Ok, so I have to admit, I may have gotten a little carried away in my praise for Abbey Games’ new turn-based tactical game, Renowned Explorers: International Society, out now on Steam. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good game. A great game, even, especially considering it’s less than $20. But revolutionary?
To be perfectly honest, I do believe this adjective can be applied to Renowned Explorers, even considering how ultimately simplistic the game is. I think Abbey Games made something truly revolutionary here in a relatively unassuming package.
On the surface, you have a competent, perhaps even great, hexagonal tactics game in the same vein as Final Fantasy Tactics and its ilk. Even simply within that framework, Renowned Explorers does pretty much everything right, though perhaps not exceptionally. The characters are all slightly varied mechanically and bring different things to the table, enough so that you really have to think about who to bring along on your expeditions. And their visual design – everything from their art to their animations to the sounds they make – all really make them pop far more than it seems like they should. It makes it easy to, if not relate to, then at least pick favorites. I quickly began to try and plan ways that I could work Hildegard and Delores into a team together simply because I enjoyed both characters – not necessarily for what they provided to the team, but for who they are.
And then there’s the fact that this game scratches one of my favorite itches: emergent narrative. I touched on this in my editorial here, and I’m finding that as I grow older, I have less and less time (perhaps even patience) for a game that forces a story down my throat and more and more for games that let me tell my own story.
Sure, Darkest Dungeon and Renowned Explorers tell their own stories. In Darkest Dungeon it’s up to you to reclaim your family estate from unnamable, faceless, Lovecraftian horrors. In Renowned Explorers you’re trying to become the best explorer and overcome your rival, the aptly but not-so-cleverly named Rivaleaux, in the Society Standings by performing ever-greater feats of daring do. But a story is told in many parts, and while Darkest Dungeon and Renowned Explorers each give you the beginning and the ending, much of what the middle is different levels of random (especially in Darkest Dungeon, though Renowned Explorers has its own levels of random) with enough ambiguity in its mechanics to let you fill in the blanks.
But it’s not only this either. Plenty of games let me tell my own story. No, what Renowned Explorers does that few, if any, games have ever done before – and what I think is truly revolutionary – is make rhetorical conflict more than just a bunch of boring reading and selecting options the right option.
In short, they have successfully combatized arguments.
As I mentioned in my review, the game treats your words as a weapon as potent towards getting your way as any punch or sword slash. Ultimately the idea is a bit simplistic and could stand to be a bit more fleshed out, but the implications of this innovation are immense. Traditionally, video games have focused very heavily on actual physical violence to resolve conflict. Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that we should all hug and get along and that violence is bad. I love me some gratuitous violence as I think many of us do (in video games, of course). But the difference between violence to dialogue has always been so glaringly contrasting and has created a clear preference in gamers:
Shooty-shooty-bang-bang violence = fun.
Talky-talky word stuff = boring.
But anyone who’s been in high school forensics knows that argument and debate is far from boring and it can be as thrilling as any boxing match. The idea of attacking or defending with your words should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been in any real intellectual debate, and Renowned Explorers manages to capture this idea in an elegantly simple way…though I would like to see some more implementation of rhetorical defenses rather than a blanket speech defense, but hey, it’s still relatively untested waters.
But what’s really important about this isn’t necessarily that it disinsentivizes violence so much as it shows that there is a legitimate and, more importantly, enjoyable alternative to it. I’m not suggesting that “rhetorical combat” mechanics should replace shooting/punching/slashing as the primary means of conflict resolution in games, but more variety is always good. I mean, think of the possibilities. Imagine a game where you must plea for your life against an unfeeling government authority, whittling away their bias of your guilt with your own impassioned pleas. Think of a lawyer game where you verbally spar – literally – with opposing council to determine the fate of the accused, with your attacks being parried by their logical defenses.
I know the Pheonix Wright Ace Attorney games are along these lines but I don’t really think that they really come close to making the actual debate fun, being more along the line of visual novels, adventure games, and missing object games. They’re really more about the discovery and following the path of clues to uncover the truth.
As fun and entertaining as the Ace Attorney games are, they don’t really capitalize on this idea as well as they could.
I like to talk about “important” games. Right now, some of what I believe are the most “important” games in our collective history are things like Pac Man and Mario Brothers and Minecraft, games that truly did something to transform the industry as we know it. Revolutionary games. I don’t know if Renowned Explorers will ever be considered “important” in this regard. I think it’s an exceptional game, even without my high-brow interpretation of the effect its mechanics will have on the industry, but in the grand scheme of things – in that regard at least – it is just another game and will likely be quickly forgotten in the torrent of other good-to-excellent titles we will play over the next few days, weeks, months and years.
But I hope that someday, thanks to Renowned Explorers, we can play a game where we can choose to end any conflict with a well-reasoned and impassioned argument…or a bullet to the face. And at that time, I think that we can look back on Renowned Explorers and call it just that. I hope we can look back and say “this is the game that changed video game combat and conflict resolution forever.”
What about you, rhetorical reader? Have you played Renowned Explorers? It’s great, you should play it. Do you think this sort of thing should be done more? Do you think debate in a game could be made as entertaining as violence? Or am I, as always, too in love with words? Sound off in the comments below.