If RPGs are going to have a future in our culture, it will be a future made possible by space.
I don't mean outer space, or some kind of sci-fi setting, I mean quite literally.... space. Spatial distance. The environment. The world around you.
Video games promise you space, but deliver only an illusion. In Mass Effect, when you walk out into the giant ring-o-civilization and you can see what appears to be gorgeous endless setting fading off into the distance, all you are looking at is a matte painting. There is nothing there. You are on rails, you are limited to the space provided, and there is no spoon.
And once you realize that there is no spoon, you can never go back. You cannot be re-fooled.
At this point, after having poured in thousands of hours, video games have largely become settings for me. The actual content of the game has mostly become irrelevant. Case in point; Fallout New Vegas. I love the idea of vaults where things went terribly wrong and you are uncovering the sequence of events as you delve deeper into it. I love the idea of a town formed in an old motel or an air force base. I don't care about bringing McGuffin A to the house of NPC B, so that I can get Munchkin Gun C.
This has been a staple of the Fallout series, perhaps why I love it so much. When I first crawled into the ruins of Vault 15, I fell in love. The Glow remains one of my all time favorite environments. The Posideon Oil Rig, Vault City, Rivet City, the National Mall as a war zone, etc. My favorite scene in any video game ever is the detonation of the bomb in Megaton from the Tenpenny Tower in Fallout 3. These things are just awesome. And they trigger much stronger memories than just fighting pig rats in a random encounter or the combat statistics of some gun.
It seems to me like the CRPGs that are really memorable to people have fantastic location design; Mass Effect, Fallout series, Oblivion/Morrowind, KOTOR series, etc. Furthermore, the really really powerful moments come from very large environments where you can see further than you can reach.
There is a great scene in Alien vs Predator 2 where you are climbing along a cliff edge and see events unfolding the valley below. In Fallout New Vegas, early in the game you find a graveyard on top of a hill where you can see a huge amount of space that has a foreboding danger to it. In Mass Effect, the scene where you are climbing on the side of the space station, all sorts of things are occuring all around you. Navigating the National Mall in Fallout 3 is mostly an exercise in avoiding detection while you try to skirt along the edge and get to a new location. Seeing Rivet City from afar is just an awesome experience. Those moments are powerful and exhilerating.
But they are fake.
Rivet City is not a real location. It is a series of accessible areas that together create the illusion that there is far more there, just beyond your reach. The couple dozen named NPCs and a few random townfolk are supposed to be proportional representatives of the mass of people living in those other areas. Only they aren't. They are the only people there. They are in the only areas there. It is a mirage.
Such is the downfall of video games. They promise space, but they cannot deliver it.
Space is costly. It costs programming hours, art assets, and time. Three things in short supply. So the best it can offer, when it does build big spaces, is randomization. But nobody was ever impressed by a random dungeon construction or an RTS map drawn by algorithm.
Impressive space must be designed and built by a human. And in a world where computers are able to perform so many things better, faster, and more easily than a human, this alone may be the final unmatchable promise that RPGs can deliver.
People love space. They like big open space. I think a big charm of the beach/lake as a vacation is that people have a really wide angle view of a lot of their environment without obstruction. In entertainment, they like a bigger view of reality than what they have on a day to day basis, where their view is frequently broken by obstructions. So not only must a location be fantastical, but it must involve a lot of space.
This holds partially true for movies as well. Great movies tend to have fantastic environments involving a lot of space and distance; Cloud City, the Death Star, the factory at the end of Terminator 2, the scene with Indiana Jones on the rope bridge, the Nakitomi building in Die Hard, the jungle in Predator, that room where Mal fights the Operative over a whirling power generator, or that great scene where the Reaver armada comes out of the ion cloud.
RPGs can deliver space. Infinite, unbridled, awesome space. And constructed on the fly like an Inception Architect, at no cost. The RPG is the perfect format for massive manipulated space. It is our trump card.
Eventually, they will figure out how to provide the platform in a video game for you to serve the same role as a GM in a tabletop RPG. And that will be cool. But you will always be limited in that function, limited to their tools, limited to their art assets, limited to their designs. You will be a kind of super-level designer of their stuff.
But you will never have a mastery of space.
Yet in a lot of RPGs, I feel like there is often a desire to limit space. The dungeon is the ultimate limitation of space. It is the earth with a few passage cut out of it. Towers, fortresses, and other common tabletop RPG environments have confined spaces. Meanwhile, the truly great underground environments in other media, like that huge staircase in Moria in LOTR, are all about open space.
Perhaps the biggest divide between dungeon delving RPG players and free-form story-oriented ones is an issue of space. The latter being more comfortable in it, the former being afraid of it.
I think we have to break that fear.
Some of that is going to come through better design. We have to abandon mechanical standards that encourage restrictive space, such as the idea of "squares" as a unit of combat interaction. We have to give up a lot of the stuff that WotC has implemented to try to force people to use miniatures. I feel like that is the wrong direction. I think we should be moving towards more expansive definitions of space, perhaps breaking it down into more loose concepts of short/medium/long ranges or something. However, simultaneously we cannot just hand-wave it because we want people to actually be forced to say "oh, that monster is a really long way away" or "really really big" or something similar. We want there to be a grounding in space, but not a slavery to minutia.
However, there is also a component of GM training here. We have to teach GMs to use space in unique and powerful ways. To incorporate the promised illusions of video game deception into their game in a way that is real. I think products like Vornheim (even if I dislike the aesthetics) are a big step in the right direction. I have seen some interesting virtual tabletop solutions in my Google+ stream. I am working on my own hyperlink matrix solutions in my PDFs. There are other great ideas out there.
We need new ways of organizing space and presenting it to the GM in a way that is functional and supportive.
This is a central tenet of my personal design philosophy and that will be reflected in my products going forward.
Until next time, stay thirsty my friends.