The return of the CRPG is part of a sea change in player expectations
Divinity: Original Sin is the first traditional RPG in what is likely to be a substantial revival for the genre. Next is Wasteland 2, with Pillars Of Eternity to follow after that and inXile’s PlaneScape Torment successor, Torment: Tides Of Numenera, in the months thereafter. Every one of these games, including Divinity, was crowdfunded for all or part of its development. The easy narrative here is that hardcore fans wanted these games back and Kickstarter gave them the means to pay for them: that crowdfunding is, in essence, a preorder service for games that’ll fly with a small audience but not attract the kind of numbers that warrant publisher investment.
There’s truth to that interpretation, but Divinity: Original Sin’s week-one sales suggest a different reality. It was the most popular game on Steam in the week immediately after the summer sale. It will have benefited from the absence of a triple-A competitor in the early summer drought, but this isn’t the first time that a niche game has occupied that position for a substantial amount of time. DayZ. The Forest. Spintires. These games don’t require Kickstarter campaigns to be viable: they evidently are already.
There are multiple reasons why this is the case. Digital distribution is a big one, as is YouTube. Cult games from the 1990s – RPGs, simulators, adventure games – have been fast-tracked into the mainstream thanks to the ease with which formerly isolated fans can become advocates thanks to a diversifying game media. Only a small number of people may have been fans of Planescape Torment in 1999, but it’s evident that a disproportionate number of them have subsequently become bloggers, YouTubers and writers.
The question this raises is why these games in particular persist in the cultural memory of PC players for so long. Traditional RPGs like Divinity offer an answer, grounded in the ways in which it differs from the types of RPG we’re used to in 2014. It is committed to its own concept of realism, which is something that it has in common with both DayZ and Euro Truck Simulator 2. These are all games about having ‘real’ experiences within certain boundaries; games that promise to let you express your agency to a substantial degree within an environment that feels like it adheres to the rules of real life.
When this shift occurred originally it was because technology had advanced to the point where digital versions of pen-and-paper games were possible. Tabletop gaming laid out the principles of living another life within a simulated world that games would then adopt, and those original RPGs treated non-combat and dialogue-based problem-solving as functionally equal to fighting. But games were always better at building digital systems around combat than they were at enabling the social and improvisational experiences that a live gamemaster can enable, and eventually combat became the principal focus of the genre. Roleplaying videogames went back to being videogames: skill-based challenges built around the principles originally established in the arcade.
The success of Divinity: Original Sin demonstrates that the popularity of this other way of thinking about games never really went away. Players are still captured by the idea that they, not a game designer, are capable of determining how they solve a problem, the manner in which they encounter a story, or the amount of freedom they have to fail.
These titles can teach modern games a lot about how treating the player like they’re in control will pay dividends in terms of engagement. Feeling like an experience was entirely your own is a tremendous reason to advocate that experience – and now, when it is so easy to share that feeling, it’s not surprising that these games are making tremendous headway into territory previously defined by big-budget mainstream titles.
Archers have a range of special arrows, making them more versatile than mages. Remove or disable enemy bowmen