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RPG Storytelling - The Unmet Potential

RPGs have been telling the same generic story with the same dull characters for 30 years now. But RPGs have the greatest potential for being art, speaking of life and the human condition, and addressing serious issues. How we can revitalize the genre.

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A few weeks ago, I decided I was going to make an RPG with RPG Maker for no cost. I wanted to do something new, so I looked back at a long list of the greatest RPGs of all time for inspiration. I finished looking through the list, and wound up quite empty, actually unmotivated.

Why? Because most RPGs are rehashes of the same generic RPG from 15 years ago – You and some friends from humble beginnings must save your world from the bad guys using your swords and special moves you learn on the way as you get stronger. Now, I’m not saying some RPGs don’t ever break free from this very simple mold, but I don’t understand why all RPGs pull from a very short list of themes and conflicts. Good vs Evil. Save the world. Rags to riches (in terms of strength). Has an RPG ever rooted itself in the inevitability of death? The existence of God? Self sacrifice? War as a means to do good?

I also find myself disappointed with the characters in RPGs. Many characters in “new” games are parallels to characters in old games, all with the same “problems”. Why can’t we break free from these boring, already explored characters. I have heard much praise of the characters of Chrono Trigger, and I think this is the greatest sign that RPGs need change. The characters of Chrono Trigger were dull. The frog felt guilt for the man who died next to him, and that was about it. The robot and tech minded girl were absolutely flat, the princess was cliché, and Crono was barely a character.

Many developers take this approach in making the protagonist as non-existent as possible to better allow the player to seep into its skin and escape into the game, but THIS IS NOT HOW YOU TELL A STORY! By making the protagonist an unconscious mute, you throw out any possibility of exploring internal conflicts beyond the external conflicts of the gameplay. This is true for all games. However, I don’t expect the next Legend of Zelda to examine Link’s lack of confidence in his manliness or Mario’s deep sexual desires. But these games focus on gameplay, and have no need for a deep story – the fun is in the mechanics. However, it is different for RPGs.

Let me break that down for you – Role Playing Games. These games NEED story, unlike most other genres. Any RPG that fails to explore story beyond the “save the princess”, “stop the bad guys”, or their lovechild “stop the bad guys who have the princess” has failed by its very definition. This is why there can be no Cronos in the genre.

The gameplay has also become very uninspiring. All RPG gameplay focuses on combat – walking from A to B and defeating every creature in your path, usually with your sword/bow/whatever. Many declare Pokemon a childish game, but it is the only game I see to make a significant change to the RPG formula, with the collection and training of little monsters, who can be both friends and foes. It has sold more games per year on average than any other franchise. Even Mario. By a long shot. How about gameplay focused on conversation? Instead of Attack/Defend, maybe you can choose between friendly, flirty, mean, uninterested…, thus exploring social aspects of life and relationships. (This is just off the top of my head.)

I may sound like a complete pessimist, but I see the utmost potential in the RPG genre. It is probably one of the easiest genres to include meaningful stories (although I can think of very few examples), and designers have a lot of room to innovate. One thing I am very intrigued by is the progression of RPGs. All RPGs have made strength the element of progression (EOP), but I look forward to playing and designing games where this is not always the case. Maybe games can explore the progression of a relationship, disease, faith, age… Life is all about progression, and so are games, but they have only just started to explore this with the XP system that many developers confuse as an integral and unchangeable part of RPGs.

Maybe the reason RPGs have become less popular (with the exception of the very fresh, although now stale Pokemon) is that RPGs are no longer new experiences. Maybe the reason we aren’t as interested in traditional, straight-up RPGs is because they have grown stale. Games like Fallout, Mass Effect, and Kingdom Hearts thrive in the action-RPG genre, but a traditional RPG hasn’t won the IGN RPG of the year since Dragon Quest VIII 6 years ago, a year of little competition. In fact, I can’t remember the last RPG I have played that wasn’t a port/reimagining, as that lowers the bar and tells its consumers not to expect anything new.

I look back at Chrono Trigger, and see Homer’s Odyssey. I look forward and see Catcher in the Ryes, The Grapes of Wraths, and 1984s left and right. It is time to push the boundary of RPGs from solely epic adventure to artistic experiences that examine life and speak of the human condition.

This article was posted on Go there now for this full article and many others focused on game design. This article's location:

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