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This is a slightly philosophical argument in favor of what people these days seem to have labeled as "traditional RPGs." Fans of older RPGs have been taking a lot of flak lately and haven't been able to successfully fend off the claims of newbie gamers that the "superior storylines" and "superior graphics" obviously make every RPG made in the Playstation era better. Older RPG fans then grapple with words in forming a rebuttal and promptly fail to communicate what in all their hearts they believe to be true. Newbies fans follow by summarily dismissing their claims as nostalgic hogwash. Well, today the cycle begins anew, as I will try to take up the case for why there is, at the very least, still a prominant place for traditional RPGs. The issue I have identified to be the source of this eternal conflict is character development. More to the point, newbie gamers are really big into a character development of words, while older gamers are stuck on an entirely separate notion of character development by actions.
Now allow me to clarify, newbie gamers define character development as reading every line of text written about a particular character that exists in the game and then extrapolating a million and one other things about a characters background, feelings, and relationships from it. Traditional gamers are much less into this stuff. To them, character development in an RPG means single-handedly taking the weakling twerps you're given at the beginning of the game and building them in strength until not even "ultimate evil" can defeat them. This means not gradually chiseling away a character's every imperfection and training in everything imaginable but dealing with those imperfections and strengthening what is already good. Someone in a recent editorial on RPGamer complained because they didn't like how particular characters had "specializations" in older RPGs (I think Locke's stealing was used in example). These people clearly need their head examined, as they seem to have no concept of individuality or its place in teamwork. Each character has their place, and, like real people, they are defined to a large extent by the skills they have. They are defined by what they can DO much more then they are defined by the little tidbits that are leaked out through the course of the story. This is much more true to the way life actually works.
Let us look to where this definition of character development held by traditional RPG players comes into conflict with modern RPGs. In Final Fantasy's 6 and 7 Square has taken the attitude that all of their characters are equally weak, and no matter what the player might do with them they will never get strong without reliance on "things," like materia or relics or espers. In Final Fantasy 8 the characters have even less inherent worth, and must rely completely upon god-like assistants to attain anywhere near the strength they need to overcome their foes. These are both very different attitudes toward character development philosophy then Square took in Final Fantasy 5, where characters earned every ounce of their skill themselves using the adequately titled job system. In fact, all of the early Final Fantasy games held to this same basic belief in emphasis on earned skills, not found or given skills.
It is this, the depressingly materialistic concept that your characters are worthless without the things that they own, that seems typical of modern RPGs. Allow me to use Dragon Warrior 4 as a counter-example. Although in DW4 my soldier, Ragner, might be better off with the ultimate weapon, the Metal Babble Sword, even without it he is a competent attacker. It is not the sword that defines him as a soldier; he does that by himself. When I'm in battle and he gets a good hit or takes out an enemy in one strike, I don't say to myself "Awww yeah, Metal Babble Sword!" I say to myself "Go Ragner!" It would be wrong in this instance to give the tool credit and not the user, since it is only that particular user who would have gotten those results. I could have given that same Metal Babble Sword to Taloon, but the results wouldn't have been nearly the same in the hands of a merchant. In other words, it is the character that I feel is truly responsible for the deed, not the item they may have had on them at the time.
This is in sharp contrast to, for example, Final Fantasy 7. Here, if something good happens, nearly 100% of the time it is because the person who did a good job had some great materia equipped. So I've finished off every enemy in one round after having somebody, it needn't really matter who, cast Neo Bahamut. I could have had anyone in the game cast the spell and had it yield a similar outcome plus or minus a few percentage points of damage. In this case, I will give the credit to the item and not the person. In short, it has to be the materia because none of the characters have any great skill or power that defines them as an individual. And without inherent character individuality one is faced with one of either two dilemmas: either all characters are always strong all of the time, in which case playing the game seems a mundane task and one certainly wouldn't take remark at one particular well-done attack in battle, or characters are only strong when they happen to own the right stuff. When they have the right Guardian Forces or Materia or Relics or Espers or whatever you may have equipped.
Indeed, in such games, it is only through an on-going soap-opera-like storyline that the characters are given any individuality. Through story dialogues, we get insight into their social life, their family life, their internal struggles and all sorts of little dilemmas that keep popping up. That is all well and good, only this kind of character understanding has very little impact upon how one plays the game. In fact, the story in this case seems to be more of an aside than anything else. If a game, from an interactive perspective, consists of little more or less than a long string of battles, what effect does unearthing the secret love interest of a character have upon the way a player plays the game?
From this standpoint we can establish that the player's conception of the character, given the nature of the interactivity to be performed, is more appropriate in traditional RPGs than in recent RPGs. This is not to say that recent RPGs do not develop characters, only that their character development nearly always leads in the wrong way. Many of you out there are doubtless staggering at the idea that I am suggesting games with ancient RPGs with "virtually no story" have better character development then modern CD-ROM RPGs. Games that flaunt hundreds of megs of dialogue and full motion video that help unravel complex, dazzlingly portrayed stories sure to make one's heart bleed and tears fall. All these things may seem like harmless "improvements" upon a well-working existing platform but, in adding all this, the platform has been altered. For it is in these games that the words one reads and the images one sees hold all the meaning and impact, and the way one plays is simply a means to get from one story point to the next.
So, am I saying that I am against complex stories in RPGs? The answer is yes and no. I divide RPG stories into two types: those that are plot based and those that are character based. Plot based RPG stories are frequently confused as RPGs without any story whatsoever, because a plot touches everyone in the game world and can be well-defined through even such simple actions as talking with townsfolk or acquiring items or exploring the world. It is character-based storylines, which are on the rise as of late, that I would discourage. These stories are frequently thought to be better for the mere fact that long series of text and/or images are necessary to develop them. This is not because they are any more involved, moving, or detailed, but it is simply because they blend so poorly with the standard manner in which RPGs work. In character development, few or none of the things, places, and people filling the game world have anything to do with the stories being followed, and so interaction with these things takes on less and less meaning and appeal.
RPG stories are at their best when they are barely evident. When they unfold simply through the actions the player wants to and comes to expect must be performed, such as conversing with townspeople, exploring a dungeon, or collecting items. When a huge bump appears, where a player finds that he is simple reading and not playing, the story has becomes obtrusive and awkward. If everything is unfolded simply by reading, why isn't the player simply reading a book? The reading is not made "better" or "more fulfilling" by the act of having controller in hand. It's been said hundreds and thousands of times, but I will repeat it because it is true: actions speak louder than words. In games, the player controls the actions and the developer the words. So, for character development to really speak to the player, characters should be developed by a player's actions and not by a writer's words. This is the gap separating "traditional" and "modern" RPGs, and this is why traditional RPGs impact their players deeply enough that they will ostracize themselves from the RPG community for their cause.
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