There are rules to every party. You need to have someone there that craves attention, someone who has to be louder than everyone else and have all focus directed at them. Then there are the random people who just turn up, who talk to no one and you always want to keep one eye on. Inevitably you find them in the kitchen stealing your food and bragging about how much they drank to people who don’t care. Somewhere, there’s that quiet person from work who you never really talk to but thought it best to invite them anyway. The party has been kicking for an hour or so now and they still haven’t said a word save to quietly mention to someone who is too drunk to care a better way to arrange the furniture in order to ensure maximum partying as you pass them in the hall.
And then, there’s you. Twenty four and still the one who has to hold back people’s hair as they vomit, the one who has to walk around passing out glasses of water so that people start to feel better and the one who sticks around to make sure people get home ok. It’s not even your party, not even your house but that’s what you do and no one ever says thank you. Still, you got what you came for, a phone number and some cake and you’re never doing it again. Or at least until you’re twenty five anyway.
It’s not hard to see where MMO games got their inspiration from for the makeup of a good party system. It’s perhaps more fantasy than the games’ settings to think that the Gygaxs who birthed the party system we know in video games ever got invited to those sorts of parties, but that’s all started to change in society now and there are plenty of Gurlgaxs fishing for invites for your next party into the Deeprun Caverns.
It’s one of the most social experiences in an online video game these days, pulling together with friends or total strangers, toppling an enemy and divvying the loot. You each get your own roles, have your own responsibilities and know that failing to fulfil those obligations could cost your party a wipe – an event in which all party members are slain and forced to restart from an earlier point. It doesn’t matter that you’re running the dungeon for the 35th time and that you’re still waiting for that epic sword to drop, the experience is different every time and the party system is to thank for that.
I can’t pretend that it’s always a positive experience. Any event which requires you to work with complete strangers can easily introduce you to characters you would rather have nothing to do with. Impatient folk who apparently have more important things to be doing, but not so important that they couldn’t wait to do this until after they had been out and done it. Know it all party leaders that demand obedience and insist that fights be dealt with only in manners which have been pre-approved by them in advance. A personal favourite of mine are the ones who walk into the party and the dungeon for the very first time, not something that happens often, but I get a real treat when it does. Usually it’s a harmless addition to the group and the player submits themselves to the experience of others for guidance and instruction, but if any of the other usual suspects are present however, then the poor soul is in for a rough ride and I wouldn’t blame them if their first adventure into these sections of online RPGs also happened to be their last.
As I previously hinted, this isn’t something new and exciting that’s exclusive to the world of MMO. Partying in games has been around for decades. Take Gauntlet, the classic hack and slash coin-op that had you and three friends physically pummelling the crap out of each other to settle who got to plays as whom before you’d even fished around in your pockets for change. Once settled, then you could take to the dungeons and really put your friendships to the test. Sharing food was vital and drawing enemies into environments where you have the advantage even more so. One player could cost you the game if they inadvertently destroyed a potion through shooting like it was going out of fashion, so being aware of your position and taking responsibility for your fire button was that first step into understanding the party mechanic.
To fast forward to a more advanced use of the party system takes us to Baldur’s Gate, the undisputed Jewel in the RPG crown. The game operated on Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition Rules and so the class you chose to play as was a more complex one compared to Gauntlet’s system of Wizard, Elf, Warrior and Valkyrie. As has become the norm for a Bioware game, you’re not simply asked to save the world from the evil of the day on your own. Along the way you acquire a band of thugs, thieves, knaves (and a miniature giant space hamster) who stand with you in your quest. As the controlling player, you have dominion over your party and can readily switch between the other members in combat in order to ensure your survival. It’s not an absolute requirement but in order to save your health potions from becoming another stain on the wall, the persistent use of space bar to pause the action and stack up a barrage of spells and abilities from all angles kept you very much ahead of the curve.
JRPGs approached combat with a different stick. Here you would always have to consider the skills of your party and always command their actions in battle with no AI assistance at all. Some JRPGs would constrain each character to certain roles, with white mages being the only characters with access to healing and enhancement spells and black mages being the ultimate tools for destruction. Occasionally a game like Final Fantasy VII or VIII would bench that approach and allow the player to make up their mind about who they wished to have fill certain roles and expect they would use them accordingly. For people that had ventured into JRPG from the worlds of RTS and action games, this was somewhat of a foreign concept, at first as the primary instinct was simply to kill the enemies before they kill you, with little regard given to how better make use of your characters. Having found that there’s only so far that technique can get you, eventually the player would come around to the party ways of thinking and start to better install their magic and skills, beginning each battle with the tireless process of buff, boost and then battle.
There were variations on this for quite a while, with some RPG games becoming more complex and some becoming more streamlined. JRPGs similarly flitted between the traditional approaches of class and role to more abstract ones where characters could become proficient in alternate skills (given enough pre-planning and commitment to the course). Of course the MMO came along and changed all of that. In a console environment you could readily command an NPC to do your bidding but in online gaming, that was never going to be the case.
World of Warcraft managed to put the party system into the spotlight. Other MMOs had been doing everything Warcraft would for years already but few had the appeal that Blizzard’s behemoth managed to create. A party in Warcraft should feel just like a party. There should be an attention seeking loud mouth to draw in the mobs and there would be a pairing of damage dealing jock jawed hair-brains that could contribute simply by striving to be so self-centred that their damage would be higher than their counterpart. The quiet brain of the operation had a place in the party too; someone who could see the big picture and keep an eye out for opportunity, provide both direct and indirect support with buffs and crowd control tactics that go un-noticed, but which are essential for surviving the rough encounters. And of course the selfless healer to stand at the back and keep everyone alive without so much of a word of thanks or a complaint levelled against them.
Wherever you found yourself fitting inside that system, you strived to be the best, to be able to offer the group something different to what they had already encountered in other people playing the same class. Tanks and healers live and die by the sword but are always in demand; the damage dealers are ten a penny, but the ones who shine in their field are the needles in the haystack and the smartest of the bunch are those who are willing to sacrifice the big damage numbers in favour of talents, which add another ace to the group sleeve.
As a player, you switch off to the rest the game’s mechanics and focus purely on those most relevant to you. As a tank you don’t care if you’re not hitting as hard as Stabby McStupid, you want to know that you’re generating enough threat to keep aggro and that your armour rating isn’t letting too much damage through. Stabby McStupid meanwhile just wants the big numbers and lots of them, but even they keep one eye on threat meters to ensure that their three second cast spells aren’t about to be interrupted by the boss who has become bored of the tank and is now happy to smash you around for the four seconds you’ll last. Healers, of course, sacrifice all offensive abilities and even stop watching the vibrant onscreen action in favour of focusing solely on the four other character portraits, tucked up into the corner of the screen, monitoring players’ health bars and predicting where the fight is going in order to better plan their heals.
So much time and effort is invested into learning to be the best you can that you forget the machine and proudly become a cog. Over time, curiosity pushes you toward dabbling in another class to see how they actually work and slowly your eyes are opened to the challenges faced by the rest of the party, filtering all that information back into your own play as your preferred role. Maybe after having played the role of tank for so long and becoming frustrated that you occasionally aren’t healed enough for any apparent reason, you decide to roll a healer to see what the problem is for yourself. After a few days of investment, you discover that it isn’t simply a case of spamming one heal spell and that there’s actually a much more scientific management of a variation of healing abilities, further complicated by random events which force healers to direct their attention away from the tanks whilst those problems are dealt with.
It’s a wonderful experience to be a part of but it’s completely destroyed my love of a traditional RPG in the process. While I love the carefully laid out plots and lovingly crafted characters, the combat system for me has been harshly kicked to the curb and it’s dragging me along with it. I can no longer charge into battle expecting that the warrior in my party will generate all the threat and soak up all the damage, with the healer keeping him alive while I throw magic missiles over the top. AI scripting in the best of these games sadly isn’t designed to support the modern approach to party mechanics, and before long I find that all of my party members are dead or dying and that I’m next for the chop.
Dragon Age irked me in that sense. I really found myself immersed in the game’s setting and enjoying the company of my party, but each and every fight was filling me with nothing short of dread. I couldn’t get out of the practice of solely controlling my own character and hoping the rest would do their jobs without my interference, but this sadly wasn’t the case. I’d fumble around on the controller to switch between party members, mash out a few spells and abilities that I had no real idea how to best use and then scramble back to my own character, only to find that the AI had decided to make better use of my character in my absence. Because the game focuses around my character, I just can’t convince my gaming mind to look any further beyond her own skills and abilities and I know that my experience of the game is suffering because of that.
Is the party mechanic broken in the traditional RPG or does it simply not work for me anymore? The MMO has changed my way of thinking when it comes to single player games cut from the same cloth and as much as I love my roots in RPG, I’m starting to think that it’s time for me to say goodbye to the party. There are of course games that do it right, games such as Mass Effect which don’t invest too heavily in reliance on party members and who function as more of a squad instead. A simple tap of a button with a little nudge in the right direction and I found that my squad mates in Shepard’s crew respond almost exactly to my instruction. Even in more tactical situations where I bring up the power wheel, I find that the restricted options available to me are more beneficial to the survival of the squad than the ability to fully control each character individually.
I can’t hope to answer the above question and I know that ultimately I’m never going to abandon the single player RPG. While the experiences in MMOs are entirely unique to each player, the RPG manages to be a more social experience, having those great moments you can share with peers from your own standpoints. My only hope is that the Wizards & Valkyries, Minscs & Boos and Hawks & Shepards aren’t lost to me in the process.
Long Live the RPG
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