Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Excellence vs Adequacy in RPGs

In a game, according to the knowledgeable communities that surround them, there are "best" things and "crap" things. Take any game of any form, and you will find this attitude. The words might switch around, great/terrible, great/useless, but the same attitude is there.

I bring this up because I'm seeing this sort of attitude in the FAQ for Final Fantasy VI. For those who like to tweak their characters, this is a game filled with little tweaks, and with those tweaks came rankings of what's effective and what isn't, of what's good and what's terrible. To be honest, I have no issue with someone showing how some ability is objectively effective or objectively ineffective. I have no issue accepting that Relm's Draw ability is stunningly ineffective. My issue is that, far too often, relatively terribleness is conflated with ineffectiveness. These are not the same thing.

An objectively terrible choice is one that doesn't work. Hitting the wall with your fist is an objectively terrible choice. A subjectively terrible choice is a choice that looks bad in comparison to the alternative, but is otherwise effective. Using a ball pene hammer to bust open a wall rather than a sledge hammer? The ball pene will still work, but it's nowhere near as effective as the sledge. Will you succeed in opening the wall up to access the pipes if you use the ball pene? Sure, it just will take a bit longer. On paper, the ball pene is subjectively horrible in comparison to the sledgehammer, but in application, the ball pene gets the job done.

All too often, what's missing from the discussions of most games is adequacy. In an RPG, the primary metric of your party is whether they can win a fight. That's the measure of success. If the sum of your choices leads to success, then your choice is adequate. Your tools are adequate. That means that they do the job. In most games, the leeway provided by adequacy is very large.

It's natural in the expert gamer to aim for more than adequacy. They aim for true excellence and, where possible, dominance. For them, adequacy leave room for defeat, and that's not what makes the expert game tick. Thus, adequacy becomes the same as ineffective. Adequacy cannot produce dominance.

For the rest of the gaming world, adequacy is where they live. They aren't the expert gamers. Not being experts, they're making the best decisions with the resources that they have, and they make do. That makes the game harder, and the results more uncertain, but for the non-expert, that's part of the fun. In fact, total dominance often takes away part of the game experience, turning the challenge into a cakewalk. Oddly, expert gamers do that too, but they do it by creating new challenges, or using fewer characters, or playing a game faster. These are all acceptable tactics for the expert gamer while making mediocre choices isn't.

In the gaming world, I'd like to see less optimization and more about adequacy. What does a non-special party needs to pass a challenge? What are alternate ways of dealing with situations? How do you recover when things go wrong? That which is adequate is good, or at least acceptable.