It’s no secret that I have been disappointed with the most recent generation of role playing games. It is also no secret that I am concerned that this might be less a fault of the games and more a result of my becoming a critical, old man. Thus began my search for the cause of my discontent.
Why I am still a Gamer
I am a gamer. Don’t get me wrong, I love film, television, and novels, but there is something about the experience of gaming that is unique. Gaming puts me inside characters in a way that no other storytelling medium does. All sorts of mediums have managed to evoke an aching joy in me as a viewer, but only video games manage to do this to me as a participant.
This is why I do not love the new crop of Western RPGs. I want to. But I don’t.
It is with good reason that the Western RPG has grown so popular of late. Developers like Bioware and Bethesda have crafted some magnificent games that bring together unique gameplay mechanics with the storytelling depth of the role-playing genre. The writers of games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Skyrim have taken RPG storytelling to a new level, employing gritty realisms, tight dialogue, and fully-fleshed out, complex moral dilemmas. I admire this ingenuity and artistry, and yet I cannot love it—at least not in an RPG. In fact, this new way of storytelling is precisely what keeps me from enjoying these games.
RPGs have traditionally embodied a strange paradox. Players typically love them for their rich stories and interesting characters; yet, it is with good reason that the literary establishment has been reluctant to admit the value of games as literature. Many of these games are cliché-ridden, using the same stock characters, employing mediocre dialogue, and often requiring the gamer to overlook large plot holes, or accept strange leaps in logic. To the uninitiated, these elements are off-putting.
It is many of these elements that Western developers have tried to eliminate. Bioware’s games, in particular, feature some of the best dialogue, character, and general storytelling I have seen in video games. And yet, as I play these games, I find myself viewing from a distance. Somehow, by filling in all of the “gaps” in the narrative, these games have transformed the experience from a gaming experience to a cinematic or literary experience—I am no longer a participant in the same capacity, I am relegated to more of “viewer” role. Even though many of these games offer unprecedented opportunities for branching storylines based on gamer input, they play out more like Choose Your Own Adventure books, than the imaginative video game journeys I grew up loving.
Imagine a game of Sudoku. This game provides certain pieces of information, but strategically withholds other information, forcing the gamer to fill in the gaps. Old RPGs did this on many levels. Final Fantasy IV, for example, provided an almost Shakespearean tale of tragedy and betrayal; yet, as pure storytelling, it was an almost complete failure—the game only worked as a game in which the gamer had to imaginatively fill in the “gaps.” Some of these gaps were visual. For example, the moment when Palom and Porom heroically turn themselves into stone in order to save the rest of the party is laughable in its 16-bit visual form; however, if the gamer invests him or herself in the experience, and imagines the reality that is depicted by the 16-bit visuals, the moment becomes touching and sorrowful. The other major “gap” in these games was textual. Because they had to communicate dense stories using a minimum of text, dialogue tended to be cheesy—there just wasn’t time to scroll through the miles of text it would have taken to communicate witty repartees, or touching romantic speeches. Instead, the gamer had to imagine that the game’s text was only a representation of a much more detailed reality. Again, the gamer was responsible to engage in the game at an imaginative level in which the story did not exist in the game; rather, the game was a vehicle to help the gamer create a story within his or her imagination.
Allow me to illustrate this difference between entering a world through viewing and through imaginative creation. Sitting on my old plaid chesterfield, watching Willow (1988) allowed me to enter a fantasy world as a viewer. When I stepped into the woods in my backyard, and they became the fantasy world of Willow, I was entering that story through imaginative creation. Both of these experiences require imagination, but the latter required that I engage creatively in the process.
As RPG graphics improved and voice acting ousted old-fashioned text boxes, RPGs found themselves inhabiting a new imaginative space. The earliest of these games included some of the best elements of the old, with some of the greatest promises of the new.
Final Fantasy X (2001) is, perhaps, the example par excellence. Here we have graphics capable of communicating a fully realized world, and we also have the emergence of fully-voiced characters (admittedly, some of the voice acting was less than spectacular). However, while FFX introduced these new elements, it still held back enough pieces—it left “gaps”—that the gamer had to imaginatively invest in the game. Logical leaps and minimalist dialogue still required that the viewer consider the game, not as the story itself, but as a representation of a story that had to take place in the gamer’s imagination.
For me, the five years preceding and following the release of FFX are a sort of golden age for RPGs. During this decade, we see some of the roughest edges shaved away from the genre, but enough gaps still remain in terms of story, character, and dialogue that the gamer does not just tag along and, perhaps, influence the story, the gamer is still required to create the story in his or her imagination.
So What now?
Is all of this to say that the traditional RPG experience has been killed by cinematic graphics voice acting? Has the golden age passed, never to return? I think not.
This Christmas, I finally had the chance to pick up Mistwalker’s The Last Story (2012). For those who are unfamiliar, this is a Japanese RPG, developed in large part by long time Final Fantasy director (Hironobo Sakaguchi), and composer (Nobuo Uematsu). The game was favourably reviewed, which fueled my hopes that it might be one of the games to prove to me that modern RPGs can still harness the imaginative power of their forebears.
At the time of this writing, I am just six hours in, but so far the game embodies some of the imaginative “gaps” that I love in this genre. So far, this is best exemplified in a star-watching scene between the protagonist, Zael, and the mysterious princess Calista. The scene is problematic on several literary levels—these are stock characters, the dialogue is weak (or at least minimalist), and there has not yet been enough characterization to render this romantic scene literarily plausible.
And yet, I bought in.
Like a Sudoku game, the scene provided just enough of the right pieces, that my imagination was able to go to work, filling in the gaps and creating a believable, personal love story.
I have not yet played far enough in The Last Story to know if its “gaps” are masterful omissions left to draw me in, or simply felicitous flaws in storytelling that luckily force me to engage in an act of imaginative creation. At this point, I suspect it is a blend of the two. My hope for the future, then, is that developers can find a way to continue to weave complex, interesting stories, without succumbing to the temptation to become overly cinematic. The Last Story is not a perfect RPG—did that pirate captain really just call me a “landlubber”?—but, at least at this point, it does manage to weave an interesting story, while leaving enough gaps that I have to invest creatively in the journey. Here’s hoping that we will see more games that raise the bar of literary artistry without forgetting what makes a game a game.
Special thanks to fellow game-blogger, Playing the Canon, who noted, back in October, how Atari’s 1979 Adventure (an early antecedent of the modern RPG) was able to force imaginative engagement not in spite of but because of, its limited graphic capabilities. You can find that thoughtful read here.