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The Telling’s The Thing

Benjamin S. Avner

RPGs and storytelling have gone hand in hand almost as long as the genre’s been around. When I was growing up, it seemed if one wanted a video game with a plot, one played an RPG. In the 16-bit era and beyond, quality RPGs were the games with a plot that couldn’t be summarized in a few sentences, and characters with genuine personalities. I was captivated by the fact that a video game could stir such emotion in a player, and have so much to say. And it’s telling that RPG players still argue over whether gameplay or narrative is ultimately more important – and for many, the latter wins out. Of course, as I got older and saw more, I became a little bit disillusioned with the idea of the video game as the equal to the book/play/movie/etc. A few lines of awkwardly delivered dialogue every half hour or so between boss fights isn’t going to render the novel obsolete anytime soon. And over the years I’ve found that even the best examples of game plots tend to pale in comparison to what other media can do.

(Many of those reading this may disagree with that opinion, and I’ve long given up trying to claim that there’s an objective way to evaluate a piece of art. But let’s just put it this way: Many 14-year-olds may very well feel that Xenogears is the greatest story ever told by any storyteller. But the average 25-year-old would be more likely to say that, despite its charm, Xenogears [as a story] is an overambitious mess that’s ultimately shallow in comparison to the average episode of Star Trek, let alone Casablanca. Draw your own conclusions.)

But video game narratives are still in their infancy, right? With tighter plotting, better dialogue, and more competent voice acting, our RPGs will catch up to books one day, right? Right?

Since the old days, the rest of the gaming industry has caught up to the RPG. It’s no longer the pinnacle of video game storytelling that it once was. I’ve been aware for years that nowadays there are action, sports, puzzle, etc. titles that have interesting plots; that’s nothing new. But it was still a bit of a jolt to see several articles suggesting that perhaps the traditional RPG has in fact been surpassed as a storytelling medium. The argument is basically this: the alternation between “the part where you play the game” and “the part where you put the controller down and watch mediocre animé” is fundamentally awkward. Most RPG storytelling is linear and totally passive; it works well as a way to break the monotony between dungeons, but not so well as a way to present a really compelling narrative.

A game in the style of the Xenosaga titles is specifically designed to contain a game and a set of non-interactive cutscenes that have nothing to do with each other, which is entertaining enough, for awhile. I certainly still enjoy the plots and characters that game designers are able to come up with within that limiting framework. But wouldn’t it be more rewarding to use this interactive medium to create “interactive fiction” that’s actually, well, interactive? Games like Half-Life, ICO, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time don’t have the same kind of separation between playing and watching. They present their characters and worlds as the player plays them, and are ultimately more immersive as a result. Might that be the wave of the future, a model that’s better for stories than that of the traditional RPG?

It’s a compelling argument, and it’s more or less convinced me. But at the same time, I’m not giving up my RPGs. These are still the games I like to play. So how can RPGs improve? It’ll be an evolutionary change, I think, especially given how stunningly resistant the RPG audience is to change and innovation. But there are a couple of simple tricks out there in the gaming world already that could do a lot to make the RPG narrative a lot more engrossing.

First of all, if we’re going to spend so much time sitting around watching characters talk, wouldn’t it make sense to give us, the players, more input into how a conversation plays out? If I’m going to be taking on the role of character, how about letting me do a little to shape his personality and decide how he’ll react to the people and plot points happening around him?

Games have been making tentative forays into dialogue trees, but they’re usually limited to minor scenes and generally disappear in the second half of the game. But some RPGs get it right. One that looks like it has the idea is last year’s The Bard’s Tale. I haven’t finished this game, but at least as far as I’ve played, virtually every major conversation is accompanied by at least one point at which the player can decide how the Bard reacts. It’s not fancy or difficult to program at all; the player is simply given the one-button choice of acting either “snarky” or “nice.” The Bard’s responses sometimes affect what items one receives and such, but mostly they just ensure that every scene has a few slight variations. The events play out pretty much the same regardless of the player’s dialogue choices, but the player feels like he or she is participating in the narrative, not just watching.

The beauty of this is that, despite all the opportunities for interaction, The Bard is never a “blank slate” or a “silent protagonist.” He’s always a talkative and compelling antihero, but the player has the illusion of being the one shaping his personality. It’s such a simple trick, and so effective at drawing the player into the game, it baffles me that it’s not in more widespread use in the RPG world.

Second, there’s that little matter of getting rid of the “cut-scene” concept entirely. To my knowledge, no RPG has managed that yet, and it’ll probably be some time before it happens, but it’d make sense to take the first steps in that direction. I’ll go outside our genre and use the aforementioned Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as my example here. The Sands of Time tells a fairly simple and totally linear story, but one that has room for character development, loads of snappy dialogue, and a plot twist or two. But what’s so interesting is that it accomplishes this with very, very few extended non-interactive scenes.

The player spends most of this game fighting, platforming, and rotating the camera around the room while trying to figure out where to go next. And the Prince spends a lot of this time talking. Of course he shuts up during the trickier sections, but during the easier progressions from one part of the castle to the next, the Prince is providing a voiceover. He lets the player in on his thoughts, he provides background information about the history of the castle and the game’s world, he banters with sidekick Farah… and all this time, the gamer is still playing the game. Let me emphasize that fundamentally, nothing has changed. The game is still a linear series of events, as is the storyline. The pairing of the gamer’s running around and the hero’s running commentary works marvelously, making both the “gameplay” and the “story” aspects of the game far more compelling than they’d have been if they were presented separately. The gamer is the Prince; he or she is controlling this chatty character, not just watching him.

RPGs could start incorporating stuff like that too, little by little. (Also, find a corner of the screen to display the text for the benefit of hearing-impaired gamers.) We’ve seen it in bits and pieces. The characters in some of the Tales of... games have conversations while moving around the overworld map. In-battle quotes are mostly the same lines over and over, but Final Fantasy X features a handful of area-specific comments that are heard during random battles when the player uses a certain character at a certain point in the game. Imagine if these things were the rule rather than the exception. The elements are already in place, waiting for developers to jump on them.

We’ve all been moved, or at least intrigued by RPG plots as they are. The clunky story-versus-game design we’ve been stuck with for so long doesn’t totally cripple a game’s ability to be good interactive fiction. But that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. If RPGs ever want to become the best that gaming storytelling can offer, they’re going to have to adapt. The suggestions I’ve offered take small steps towards easing the dichotomy. The Bard’s Tale and The Sands of Time both achieve greater resonance with gamers by altering not the content of the tale, but the way it’s presented. Only a video game can offer the kind of immersion that comes from story and game working in synergy. That’s what games, RPGs included, should be striving for.

By way of a tagline to close with, try this: it’s not just the story – it’s how you tell it.

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