Obsidian strikes back: Project Eternity
Great news for the RPG genre: Obsidian is back, and backed, for a new old-school-feeling roleplaying game. I believe that half of those day-one backers haven't even played the video before throwing their money at Obsidian (I didn't either).
Some fellow bloggers have already reported on it, showing a level of enthusiasm that I can easily relate to. Spinks wrote on it, as well as Roguekish on Cloak of Thoughts. If you're interested in game theorising and insightful views on modern games, do follow him! (That is an order).
Despite my trust in Obsidian, who had won me over with NWN2 and Kotor2, games which I consider much better than their prequels, I share most of the concerns that Roguekish voices in his blog, particularly on the story section:
Modern and older RPGs usually have tried giving us this promise that our choices in the game matter and change the story, but usually it ends up being quite the opposite. For example it has no real consequence in the game which choices you made in DA: O while recruiting the nations to your cause. You either kill one of the dwarven throne proponents or your elected King does, either you kill the mages by annulling the Circle or you save them etc. All it changes is which units you have at your disposal in the last battle and the epilogue at the end.
I had written before on this topic, stating that what Bioware promised regarding consequences to our actions was something that they did and could not deliver, given the tools and budget with which video games operate nowadays. Since "new school" RPGs are much more visual and cinematic than their predecessors, the former must work on a multiplicity of levels to convey one of those famed consequences, and thus drain much more of their budget and development time, and in the end they cannot really provide more than aesthetic, flavour changes to the core story. Or at least not through the same media that the entire game is conveyed through; that is, if an important consequence stems from an action, this consequence will not be delivered by setting an entire new storyline, with its own art, cinematics, audio, etc; it will be delivered through a low-end medium such as a recorded voice mentioning your race selection, as opposed to making your choice of race a factor, providing it with custom storylines or at least paths to solve conflicts (imagine you would have had more and better options to solve the dwarven conflict in DA:O as a dwarf). Another low-end medium, which Roguekish touches upon, are the epilogues. Yes, those are consequences, but they feel off because they are delivered only sideways, disdaining the tools that the game had used for the core story.
In the case of old-school RPGs, since the game does not require fancy cinematics to convey its story, the writing team is much more free to present a complex branching storyline. In Planescape:Torment (which I reviewed some time ago), you reaped the rewards of your legality, by accessing quests and options that were not available to neutral or chaotic personalities; your charisma and intelligence scores weighted heavily on the dialogue options that you had, thus influencing the final outcome of your mission. The game could be beaten in many ways, depending on what you chose even from the beginning of your playthrough, as everything was interconnected. It is difficult to appreciate the dimension of the tree from just one of the branches if you only play once, but if you like mildly spoiling yourself with guides, you will see the overarching implications of everything, and wonder why we are now stuck with unit-X-or-Y-at-the-end choices.
NWN2 and Kotor2 are not old-school RPGs in any case, but I still enjoyed them very much, despite the fact that there were little choices outside of the main storyline. Before interactive storytelling came into the spotlight, the traditional storytelling mode was hugely successful because it relied on telling good, creative stories. That is Obsidian's talent, and that is what is missing in the video games genre lately, with the notable exception of the indies. If Obsidian decides upon embarking on this journey towards player-driven storytelling, I hope that they do it mindfully, conscious of the failings of others who attempted it before. At least the medium is the most adequate: video games in the old fashion, not requiring full voice-overs nor action-packed cinematics for every nose-picking of the hero. I hope so not only because consequences are weakly delivered with those constraints, but because I wish that there are at least a handful of options for those of us who prefer a more literary than filmic experience, because the ultimately player-driven content is the imagination. If everything is chewed out for us in the form of voice-overs and cinematics, there is little use for it, and so it decays until we can call upon it no longer.
If Project Eternity remains a truly old school RPG, we should not be worried about their breaking promises in the story department. They will have much more liberty to create a profound story than if they were constrained by the requirement of cinematics and voice-overs. I believe they will deliver, and there will be no complaining about "I'm in the middle of some calibrations."