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Ah, The Nearly Alone Lone Hero


There she is. That’s the baddest mother of them all. The Queen of Darkness. The Evil CEO. The Dark Lord. The Wicked Witch of the West. The Borg.

This is it. The final boss fight. All that stands between world domination/destruction/implosion/defenestration and this overgrown megalomaniac is me. And my trusty allies. All two to three of them.

WHAT!?! I only have two or three guys beside me? Was everyone else too busy learning level 99 ultimate summon bomb to bother with this historic fight?

Come to think of it . . . I’ve only had two to three guys with me the whole game. You would think that more people could join in with this whole “save the world” idea. Or worse – I have more people with me, they’re just taking a smoke break while my “main party” goes toe-to-toe with the Big Cheese itself.

The Roots grow from the (fictional) Mana Tree

Most RPGs are about saving the world in some form or fashion. There are notable exceptions (Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne or Disgaea) – but it is safe to say that saving the world is a standard plot cliché in RPGs. And there is not a thing wrong with that. Saving the world is fun and leaves the player with some sort of satisfaction that she/he has accomplished something worthwhile – if nothing else, simply finishing the game.

The problem is not so much with the plotline itself, but the modern RPG’s execution of it.

And it is not the fault of just the RPG realm, this is a problem that springs from the bedrock foundation of much RPGness – the science fiction/fantasy genre. Ever since Tolkein (not the originator, but the populizer of the idea), much has been written concerning a small band of heroes who must fight against all odds in order to save the day.

This is a completely understandable phenomenon. A small Fellowship is easier – for both writers/developers and readers/players – to handle. There’s more character attachment. There’s more character development. There are fewer plotlines to remember. Besides, modern attention spans wouldn’t stand the length of a novel/game that would develop several hundred major characters.

RPGs have taken the concept of a small band and applied it wholeheartedly, but without experiencing the same creative freedom as those fiction writers.

You can’t handle the Truth!

The basic problem lies thusly:
1. I have a hero (or more rarely, a heroine).
2. Said hero travels the world and gathers a small group to ward off impending doom.
3. This small group constantly encounters useful people who say “good luck” and don’t actually offer to come with.
4. Only half of this small group can be used at any given time.

Within those four statements are two fundamental problems that most RPGs suffer.

On my command, unleash Hell!

First, the hero travels the world, gains a small number of allies, but meets many people who don’t care that he’s out to save their butts.

Of course, he has to have a few allies. Without the Love Interest, Bumbling Tag-a-Along, or Inept Wizard, he wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. Not that many RPGs actually feature conversations during travel (excepting Tales and Grandia), but it’s still useful – especially if the hero suffers from Silent Hero Syndrome – to have multiple people around to discuss plot developments.

But in all seriousness – given the scope of his mission, doesn’t it seem a tad bit odd that the average hero doesn’t manage to garner more than a handful of supporters, save for RPGs where there’s a base to be built (Suikoden and Skies of Arcadia)? What’s everyone else got to do that’s more important than saving the world?

Admittedly, not everyone is a good potential party recruit. An army of innkeepers, shopkeepers, and barkeeps would probably die in the first green slime battle, thus leaving quite a dearth in the world’s amenities.

But then there are characters you meet during the adventure that would be perfect additions to your party. If you save a village of ninjas/warrior monks/healer priests, why does only one guy raise his hand and say “You know what? I’m not doing anything today. Or tomorrow. Let’s save the world.” (And that one guy is always some sort of student/acolyte. Good grief, if they could only send one, why not the head of the order?)

Wouldn’t it just feel better if the hero waltzed up to the Dark Fortress with an army of ninjas behind him? The hero thinks to himself, “hmmm… random battles all the way up five floors… or… on my command, unleash Hell!” Oh sure, said army of ninjas couldn’t take down the final bad guy. That’s what the hero is for. But why should the hero and his small band have to fight the entire Legion of Terror by themselves?

At the very least, send in random people to soften 'em up. “Hey you! Random soldier wearing a red shirt. Get in there and take one for the team!” The hero shouldn’t actually say the phrase “cannon fodder,” but random soldiers ought to be able to swipe away some hit points from the Evil One or even just keep some of those pesky high-level minions busy for a while.

Developers have used a number of clichés to avoid this very issue: the army will attack the front so the hero can sneak in, the hero needs the stealth of a small party in his mission, the hero is the chosen one who is foretold, etc. While these can sometimes be believable story elements, too often they are simply transparent story devices designed to isolate the hero’s party and amplify its danger/suspense.

This may strike some as being too… ruthless for the average hero. And perhaps the caricature of the red shirt is hyperbole. But the point is valid: RPGs with a sweeping theme (saving the world) need to have more than a handful of playable characters who are deeply involved with the plotline.

I’m on Lunch-Break

The second problem lies not in the storyline itself, but in the game’s execution of the playable characters. Far too many RPGs do not allow all of the playable characters to be effectively utilized.

Typical RPG happening: hero’s party of eight is wandering around the overworld map when they’re suddenly attacked by hordes of angry bandits and their crow friends. Overworld map disappears to be replaced with battle screen showing the hero’s party of three and the… wait a second, where’s the other five people?

Perhaps they’re cooking a meal. Or they’re just beyond that hill, there. Maybe they’re having a bad day and don’t feel like fighting. They could simply like a good show. They might even be off-screen cheerleaders. We’ll never know. Whatever they are doing, they are not helping in this battle.

Why in the world does the hero bother to recruit anyone at all when most of them cannot even participate in a basic battle? Most of the time, there is no logical reason why they are out of pocket beyond the simple fact that the game is designed to only have three or four people in combat at a time. This should not be.

It is utterly frustrating to only use half (if that) of the characters during the majority of the game. If there are six people wandering around, then six people should be involved in the fight. If developers don’t want to program for six people in combat, then the storywriters need to come up with a plausible explanation of why only three people fight at a time.

The sad fact is that sometimes these “extra” characters are simply a bone to be thrown at gamers. Few RPGs force the player to use certain characters at any given point, save the hero (Suikoden and FFVI are excellent exceptions). Players can simply find their favorites and stick with them through most of the game, ignoring other characters if they so choose.

Adding further insult, many games end when the “main party” becomes crow bait. What happened to everyone else? Did they just sit there and watch their friends be slaughtered? Shouldn’t they get a chance to have at the enemy and finish off that last orc who only has a few hit points left? Apparently not. They’re just extras.

Is there no end to the Insanity?

While this editorial can easily be aimed at most traditional RPGs (strategy/action RPGs are usually a different animal), there are some games that make efforts in the right direction.

FFX (and its knockoff LOTR: The Third Age) allows hot-swapping characters, thus solving some of the inherent questions but still not answering why only three could fight at a time. Suikoden (and to a lesser extent, Skies of Arcadia) brings a large cast into play who actually provide useful services. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne introduces more playable characters than any game should have and provides a plausible explanation for why only a few can be used at a time. The Bard’s Tale (recent) provides a believable reason for limiting the number of on-screen summons. Old-school RPGs often never even allowed for extra characters (Final Fantasy, Wizardry, The Bard’s Tale).

In the end, the call is relatively simple. If the world is being rocked to its very foundations, let’s have more characters than just the hero interested in saving it. Once we get those characters, let’s be able to play with them, all of them – at the same time.

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