WHY PLAY AN RPG?

by Goladus

When I was young, I first became curious about the NES Final Fantasy when a friend bought it, and told me about its ~60 page manual "that doesn't cover everything." He also had Dragon Warrior. Those were both forbidden to me, my mother at the time doing way too much blind-following of Dr. Dobson and the religious right, and anything like D&D was off limits. So I never really got to play them, I just had brief exposure, and was intrigued by many aspects of the game, primarily the idea of the fantasy "escape" world. That was also why I loved the Chronicles of Narnia.

It was an opportunity to play the US Final Fantasy II (with Cecil, hereafter referred to as "FFIV") that got me hooked. Up until that point, I'd still loved video games but I'd only played games like:

Super Mario Brothers(1-3)
The Legend of Zelda
Megaman
Mike Tyson's Punchout
RBI Baseball
Archon
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


And some other games I'd played included Contra, Spy Hunter, Paperboy, Ikari Warriors, and Basewars. Tecmo Super Bowl I did not play until after I'd had my first experience with the Super Nintendo.

The Super Nintendo and My First Console RPG.

FFIV was one of the games, along with Street Fighter II, F-Zero, Super Mario World, and a superscope game called BattleClash, that was my introduction to the Super Nes console. I was awed by the special effects and detail of the graphics in those games, and to this day enjoy all 4 of them (though I can no longer really play Battleclash as it was meant to be enjoyed). But it was FFIV that hooked me. Why? I believe it has all the essential elements of an RPG, and executes them well. An RPG to me is a game that includes long-term character building, a realized and explorable world, and a dramatic plot. A combat system is crucial to making any game(including an RPG) fun to play, but there are almost no limits on what can constitute "combat."

Building a Character

FFIV had a feature, character development, shared by only two of those NES games I listed above: Zelda and Megaman. In these games, you play a character that builds over time. This makes the game more dynamic, adding a layer of complexity that didn't exist in Street Fighter or Super Mario Bothers. You start out weak, and over the course of the game you grow powerful. In zelda you start with a wooden sword and soon get a small boomerang, by the end you've got a magic sword that can kill all sorts of enemies in a single blow, strong armor, increased vitality, and a collection of odds and ends to play with. In Megaman, you get equipped with Bubble Leads and Crash Bombs and Heat Rays and you can collect energy boosters. Final Fantasy took things a step further than both of those games, and took a more nuanced, D&D-like approach to character development, to the point where you almost felt as if you were a part of the world. You could have money, and spend it at shops. You could find items in the wilderness and use them, hoard them, or sell them. There were items of all kinds with varying worth and significance, from the smallest cure1 potion to the powerful Crystal Sword to the secret pass to see a show in Toroia to the Big Whale spaceship. On top of all this you had the level-based advancement system. If anyone doubts the addictiveness of character-building, I need only point to Everquest.

In building a character, customization is fun but is not essential. I loved making custom rosters for sports games, and was fascinated by the depth of customization allowed in D&D, but Zelda and Megaman work too, despite the fact that ultimately, you always end up with the exact same character. The key is that the player's actions cause the character to grow more powerful. This can be completely linear and still work. Again, look at EQ: character advancement is extremely linear, yet is still compelling.

Exploring a World

In addition to all of this, was the world I was given to explore. The world of FFIV had only a hint of the raw beauty that later RPGs would boast, but what FFIV did so well was taking that hint and using it to inspire your imagination. They couldn't show the beautiful forest city of Toroia, so they made a highly stylized version and let the characters tell you about it. Instead of becoming immersed only into the game itself, like I would with Megaman or Super Mario Brothers, I would also be immersed in the world. It would eventually become mine to rule. I would be the greatest Knight chamption in the world, riding around in my fearsome Airship, crushing insolent imps and hateful zombies with my bare fists, hitting on strippers in Baron and counseling Kings in Fabul.

Living a World (Through a dramatic story)

FFIV also had an engaging, dramatic story. The story was more than just a brief setup with some bits of lore as you progressed, like Zelda or Mario. It was more than just a backdrop-- a series of contrived events like the Street Fighter tournament. The story didn't just give you a reason to play, the story was enjoyabe in and of itself. FFIV won't go down in history as a literary masterpiece, but it was the first game I'd ever played with such a complete story and rich blend of text dialogue, sound effects, and visual cues. I can still remember that surge of excitement whenever the Cecil sprite would split up into the whole party of sprites, signaling the start of a plot sequence. The characters were real, or fun charactitures. Instead of just having an arbitrarily good hero as the main character, Cecil begins as a Dark Knight comitting dark deeds with nagging self-doubt. He grows into the role of righteous warrior. Tellah: wise old wizard, but grumpy and emotional with a huge stubborn streak. Overcome with desire for vengeance. Kain: Inferiority complex, lusts for Rosa. Rydia: scared child whose home was destroyed, matures into a strong-willed, quiet, and powerful woman. Cid: The workaholic, ball-busting, shit-talking, good-humored, tough-as-nails old engineer. Edward: Pussy who has to face harsh reality. Yang: Well Yang is pretty much a generic kung-fu master, but that's pretty cool. Edge: Rash, irresponsible, egotistical teenager that gets his ass handed to him by Rubicant(and perpetually by Rydia). No other game I'd ever played had that kind of complexity or subtlety. No other game used various spinnings and bouncings of sprites to convey meaning, no other game included thematic music for all the characters, and used it to dramatic effect. (Street Fighter had good themes, but they were not used in a dramatic context over the course of the game.)

The combination of these first three things forms the core of the "escapist" draw of an RPG. You enter the world they've created, using a character with great powers that you don't have in the real world, and the story gives you reason to use them. Almost all RPGs rely on these three things to attract and draw players in to the game. This is true even for Everquest. Though EQ has traditionally been weak on actual drama, the real human social aspect makes up for it. The same is true for tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, which may or may not have a strong story but generally has a good deal of human interaction. What makes an RPG good, is the skill with which these three elements are crafted, and how well they interact with each other and the combat system.

PLAYING

Combat in an RPG is related to all three of the above. Combat is generally the primary place you build your character, and unleashing your character's power adds to your immersion in the world. Combat is also typically the primary way a player(As opposed to a character) has a meaningful role in the story. For these reasons combat is typically very important in an RPG, however where these ends can be achieved by other means, combat is not necessary. But though it may not be a necessary "RPG" element, the actual gameplay is what appeals to the gamer in us. Without it, you might as well read a book, watch a movie, or use AIM. But without a character, a story, or a world, you might as well play Tetris or Solitaire. Gameplay needs to be fun. "Fun" may be a tall order, but as far as gameplay is concerned it's the only demand.

Gameplay can be dangerous, though. Too much of it that is not enough fun will detract from the essentials. You might have a good story, a beautiful world, and an innovative advancement system, but if the gameplay is annoying like a deerfly buzzing around your head, players begin to not care so much about any of the good stuff. You'd be better off no gameplay at all, than horribly annoying gameplay intruding itself all over the RPG essentials. Xenogears, for example, shuts off random encounters occaisionally. There are battles in specific spots, Mystic Quest-like(but hidden), so that you can concentrate on your attempts to work through jumps and mazes without being constantly interrupted by the same battles over and over. But I've also heard that some people just can't get into the combat system of Xenogears, which turns the game into a chore rather than something fun.

Gameplay in FFIV

Gamplay in FFIV was divided between 2d world exploration, combat preparation(menu system) and combat. 2d exploring was simple and straightforward, as was combat prep, having little function beyond directly applying those principles listed above. Combat added some other elements that were engaging on their own and not specifically related to exploring, character building, or story, for example selecting a target to attack. Combat itself, in FFIV, was fairly easy but not devoid of challenge. There was plenty of room to improve your play though it rarely, if ever, became frustratingly difficult. You could generally make it through the game even playing poorly, but could play well if you wished, and would be rewarded by quicker progression through the story, as well as the generic satisfaction of mastering something which was present in most video games.

I was always a fan of strategic gameplay, it being a bit unusual on console systems. On the Macintosh, I liked sports games where you played the coach, and just gave the players direction, and they would perform according to their stats or abilities. The "Active Time" battle system provided, at the time, an almost perfect blend between strategic play and action. This was a terrific fit for the character-building/world-exploring/story-driven model, which already relied heavily on imagination. The player directed the events in an "active time" battle, and his characters played them out, which formed a template for the players' imagination to flesh out. A game like Street Fighter also relied on imagination, but in Street Fighter your imagination was much more directed. Combat was much more explicit. A game like checkers, on the other hand, is almost entirely abstract, and it would take quite an inventive imagination to turn a typical checkers match into a meaningful sequence of real life action, to the point that no one would really ever bother. People pretty much only play checkers to be diverted by competition. I considered the ATB system to be a great balance between the two styles. In FFIV, combat was fun, in character, a means of advancement, and inspired the imagination.

But Who Really Cares About Genre, Anyway?

If you look at any Gamer's top 10 list, you'll likely see a variety of genres, from sports to RTS to flight sims to puzzle games. While some people clearly prefer certian gameplay elements to others, I know few people who are sure to enjoy anything of a particular genre, or do not enjoy quality games of another, though people may say things they don't mean. I think many people "hate" particular genres without actually giving them a chance or understanding what they're all about. Not a video game, but Country Music is a good example of a genre that kids will ridicule while turning around and listening to Britney Spears. I see people "hate" rpgs or "hate" fps or "hate" rts when it's clear they are just not willing to give it a shot, and it's possible they've just been brainwashed by media trying to hook people into their own product line. Does no one else get annoyed when Amazon suggests the Dungeons and Dragons movie because you bought Return of the King?

I've found that you can always learn to appreciate quality products that you may just not be used to. You may prefer RPGs, but with a little time and patience you may find the fun of an RTS or FPS, and it's not until then that you can really be sure which you like better. In my experience most people don't have that patience, and render judgments prematurely. I fell in love with RPGs because of FFIV, which was something new and exciting at the time I first played it. But I eventually tired of them and looked to other areas and played other kinds of games. That's life. But I suspect that for those of us that loved RPGs and moved on to Everquest, it was those first 3 factors that really got us interested. The prospect of doing all the typical RPG things I loved online with other people was what drew me to EQ.

© 2004 Goladus :p

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