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On “RPGs”: Or “The Slow Boat to Hades”

     I am going to suggest something very cruel in this post, which may shake you to your very core. It may go against all your memories and past understandings, but bear with me, you’ll be a better person after all this.1223-final-fantasy7-005-vmoyj

     I am going to suggest that Final Fantasy 7, and by association, most of the FF series, and by further association, many RPGs are often bad games.

            I never said it was going to be easy.

            2000 – 2001. Middle school. Everybody owned a Playstation 1. The hot ticket? Final Fantasy 7, Squaresoft’s breakout title for the popular market. Sure, people had played JRPGs before, but middle schoolers? We didn’t know what the hell this RPG stuff was about. They were a cursory group of games, Super Mario, Starfox, those names were familiar to elementary school kids. Along comes FF7, and like a glorious pied-piper, we all started dancing to the tune.

            My purpose here is twofold: to illuminate the dangers of nostalgia and to shed some light on this fraught term of “RPG.” RPG means Role Playing Game. You, the player, create a character around which you build an identity, which you use to interact with other role-players and/or the game world. Hence the Role Playing part. So what constitutes a Role Playing Game? Essentially nothing that is actually termed “Role Playing Game” on the shelves right now. Most tabletop pen and paper games, like Dungeons & Dragons, Exalted, etc, are role playing games. The player creates a character. They, along with other roleplayers, go about whatever setting or world the dungeon master has created.  They can improvise on the fly, create entertaining alter-egos, and directly affect the world they are operating in.

            What we call an RPG is essentially a strategy game with light exploration elements. You, the player, have little bearing on the actual characters or storyline. Your pieces are directed into battle, actions are selected, and Numbers Go Up.

            Many of the tropes we accept as a reality of RPGs (I will use the phrase RPG instead of strategy game for the sake of ease) actually have their origin in the rental game market in Japan. The land of the rising sun started developing RPGs after the U.S. did by about a decade. However, they were never introduced to the actual pen and paper RPGs the American titles were derived from. What is more dangerous than a derivative of a derivative? Not  much. By the 80s the idea of renting games, much as one would rent a movie, had taken root in Japan. The problem developers and publishers now faced: how to get players to buy the games and not just rent them? Easy! Endless grinding, endless leveling. Stats and stats and more stats to improve. Make the game so long, so much of a time sink, that the player will have to buy it. Twenty hours of hitting A, and occasionally drinking a potion. Welcome to the end of the tunnel. There is no light, just a landfill.

            Final Fantasy 7 starts with a glorious fly in CGI shot of Midgard, the industrialized city where the first portion of the game takes place. Part Warhammer 40K, part Bladerunner, remember how amazing it was? I do too. But that was a cutscene, without exposition, and pretty cutscenes do not a good game make. So you get in your first fight, and you hit circle until you win. Man, what a rush.

            You gained a level soon enough, and you watched, without knowing, marketing as it happens. Your character becomes more “powerful,” gains more health, and deals more damage. But enemies gain more health, and more damage, as the game progresses as well. But larger numbers flash on the screen, time and time again, creating the illusion of progress. It’s really not even that insidious. The game is simply creating a feedback mechanism to account for the game’s extreme length. Eventually, you leave the city, which would have made a wonderful setting on its own for a  more concise title, and out into the rest of the game (probably another 20 hours, give or take).

    FFVIIbattlexample        I’m not going to harp on the story because it’s the exact same story that is told in every Final Fantasy, and most JRPGs, to the point that it’s so imitative I won’t waste your time going over it in detail. A ragtag group of adventures must come together and stop an evil which is actually being driven by a greater evil (in this case, Sephiroth – Jenova) that wants to destroy the world. Or whatever. About 1/3rd of the way through a party member dies, one of the two female leads, named Aeris. She was uninspired, boring, cliché, and everyone I knew thought her death was the saddest thing ever. Welcome to the joke FF7 played on thousands of people on both sides of the Pacific. You slog through hours upon hours of press O fights only to have the blandest of an already stale group of characters killed by the annoying bad guy. It’s practically a metaphor for how banal the whole game actually is. That this happened unintentionally is simultaneously hilarious and depressing.

     There are games which we should rightfully lionize in the history of the medium, games which are still as fun to play now as they were when they came out. Final Fantasy 7 is not one of them. But think of the influence it had! you might cry out. I do, and I call it brand poisoning.

            But Bryce, you say, this game came out in ‘98. C’mon man. Things have changed since then. And there are so many other good RPGs! Don’t think me a full cynic, there have been some attempts. Chrono Trigger, Persona, yes, we have seen a few titles that approached some elements of real RPG-ing, tentatively jabbing at the topic, but not really getting into it. But in terms of battle systems? It’s been menus for thirty years folks. Final Fantasy 13 is coming out next year, and guess what, your still hitting the attack button and drinking a potion every once in a blue moon. Final Fantasy 12, bless its misguided soul, tried to alter the mold and offer an action game with strategy elements (along with amazing art-direction and the interesting angle of not actually playing as the protagonist (Basch is the protagonist, Vaan is the player character)), and guess what? The “fans” hated it. How DARE SquareEnix allow us to fight what we want to, when we want to? And so we continue on, marveling at the cutscenes which get prettier and prettier.

            So here we are people, decades of RPGs, standing as still as a statue. Deus Ex is the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to an actual RPG translated into a video game. And that came out in 2000. Nine years later, nothing else has even come close. But! – you exclaim – what about games like Fable, Fallout, aren’t those more like real RPGs? Well, not really. They’re closer though, since you have some element of jurisdiction over your character’s morality. But to what end? Jeff mentioned in an earlier post the problem of clear cut good/evil distinctions in games like Fable and Fallout, and therein lays the problem. You have two predetermined outlooks you can direct your character towards. Both are extremes. And beyond that, there really is no role playing. That these games are called “action games with role-playing elements” in reference not to the level of player influence on the player-character; but to the use of stats and menu-based fighting speaks to the level of misinformation among developers, players, and the gaming press.

          080306-LO%20Screen3_hmed_hmedium  So here we are. America and Japan are both in the throes of watching BIGGER NUMBERS appear on the screen, listening to the same stories told over again and again, while publishing executives line their pockets and tell developers that this is what people want. And who’s to blame them? Most consumers don’t know any better, and most developers have to follow market trends. The cycle feeds itself, and it consumes itself. Here we are, in strategy game limbo, practically inert to the pain being inflicted upon us.

            Is there a way out? Perhaps. A real RPG will be complex, devilishly complex in its frameworks of coding and rules, guiding players through truly non-linear plots, with twists, turns, dramatic overtures, and fine tuned tension. Multiple players will probably be able to work together, creating identities, much as one does with a real RPG, to overcome the trials arrayed before them. And the funniest thing is, people won’t even call it an RPG when it comes out, since it will look so different when compared to the shlock they’ve been spoon-fed for decades. We can only hope.

Bryce Mainville
Pierce Arrow Blogger


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