The world needs to stop making Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) video games. By “the world” of course I mean Wizards of the Coast (WotC). The easy reason would be to say because the majority of these games aren’t good (they aren’t). The real reason is because the nature of a video game is very antithetical to the underlying concepts of playing D&D. Allow me to explain.
When does this game end? How do we win? When I first tried to teach Dungeons and Dragons to a group of friends, I was met with these questions. To a group of people raised on video board games with discrete rule sets and win conditions, they probably seemed like reasonable inquiries. Hell, even Monopoly has an end-game if you can endure it long enough to get there.
However, I was stumped, and couldn’t offer any answers beyond, “um it doesn’t” and “well, you don’t ever really win”. In this respect, perhaps above all others, an RPG like D&D is a unique gaming experience. The journey matters so much more than the destination. Half the time, especially in long campaigns that extend over years (real life years, not in-game years) the exact endgame is never defined. You’re simply living out the adventuring lives of the characters.
Now, if you wanted to you could play through the same video game dozens of times, extending the “life” of that character. The problem of course is that you’d simply be replaying the same stories over and over again. With D&D, the flexibility of the game and its imaginative components means that you can play for a long time without ever having to repeat most actions. Options are limitless and thus play time is more or less infinite.
Only the most wide reaching open world sagas like Grand Theft Auto, The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and Red Dead Redemption can claim to even approach touting the journey over destination motif that helps define D&D. Still, after a time even these games succumb to the basic premise that games are all based on systems, which inherently have constraints.
Despite what YouTube will show you, eventually there are no more cars to steal, dungeons to raid, or animals to hunt. The game ends, having been thoroughly drained and we await the next big release.
A great example of how even when games try to grant choice and freedom it is still confined, is the Hitman series and specifically the mission from Hitman: Blood Money where Agent 47 is tasked with killing someone at an Opera. You can sabotage a part of the stage, impersonate one of the cast, replace the prop gun with a real gun, or simply isolate and attack the target.
On the surface this seems like an awful lot of choices, giving each player the chance to carry out the mission as they want to. The problem is, this is still a constrained set of options. Yes you can impersonate a cast member, but only one specific one. You can sabotage part of the stage, but only the chandelier. The opportunity for the player to truly plan and strategize is lost, because the planning stops at considering option a,b,c or d.
Most importantly, there is never the option of not killing that person. Do you want to ally with them against other enemies? Capture then and beat answers out of them? Maybe even tail them and target their boss instead? Well you are S.O.L.
So the question is, why would you take all of that freedom and creativity, and place a set of rules and restrictions on it?
One might argue that such choices are outside the realm of what the developers intended for the character (in this case Agent 47). That is true, and certainly one of the important aspects of a video game is that the game mechanics are used by the developer to tell a story about their character. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t about someone elses’ character, it is about yours, so curtailing the game choices for a D&D game doesn’t make nearly as much sense.
A note: I’m not talking about the boardgames like Castle Ravenloft that Wizards has recently spent plenty of time and energy creating. Those use the core structure and rule-set merely as a guide. Rather than attempt to create a reasonable facsimile, the board games offered so far show the versatility of the D&D universe, and merely provide alternate forums for the game. They aren’t actually trying to translate the game 1:1.
The latest in this long line of drab gaming experiences is Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale. A typical hack and slash dungeon crawler that really resembles D&D in that some characters use swords and others use magic…two things that do indeed exist in the D&D universe.
It is there where the similarities and comparisons should end, because there is no analog for Dungeons and Dragons. Even if one did exist, it wouldn’t be found on a PC or gaming console, because of the constraints. Simply putting “Dungeons and Dragons” on the box does not make it so.
This isn’t a call against all video games. Video games are often times brilliant and as I life-time gamer I wouldn’t ever give them up. Yet, there hasn’t been a decent D&D inspired game since Planescape: Torment, a cult classic , released in 1999, that was well received for allowing role playing and complete narrative immersion in a way that few PC or console games ever have.
Beyond that, you’d have to look at Temple of Elemental Evil (from 2003) and the Baldur’s Gate series for the best translation of the D&D core rule-set to a digital game offering. The first Baldur’s Gate was released back in 1999, so suffice to say it has been awhile.
There have been enough attempts in the interim, from online offerings like D&D online, which did little to truly capitalize on the unique Eberron setting, choosing the outlying city of Stormreach as its focus. The previously mentioned Daggerdale is the just the latest in a slew of hack n’ slash games that merely hold the D&D brand above the game’s title. It is depressing that this much time and effort has been spent over the last decade trying to put the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
While video games rarely become more like a tabletop RPG just by association, the opposite is unfortunately not true, especially in popular perception. I don’t think you could get very accurate statistics on how many people are turned on to D&D through a mediocre offering like Daggerdale but I imagine it doesn’t approach the number of D&D players turned off by it.
From the start of fourth edition, aficionados have complained that it is too like World of Warcraftand that it feels “videogamey.” Whether or not this is true, the best way to throw fuel on the fire is to literally make a D&D videogame! And if it’s not even going to be a good one, what’s the point?
(images from wizards.com and joystiq.com)