I visited a friend of mine the other day. I walked into his house and instead of initiating the dialog for the story mission — we were going to see Pirates of the Caribbean, but there would be options in the dialog tree for Bridesmaids or Thor — I started going through the drawers in his kitchen. There had to be a junk drawer somewhere. A ha! Sure enough, I found 43 cents in loose change. I also scored some batteries, a ball of string, a screwdriver, and a roll of masking tape that I could sell next time I went to the store.
I found a key in there as well. Once I’d cleared the spare change out of the other drawers in the house (another 87 cents), as well as taking some jewelry from his wife’s jewelry box (score!) and changing into a nicer pair of pants I found in his closet, I tried the key on various doors. I eventually got into his garage. I found a bunch of tools, as well as some lumber and cloth. I did’t take the lumber since it just took up too much weight in my inventory. The entire time he was watching me, waiting for me to initiate dialog.
I understand why computer RPGs do this, and it’s a convention as old as the genre itself. The level designers have made cool locations full of nooks and crannies that you have no reason to visit, much less admire. So they sprinkle rewards around to encourage exploration. It’s part of the economy, and it makes gameplay sense. But the trade-off is that it damages world building and character development. In The Witcher 2, for instance, I can get into a groove where I’m digging on a town’s layout, and where people live, and what they do, and how they hang out and talk to each other. But the moment I open someone’s personal chest and help myself to what’s in there while he looks on? That’s the moment I’m back in yet another computer RPG. Furthermore, my Geralt in The Witcher 2 would never do something so petty as steal stuff from people. But the developers don’t acknowledge this decision I’ve made about the character I’m playing. What’s more, they punish me if I make this decision.
Looting friendly homes in an absurd RPG convention and it needs to stop. Bethesda’s games finally woke up to the fact that it’s odd to pick through someone’s possessions, so they put into their games ownership over items and whether or not people see you taking their stuff. It’s a crucial part of their world building, which allows for the concept of crime. It helps character development since it finally gives thief characters something to do beside pick pockets and disarm traps. And it also makes it harder to play otherwise solid RPGs like Dragon Age, The Witcher,
Neir, and Divine Divinity.