The discovery of a genre
I grew up on video games. I loved them from my very first game of Super Mario Bros. However, in the era of the Playstation, a genre entered its golden age, and caught my attention like video games never had. Perhaps it was the introduction of disc-based consoles and the release of memory limitations, but massive multi-disc RPGs exploded with the Playstation, and continued their prominence with the following generation of consoles. And I devoured just about every one of them I could get my hands on. I was delving deep into their dark corners for every mystery, and it was still enthralling even as I topped 100 hours in at least a dozen of the largest and deepest games of the time.
Then everything changed
With the release of the third disc-based console generation, and technology that (at the time) truly blew away everything I'd ever imagined, I was excited. RPGs had become known for not only depth, but groundbreaking visuals and I was ready to play every last one of them. But something was suddenly different. For the first time, I was...bored. I picked up half a dozen different RPGs and didn't finish any of them. I started out excited every time. The systems had begun to branch out and explore new territory and that brought whole new levels of interest. But 10 hours into an 80+ (some upwards of 200) hour game and I was already bored. I thought it was the new systems. Games were doing a lot of different things, and I thought that was what had ruined them. In some cases, this was absolutely true, but I won't fault designers for experimenting with new ideas.
I've never done this before. Why is it familiar?
There was, however, exactly one game that stood out. It was something completely new, from a small, obscure company (at the time). Demon Souls was unlike any RPG I had played and it captured me like no game had in almost a decade. The system was outstanding, the world was compelling, but this isn't a story about the 'Souls' games or any of the bad clones that slowly crept in over the years. While these new ideas had been well crafted, and in the most impressive ways, there was something familiar about this entirely new experience. I couldn't put my finger on it, but there was something that made me not only want to finish the game, I wanted to complete it. It was a feeling I did not have about any of the other RPGs I'd played that generation, and I would continue to not have that feeling about RPGs of any sort (other than "Souls-bourne") until this day.
Blinded by everything else
Somehow, while finally getting around to playing a years-old RPG I'd purchased and literally never even installed, it clicked in my brain what was wrong only an hour into this game. I was enjoying the game, but I was doing my first side-quest and thought to myself "I shouldn't be doing this. If I do side quests I'm going to get bored before I get anywhere near the end of the game."
It didn't hit me at that moment, I should say. It hit me today when I thought about picking the game back up and was considering what I was going to do next. Amazingly, it isn't the endless, pointless, side-quests that western RPGs had started cramming into games to prop up main storylines that were only 8-20 hours long. It wasn't the disappointing length of the main stories. It wasn't even the agonizingly drawn-out main stories that JRPGs had started defaulting to since the 3rd disc-based generation. Behind it all, something else had changed across the broader RPG genre that people had praised so much at first that studios became blinded to the way it watered down the entire experience.
RPGs had become viewed as a genre that revolved around a combination of player-choice and character progression. While this is not entirely wrong, and new interpretations of these core concepts are very welcome, they had missed the original core of what made the genre stand up to potentially hundreds of hours of playtime for fans. At their core, RPGs were never about character "progression," they were about character enhancement. Specifically, the satisfaction you got from getting something new and better for your character(s), and the feeling of being rewarded for your efforts.
So what, specifically, had changed?
I said it wasn't the endless side-quests, but that was only half true. It was the fact that it stopped mattering what you actually did in the game. Your characters had begun to depend on generic resources for their "progression" and it didn't matter what you were doing, the rewards were just 1 more point of player choice progression. There was simply no investment in what I was doing anymore, because every single thing I did felt like busy work. Meanwhile, the games had begun screaming at me at every turn saying "hey! this is a side mission! do it for bonus rewards!"
Prior to this shift, side quests were generally hidden (even if not very well). And sometimes you wouldn't know whether doing something would progress the story or if it was side content. That excitement of discovery was half the fun of RPGs. But then there's the other half that disappeared pretty much completely. While you have pretty much always "leveled up" in RPGs, that was formerly never the main avenue for getting stronger. You built your characters up by finding secrets and/or taking on optional challenges which ALWAYS offered great rewards which could only be obtained by that specific activity.
So THAT was why it felt familiar
Despite being so alien it barely registered as an RPG, the Souls games, but especially the one that started it all, were a return to form in more ways than the obvious. They were marketed as "hardcore" games for people who loved a challenge and had no qualms about not being able to being punished by the game. What slid under the radar, because of the (modern) staple of progression via resource investment was the fact that there were countless special items which were completely hidden, miss-able, and were rewarded only to players who performed specific tasks--often without any indication players were doing anything special. THAT was what RPGs had forgotten in the modern era. Not one or two bonus challenges just for the sake of doing something hard. Not optional overpowered obtainables (per se). It was the experience of having dozens of opportunities to both acquire or miss the best items in the game. It was the thrill of chasing something hard because the harder the challenge, the greater the reward. And the amazement of finding out what could be found, only when you either knew exactly what to do or got very very lucky.
So, for now, we're stuck with games where endless, pointless content is the staple. But the next time you're thinking about how boring the content is, consider why such similar content was actually compelling in some of your favorite games of old. It wasn't because what you were doing was so different. It was because you knew it was for something special instead of simply trying to "get all the points."