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Editorial RPG Codex Editorial: Without Map, Compass, or Destination - MRY on RPG Writing

Infinitron

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Codex Year of the Donut Serpent in the Staglands Dead State Divinity: Original Sin Project: Eternity Torment: Tides of Numenera Wasteland 2 Shadorwun: Hong Kong Divinity: Original Sin 2 A Beautifully Desolate Campaign Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire Pathfinder: Kingmaker Pathfinder: Wrath I'm very into cock and ball torture I helped put crap in Monomyth
Two years ago, Darth Roxor wrote a fierce editorial where he tore into the various deficiencies of modern RPG writing. Unbeknownst to us, the esteemed MRY - creator of cult adventure game Primordia and the upcoming roguelite Fallen Gods - wrote a full-length response to Roxor's polemic, which he ultimately chose not to make public due to his then-recent involvement with Torment: Tides of Numenera, one of the games it criticized. Well, that was then. Recently MRY decided on a whim to share his editorial in a thread about the literary qualities of Planescape: Torment (which has since been derailed by random nonsense as Codex threads tend to be). It's a great piece, and so with his permission we've decided to give it a proper home. In truth, it's less a response to Roxor's editorial than it is an analysis of the issue at a deeper level. It attempts to explain why RPG studios find it so difficult to produce consistently high quality writing - and why we should still cut them some slack. Here's an excerpt:

Unlike in other fields, an RPG writer reaches a professional level in the near complete absence of coaching, junior leagues, and "practice" -- particularly with regard to the design and implementation of conversations.

The first point, about coaching, is the easier one to prove. I'm not a good basketball player, but to the extent I can play at all, it is because many better basketball players taught me, informally and formally, from the time I was very young. It's not necessary to be a professional basketball player to receive basketball coaching, and in fact totally inexperienced and untalented players receive coaching from relatively experienced and talented players all the time: for example, I received coaching, formal and informal, from a variety of college-level basketball players and one Olympic player, albeit before he played in the Olympics.

There is no such coaching for RPG writing. I have been, in one form or another, endeavoring to write RPGs for many years. But the only coaching I ever received came after I already had secured a job as an RPG writer (for Bioware, and later for inXile). To be sure, I have seen occasional instances over the years when experienced RPG writers advised amateurs, and I've tried to do that myself. There are few ridiculous for-profit trade schools you can go to and attend courses in game design, perhaps in RPG writing. There are lectures at conferences that you can stream on YouTube. There are message boards like the Codex where people debate and critique RPG dialogue. But the chance of having a skilled practitioner watch an amateur in action and provide advice over a sustained period of time, or even to "play against" or alongside an amateur, is essentially zero. I can't think of any other field of endeavor in my life (academic, legal, athletic, literary) in which this is true. (I'm sure there are other examples, but they aren't obvious.)

The second point about "junior leagues" is harder to prove because it is undeniably true that a form of junior league exists in the modding community. But in other fields what you see is a very wide base to a very tall pyramid, whereas in the field of RPG writing what you see is a very short inverted pyramid, with the top (i.e., professional RPG writers) larger than the base (i.e., non-professional RPG writers actually producing playable works). Millions of children play full games of basketball, write short stories to be read or listened to by dozens, compete in math Olympiads, play clarinets at concerts, and so forth. The opportunities narrow as the skill level increases: fewer will play high school varsity basketball, and fewer will start; fewer of those who start will play college ball, and fewer of those will start; a tiny fraction of those will make professional leagues, and fewer of those will start. But there is no comparable winnowing going on in RPG writing. A guy like me basically goes from unsuccessfully making an amateur RPG to working on Dragon Age: Origins, albeit with a mostly irrelevant interlude at TimeGate in the middle.

One reason for an absence of "junior leagues" is that RPGs involve many component other than writing. To make even a NWN module entails a number of additional skills (like map layout, encounter design, balancing, etc.). And you can't "play" at being an RPG writer by scripting once-off characters -- you need to build something larger and more complete. The result is that there are high barriers to participating in the kind of amateur development that could constitute such a junior league. Moreover, the junior leagues themselves lack coaching, rigorous feedback, and -- in many instances -- even non-rigorous feedback because most mods go mostly unplayed.

Finally, my point about practice is the least significant, but I think it's relevant all the same. In most professional endeavors, the ratio of performance time to practice (or preparation) time is skewed heavily toward the latter. Actors and musicians rehearse; athletes have many practice days before every game day and entire off-seasons of training; lawyers do moot courts and mock trials. But essentially everything an RPG writer does is performance, not practice. Indeed, the "writing test" I took to win a spot on the Torment team consisted of writing two conversations for use in the game. I believe the same is true of the test I did for Bioware on Dragon Age: Origins. (This would be equivalent to auditions being used in movies, right?)

What all of these factors mean is that the overwhelming majority of RPG writers will start out on professional projects without being seasoned in the craft. They may be good at writing in an abstract sense, and they may have a feel for RPG conversations from playing RPGs, but some of what you are seeing in commercial titles is the work of raw recruits. Of course, veterans take time to train and review that work, but the veterans themselves have writing responsibilities, so much of it is learn-by-doing -- you are seeing the equivalent of the failed Tolkien pastiche that some novelist wrote in college, rather than the third novel he wrote when such mischief was beaten out of him.​

Read the full article: RPG Codex Editorial: Without Map, Compass, or Destination - MRY on RPG Writing
 

RK47

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HoboForEternity

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i think it is a very reasonable explanation. it is also in line with what we heard so far, including avellone's whistle blowing on PoE, also what we knew of numenera, etc.

but of course, like most population, codex's outrage towards certain people are because, like most populous, they need a black sheep to turn their anger towards. some exception, like feargus (because high level management failure IS Sytematic failure) happens, but yeah i do not feel any of the lackings in RPGs in general and all the vitriol that follows should be directed against particular persons (or any praise from success be directed at only one or 2 persons. with some exception, videogames are a predominantly a group effort compared to any other media). note that codex' political bias also plays a great role towards their angers and disappointment.

in the end, couldn't agree more with the article.
 

Mustawd

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MRY makes some really strange statements in that article.

The one I find the strangest is that he brings up The Witcher. Roxor’s editorial dealt with RPG writing that mostly needs to be read (at least that’s how interpreted it).

At some point, a cutscene in an RPG is more of a tiny portion of a film. It flows differently when acted out.

But, regardless, the main issue with RPG writing is that they are forgetting the G-A-M-E aspect of it. It’s a game. It’s not a novel. It’s not a movie. Pace is of particular importance. Exposition and or complex prose should be used sparingly to accentuate specific portions of the experience.

Do I need 4 lines of dialohue to describe what I’m looking at in-game? Perhaps, depending on the characters. If you take the opening scene of PST there are some NPCs that have little initial description. Most of the interesting bits are learned as you interact with them. Some NPCs do have more rich and fleshed out initisl descriptions, however. And these are appropriate for the importance of the NPCs.

What I don’t need is overly verbose exposition or dialogue so long that it breaks the game cobstantly. Not every NPC should have a lore dump associated with them.

I go out in public and details of people’s lives need to be teased out.

Anyhow, this article reads like an rpg writer apologist wrote it. Kinda want those 15 minutes back.
 

Mustawd

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I prefer “shill” to “apologist,” thank you very much.

They’re different things. So...yah. Apologist rings more true imo.

You’re like the Joe Theisman of rpg writers bro. Be proud.
 

MRY

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The one I find the strangest is that he brings up The Witcher. Roxor’s editorial dealt with RPG writing that mostly needs to be read (at least that’s how interpreted it)
It's been ~25 months since I wrote the piece, so I can't really tell you what I was thinking, but I can say that Roxor spend a fair bit of time talking about the Witcher, so that's probably why I mention it, too.

Roxor said:
Finally, when it comes to not using the formula to its fullest, sometimes I get the impression that developers/writers are buried under their mounds of text to such an extent that they forget that video games are primarily a visual medium. This is all Buster Keaton and text screens again, really. Consider some of the more, let’s say, cinematic RPGs, such as The Witcher, Mass Effect or Alpha Protocol. This might not be a very popular opinion around here, but they have all it takes to deliver really quality storytelling (even if the final effect, especially in terms of ME, may vary) – voice acting, facial animations and character movements in dialogue. What takes Mike Thorton or Commander Shepard 3 seconds to headslam a guy against the wall would otherwise probably constitute an entire paragraph of text, which would also need to be crafted well enough to properly construct the scene without the visuals to accompany it. The same is true for The Witcher, particularly 2 and 3. Characters move around when talking, gesticulate, frown – it all comes together to deliver a believable and fluid scene that is also quickly finished, as it should be. Sometimes the performances are even near-theatrical. The natural flow of dialogue achieved this way also results in a much greater feeling of verisimilitude, which ties closely to the aforementioned fake journals. Combining the two points serves to support the overall problems highlighted in the previous chapter, which is to say that game writers simply keep writing about things they have no idea about. Whether because they've never bothered to do their research, or because they are trying to practice or portray things they've never really experienced firsthand, only through "creative ventures" or stuff they "heard from someone, somewhere".

Naturally, a big problem with the above, from a developer’s perspective, is that full voicing and elaborate animations are simply expensive to do, and consequently reduce the number of dialogues or characters you can realistically provide. But considering most of what I’ve written in this entire article, can’t a limitation like this ultimately work for the better? With such constrains, you have to limit your cast and make sure that each character is properly fleshed out as a consequence, and you can’t afford to waste time and money on useless infodumps. Even still, a “full” cinematic package is not really necessary to boost your storytelling either. Consider Bloodlines – the game isn’t particularly loaded with cutscenes, and the dialogues are more or less static. But the characters are full of character, mostly thanks to two features – their distinctness (and the way interactions with them are built on this distinctness) and their facial expressions. Even without the voice acting, which can be hit and miss in Bloodlines, you could read the characters perfectly just by observing their faces. Alpha Protocol managed to do this well too – for example, when you piss off Marburg, all he does is frown and clench his jaw, without launching into a rant meant solely to signify how you’ve handled the conversation (although that is still communicated by a convenient "-x reputation" pop-up). Which leads me to my final point in this chapter.
 

Tigranes

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Thanks MRY, it's a good read. To me, the key points I get out of it, and ones I really do agree with:

1.
RPG writing requires an unusual mix of qualities that do not occur frequently in the population. There is no infrastructure to identify or develop these skills, nor are there incentives to encourage that these skills be deployed in service of RPG writing.

This is probably more obvious to Codexers than the general population. (See: 'omg let's create a gaem i'll just do all the writing eh?')

RPG writing is generally awful, but the most obvious explanation involves a bunch of people who love video games so freaking much, who do not have the exceptional talent to become, say, a best-selling novelist, and who end up writing for games without a highly structured system for training them (and sorting the best of the bunch from the rest).

2.
Unlike penning amateur IF, working professionally on RPGs requires subordination, coordination, and cooperation.

You can't just be a great writer, you have to work with the technical aspects of RPG writing, and you also have to work with a team that is usually run in a very messy and unstructured and even budget-crisis way. Given that the video game industry is intensely chaotic most of the time, and lacks well established procedures for such coordination, I would think that a project with 5 writers is exponentially harder than a single-authored piece, with so many places where you look at what's been created and think what the fuck is going on.

3.
The problem with writing the now-standard kind of RPG dialogue is that it takes so long that it is seldom finished far in advance of whatever the final hard cut-off date is (localization, vocalization, shipping, whatever). Only in journalism, I think, is there the same compression of writing and publication. In other media -- in my experience, in legal writing, in fiction writing, and in academic writing -- revision is critical, and often takes as long as the writing itself, if not longer.

And this really is key, I think. For anything, ideally, you're writing 10,000 words to produce the final 500, and you've waxed and polished that 500 many a time if it's ever going out there. But if you have to get 500,000 words out the door, and half the time you're reading your colleagues' writing without a clear understanding of where this dialogue actually appears in the final game and where the player is at, and it all has to be done next week so Patrick Stewart can say his lines, then...
 

grimace

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In essence, the nature of the beast is that by the time the writing is done, there is no time to edit it.

It would be like tearing down a house after it was built because it turned out to be not quite what the builder wanted.

In game development who has the final say in what the "building" will be?

At what point in development has the blue print of the "building" been finalized?

And if the builder decides halfway thru development he no longer wants to build a cathedral and sees the practical value in building (and completing) a factory instead . . .
 

MRY

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Here's what I can add with a little more separation.

I would never work on an RPG like TTON again unless (a) I had retired from my day job and had carte blanche, dictatorial control, and years to develop it, and even then maybe not; or (b) someone who I really like asked me for help, and I had time/space to provide it. Really liked.

Otherwise, it's a total sucker's game, and I'm not at all surprised that Avellone has no interest in doing it any longer. There is no way for the story as a whole to be your story without absurd sacrifices. The actual writing itself is of fairly low importance compared to every other aspect of the game -- even with regard to story-telling. Lousy writing that is well voiced in a well constructed dialogue tree is infinitely better to the player than brilliant writing in a lousy dialogue tree. And the story-telling is largely subordinate to other things (like gameplay systems and visuals).

I spent a huge amount of time and energy on TTON for a role that was basically anonymous, rendering a contribution that was basically irrelevant, and earned money that made no difference whatsoever to my standard of living and was all poured into backing Kickstarter projects and charity bundles, and paying Fallen Gods contributors. If TTON is great, it is great because of someone other than me; if it isn't, no matter how great my work (I doubt it was that great), it couldn't meaningfully change that fact.

Moreover, even if my contribution hadn't been a trivially small part of the game, the nature of this kind of RPG is that if it's done well, the vast majority of what you write will never be seen by a given player, and some of it will never be seen by any meaningful number of players. The existence of that sub-water-level iceberg may be essential for the whole thing to stay afloat, but it's a thankless task. (On Fallen Gods, we talk about writing for "the Siberian" -- a lonely researcher in a remote station who has nothing to do but play FG and shiver. It's one thing writing for yourself with the Siberian a third-party beneficiary (as I do on FG and as, say, Vault Dweller does on AOD), but if you're not writing for yourself, the Siberian can't justify the toil and tears.)

I don't regret having worked on TTON; actually, it was an experience for which I'll be forever grateful. I can also visit a squalid, teeming market, negotiate for a trinket at some souk, and come away with a very fond memory -- and yet be grateful that I do my shopping on Amazon and need not wade among the pickpockets and haggle down from a treble price. I love the inXile team, and as someone who loves RPGs, I love that there are suckers who are willing to keep doing that job and doing it well. But for me, it's a total mismatch. To circle back to where I was when I "posted this on a whim" as Infinitron says, it's a good job if you're young, single, and passionate, with a bachelor's time and a young man's energy to devote to making the project your own. It's a silly way to spend your time and energy when those things are precious, unless (as I said) you're building a dream project for your own sake.
 
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You know cRPGs should be primarily about killing monsters, level ups and looting treasures.

Just put an excuse to go murderhoboing and that is enough writing for a true cRPG if the gameplay systems and power/challenge progression is decent.

The problem is when there are incompetent dickwads trying to be an author through video games and make "art".
 
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Darth Roxor

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There are various points in the article that I would agree or disagree with at whatever levels, and I don't think there's much purpose in mentioning them, so I'll just quote one that I disagree with p. strongly.

To some degree this could be dealt with by reducing the amount of text, but I doubt the text could be reduced enough (in the kind of RPG we're talking about) to make such revisions feasible. Thus, I think that an inherent feature of narrative, dialogue-heavy RPGs is that they are immune to the rewrites and structural changes that you would tend to see in other written works, despite the fact that editing and iteration are critical to good writing.

I think there are some people whose response would be that this is an argument to return to the much slimmer text of RPGs before the mid-90s and to focus on other means of story-telling than dialogue. That is a whole other debate, and one that's a little hard for me to wrap my head around because it is at least a little bit like saying, "If you find fantasy novels too long-winded, you should just watch fantasy movies." There obviously is a huge swath of players who like dialogue-tree-based RPGs, and so I think trying to abandon the form altogether is probably not a great idea.

Here's the thing. If you'd take your list of "well written RPGs" (Planescape: Torment, Fallout 1, The Sith Lords, Mask of the Betrayer, Bloodlines, Arcanum, The Age of Decadence, The Witcher, and Betrayal at Krondor) that seemingly share no common traits at all but somehow remain well written, I dare say that perhaps with the sole exception of PST, they are NOT dialogue-heavy in the way that the current crop of deep lore logorrhea the likes of PoE or Numanuma is.

The dialogues in Arcanum are actually resolved pretty quickly. Depending on your character, you might not even have a whole lot of options. It's very much like AoD in that regard. Meanwhile AoD is very much like another series that I hold in high esteem for natural flow of dialogues, and that's Gothic - in Gothic the conversations often flow with the protag's speaking without the player's input, because what's the point of adding a single dialogue option that says: "1. Whoa!". In none of these games are NPCs also information vendors that have a 6-option dialogue tree that can be shortened to "tell me about shit". Actually, Gothic is the only exception, but this kind of dialogue is reserved only for the generic, unnamed "townsfolk" npcs, and copypasted 100% without any shame, as it should be. I believe this is also the same for Kotor2, Witcher and Bloodlines - prob mostly because of full VO in dialogues that is a strain on budget, so copypasting it all up is much more reasonable and cheap. Do Kotor2 and Bloodlines actually have that many long-ass dialogues, except for people like Kreia or LaCroix? I honestly can't remember, especially for Bloodlines.

Then we have, say, Krondor and Fallout. If you ask me, both of these don't even have a lot of characters to talk to. Krondor can have elaborate and long dialogues, but its cast of NPCs is actually very limited, thanks to which all of them count and can be made important for the story. Plus, again, a lot of their dialogues with the PCs flow on without the player's input, and occasions of "tell me about stuff" are very rare. I would say Fallout is similar. Pretty sure the majority of people in the world are generic Melcars who only give you quips, not dialogues, when interacted with. The longer dialogues are reserved for major characters, either those important for a specific location, or for the general story. Otherwise you could probably reduce them to "hi, let me see your wares, bye". Again, none of the "tell me about stuff" unless they are actual historians.

Meanwhile you have those modern RPGs that really like them yuuuuuuge, beautiful dialogues with every janitor you meet. It simply isn't interesting, in fact it's tiring more than anything else, especially when they keep jammering on things you'll never see, or on things you've read about a hundred times before (I'm looking at you Shadowrun: Hong Kong), or better yet they just keep talking for the sake of talking, because spouting nonsense just to get them dialogue counts up for the "huge swath of players who like dialogue-tree-based RPGs" is obviously the priority. If you cut down on all of that useless shit, you'd probably already help the entire process tons, without losing anything (or very little) of import.


And in all of that PS:T is the only one where you get to ask NPCs to spam you with everything they know, and it somehow works. Why? It is a mystery. Maybe it's a fluke. Who the hell knows.
 

HoboForEternity

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Ypu know cRPGs should be primarily about killing monsters, level ups and looting treasures.

Just put an excuse to go murderhoboing and that is enough writing for a true cRPG if the gameplay systems and power/challenge progression is decent.

The problem is when there are incompetent dickwads trying to be an author through video games and make "art".
Disagree.

more than combat, it is for about open endedness, reactivity, player agency.
 

MRY

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Darth Roxor I'm not sure you are really responding to the point you're ostensibly disagreeing with. None of the games you mention are equivalent to "the much slimmer text of RPGs before the mid-90s." They may be shorter than PS:T/TTON/POE2 (who knows?), but they're not so short as to make the kind of revision/iteration I talk about possible, except for very well-financed titles like The Witcher 3. Also, at least to my recollection, MOTB is comparable to PS:T, TTON, etc. in terms of every NPC having a story to tell. For instance, I did a Google search for <"word count" mask of the betrayer> got no good hits, but clicked through this link -- https://lparchive.org/Neverwinter-Nights-2-Mask-of-the-Betrayer/Update 21/ -- and it fits with my recollection of very long dialogues with everyone you meet.

Again, "shorter is the route to better" seems plausible, except that the ultra-long-winded PS:T is the most acclaimed, and many other fairly long-winded titles (like MOTB) are also well acclaimed. While TTON and POE may draw more negative reviews, it's not like there are 100 RPGs with PS:T-length dialogue that are bad, and one that is great; the ratio of greatness to lousiness is actually very high, possibly higher than it is for more terse RPGs.

That's my point re: the impossibility of drawing firm rules. The dataset is small, and the results are all over the place.
 
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IncendiaryDevice

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Ypu know cRPGs should be primarily about killing monsters, level ups and looting treasures.

Just put an excuse to go murderhoboing and that is enough writing for a true cRPG if the gameplay systems and power/challenge progression is decent.

The problem is when there are incompetent dickwads trying to be an author through video games and make "art".
Disagree.

more than combat, it is for about open endedness, reactivity, player agency.

Why not both, etc etc.

But I agree with Heretic that the combat system is the most important aspect, and next up should be things like the Monster Manual and itemisation.

Obviously, just having those things and nothing else would just be a grind, to which:

Such things as open endedness, reactivity and player agency (together with lots and lots of other things) are what make it an RPG rather than a loot grinder.
 

grimace

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In sum, my work on Torment is terrible, and I have written a whole treatise to explain why, and you poor saps read it, just like you're doomed to read my Torment Meres. So it goes.

I haven't read it yet. Please share the link.
 

Shadenuat

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Pretty sure reason for MotB etc. not having prose is because having fully animated 1st person NPC in front of you doing nothing while prose explains what they do would look awkward; it's about levels of abstraction.

Darth Roxor I'm not sure you are really responding to the point you're ostensibly disagreeing with. None of the games you mention are equivalent to "the much slimmer text of RPGs before the mid-90s."
I think Roxor is talking not about how word heavy game is, but how you play with text/dialogue. Game can have lots of text but if it is structured correctly player would not be overwhelmed or bored.

In sum, my work on Torment is terrible
My novels don't sell GRRM levels means I'm terrible :Mat some level modesty can turn to self flagellation you know. ever thought maybe if people react better to you expressing yourself in another medium that maybe that medium is better suited for you expressing yourself?

As for having no rules of references, and that dialogue "just clicks" sometimes, I see no doom there, just basic thing that art doesn't really have any rules.
It must be a complicated process to achieve flowing mix of gameplay, dialogue and animations/art and correct level of novelty to make game stand out; and it requires unique approach from game to game to create a special style for each game.

Games are unique. Deal with it.

The Production Cycle Does Not Allow for Major Revisions
And that is shit, and I always thought that lack of good editing was always the bane of game writing.

...also I am amazed at how Roxor's article was passed around devs and they somehow managed to almost make POE problems worse in Numenera lol.
 
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ScrotumBroth

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Grab the Codex by the pussy Insert Title Here Strap Yourselves In

Maybe because every great RPG had a vision, a true inspiration to establish chemistry with players and make it "magic". Fallout 1, Baldur's gate 1, Arcanum, PS:T, Deus Ex (altho they had System Shock), VTMB, none of those looked at datasets, they were creating history through uncharted waters.

Edit: Incidentally, CDPR are probably the only 100% example of someone who shamelessly took what worked before from various all time greats and put it together into their own mix, but they still had a pretty good idea what they wanted it to be, just not how to get there, which reflects drastic changes between each game.
 
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