There she is. Thats 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
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 . . . Ive 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, theyre
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 RPGs
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. Theres
more character attachment. Theres more character development. There are
fewer plotlines to remember. Besides, modern attention spans wouldnt 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 cant 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
3. This small group constantly encounters useful people who say good luck
and dont 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 dont care that hes 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 wouldnt have anyone to talk to. Not that
many RPGs actually feature conversations during travel (excepting Tales and
Grandia), but its 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, doesnt
it seem a tad bit odd that the average hero doesnt manage to garner more
than a handful of supporters, save for RPGs where theres a base to be
built (Suikoden and Skies of Arcadia)? Whats everyone else got to do thats
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 worlds 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? Im
not doing anything today. Or tomorrow. Lets 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?)
Wouldnt 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
on my command, unleash
Hell! Oh sure, said army of ninjas couldnt take down the final bad
guy. Thats 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 shouldnt 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 heros 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.
Im on Lunch-Break
The second problem lies not in the storyline itself, but in the games
execution of the playable characters. Far too many RPGs do not allow all of
the playable characters to be effectively utilized.
Typical RPG happening: heros party of eight is wandering around the overworld
map when theyre suddenly attacked by hordes of angry bandits and their
crow friends. Overworld map disappears to be replaced with battle screen showing
the heros party of three and the
wait a second, wheres the
other five people?
Perhaps theyre cooking a meal. Or theyre just beyond that hill,
there. Maybe theyre having a bad day and dont feel like fighting.
They could simply like a good show. They might even be off-screen cheerleaders.
Well never know. Whatever they are doing, they are not helping in this
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
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 dont 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? Shouldnt 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. Theyre 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 Bards 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 Bards Tale).
In the end, the call is relatively simple. If the world is being rocked to
its very foundations, lets have more characters than just the hero interested
in saving it. Once we get those characters, lets be able to play with
them, all of them at the same time.