I hope this letter finds you well. Please give my regards to Mrs. Klaus and the reindeer, as well as to the elves, Miyamoto, Toriyama, Uematsu, and Mitsuda, in the game development wing of the toyshop.
All I want for Christmas this year is a truly great video game RPG. I may just be getting old, but I feel that the Role Playing genre has lost its way in recent years. This may sound counterintuitive, but please stop listening to us, the gamers, so much. This give-us-what-we-ask-for approach, like democracy, has some major flaws—getting rid of taxes may be popular, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. So, tell your designers to let their imaginations go, and to create something great. And as they do that, I would just like to take on the role of the Ghost of Video Games Past, and remind them of a few great moments in the genre.
Memory #1: Super Mario Bros.
The year was 1989. The hair was big, the jeans were ripped, and neon was hawt. Mark Wahlberg was hangin’ tough in limbo between the New Kids on the Block and “Good Vibrations,” and 8-year-old me was in the middle of having my mind blown by Super Mario Bros.
My neighbour had a Nintendo Entertainment System, and his super-cool mom often rented games and let us try them out. A gaming neophyte, I loved EVERY game I played at this time, but SMB was different. This game was hard, but the thing I loved about the challenge of SMB was that I only ever got mad at myself, not the game. I was often frustrated that I couldn’t jump sooner, turn faster, or fire that fireball a moment earlier, but I never got mad at the game for poor level design, unresponsive controls, or for creating a nearly impossible jump—yes, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1989) I am looking at you. Instead, SMB asked more of me in each level, but never expected me to be super human.
In the Super Nintendo Era, many RPG developers (most notably Square) interpreted North American reluctance to purchase RPGs as a result of our cognitive backwardness. To rectify this problem, they dumbed down the difficulty of many games. Final Fantasy IV was a masterpiece of sorts that was greatly damaged by over-easy gameplay; and, bizarre outings like Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest tried to capture the supposedly oafish North American audience by replacing the wonder of open-world questing with a connect-the-dots interface that felt like Role Playing for Dummies.
Memory #2: Dragon Warrior
I was already a gamer-for-life when I arrived late to the party that was Dragon Warrior (it was 1991). After playing DW for only an hour or two, I knew that I had encountered a whole new type of gaming experience. I didn’t even know what a role-playing game was at this time, but I knew that I loved a game that a) gave me a wide open world to explore; and, b) rewarded me for previous exploits by making my character stronger. Right from the start of Dragon Warrior, pretty much all of the world is open to you—sure, a demon will beat the crap outta you if you step over that bridge too early, but it’s exciting to know that the possibility of exploring a wider world is available, and there’s something cool (and frightening) about visiting an unknown cave only to find that the ghosts inside can eat you for breakfast. This is the same sort of feeling that Diablo honed so effectively in 1996—you were immersed in the world because you were scared of it—afraid of what would happen when you explored a cave before you were ready.
What I truly loved about DW, though, was that my time in the game was never wasted. Even if I was unable to advance the storyline in a given outing, I was rewarded for each bad guy I defeated. I always felt a sense of progress, every single time I played, because my character grew stronger, and I earned money toward better equipment that could also make me stronger. And each time I grew stronger, I opened up the possibility of exploring a new and more dangerous part of the world.
Memory #3: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
We live in a graphics-obsessed age, and I think we know it. The recent rise of indie games has been a much-needed panacea to this problem. Rather than push the limits of our hardware, these games have found ways to use visuals and music to stylistically support great games. For example, Freebird’s recent To the Moon, employs SNES-era graphics and sound, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. If, after playing a new game, the first thing we want to talk about is how it looks or sounds then I fear the artistic team has failed. Aesthetics should support, not eclipse, the game itself. An effective musical score, like Kan Gau’s in To the Moon, Yasunori Mitsuda’s in Chrono Cross, or Nobuo Uematsu’s in Final Fantasy VI, should cause us to put down our controller and exclaim “wow, that experience was so gripping, that world feels so tangible, I really felt what that character was feeling.”
The opening minutes of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1992) achieve this. Ominous music backs the melancholy visuals of a rainstorm, helping the player to feel Link’s terror and apprehension as he awakens to Zelda’s psychic plea for help.
Memory #4: Final Fantasy VI and XII
The opening of Final Fantasy VI (1994) also achieves an aesthetics-to-game harmony like that of Zelda. Nobuo Uematsu’s magnum opus, “Terra’s Theme,” never overpowers, as it blends with the evocative visuals of Vicks and Wedge tromping across the continent toward the frozen, steam-powered village of Narshe. Still today, this game pulls us in—despite now-ancient graphics and sound—because the aesthetics so fully support the feel of the game. Rather than show off what they can do, the design team invites us to lose ourselves in the game’s vivid world and characters.
Stunning aesthetic values are just one part of the whole that makes Final Fantasy VI my favourite game of all time. Early on, RPGs made a staple of pulling players into their world through narrative. A recent IGN.com article argues that a primary positive effect of RPGs on other genres is that they helped developers to see that every game can draw in players via a compelling story. While evident in the earliest RPGs, game narrative took a wild leap forward with Final Fantasy VI. This game was Shakespearean in its cast, scope, and tragedy. It used the hardware of the SNES to support a story more involved and just plain bigger than anything games had done before. It provided a gripping, linear, story while also providing branching, optional narratives that rewarded the exploration of the game’s open world. Ultimately, Final Fantasy VI marked a turning point from which games would place increasingly great importance upon narrative and character.
But here’s where games have also gotten into some trouble. Too many RPGs have forgotten that they are role playing games, not movies. Please, tell us a great story, but don’t forget to give us a game that is also fun to play. This is where Final Fantasy XII is underappreciated. Yes, Vaan is probably the most anemic excuse for a leading man the series has ever produced, and the story was just plain less engaging than other entries, but this game was fun. The gambit system, mixed with a high level of difficulty, made me keep coming back simply because I enjoyed playing—even if the story did not particularly enchant me.
So there you have it Santa. Your game-elves have made magic in the past. This year, the only (material) thing I want for Christmas is a great role playing game… just like the one I used to know.