The Dos and Don’ts of an RPG Story

June 23, 2009, Author: Brian Gourlay

Since Final Fantasy VII, I’ve been a massive fan of RPG’s in all shapes and sizes. I love immersing myself in a new world for a couple of months, exploring a land that was the product of so much creative thinking, unearthing the history of the world and its people, just really taking my time with a game and getting as much out of whatever imaginary places have been put in front of me. Since starting a full time grown up job last year though, I might knock out a couple of games of FIFA or squeeze in a Gears deathmatch after getting home at night, but I’ve started to find that it’s getting less and less common for me to really get my teeth stuck into a good long RPG. The fact is, you really need to put a lot of time into these games, thirty minutes a night just won’t cut it, so I’ve made the conscious decision to be more selective about the RPGs that I play.

I got to thinking about what really appeals to me in an RPG, and it actually has very little to do with the gameplay (although it works in the games favour if it isn’t a buggy piece of junk). My main motivation for playing these games is the story, the characters, the very universe that the game is set in. My satisfaction from playing these games doesn’t come from finally grinding to a high enough level to beat the next boss, it’s from finding out the bad guys motivations, what the protagonists shady past involves, or what secrets lie behind that eerie looking cave. So like I said, I got to thinking, and I think there is some pretty universal criteria that can be used as a checklist to gauge whether a game is going to keep me riveted, or send me to sleep, controller in hand, as I’m forced to watch yet another nonsensical cutscene that doesn’t move the story along at all (I’m looking at you Infinite Undiscovery).

Goodies vs Baddies
This one is a complete no brainer, but the characters are the ones that keep the plot ticking along, and if they’re not capable of doing that in an interesting way, then the story itself is going to suffer accordingly. These days, it’s more important to put effort into the games allies and enemies rather than the protagonist, the reason being that more often than not you’re playing the game from his point of view. Since it’s your decisions that shape your character’s development, less effort has to be made in making the protagonist as exciting. Of course, these decisions also affect other people in the game, and that’s why it’s so important that you care about what happens to them.

I think that spending a little bit of time fleshing out a character, making them seem more human (maybe sympathetic would be a better word, since a large share of the characters aren’t human in modern games), can improve the quality of a game’s story, and the game as a whole. The best example of this is Mass Effect (which I think just about tops my list of RPG’s from a storyline point of view). While the major cities in the game still had the stock NPC’s that just repeated the same phrase, everyone that you could really interact with felt like they had an entire team of guys working on every tiny aspect of their personality. In most RPG’s, you will go through a spell where you just can’t be bothered talking to people, you just want to skip the conversations and get to killing some bad guys, but I can honestly say that I never felt that way once when playing Mass Effect. Every character had a varied and interesting background, they all had motivations for being on my crew that I couldn’t wait to find out more about, and the conversations flowed so naturally (thanks to the brilliant voice acting) that it never felt like a chore to have a natter with anyone. When characters are this well developed, you find yourself connecting to them. It feels less like you’re completing an objective to gain EXP, and more like you’re helping a real person to find their brother, collect on a contract or investigate an SOS call. This level of immersion is one of the things that I feel RPG’s achieve that very few other games do, and it’s one of the things I can’t wait to experience again when Mass Effect 2 comes out at the tail end of 2009.

On the other side of the divide, I find that it can often be more important to have a well thought out adversary in an RPG, than a group of team-mates that you feel you can relate to. From a personal viewpoint, I think that it’s hard to beat having a complete b*****d to pit your wits against. Seeing the likes of Sephiroth massacre an entire town or stab your love interest in the back WHILE SHE’S PRAYING makes a pretty bold statement and definitely gives the end game of RPG’s a much more personal edge (frankly, anyone who didn’t let out a tiny little whoop when you unleashed a final omnislash against Sephiroth is an unashamed liar).

“Who will you become?”, “Forge your own destiny” and so on and so forth…
If you’re buying any new RPG, the chances are the box art will be inundated with some kind of reference to a “free roaming world where you can do as you please” or “face impossible moral choices that affect the outcome of the game”. This is a concept that I very much buy into, but unfortunately it doesn’t usually work out that way.

I’ve no problem admitting that I’m a goody two shoes. I’ve no real inclination to be a heartless b*****d just for kicks, although I am partial to the occasional dose of vigilante justice. So when it comes to solving simple good/evil or selfless/greedy conundrums, I don’t feel myself agonising over the decision and I very rarely think about it after I’ve made my choice. As much as I love both games, Fallout 3 and Fable 2 are especially guilty of this. In both of these games, pretty much every decision you have to make can be split up into two choices, do the right thing and win the adoration of the populace, or be a bit of a b*****d and get more material rewards. If a bit more thought was put into the quests then I might have found myself taking more time, but I can’t recall any occasions playing either game when I stopped to think about whether I was doing the right thing. With Fable 2 in particular, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I was faced with the choice of killing or sparing a cute fluffy kitten that had accidentally eaten the best weapon in the game.

One game that, while still falling into the same pitfalls as other open ended RPG’s, occassionally excelled in this aspect was Mass Effect. The basic good versus evil choices were still there, but occasionally the game would throw you a curveball and you’d find yourself having to make some serously tough calls with no real easy option. In one mission alone, you could end up leaving a planet having wiped out an entire alien race in order to put your adversary’s plans on hold, killed one of your squad in self defence after he took exception to your recent genocide, and having had to decide between leaving one of your friends to die in a nuclear blast, or leaving another one of your friends to die in a nuclear blast. It’s these moments that stand out the most in these kind of games, and by making sure your decisions have extreme and far reaching consequences for the rest of the game, you find yourself thinking about every step you take in the game, as you know even opening your mouth at the wrong time could end with someone getting shot in the dome.

It pays to be thorough
When I say that I like to get involved in an RPG, I mean it. I want to know absolutely everything about what’s happening, or has happened, in the world that I find myself placed in. So I appreciate it when the developers of a game have taken the time to include as much knowledge about the game world’s history, people, places and other such things that really have no bearing on how the game plays. Even though most people won’t bother with looking through the books and internet articles of Fallout 3, or the encyclopedia of Mass Effect canon, I think that it’s a great way or giving every action you take in the game more weight.

I mentioned above that you have the choice of committing genocide as part of a mission in Mass Effect, imagine how much more meaningful that decision is when you know everything about that race’s culture, home planet, famous leaders and national dish. While playing Fallout 3, very little is mentioned about the actual origins of The Brotherhood Of Steel and The Enclave, and it’s entirely possible that you complete the game knowing next to nothing about who the BOS are and exactly what The Enclave have done that you’re supposed to be so p**s*d off about (apart from killing your dad). I already know most of the Fallout history since I’m a massive fan of the first two games, but I still found it interesting to find a new piece of the canon in the form of a crumpled up newspaper clipping or ancient computer termial, describing one of the defining moments in this alternate American history.

No kids!
Ok, only J-RPG’s are guilty of this, but the “don’t work with kids or animals” rule in movies can at least be partially extended to games based on some of the absolutely horrendous inclusions in previous games. I’ve no problem with NPC children walking around a town, or having to save someone’s grandson from a cave full of ravenous werewolves (as an aside, just how bad are RPG parents at looking after their kids, and why do they always wait until they’ve ventured into the deepest darkest depths of a dungeon before deciding that they’re scared and plant themselves to the floor crying? Then again, I suppose it would be a pretty lame quest if he ran back into town right after you’d finished promising his parents you’d save him from whatever dangers lay inside the tomb/cave/burning building), but as far as I’m concerned they should NEVER come along for the ride.

I’m not saying that I’m an expert in this particular field, in fact the only occasions that I’ve had to face this abhoration was while playing Lost Odyssey and Infinite Undiscovery, but it has affected, no, scarred, me so significantly that I can confidently say that I would be taking a game straight back to my local shop to trade it in (or throw it into a bonfire if the shops were closed) if I found some annoying sprog was going to be tagging along in my journey to save the world and kill things. I really don’t think that I’m exagerrating in the slightest when I say that, and I’m considering paying for this to be engraved on my gravestone, “CHILDREN. RUIN. CUTSCENES”. A prime example:

Kaim, the 1000 year old immortal protagonist, has come across his daughter, who he lost and assumed to be dead when she was only five years old. A glorious coincidence wouldn’t you agree? Well no, because in a surprisingly dark twist for a J-RPG, his daughter has been struck down with an illness and is lying on her deathbed. It would have been a scene worthy of a movie, as Kaim discovers that his daughter is alive, only to realise that he’s going to lose her in a matter of hours. If it was just those two characters in this particular scene, I might have even shed a tear.

But they weren’t the only people in the room.

Kaim also discovers that he has grandchildren, Cook and Mack. They both have their personalities defined pretty early on, Cook is sassy and protective of her younger brother, while Mack is a bit of a gullible scaredy cat. However, only one personality trait really shines through with these two, because my god are they ANNOYING. Most of the time, they act as the “comic relief” to Kaim’s silent, introverted personality, but this comic relief is nothing but a cutesy cheesefest that reminded me slightly of the Teletubbies, but that’s not the worst part.

Are Cooke and Mack the worst RPG characters ever? Yes. Yes they are

Are Cooke and Mack the worst RPG characters ever? Yes. Yes they are

As in every RPG, the kids have a few sections of the game where they go through some character development. In their case it revolves around them coping with the loss of their mother, and the contrast between Kaim, Cook and Mack perfectly sums up why I wanted to switch off my 360 every time they showed up on screen. As Kaim silently reflects on the challenges of being immortal, to fight in countless wars, see every unsavoury human trait and watch the people he cares about grow old and die, the kids look into each others eyes, hold hands, and… start singing.

Just take a second to think about how ridiculous that is. Singing. Singing directly at each others faces. I can’t recall an occasion where my opinion of a game has started with genuine admiration and respect, and plummeted to confused contempt in a split second.

To be honest, I don’t know if they were singing one of their late mum’s favourite lullabies or one of the most recent catchy disco tunes, because I was so unbelievably gobsmacked that I had switch my TV off and hope to God the cutscene would be over by the time I switched it back on again. I could go on describing every cringeworthy scene that they ruin in this game, (as well as Rico and Rucha from Infinite Undiscovery, although there’s no point since they are essentially the exact same characters), but I can actually feel myself losing faith in gaming the more I am forced to think about them.

So, all pretty straightforward then (unless you’re particularly fond of children, then things could get a bit prickly). As I’ve been writing this, I’ve realised that I’m yet to come across an RPG that checks every box of an enthralling story. They all their cliches, confusing plot twists and hammy characters in different combinations, but I think it’s incredible how far the gaming industry has come in terms of storytelling. When I started gaming, any kind of story in a game was considered a bonus, and were never considered to be one of the defining factors of the genre. Now however, we have the movie industry buying the rights to different developer’s IPs, when 10 years ago it was the gaming industry that was using blockbuster movies as a quick cash boost. I’m very optimistic about the future of RPG’s as a form of storytelling (even an art form, although that will probably be a long time away). You just have to look at the hype building up for Mass Effect 2 to see how far it’s come already; the details of the gameplay are sparse to say the least, but a couple of cleverly designed trailers hinting at the demise of the game’s protagonist and everyone was on the edge of their seats, begging for more.

Myself included, why the hell was a Geth wearing Shephard’s battle armour?! WHY?!