Last night, I dreamt of Hugh Hefner and his circle of pals — barbarian warrior Jose Canseco, skateboarding magician Rob Dyrdek and shaman musician Felix Da Housecat — clutching magical weapons and laying waste to unending hordes. Well, all except Felix, who’s banging 1986 Miss February Julie McCullough on the expensive Galaxy couch. It’s a delayed hangover from tipping back too many New Year’s role-playing games.
If you’ve ever wondered what a role-playing game is, you’ve never been to a bar. And most workplaces are nothing more than role-playing games. But I’m speaking of that television-mediated breather in the work-eat-sleep cycle — videogames — and the popular role-playing game (RPG) genre, which has a slew of new releases.
Unlike action games, the goal of an RPG is not solely end-oriented, i.e. slay the boss and advance to the next level (a common corporate fantasy). While still plot-driven, the fun comes as much from the accumulation of power (and phatter, blingier weapons) as moving the story forward.
Most, such as Champions: Return to Arms, follow the template set out years ago by that seminal adolescent basement geek crack, Dungeons & Dragons: choose a profession, advancing in skill and possessions by eliminating evil, icky monsters (or, conversely, kind, guileless creatures), thus making the world a better place. Rolling over a dark, desolate landscape, the heroes of Champions: RTA demolish hordes of enemies, with an easy-to-master interface and visual style that recalls PC game bestseller (and later console game) Diablo.
The graphics are smooth, wonderfully rendered and visually crisp, simplifying gameplay whatever the camera angle — from up-close to distant overhead views that make it feel like the arcade game Gauntlet. If hardly an original product, the execution is flawless in creating a seamless game environment to suck you in, whether playing at home or online with up to four friends in the game’s narrative (a rare videogame perk), or in arena deathmatches.
The same can not be said for Fullmetal Alchemist and the Broken Angel or Suikoden IV, two manga-inspired RPGs. With their absurdly large doe eyes, and spiky, androgynous bangs, these products of Japanese anime feature archaic graphics that seem to date back to Speed Racer days. The bright, static, largely un-interactive backdrops create the feel of a cramped, overlit soundstage, and the cutscenes and combat sequences are stagier than a ’70’s blaxploitation film.
Fullmetal Alchemist is based on a popular cartoon that appears regularly in Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” programming block. It’s the more insipid of the two, with only momentary snatches of humor in the interaction between the 15-year-old Harry Potter wannabe Elric and his suit-of-armor sidekick brother (long story).Their simplicity and rudimentary graphics make these only suitable for children (and perhaps “adult” collectors of Pokémon cards). I’m convinced it’s part of a Far East plan to create a cultural beachhead with our children, much like the tobacco companies.
Fortunately, we have great American bulwarks like Hugh Hefner. Stealing nearly its entire interface and gameplay from The Sims franchise, Playboy: The Mansion is even more salacious, as you try to follow Hef’s pop culture ascent. It’s a pretty quick learn — within the game’s first 30 seconds I was fucking mansion playmate Julie McCullough (which seemed less impressive after I introduced her to Unkle Kracker and Felix Da Housecat at a private pool party and she proceeded to bonk one then the other). The goal is to hobnob (and score) with celebrities in a variety of fields, building friendship and content for your magazine — which pays for staff, more parties, your girlfriends’ (you’re encouraged to have more than one) allowances, and ever more plush surroundings. It should be called “Pimp My Life.” You can even introduce women to each other and witness some hot girl-on-girl action. (Notably, the game doesn’t allow male homosexual couplings.)
Whether shooting your covers and centerfolds, causing your playmates to come on the chaise lounge, or building business relationships with your guests through chat and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stock tips, the game has a real insidious allure. It’s the idea that we can have our cake, eat it and have more delivered later — a fantasy that’s made Hef rich. But isn’t that the point of role-playing games — the injection of cheap thrills (and gratuitous sex) into our drab, banal lives?Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org