Another thing I’d like to see in RPGs.

Been doing a lot of theorizing about the RPG genre recently for some inexplicable reason. I like playing them, but there’s no denying that they tend to blur together after a while. Given that the genre’s nearly dead aside from the occasional almost apologetically niche offering, isn’t this the time to start experimenting with the fundamentals of the genre, trying to find new ways to breathe new life into it? I mean, if people aren’t buying spiky-haired swordsmen and virginal ethereal princesses fighting against surly bishonen with god complexes now, a new coat of paint isn’t going to save them.

Specifically, I’d like to see a game (and, more specifically, a series) take a crack at episodic stories. Now, when people mention the word “episodic” in a video game context, what they’re usually referring to is DLC, where game companies try to squeeze you for more money by making you buy the whole game in bits and pieces rather than just selling you a full, completed game and having done with it. What I’m talking about, though, is an episodic series in the same way television is episodic — a series of self-contained adventures starring the same characters, released gradually.

When you think about it, the real reason there are so few direct sequels in the RPG genre is because RPGs like to raise the stakes so high that nothing else set in that world or starring those characters could possibly match it. Once you’ve toppled the evil empire, reconciled with your long-lost father, and killed God, there’s not a whole lot left for you. RPGs tend to include absolutely everything that occurs to the writers in the process of making them, so by the end the world is tapped; there’s nothing else to do there. Saving the same world over and over strains credulity after a while. That’s why the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII was so badly received (well, one of the reasons) — all of the sequels either tried to rebottle Sephiroth’s lightning or introduced new villains who were neither as dangerous nor as interesting. We already went everywhere, did everything, and met everyone in FFVII, so the expansions didn’t have anything significant to add.

My theory is that this derives mostly from the old RPG cliche that you have to save the world. Saving the world is, by definition, the most important thing that can happen to a world, so nothing else that happens there can measure up. Even games like Radiant Historia and the Suikoden games that try to be more down-to-earth usually end up returning to the “gotta save the world” well by the end.

So: I’d like to see an RPG series that dispenses with this. Instead, make each game strictly localized, with a goal that — while important — is clearly not the most important thing to ever happen. Finding a treasure. Solving a crime. Stopping an assassination. Winning a battle. Escaping a siege. Such games could star the same characters and take place in the same world, but would be self-contained. Modern RPGs tend to relegate these kinds of things to subplots, or intermediary goals before the real focus of the game is revealed — but why? There have been good stories — loads of them — based on nothing more important than these things. I don’t see why a fantasy RPG couldn’t join them. RPG writers are so addicted to the “epic” that they can’t see that there’s drama and interest to be found in plots less pressing than ancient prophecies or the destruction of the world.

Rather than trying to make a game that’s the biggest and the best, the writers can instead focus on details. A game that takes place in a single city (or hell, a single building) can afford to make a city that’s much larger and more in-depth than is possible in a game where there are dozens of them. Characters can be given more history and personality when they’re not just signposts for pointing the player in the proper direction. And the player characters can have a deeper relationship as well.

Let me see if I can expand on that last point a little… One of my all-time favorite RPGs is Tales of Symphonia. In that game, as much or more than any other RPG I’ve played, you really get the impression that your party members are a group of people traveling together. The game accomplishes this by having them talk to each other. Not always about plot points or character drama — just random, everyday stuff. For example, Genis and Sheena don’t really have much of a relationship and their character arcs and individual plotlines don’t intersect, but there are still numerous skits in the game which consist of them talking to each other about little, trivial, everyday things.  Same goes for, say, Zelos and Regal. This helps to create the impression that the characters interact and have relationships even outside the cutscenes and main plot. You can usually tell how much effort went into a game’s cast by the amount of time they spend talking to each other — some games you can pick out two or more party members who never make a direct statement to one another the entire game, which unintentionally emphasizes the concept of characters as game tokens or plot devices.

An episodic game could have more space for non-essential conversations like these. Since the main plot isn’t a sprawling drama that draws in everyone, characters can have more opportunities to breathe and be themselves. Think of a TV show you like… you pick. You can normally characterize the main characters very precisely, and if you imagined two characters from the show alone in a room together, you’d be able to predict how they would respond to one another. This is because, over the course of dozens or hundreds of episodes, they’ve accumulated enough characterization that they stand on their own as characters, outside of any specific plotline. That’s a quality that not enough RPG characters have. They’re a grab bag of quirky characteristics and generic cliches with a mysterious past.

An episodic RPG would also, by necessity, be much shorter — and given that the genre has long defined itself by its length, I think this would be a welcome change. Strip out the padding and the grind (see yesterday’s post), the false start and the generic endgame, and see what’s left. That’s the game I want to play.


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