day anew, hoping this time you will anticipate and prevent the crime.
Another retained element of Bethesda’s open world RPGs is the way you bounce back and forth between side quests and main quests of a wide variety of tones. The most egregious example is Tilt Into Horror, a remarkable section about being trapped in a maze of living statues. It works because it contrasts with the warm, mysterious village vibe of what came before, and because the replacement of Tamriel lore with Greek and Roman myths gives the supernatural elements more impact.
When someone compares your impossible task to Sisyphus rolling his boulder up the hill, it resonates (even if you immediately think of the smiley version of Supergiant’s Hades).
RPG in 2022
A few upcoming RPGs look set to build new futures on old bones.
– Death Trash – Recycle raw meat to survive. It turns the isometric RPG into a weird shape that plays out differently and tells a different kind of story.
– She Dreams Elsewhere uses Earthbound’s distorted America aesthetic to represent the inner world of a patient in a coma.
– Baldur’s Gate 3 modernizes the series enough to make people who think RPGs peaked in 1998 apoplectic, which makes me happy.
While a layer of Skyrim can be seen in the foundations of The Forgotten City, like the burnt level of strata beneath London from when Boudica razed the place, it abandons a lot of traditional RPG cruft. Stats and skills have nothing to do with the kind of story The Forgotten City tells, so she removes them. The distinctions between character classes are so minimal that they barely exist – archaeologists get a glimpse of the items they examine, outlaws get increased sprint speed – and there’s no leveling or XP.
Instead, you get better from loop to loop as you learn what’s going on. You solve a side quest to deliver life-saving medicine to someone in need, then set up a convenient way to deliver it to them each day.
You are not empowered because some numbers have increased, but because you transform into Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, always in the right place at the right time, a living machine of Rube Goldberg walking a path that you have perfectly mapped out.
The Forgotten City and Wildermyth share certain themes. These are games for deciding what to keep from what happened before, and using it to write a new future. RPGs may seem stuck in a rut, focused on yesterday, but hopefully they will learn some lessons and 2022 will be a more balanced gap. Retro re-releases and celebrations alongside RPGs that make the genre unknown again, whether that’s finding unexpected gaps to fill or figuring out which old ideas that seemed essential can be forgotten and replaced with new ones.