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Inquisitor: The Sins of Old-School Design
by Eric Schwarz on 09/16/12 10:55:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Cinemax's Inquisitor is a game that kind of snuck up on me.  I didn't really read any previews, watch any trailers, or know much about the game at all, right up until its release.  Despite originally being launched in 2009 after an extremely lengthy development history (nearly a decade), and spending three years in translation to English, there was very little hype or media attention.

Once I learned of it, though, I was instantly ecstatic.  Isometric, 2D pre-rendered visuals?  Diablo-style combat?  Massive, pitch-dark labyrinths swarming with monsters?  A story based around investigation, subterfuge and conspiracy?  Adult subject matter?  A world based on actual European religious history?  It was almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, that love affair died pretty quickly once I started playing the game.  The problem with Inquisitor is that while it is indeed an old-school game right down to its core, it also suffers from many of the flaws that old-school games did, either out of a devotion to those titles, or simple design oversights by the developer. 

Divorced from the nostalgia that sometimes allows us to overlook these problems in earlier titles, Inquisitor can often be a frustrating, monotonous experience, and needlessly so.  In this article, this ostensibly old-school RPG fan would like to take a moment to discuss where the old-school approach to design in Inquisitor falls apart.

A Matter of Direction

If there is one problem that permeates just about all of Inquisitor, it's direction.  The game is simply not very good at telling the player what to do, where to go, and when.  When you're given a quest, most of the time you're on your own in figuring things out... which is both rewarding, and occasionally extremely frustrating. 

Inquisitor starts out with your character standing alone in a forest, on a dirt road.  Although some vague instructions are given during the introduction, it's not one second into the game and already things are a little unclear.  Exactly where am I?  Where am I supposed to go?  How do I know how to get there?  Following the road north soon reveals the gate to the town of Hillbrandt, which is barred shut by the guards, who insist that I go fight some giant bats pestering the town walls before I'm let in.  Not more than a few seconds into the game and already I have my first side-quest.

This quest isn't difficult, or especially time-consuming.  It's not even mandatory, if you're rude to the guard and demand to be let in.  But, what it is is distracting.  At the very beginning of the game, the player expects some direction.  This is literally his or her first step into the world, and instead of a thorough introduction that acquaints the player with all he or she needs to know, instead, it's combat to the death right from the beginning.  Again, this can be bypassed, but many players won't bother, either because they don't want to be rude to the gate guard, or because they don't want to miss out on experience points and loot.

Hillbrandt is a not-so-charming place, but it's full of quests and characters - so much so that the story or main objective often become lost in the proceedings.

Even once the bats are dead and the player is let into the town, which becomes the main quest hub for the first quarter or so of the game, it's still not entirely clear where the player should go.  The goal is to meet up with a bishop, but the church is clear on the other side of town from the front gate, and along the way the player will likely explore and speak to (or be accosted by) several other characters, even receiving lengthy and involved quests before even the basics of the world and the story are communicated.   I actually performed several side-quests before ever learning about exactly why I was in Hillbrandt what was expected of me there.

This lack of direction is a problem throughout almost the entire game.  There are many, many cases in Inquisitor where it is unclear where to go, what to do or who to talk to, not because I'm an especially thick-headed person who can't get obvious hints, but rather because oftentimes the sequence of events to complete a relatively simple task is very, very specific, but the player could easily and logically skip one of those steps.  Often it's as simple as needing to talk to a given NPC before getting a dialogue option to open up, even though there's no indication that the player needs to talk with that NPC at all.  Much of my time in Inquisitor was spent wandering from X to Y, checking and re-checking conversations to make sure that I hadn't missed anything... not out of compulsion to complete every single piece of content, but because it's usually the only way to proceed.

Additionally, due to the game's focus on drilling every NPC for as much information as possible in order to advance its plot threads, eventually it's possible to just run out of things to do.  Once you've spoken to all the NPCs in a town, explored all the areas of the game world, and so on, where else do you go?  Sometimes the game expects a very specific and sometimes non-ideal sequence of events to play out, which are portrayed as optional but are in fact mandatory (such as accusing someone of hersey - even if you aren't sure of their guilt, you'll have to interrogate them to get the evidence you need to continue the game).  Other times, the solution to advancing the plot will be difficult to find - such as a broken bridge in the Iron Mine dungeon at the end of act 1 requiring either the Levitate spell or finding a very well-hidden secret door - and suddenly the game grinds to a halt until you've completed that requirement, even if that means you are stuck with grinding respawning enemies for five hours to level up enough to get a spell you need.

It's a common complaint about modern games that they don't trust players to figure out how to proceed properly - that the quest compass or objective marker is the lazy developer's way of telling the player how to proceed in the game.  But it's also worth remembering that sometimes not including hints on where to go and what to do can lead to a needlessly frustrating play experience.  Guiding players is an art - a quest compass might be a brute-force, lowest common denominator method, but at least it works.  Without such aids, if the rest of the game's design can't direct the player properly, then that's a failure, old-school or not.

Sink or Swim

Inquisitor's second defining old-school trait is that it likes to throw the player into the deep end right from the very beginning.  Immediately upon starting the game, you get a class selection (which also changes a few story details and dialogue options), and a fairly extensive character sheet containing multiple character attributes, about two-dozen skills to choose from, and a few schools of magic.  In other words, it looks just like a classic RPG.

Of course, like other classic RPGs, this practice of shoving the character sheet in the player's face right from the beginning also makes it difficult to get a feel for what's important in the game.  Do I want to take Pagan Magic or Divine Magic?  Will I need to revive followers myself or are there priests that do it for me?  Is strength important for a magic-oriented class?  These sorts of fundamental gameplay questions are impossible to know the answer to without extensive reading, both of the instruction manual and meta-game advice, i.e. on message boards.

Is there anything nicer in the world than a pretty, stat-filled character sheet?

 This isn't really much different from some of my favorite games of all time.  Fallout and Arcanum are my two most-loved isometric RPGs, and both of those games are known for their poor game balance (especially Arcanum) and the ability for a player to make an exceptionally ineffective character through little direct fault of his or her own.  A lot of this boils down to the fact that it's impossible to know in advance how useful an ability or skill is relative to other elements of the game.  Arcanum, for instance, is set in a neo-Victorian steampunk world, and due to the aesthetic I'd assume that social skills are of the utmost priority... but building a character who focuses on persuasion, charisma and beauty generally is not going to be anywhere near as capable as a straight-up fighter, thanks to the game's large amounts of combat and lengthy dungeon crawls.

Inquisitor suffers from the exact same issue, but to a greater degree.  Without knowing in advance how the game plays, it's impossible to make informed decisions.  Many players I've spoken with, for instance, found themselves disappointed in the magic system when they realized that spells were extremely ineffective against enemies until halfway through the game.  I was annoyed when I discovered my paladin character couldn't complete a quest because he couldn't use the Levitate spell, or when I learned there was a fool-proof spell used to identify items, rendering the Identify skill completely redundant (as well as the points I invested in it).  There's no way to change the difficulty level after you've started the game, and there's no way to rebind your keys, because... well, okay, there's really just no justifiable reason for those.

Some of these issues are very difficult to avoid in an RPG with a fair degree of freedom, but many of these could have been avoided with more intuitive controls, more obvious clues in dialogue, books to read explaining game mechanics, or even simple tutorial pop-ups.  For example, it is mandatory, if you can't pick locks or use spells to open them, to bash down doors in order to proceed in the game.  Unfortunately, without reading through the manual you would never, ever know how to do this.  I also spent several hours of the game dragging-and-dropping potions one-by-one, because I didn't realize there was a faster way to buy things - a problem that others I knew also had, thanks to unintuitive user interface design.  The journal is also needlessly cluttered, and could have easily benefitted from quest headers to keep things organized.

There are all sorts of little things Inquisitor doesn't communicate well.  For instance, unique weapons all have random stats, so save scumming is necessary to get the best, or most valuable, gear.

In other cases, the way information is presented obscures the game mechanics in a way that makes it hard to understand how to play in an ideal fashion without extensive experimentation and re-playing.  For instance, there are dialogue checks in Inquisitor, with different outcomes to quests dependent on whether the player can persuade an NPC... but the game never tells you when these checks occur, what skills or stats are used to check them, what the chances of success are, and it rarely communicates what the alternative outcome is.  While this might increase immersion and leave Inquisitor feel less "gamey", it can also be confusing to players, and makes it hard to determine how much their choices actually matter to the storyline, or how to better optimize their character build.

Yet more of these problems pertain to game balance.  Some sections of the game are extraordinarily easy, featuring enemies which do very little damage... but others, such as ghosts, spirits and various mages, are literally capable of wiping out your juiced-to-the-eyeballs, fully-armored and HP-buffed tank of a character in a few seconds.  Priests... well, priests just die.  Some of the game's bosses are so difficult that they will almost instantly kill even over-leveled characters, and they rely heavily on "cheese tactics" to defeat, like exploiting AI issues.  Without knowing in advance whether an enemy will be a breeze or a hair-pulling nightmare, the only way to really get by is to quicksave constantly and hope for the best.

There's always something satisfying about being able to overcome a difficult challenge, or in figuring out a novel solution to a problem based on your own logic and reasoning, or in simply clearing out an area on the world map... but the flip side of that is that, when you don't feel like a genius, often you feel like either a moron or like the game has broken on you.  Inquisitor often feels far more like the latter than it really ought to, and because of that it is often frustrating in the extreme.  On the whole, it smacks of a title which was only play-tested by its developers, who were too familiar with the game's nuances to realize that many parts were needlessly inuntiuitive.

Nintendo Hard

One of the hallmarks of classic games is that they're hard.  We recall the second level of Battletoads and its demand for cat-like reflexes and savant-like memory, or beating the final boss of Contra without using the Konami Code.  Many gamers look at challenge as an end in itself, especially those who grew up playing games which depended a lot on difficulty to extend their play-time and demanded complete mastery of their mechanics and individual levels in order to win.

Inquisitor's developers appear to have thought lots of challenge was a great idea, as well.  The game starts out reasonably tough (the most basic enemies can handily kill you right at the start of the game if you aren't prepared), and only becomes more difficult from there.  Bosses, as mentioned above, are sometimes so powerful as to be nearly impossible to beat without resorting to exploits.  Many sections of the game are only winnable by quaffing dozens of potions within the span of a few seconds, because monsters have spells that can inflict debilitating status effects, stun you, destroy your armor, permanently drain your attributes... and they can spam those spells faster than you can.  Even if you beat them, chances are you'll want to reload because one of your followers died, or you lost critical skills.

What's more, sometimes the game doesn't play by the rules.  Some fights are made difficult because enemies literally spawn out of thin air right around you, and pummel you to death in an instant if you can't get away from them in time (usually just luck).  Environmental hazards like pits of acid or lava pretty much never affect enemies, but of course they can kill you in two seconds flat.  Sometimes the rules broken are implicit - such as fire-based enemies that aren't weak to ice attacks, as you'd expect them to be.

Traps are a constant annoyance, and are pretty much unavoidable without pouring many points into special skills.  Almost every door, chest and barrel is trapped, but without knowing how to handle those traps in advance, it's impossible to create a character that can deal with them effectively until dozens of hours into the game.

Inquisitor features optional followers, but in truth they're pretty much mandatory because of the extreme level of challenge involved.  Followers don't just deal more damage, they also distribute the damage you take across themselves, which is essential for anyone but a melee class (and still pretty helpful for a typical fighter).  They also receive the same bonuses that enemies do, so on harder difficulty settings they have more hit points and damage, making them proportionately more powerful than the player him/herself (the inverse is true on easy mode).

What's more, followers also tie into another big part of Inquisitor's challenge.  The game's dirty little secret is basically that combat has very little depth and, frankly, plays like the most unpolished of Diablo clones out there, with cluttered visuals, awkward pacing and timing that make targeting enemies or using spells and skills precisely difficult.  The only effective way to win, without rendering every battle needlessly complicated, is to fill your inventory 75% full with potions and chug them down, constantly, while trying to exploit the poor AI by luring out enemies one by one to their deaths.

Of course, followers themselves also have health, stamina and mana bars too... and they consume the same potions from your inventory.  Even after you've bought fifty or more potions of each type, prepare for those to disappear extremely quickly as you and your party members burn through them.  Once you have no more potions, suddenly the game becomes extremely difficult because the only way to reliably defeat the stronger enemies is to chug, chug, chug.  It's pretty much entirely binary - either you have potions and you win without a sweat, or you don't have potions and you die.

Inquisitor loves to pile on status effects - poison, slow, stun, insanity, fear, etc. - but there are few defenses against them, reducing what could be a dynamic and interesting combat system to "kite and spam the potion hotkey."

This means that attrition is the real challenge in Inquisitor, other than the boss monsters that can wipe your party with a look.  Unfortunately, there are few convenient ways to get new supplies.  Inquisitor has no town portal spell, and the only item of a similar nature is the Magical Box - an object that, when destroyed, releases a genie who grants a wish, ranging from healing, to assistance in combat, to opening a special shop.  Unfortunately, these Magical Boxes are also extremely expensive and fairly rare to come across, and what's more, releasing the genie without making a wish has a chance of granting bonus skill or attribute points - which means that effectively, every genie you don't release is a wasted opportunity to make your character stronger.  Suffice to say, unless you fancy forgoing free level-ups, you'll be spending a lot of extra time walking back to town, slowly, through respawning enemies, in dark, confusing labyrinths.  Of course, if you run out of potions and don't have a Magical Box, you're basically forced to waste an extra 15-30 minutes of your time hiking back and forth.

Challenge is one of those things that only really works when it accomplishes something.  Challenge as a means to an end can be compelling, but usually only for a fairly small subset of gamers, and even then, many of them overstate their desire for insanity-inducing difficulty.  When challenge becomes equated with tedium, or is simply a complete lack of fairness, or extremely skewed balance, the fun inherent in overcoming a difficult battle tends to disappear very quickly.  Inquisitor features old-school challenge, but that challenge is often of the most frustrating, ill-conceived sort, and it only serves to pad out its already overlong dungeon levels.

Closing Thoughts

It's strange how, even after railing against a game like Inquisitor for all of its, frankly, pretty bad design choices, I can still come back to it and look on it fondly.  Perhaps people enjoy to dislike things, or perhaps they appreciate that which they hate, but for whatever reason, all of these problems still aren't enough to make me put the game down.  Just like old-school titles that I still play today, it's got all the same appeal that is so often lost in an era where the player's hand is always firmly tethered to the designer's.  But, it's also an excellent case study in how games have evolved for the better over the last decade, and worth playing just for that experience alone.

I'll be turning to Inquisitor's positives in an upcoming article - old-school design can be maddening, but the game certainly has its strengths as well, and many of them are a direct result of those same "antiquated" elements.  I'd like to cover the virtues as well as the sins.


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Comments


Shahin Ghazinouri
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Interesting analysis. Do you have any ideas on how to draw upon the strengths of "old-school" design without suffering its worst failings?

Eric Schwarz
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Generally hall marks of old-school design, especially RPG design, tend to include teaching players through experience rather than through hand-holding and tutorials, and a degree of openness in the gameplay mechanics which facilitate lots of different options rather than adherence to rigid ideas of what the player "should" always do.

Unfortunately, one gets the sense that (sometimes) these were less intentional and more accidental. For every amazing classic game with gameplay that is unmatched to this day, there are many more titles which have not stood the test of time, usually because many of the flaws outweigh the positives.

I think it's also one thing to design a game with the tenets of older titles in mind, and another to blindly adhere to them without necessarily understanding how and why they work. Inquisitor's mix of Diablo-esque combat with the unforgiving mechanics typically associated with more "hardcore" D&D-based RPGs, for instance, is not necessarily the perfect match, and the lack of convenience options in the game really makes the weaknesses of the dungeon crawling stand out more.

Lack of basic functionality like not being able to rebind keys or change the difficulty level without starting a new game, meanwhile, is just inexcusable. Same goes for some of the improvements made in newer RPGs, like better signposting of objectives, better user interface that's less reliant on learning hotkeys, and a more comprehensive and easy-to-understand journal - that's just "1999 for the sake of 1999", at least in my opinion.

Shahin Ghazinouri
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In your conclusion you state that the game's virtues are a direct result of its failings. But can those same virtues be implemented in a way that avoids the frustrating elements? Or do you believe that it's impossible to have one without the other?

Eric Schwarz
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@Shahin Ghazinouri

That's not exactly what I meant. My point was that many of the game's best traits come from its lack of hand-holding, its attrition in combat gameplay, the wide variety of spells, attributes, abilities, skills etc. that is often lacking from modern games, that sort of thing. But, the developers rigidly adhered to an, as I understand it, "old game X did it, therefore it must be a good idea" mantra.

In other words, game mechanics should exist to ensure fun gameplay (fun being wholly subjective of course). Inclusion of mechanics in and of themselves is not enough - you need to ensure there is a reason for that mechanic to exist and for it to interact within the gameplay system as a whole. "Difficult combat", "tons of dialogue" or "huge dungeons" aren't ends in and of themselves, but Inquisitor seems to treat them as such, which is its biggest problem.

Patrick Lavelle
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Shahin, I agree with Eric's response that the problem with keeping the good while abandoning the bad is related to correctly identifying what parts of the design are 'good' and 'bad'. I think Super Meat Boy is a good example of how indies do 'retro' right and still keep the design modern (I don't think they get enough credit for that).

My process would be:
1) Thoroughly analyze the old game or genre you want to draw from, identifying what works and what doesn't from a systems behavior standpoint.
2) Take the top one or two of those mechanics / elements / parts / je-ne-sais-quai you want to keep and design around those systems, focusing on the interesting choices that those systems did (and potentially can) create.
3) Design & balance the remainder of the game's mechanics and structure from a modern perspective, from scratch (not starting with the conventions of the genre and modifying them, but from a blank space that can be filled with design ideas from anywhere).

It makes me antsy to think that if something gets missed, the process will fail, so I would absolutely do the first step as completely as possible, and I would constantly check to make sure I hadn't gotten off track somewhere. I think job 1 in design is "identify your priorities and then always make sure you are following them".

Joshua McDonald
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I haven't played Inquisitor, but what you described sounds like an RPG going for old-school (which is good) without properlying the learning the lessons of the past 10-15 years, much in the same way that modern games tend to forget the lessons of anything older than 10 years.

A few comments on the specific examples you gave:

Sink or Swim: The old games don't teach you enough, while the new games assume that it's your first video game ever. Why not give the player some choice? Essentially, I think most games should give the player three choices for a starting point: 1. The elementary option (all tutorials, etc.), 2. The option for veterans of the genre but not of the particular game, and 3. The option for veterans of the game.

For example, when I'm playing my second (or especially my fifth or sixth) character in Fallout 2, give me a couple levels and let me jump straight to Klamath (the point where the game opens up and the player actually gets to make meaningful choices). When I have a max-level character in an MMO, let me start one with a few levels on him, so that I can skip the boring "You have two abilities" part.

Traps: You only mentioned them in your caption, but the traditional role of traps is simply a punishment for players who don't go through a constant routine (search for traps. Disarm the traps. Oh crap, I missed one, is it worth reloading my game?). If traps are implemented in a way that puts interesting decisions into the gameplay, they could theoretically be a good thing, but remembering to constantly search for them isn't an interesting decision. Neither is "Do I become a weaker character to prevent random damage that I have absolutely no control over?"

Letting players be stuck with bad characters: This is something I have a lot of mixed feelings about, but ultimately, I've found that the games that I have had the most fun with and kept going back to allowed me to both design a weak character and forced me to restart the game or stick with them (i.e. no "re-speccing").

I think the reason for this is based on where these types of games derive their fun from. If the reason you're playing Arcanum or Might and Magic (the old RPGs, not the heroes series) is to "get through the story" or you only plan to make one character, you're basically missing what makes the game good. Much of the thrill is developing your character, and if your character is an amorphous being that can be completely redefined whenever you decide that something else might be interesting, you miss a lot of this. Much of the fun can come from finding a way to make your sub-optimal design work, opening new strategies or approaches, since your overall-weak character probably excels at something.

Anyway, I'm with you on the conclusion that I can play a game packed with flaws and still love it, and I would probably feel much the same way you do about this one.

Eric Schwarz
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In response to your points:

1) The problem with variable tutorials is that it means more work for the developers. Instead of designing one, you're potentially designing three. It can be done, but it depends a lot on genre - for instance, it's basically impossible to skip Half-Life 2's tutorial (well, without chapter selection) because it is also critical narrative and gameplay that make up a big part of the appeal of the game. But you can certainly skip the tutorial in a game like Civilization no problem, pick different levels of help pop-ups, etc., use different difficulty settings, etc.

2) Traps have never struck me as well implemented in most games. I do like that they exist and sometimes they can make combat more interesting (i.e. dealing with ranged enemies standing behind trapped floors), but in so many games the traps are there for, as you said, the routine. You waste 10 seconds checking, disarming and move on. If you don't, you take damage and use a potion. The only real redeeming quality most traps have is that they can be bypassed, theoretically, in a variety of means (intentionally trigger them with gunshots, run the 18 constitution juggernaut into them, lure enemies into them, etc.). In practice, they are usually just busywork.

3) I am generally not in favour of respecs, but there is a certain amount of tolerance for mistakes you have to have. Age of Decadence is a pretty cool game, for instance, but there is very little tolerance in its character system - and usually the penalty for failure is just straight-up death. Spent your points right or you literally cannot complete the game (or at least the demo). Demanding such strictness from players isn't really fair in my opinion - developers need to anticipate how players will use a character system and design with that in mind.

Joshua McDonald
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In response to your response:

1. The work of varied tutorials doesn't have to be great. It can just be set up to skip part of it (i.e. most RTS tutorials start by teaching you how to move around and select stuff, then move into the game-specific skills. Set it up so that it skips the first part). As for tutorials that are part of the narrative, just warn the player and let them do it anyway (or make it an unlock for passing the game). If the player already knows the story, you don't have to force them through a boring tutorial section.

2. It seems we pretty much agree here.

3. I think we mostly agree here, too, but I think that a couple key details here are that designers have to stay away from offering stats or skills that are simply bad. Some may only be good with certain styles of characters or against certain types of enemies, but if there is a stat that you just shouldn't put points into or a skill that you shouldn't build, don't include it. From your description, it sounds like Age of Decadence made that mistake.

Josh Bycer
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I have a love-hate affair with old school design. There are a lot of classic games that I've never had a chance to play that I've heard good things about: Ultima, Might and Magic, King's Quest. But having not grown up playing those games, I have no desire to go back to a time of archaic UIs, and overly difficult game design.

I love the non linear game design seen in titles like StarControl and older RPG series, but I don't want to have to deal with all the "fluff" of designing games back then. One of my favorite series of the last decade was the Etrian Odyssey games for the DS. Each game is built around old school RPG design of creating a party to go dungeon crawling. But the designers took that design as the foundation and modernize the game to make it appeal to a new audience.

Kevin Rogers
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Although Inquisitor and many old-school RPGs do share flaws, I don't know that it's fair to label them all as "old-school design flaws". Inquisitor just sounds to me like a poorly designed, badly balanced game, irrespective of whether it was trying to be old-school. I mean, I've played old-school RPGs that suffered from none of the issues that you brought up with Inquisitor. Generally my gripes with old-school RPGs are related more to UI design (e.g. poor mouse support) than game-play or world design...


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