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Show and Tell

Master Chief

Spoilers: Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne.

I'm playing a few RPGs at the moment. On the PS2 I'm playing Ys: The Ark of Napishtim and Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, and on the Nintendo DS I'm playing the Game Boy Advance game Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga. What does this have to do with anything? The answer is simple: They all have mute characters. Since their humble beginnings on the Nintendo Entertarinment System, many RPGs have made use of the mute character, almost to the point of detriment.

The main problem with a mute character if the abstract feel of it all. Generally, there isn't any feedback from the lead character throughout the game, even during the most emotional of moments. This leads to a sense of detachment. Think about it: events of dire importance are happening throughout the length of these games, and the hero is just.... standing there. It really hampers the suspension of disbelief that is critical in games like this. Efforts to explain mute characters don't help either. I don't know about anyone else, but I'd rather have Adol in Ys screaming “Get back!” to the innocent girl standing helplessly before the Wandering Calamity than a message reading along the lines of “Adol tells Isha to stand back.”

While there is no way to make mute characters as enjoyable as the fully developed characters that we see in games like Final Fantasy, there are ways to make them much more enjoyable than they are at present. One of the most effective ways to bring mute characters to life is through physical expression, otherwise called body language. Nintendo does this better than anyone else. Look at their Paper Mario series and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga for example. Mario – And Luigi in Superstar Saga – doesn't have any dialog during the course of the game. However, it's easy to imagine him playing an important part in dialog due to the wide variety of expressions he brings to cut scenes. Whether he's waving his hands in a desperate attempt the get someone to listen, falling on his face at a particularly stupid statement by an NPC or crossing his arms over his chest and tilting his head in thought, Mario comes to life on screen, becoming more expressive than some characters that actually do speak.

Compare that with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, where the hero just stands there during story sequences. One would expect that when his friend gets the Magutsuhi drained out of him by Mantra warlord Thor, the hero would have a few things to say about it, or at least show anger somehow. Instead, he just stands there, looking somewhat indifferent to it all. Heck, the camera doesn't even pan to the hero to get a reaction shot! This is a very ineffective way to relay a story, as it detaches the player from what's going on by making it seem of little to no consequence to him.

And that's the point with this editorial. The most essential element of an RPG is immersion. Without it, all that's left is running around in dungeons fighting monsters and level grinding. Personally, if all a game has is combat and exploration, action-adventures and FPS games are much better at that than RPGs will ever be. RPGs that don't immerse you in their story are useless, and expressionless main characters are counterproductive to the immersion which is the lifeblood of an RPG.

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