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Over the past several months, editorials on such varied topics as "FF VIII sucks," "Old School vs New School," etc. seem to be all there is to read. However, everybody seems to be overlooking a simple part of the RPG equation. Yes, in the transition from 16 to 32+ bit, game formats have changed. FF VIII had it's high points and low points, and the two current generations of gamers seem to have different opinions on all points that have graced both the editorial and q&a pages. No one seems to realize that role paying games are made because someone wants to make them. Not because someone want to make money by making them, but because someone wants to tell a story or introduce a gameplay idea and entertain you for hours. This one, simple fact makes us very luck people. It means that while we have fewer games, we also have a very high percentage of quality games. It seems that lately people are so interested in trying to see who's more of a hardcore gamer than the next. Perhaps it is time to reevaluate how we look at RPGs. A role playing game should be judged by three characteristics:
-Supporting Elements (Graphics, SFX, Music, etc)
The story should be the main focus in any role playing game. If you are to take on the persona of someone else, he or she needs to have a good story to "live" through. Stories have been good on both old and new consoles. You do have the occasional stinker, most recently Darkstone, but for the most part stories have always been very solid. If there is a particular genre that you enjoy, let the developer know. For example, FF VII and VIII were much more modern than their predecessors. Gamers told Square that they would like to see a more traditional setting for the next game. In FF IX, we have a fantasy world instead of a cyber world. Don't just moan about changes that you don't like, let the people who make games know that you would be interested in more traditional fantasy games. Let them know that you'd like more games with or without this, that, and the other. Feed back is critical. The biggest complaint when it comes to stories seems to be translation. You can't fault the writer for a shoddy translation. Translators are payed to translate the story, not to make sure it reads like a novel. Most people with fluency in Japanese are not literature gurus. Working Design's translations work so well because they rewrite sections that come off as sounding forced or awkward and add american coloquialisms. Square appears to try for a much closer word for word translation. I cringed when I played the FF VIII demo. When you play the Dollet sequence in the full release you'll notice that good portions of the dialogue between Seifer, Squall, and Zell are smoothed out. However, even without the greatest translation, I still haven't seen a single instance where an awkward translation prevented you from understanding the story. Translations as a whole are improving and as long as game developers know that quality translations are appreciated, they will continue to make them. If you think the translation on a game was lacking, don't just sit and say, "Man, the translation on Final Dragon Monsters2 really sucked. What the hell were they thinking?" Get on their website and give feedback. If no one complains about bad translations, nothing will be done. Encourage a positive trend.
It seems that fewer people care about gameplay these days. Star Ocean brought forth some new ideas when it came to gameplay. I wish I could shake the hand of the guy who had the sudden flash of inspiration to say, "What if we let the gamers try and make items or write books or cook or. . ." The inclusion of abilities that YOU, John or Jane Gamer, control outside of combat is a welcome change. I have burned quite a few hours experimenting to see what food, book, etc will be cranked out by my characters. It was a fun addition to the game. An example of a system that was a little bit more of a miss was the junction/draw system in FF VIII. It had good potential and make you think ahead in terms of magic use. It let you customize your character with abilities and the status changes incurred by junctioning magic to statistics. It also made you work for your experience since Guardian Force use negated any experience that you'd receive. However, not capping the number of times that you could use a Guardian Force meant that you could mow down most any boss should you have the hit points. The strength of the GFs should have been reduced or their usage should have been more limited. Junctioning was a good system, but it unbalanced the game. It really made the game too easy and detracted from the gameplay overall. Also, one thing that is lacking from all recent RPGs is the dungeon crawl. There have not been any dungeons where you were seriously wondering where you were and if you had any hope of getting out again. The last RPG that I played where any dungeon presented a serious challenge in terms of navigation and survival was Phantasy Star III. I miss the feeling of, "Will I make it or not," that has been replaced with enemies that only attack every three turns or more. I think that we as gamers need to stress the importance of good gameplay to developers. That way we can have more games of Star Ocean's caliber and not Superman 64.
Finally, the supporting elements of a role playing game such as the graphics, sound, music, and interface need to be done well. While a good RPG can't stand on good graphics alone, developers should push the gaming hardware to its limit. The team that works on the visuals for any game should try to make the best possible visuals that suit the game. I applaud Square for their use of pre-rendered scenes in their 32 bit titles. They add to the story and the subtleties that the pre-rendered characters are able to display compliment the game very nicely. If the dance scene in FF VIII was done using in game cinematics ala Metal Gear Solid, the expressions and subtle mannerisms that make the scene work so well without speech would be lost. The pre-rendered video adds to the story in a way that neither the in game graphics nor text would be able. Sound can only add to a game. Good sound effects should blend into the background so that you have to try and notice them. In real life, sounds fill in a part of our world and normally aren't obtrusive. Game sound effects should, for the most part, be the same way. The soundtrack should also be up to the standards of "real" music. When music is written for games, it should not be dismissed as "only being video game music." Many Square games do an excellent job of this. With the improvements in MIDI technology, very realistic music can be synthesized. If you don't believe me, listen to the music to Chrono Cross. It has recorded music for both the intro and ending, but MIDI everywhere else. The quality of the MIDI is good and it is music that you can sit and listen to separate of the game. Baldur's Gate is another example of an excellently scored game. The music sounds like a soundtrack, but it sound much more like a professional Hollywood soundtrack. The little touch of hiring a skilled musician adds so much to enhance the mood or atmosphere of a game. As a music student, I could go on and on about the benefits of the current advances in MIDI and their possible impact on game music, but I think that could be an editorial in and of it's self. The interface should also be clear and easy to use, both in terms of the controller and any menu/interactive system in game. For the most part, the RPG interface hasn't changed much since the original Dragon Warrior. However, with designers becoming more adventurous, the ease and simplicity of the classic RPG interface should be retained.
To come back around to what I was originally saying, these are the elements of an RPG regardless of whether it is a console or PC RPG. Game designers make games because they want to. Thankfully, RPGs don't suffer from the remarkably poor quality that so many other gaming genres do. Because RPGs require so much more time in development and production, we have a built in quality control. RPGs, while becoming more and more popular, are still a niche market. Because of this, RPGs have to live up to much higher standards than other genres. Also, be thankful that someone wants to add story to a game. How many companies are out there along the lines of ID Software that set up and end hours of gameplay with a paragraph of text? Because RPGs are story driven, it fills you with purpose in regards to finishing the game. RPGs need to produce revenue for their parent company, but thankfully they are produced because someone wants to present a story. As the gamer, it would be in your interest to quit griping about the state of gaming and give feedback to the developers. Tell them styles of games you'd like to play, tell them who you want designing characters or writing music, and tell them that you want a good gaming experience. Have fun with your games and remember that someone spent their time trying to entertain you.
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