Make a game (not) a good one is a series of obiter dictum that discusses the good or bad in video games. Random number generators, much like procedural worlds with which RNG is not to be confused, are flying high in this day and age. Is it a noble effort in pursuit of genuine gameplay variety, therefore fun?
A few days ago, I have attempted to finally conquer my long-time nemesis, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I failed. The difference this time around being, I won’t bother again. The role of our RNG Almighty in the game simply crosses the line.
An unfortunate crash-to-desktop has forced me to redo a mission, one that I have passed with flying colours on that ill-fated first try. The second one didn’t go all that well. Despite employment of the same tactics, I saw my squad pulverised. Same opposition, same map. Go figure.
No. The fact that I got my arse handed to me is not the problem. It’s the “go figure” part that is all that matters. If the line between monumental success and utter failure is drawn by RNG – and I say that in case of otherwise not-bad XCOM precisely because for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what did I play wrong – you know that something’s way off. Rage quit ensues.
One may of course want to hold on a second here. Fallout, incidentally one of my most favourite games ever, rolls dice all the time. In Fallout, if the RNG decides you shall be fucked, it will bar no holds, but! Those holds are subject to known and fairly transparent framework of rules beyond which even the RNG (Not-So-)Almighty dares not step. If you’re not a complete idiot, you will stand, unfucked. And if you indeed fall, you will know why.
I don’t hate XCOM, even with its rules implementation allowing RNG to go absolutely haywire. I simply don’t have the time to keep at it again and again, nor do I find such loops particularly enjoyable. RNG Almighty in fact excels at wasting one’s time, as Elite: Dangerous will now gladly demostrate.
Elite: Dangerous is riddled with RNG. NPC spawns, point-of-interest spawns (!), ship upgrade buffs and debuffs (!!), alien encounters are all at absolute random. “Blaze your own trail”? David Braben’s arse.
Eye-openingly, RNG also governs spawns of mission objectives. It often won’t pass on an opportunity to hold the player to its ridiculous ransom for hours on end, then spawn the objective right in front of them with thunderous laughter. True story. Whether anybody – ever – would find this fun isn’t even a question. What I should be asking is how do people not find this insulting.
RNG Almighty is not always a horrible master. It can boost engagement, shape how you play in a meaningful way. Just ask those who play roguelikes. FTL or Everspace come to mind. It can also make games feel more ‘alive’ – shit does happen in real life too, doesn’t it? But, you know what, video games shouldn’t be real life.
Of all the things ‘why’, it’s agency why we play and love games. RNG counters agency. Enough said.