Earlier today I made a tweet that said “I increasingly want games with a ‘story loot’ versus ‘gameplay loot’ option.”
I got some agreement and some comments, and it seems like most people read me as saying that I wanted more items that function as story, which isn’t exactly what I meant (although I do love that and have written about it here a little). And at that moment I could have laboriously tweeted fifty tweets or I could have written this. Here we are.
What I mean is that there is often a massive disconnect between how important and powerful an item is in a narrative and how important it is statistically in a game. It really isn’t the biggest problem in the world, but it is one that I find eternally annoying.
What flipped my switch into thinking about this was a moment in The Witcher III when I was given the ancestral sword of Clan an Craite, the Winter Blade. It is a big moment. Crach an Craite tells you that he cannot offer physical aid, but he can help you by handing over this sword, and in my playthrough I even had Geralt be all “no, please do not give me this.”
He forces Geralt to take it, and it’s a heavy moment, and there’s this story implication that Geralt might take this sword into battle with extraplanar enemies that destroy it for good. A sword that has lasted for generations might disappear forever.
It’s tropey and the most high fantasy of high fantasy, but it also works. I immediately equipped it and prepared to do the Big Mission that was coming up.
Then I killed some rando monsters in a side quest and found a sword that was so much better, just phenomenally better, that I had to stick the Winter Blade in my inventory.
There’s a disconnect there. It’s story loot. It drives the narrative along and helps generate some genuine affect in me, but at the end of the day it’s always going to be transplanted by gameplay loot. Story loot helps you invest in the character and the world; gameplay loot helps you mechanically progress in the game. They aren’t inherently opposites, but they are often deployed that way in the open-world games of today. That level 33 mission reward has to be more mechanically effective because it comes later in the total chronology of the player’s experience, and it doesn’t much matter if that makes sense from a player perspective or not.
These are just some thoughts, but I think I would like to see a “story loot” toggle switch in the same way that The Witcher III or the latter Dragon Age games have difficulty settings that allow you to frontload the story experience over the mechanics of the game. It should be fairly simple: if an item is a legendary, plot-bombshell piece, just lock its stats sky high. It breaks the standard mechanical progression ramp, but that would be the point: the item matters so it matters that you now own it.
I’ve seen games where the Big Plot-Significant Loot levels with the player to some extent. (Though I can no longer remember all of them; I can remember that Dak’kon’s zerth blade does this in Planescape: Torment.) This could feel a bit contrived, but no more so than ‘why does Geralt have to relearn all these skills again?’
(That would still mess with the standard CRPG item-drop economy – one of the things about P:T is that almost all gear is character-specific, and you don’t upgrade it very often. But I can see ways around that – all more way complicated to implement than what you’re suggesting, to be sure.)
I can imagine fairly simple ways to do it, too, it’s something I’ve played with which I’m sure exists already; new techniques the character learns that work with the item, add-ons for it, or just powers that the item has which the character can unlock as they progress.