“Which way were we supposed to go, again?”: Information management in computer RPGs

I haven’t been doing too much computer gaming lately, but the one game I’ve been slowly working my through over the last few months is Morrowind, a fantasy RPG that had the misfortune of hitting store shelves at about the same time as Neverwinter Nights a few summers ago. Morrowind is, thus far, a very excellent game–its main feature is its extremely open-ended gameplay, with an almost bewildering amount of freedom given to the player.
While I recommend that you give Morrowind a try should you come across it, that’s not the main point of this little post. I’d like to think aloud for a moment about an oft-overlooked but important gameplay challenge that epic-scale RPGs like Morrowind face: helping the player keep track of all the information s/he comes across in the course of the game.
The world of Morrowind, and computer RPGs like it, is massive. The world map is sufficiently big that exploring it all could very easily take many dozens of hours of “real life” time; and the number of villages, cities, dungeons, and other Locations of Interest is enough to drive mad any but the most determined cartographer. When you consider that each location on the map can feature anywhere from 2 to 200 characters with whom to interact (“NPCs,” in RPG parlance), and each of those characters is ready to spout several pages’ worth of dialogue about the world of Morrowind and its secrets, the very thought of keeping track of all this information mentally is intimidating, to say the least. “What was the name of the town where I’m supposed to meet that contact, again?” the bewildered player soon finds himself asking. “What were the names of the local guild leaders? And did that guy say to turn north at the swamp, or south?”
Morrowind‘s sheer size makes it something of an extreme, but many RPGs suffer from being so big and populated that players can’t remember everything they’re told in the game. So how do RPGs go about trying to help players out in this regard?
In the Old Days, computer games didn’t really help you out at all, which meant that a pencil and notebook were the gamer’s most precious possessions–whether you were playing The Bard’s Tale or Ultima IV or Wasteland, chances are your computer desk was buried under sheets of notebook paper upon which crude maps, cryptic notes, answers to riddles, and passwords were scrawled. When, in their lair at the bottom of the Dungeon of Doom, the priests of the Mad God Tarjan ask you to state the password or die, you had just better hope that password is one of the many words scribbled on that piece of notebook paper!
These days, of course, games are both more complex and larger in scale than they were in the Glorious Days of Yore. They also, in some cases at least, attempt to store and manage your information for you. Morrowind does this fairly well, in my opinion, if not perfectly. It features an automatically-updating map of the game world, which is expanded and annotated as you acquire information and visit new locales. It’s a particularly helpful map in that it not only shows the main game world, but shows “local” maps with things like shops, temples, and other important buildings labeled so that you don’t have to remember which section of town houses the town hall.
Auto-maps like this are pretty common fare in RPGs these days, although most of them (including those in Morrowind) are missing a feature I think is almost ridiculously useful: the ability to mark and annotate the map yourself. Why does my map only show me the handful of locations deemed Important by the game designers? What if (as was recently the case for me in Morrowind) I want to stash all of my spare equipment and supplies in an abandoned building somewhere for later retrieval, but I don’t want to forget where that stash is located? It would be really nice if I could add labels and markers to the in-game map to note important locations like that, or to post “sticky note”-style reminders and notes to make sure I don’t forget important bits of information. I have seen this feature in only a small handful of RPGs (Baldur’s Gate II, I believe, was one of them), but I wish it were more common.
Keeping track of map locations is just one aspect of managing player information, however. The other major element is somehow recording all the important hints, secrets, names, directions, advice, and commands that you receive in conversation with the game’s NPCs. There are two extremes RPGs take in this regard: some, like Knights of the Old Republic, contain complete logs of every conversation you have in the course of the game, and let you browse through the conversation logs if you need to track down a specific piece of information. Other games, like Morrowind and most of the Black Isle RPGs, contain an automatically-updated “journal” that records basic summaries of plot-important conversations.
There are problems with each extreme. The first method–recording complete logs of all conversations–is useful in that it puts the maximum amount of information at your disposal, but is incredibly unwieldy. Are you really going to dig through dozens of conversation logs in search of some isolated line of important dialogue? The other method–the automatic journal summary–is useful because it distills all of your conversations down to just the plot-important ones, but can quickly start feeling like a checklist of tasks, not a real diary of one’s experiences. I remember only one game that let you keep your own in-game journal (Baldur’s Gate II), and I must say, it added tremendously to my experience to be able to keep my own notes (both in-character and out-of-character) during the game.
I’d love to see these methods of tracking game information improved and expanded. The automatically-updating maps are already quite useful, although they would benefit from being editable by the player. The conversation-tracking and journalling can use some more substantial improvements, however. To that end, I’d love to see an RPG that includes some of these features:

  • a simple, Google-style search engine I can use to search through conversation logs for keywords
  • an in-game player journal (in addition to, or integrated with, any automatically-updated journal)–preferably a full-blown text editor, complete with basic text formatting options
  • the ability to associate certain journal entries with specific points on the map, so that clicking on parts of the map would also highlight all journal entries (or conversation logs, or any other notes you’ve taken) that relate to that area
  • a “sticky note” feature that would let you attach sticky notes to any part of the game interface

I’d love to see some of these features added to future RPGs. I’m sure that some of them will be (or already are) incorporated into games, but I have a feeling that the relative thanklessness of designing this aspect of a game will keep these sorts of tools very much on the back burner in most RPGs (are game reviewers more likely to praise a game’s mind-blowing graphics, or its map-annotation features?). Nevertheless, I think the careful application of some of these features would improve gameplay in subtle but important ways.

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3 thoughts on ““Which way were we supposed to go, again?”: Information management in computer RPGs

  1. topher

    I started the Morrowind series with Arena: The Elder Scrolls. It was a really really great DOS game with faux 3d rendering, similar to Wolfenstien of the same era. I still have it, and I still love to play it. It’s on 6 floppies. 🙂 A friend has the CD though.
    I strongly recommend it. Morrowind has since felt a bit complex. Arena was just the right amount of FPS and strategy.

  2. jrau

    Interesting. I haven’t played Arena (which I believe was made available for free download a while back), although I’ve heard good things about it. My first (and only) Elder Scrolls experience before Morrowind was Daggerfall, which I loved and hated in about equal measure. I loved the gameplay itself, but found the bugginess to be too much to bear, and never finished the game. One of these days, I should revisit it…
    I’m loving Morrowind, though. Yes, it’s very complex, but the lack of restrictions in terms of what you can do and where you can go is very refreshing.

  3. topher

    I tried Daggerfall, and I know quite a few other Arena fans who did as well, and the universal opinion was “total suckage”. Don’t bother with it, I’ll loan you Arena if you want some 0ld sk00l stuff.
    All of the Elder Scrolls games have had a refreshing freedom of action though. I’ve always wondered why other games aren’t like that.

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