Role playing games have been my favorite video game genre since the early ‘90s and my list of all-time favorite games reads a lot like a list of the best they’ve had to offer. I’m always on the lookout for new and exciting ideas or just a really solid role-playing experience, but more and more often I’m finding myself underwhelmed by what I find.
Even with the many games I really enjoy, it seems like there’s always something that just bugs the crap out of me. Something that would have made a good game a great game or a mediocre game a good game if the developer had just thought it through a little differently. There are a lot of cliches and bad habits that have become standard operating procedure, especially in low budget turn-based JRPGs, that need to be reconsidered to bring the genre back to a place where they can be the toast of the gaming world again and not just something hardcore gamers play out of force of habit.
There’s still a lot of quality out there, but it can sometimes feel like you’re playing a retro title even when you’re paying a premium price. Here are five things that aspiring role playing game developers should keep in mind if they want to get on the level of BioWare or classic Square and crank out some modern RPG classics instead of forgettable bargain bin bait.
Gamers gotta game
First and foremost, some developers need to learn that when we purchase a video game, the thing we want to do the very most is PLAY IT. I feel like maybe I should have typed that in Japanese. At some point during the original PlayStation era, RPGs fell in love with cutscenes. At the time it was pretty amazing. I mean, a video game with movies in it? Best of both worlds, baby! But I think the sheen has worn off. In fact, it’s downright dilapidated at times and AAA games like Final Fantasy tend to overdo it. Making epic cutscenes is an expensive process and I can’t help but feel that the money could be better spent at times, considering it’s something that stops the gameplay dead in its tracks and keeps gamers from the game.
The visual novel format is a cheaper way to make cutscenes that use series’ of static or semi-animated images combined with voiceovers for a more comic bookish effect. It’s become the favorite storytelling tool for low budget JRPGs and it’s still effective, but the problem with that is with fewer budgetary constraints sometimes the writers don’t know when to rein it in so scenes can go on too long. More on that later.
The biggest problem with both of these is that they pull the player out of the game. We are no longer gaming, we are just watching. In small doses, this is fine, but especially in the early going, games need to find better ways to introduce the story to players and keep the gameplay rolling at the same time. Gamers are getting older and our free time is getting less, so modern games need to learn how to keep us playing lest we become disinvolved. The differences between film and video games are becoming more apparent and if anything, games have more storytelling potential due to their interactivity. It’s a shame to bog dynamic interactive entertainment down with too many lengthy bouts of passive storytelling.
Persona 3 and 4 were the gold standard JRPGs of their generation, but each of them took several hours before the player did much more than watch characters converse. That’s just not going to work anymore. I’m hoping Persona 5 puts players in control of their destiny right off the bat and unfolds the story through more actual gameplay segments rather than just showing us a bunch of epic-length visual novel movies as an intro.
Don’t text and drive
My opening theme for this list is video game writers who don’t seem to have editors. Interrupting gameplay for hours at a time is going is maybe the first and foremost sin that modern RPGs are struggling with these days, but some games feel the need to barrage you with information almost constantly and that can be annoying as well. And it’s not mostly Japan doing it this time.
Last week I praised Wasteland 2 and its old-school sink-or-swim approach to party-building and gameplay. This week, I’m criticizing it for making me have the exact same conversations over and over and over and interrupting my explorations with walls of text describing things I could see for myself. It seems like every character you meet has a long list of dialogue options and they were all differently worded ways of saying the exact same thing. You can get good information and quests in unexpected places so all available options need to be checked out, but asking every NPC the same line of questions and having them give you the same answers in return just led to me mindlessly skipping through the conversations because I just didn’t care, and that is a big no-no.
If I, the gamer, don’t care about what’s currently going on in the game, somebody is not doing their job. Redundancy is the father of boredom and while some gamers are all about the lore, I think we can admit that a lot of games overdo it. The beloved Elder Scrolls series throws piles of books at you, all filled with flavor text.
Part of me wants to read it all -I’m a reader and I naturally want to absorb every word placed before mine eyes- but most of me wishes they’d take that enthusiasm for their world and use it to give their characters more personality instead of writing satirical in-game erotic novels that few gamers are going to have the time or patience for in a game that will eat at least a hundred hours of your life in exploration alone. Anything that stops you mid-game and beckons you to read completely unnecessary or redundant information for minutes on end is a liability. Keep the story flowing instead.
Give voices to the voiceless
Moving along in this same vein, the excess of writing has led some games to not bother with voiceover at all at times. And the ones that do this are also the ones who are prone to half-assing in other areas as well. I’m an old schooler so I’m well aware that gaming didn’t always have fancy voice acting and most of my favorite games of all time did not. But in the modern age you’ve got to pick your format and stick with it.
Classic and retro games work with only text dialogue as a single format and it’s effective. Undertale used different tones for characters to convey the illusion of individual voices without voiceover. These are immersive because they are consistent. But some modern games flip back and forth between formats and as a result, they break immersion and often annoy the player.
Switching between voiced and unvoiced dialogue is something that just shouldn’t be happening anymore. It’d be like watching a blockbuster film and having it switch between speech and silent film acting from scene to scene. Unless it’s some deliberately weird artistic experimental indie thing, all it’s going to do is annoy the viewer. And even if it is, the result will be be the same for most. Ni no Kuni was terrible about this. Let’s hope the upcoming sequel does better.
Right now I’m playing through Omega Quintent and I’ve got to say, this is killing me. There are all of these inane conversations that drag on and on and seem to almost go in circles. Sometimes the characters’ mouths are animated and they speak, and sometimes they just stand there and there’s text.
Look, man, if you’re going to visual novel us to death, I think in this day and age we at least deserve full voice acting. If the character dialogue is so unimportant that you convey it with only a static image and some text in a full retail release, why even have it in there interrupting our gameplay? It’s hard to get invested in character and story when you’re constantly being reminded that the developers totally half-assed it. If it’s not important enough to bother with voiceover for it, it’s probably not important enough to leave in the finished product.
Time is (not) on my side
Like I said before, most gamers are all grown up now. This means fewer carefree weekends and summers spent gaming until six in the morning. We’ve got jobs, families, alcoholism, clinical depression, and various other adult responsibilities to attend to and that makes game time a privilege. That is to say that we need to get more content in less time as opposed to when we were little gamerlings with nothing but time on our hands.
To put it in RPG terms, adult gamers have enough grind in our real lives that we don’t really need more of it in our video games. The constant running back and forth performing menial tasks and farming random drops that still defines the genre is becoming outdated as other games focus on meaningful content instead of filler. Thirty or forty hours is enough time to tell a great story and give players plenty of game for their dollar. And really, few games have more than that. But a lot of them double and triple that length by running players around in circles just for the hell of it.
It’s often disguised as incentive, but said incentives usually feel pretty mandatory. As gamers, we want the best gear and the most options and the coolest skills and will inevitably feel that if we skip past all of the side missions we’ll be missing out on a serious chunk of the experience. We want the rewards, but getting them shouldn’t feel like a chore. It’s a game. Nothing should feel like a chore. And making enemies overpowered so you have spend hours fighting weaker ones in areas you’ve already cleared to level up and progress? Just no.
This is another trope that Japan is slow on the draw to change, but Western devs fall into the trap as well. Mass Effect 2 earned some criticism with their planet-scanning mini-game, which had gamers combing over the surface of random planets in order to obtain materials for upgrades, many of which were necessary for your crew to make it to the end of the game alive. BioWare actually took gamers’ complaints to heart and eliminated it in the next game, creating actual side quests and multiplayer content (you know: fun things) instead. It’s time other devs started respecting their players’ time a little and keep the fetch-and-farm quests to a minimum.
Keep it (semi) simple, stupid
A lot of the same games who are committing these sins against modern storytelling try to make up for it with opaque, esoteric gameplay mechanics. I get that there is a subsidiary of role playing gamers who live for this sort of thing; the stacking and linking of skills and stats and memorization and calculation of optimum efficiency to create overpowered builds and invincible tactics.
I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t exist, but they really need to be introduced in a manner that is more organic, lest some poor soul trying to get into RPGs to see what all the fuss is about wanders in out of curiosity and gets the genre ruined for them forever after being presented with gameplay that appears to be some form of advanced calculus on top of a nonsensical plot.
Games like Record of Agarest War 2 and (again) Omega Quintet look and sound like great, inviting concepts. Adventure with a diverse array of pretty ladies in a fantasy landscape and choose one of them to father your child, who grows up and repeats the process in the next segment of the game! An idol simulator where you manage a J-pop group right down to costumes and dance moves and use music to save the world! Then after being subjected to a metric ton of inane anime cliches you get to actually play and realize the game has done a crap job of explaining how it works.
You’ve got all of these options and complicated mechanics and the tutorials state only the most obvious or useless things and leave the rest to give you a headache while you clumsily trial-and-error your way through. Some players are hardcore enough to stick with it and spend hours figuring it all out, and others can just power through using only the basics and ignoring the finer points but it’s not at all hard to see why most gamers avoid this stuff like the plague. All that time spent on characters putting their boobs on each other and yelling in text, and almost nothing explaining these complex battle and leveling systems.
This brings us to another growing problem with RPG storytelling. Either there are a bunch of vague and specific things you MUST DO to get the “true ending” -which we often find out too late- or there are other similar features or aspects that are made inaccessible to beginning players. Who really wants to play a game for for fifty-plus hours and then find out they missed out on something important or get a crap ending after feeling like they did everything right because they needed to play the whole game with a walkthrough in their lap, making sure they checked off the list of ridiculously specific things that were never referenced in-game yet needed to be done, to get the not crap ending? Goddamn nobody. That’s who.
In the case of Final Fantasy XIII, the convoluted plot and its bizarre terminology wasn’t really explained at all until dozens of hours in, leading some confused gamers to tap out early from sheer aggravation. Nobody wants to listen to gibberish for hours on end and gamers not only want to know what’s going on, but they want to know what’s expected of them beyond “kill those things” as well.
If RPGs as a genre are ever going to find their way back to a Final Fantasy VII level of popularity, they need to remember how to marry depth to simplicity and excite players to learn the mechanics without burying them in unnecessary, unexplained complexities early on. Leave the depth in the game, but ease gamers into the mechanics bit by bit. Put plenty of secrets and bonuses in, but don’t make them an absolute necessity to get a decent ending. Make games with story and gameplay that can be enjoyed by everyone from start to finish with minimal stress or a feeling of missing out. Do that and we may see another role playing golden age on the horizon.