Jan 16 2011

Let’s Analyze: Role-Playing Games

Our Topic Today is RPG's...also, how to trip the guy in Heavy Armor so he doesn't curse you from the grave. He'll be happy for the closed casket too.

Welcome to Let’s Analyze, one of my new features outside the regular lists and the stuff I find randomly to talk about, since I’m so randomly random. Let’s Analyze will choose a genre, aspect or possibly a game franchise and pick it apart. From narrative to gameplay to immersion and whatever else in-between, I plan to explore my target with a critical eye of its points and its flaws. I plan to expose its great aspects as well as its flaws, and attempt to see where these important aspects will go in the future.

Our first focus will involve a genre which is quite strangely defined, if we’re being honest. A Role-Playing Game is quite a contradiction for obvious reasons; whenever I play any game of any genre, I am taking the role of something or someone in some fashion. If I’m playing Super Mario Bros. 2, I can take the role of Mario or Luigi or Toad or the Princess in this platformer. What role seems to be referring to is the aspect of a defined world and story to act along the role, but most games also have a story involved as well. To properly define RPGs, it may refer to the level of detail given to these aspects as well; Final Fantasy IV decides to do that by starting you out with a deplorable act committed by your hero. Dragon Warrior serves the ‘role’ aspect by making you the main character by name entry, but has you save a princess from an evil Dragonlord who actually happens to be with his dragon instead and can be easily bypassed. Role-Playing generally is defined by the level of description associated with their immersive story-lines and their detailed game mechanics, and even more importantly, how those aspects are presented to the player.

Which leads into how the story is developed. Most book enthusiasts seem to downplay the effectiveness of stories in role-playing games, but where they fail to understand the extent is in the perspective of how these stories are presented. There are three specific roles that define a story within this genre: Linear, Semi-Linear, and Sandbox.

Linear example, and one of the best. Don't let the cliché fool you-everything has been done before.

Linear strikes up a defined story from beginning to end and takes the player through the challenges in order to reach the overall climax and eventual ending. Being the main storyline design and that Japan uses for their lucrative Role-Playing market alongside Semi-Linear, it should come as no surprise that this is where most of the storytelling is found with a secondary concern towards gameplay. Stories in this type follow dramatic conventions well-enough, but sometimes leave information out in droves, leaving the player (or authors on Fanfiction.Net) to connect the dots. Narrative convention is portrayed in a straightforward pattern of challenge and adversity to the overall success. This tends to leave description and character development to either take up very little or too much of the overall work, glorifying or detracting from the narrative and its relation to the gameplay. Both aspects may be explored near the end, where some games take on a Semi-Linear role to draw the player into side quests and extra powers before sending them against the Big Bad. A key component of the first two roles rests here; the ability for Linear and Semi-Linear to become interchangeable. The modern Final Fantasies serve as the most common example; their games are rather formulaic this way, but they’ve also managed a proper blend of storyline and gameplay. For a stronger emphasis on the mechanics, Golden Sun: Dark Dawn is the most recent choice. For the story, look no further than the titles of Game Arts..

Example of a Semi-Linear Game: Oh, and I wouldn't stay out at night. Not a good idea.

Semi-Linear maintains the narrative flow from beginning to end but doesn’t care how you get there, in the simplest of terms; the goal is in sight, but a number of pathways and diversions are presented to engage the player. The biggest of the drawing aspects is exploration and the idea of adventure, usually defined in the gameplay better than in Linear roles by rewarding the player with greater challenge and more power for this simple act. Again, these two concepts can be interchangeable, but the record states a closer connection from Linear to Semi-Linear, instead of the other way around; games generally work well together but in RPGs, the balance between plot and gameplay mechanics can come in steep conflict in a game with less baggage to extend a plot thread. Knights of the Old Republic 2 is the most glaring example simply for the fact that all your party members outside droids (Sith-HK would be awesome, though.) could be Jedi despite their own character motivations. Dragon Quest games really shine in this role, as does the Saga series and Bioware titles. The Tales series is starting to adopt this style, but with a strong blend of character-driven story and grand, fleshed out worlds and people; Persona, especially their later titles, are also of note. Also, nearly every Multiplayer RPG follows this role…as much as they try to be our next role.

Example of Sandbox. Good luck on there. You'll need it. Hehe.

Now Sandbox is one of the most interesting of the roles not only because of their settings and overall immersion but also because this role is a primarily Non-Eastern invention, having set up firmly within the West by all levels of developers from indie to mainstream. Sandbox has an overarching goal in the far future, but it doesn’t have to tell you. It has a character-driven plot, but you have to search for it. Oh, and I’d be prepared for a nasty shock when you have to make your own way in the world without a plot to guide you. A simple tutorial, and much like a college student, you’re thrown out there with limited resources and the skills you’ve chosen. This role has really been on the rise ever since Ultima’s fall to Electronic Arts, where the player was left to explore a philosophically different world rather than their own without any prodding. Worlds are strongly fleshed-out, and their cultural and social ties even more so with a lack of a character-driven plot, since you are the character. The story is yours to create for yourself and your created party, as you explore a world filled with adventure and great exploits. Fallout and the Elder Scrolls series are the most well-known and painstakingly designed of this role, but others such as Two Worlds, Arcanum, and Avernum do the same thing. Black Isle, which is now Obsidian, incorporated dialogue options for the player to choose their own way to flesh out relationships using this method as well, but maintained a Semi-Linear approach.

Role-playing games really have grown, but they have also differentiated themselves on many levels through wildly different concepts of design. This is a double-edged sword; developers are allowed to develop the world, story, and people they want without fear, but also learn to distance themselves from the other roles as players do the same and become closed off from other enjoyable experiences. I am very interested to see where the genre of RPG is taken next based on demographics, interest and most of all, the way the genre is defined. I’m Matthew Szlapka, and I’ll be taking a long look.

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