As a staff reviewer and student of narrative in both film and video games, I often find myself wondering why so many RPGs fail at telling enthralling stories; shouldn't there be some sort of story formula for video games like there is for movies? Because gaming is still such a new form of media, most developers have not yet mastered how to successfully tell a good story via game, unlike most filmmakers. While even the worst wide-scale movie releases can still capture interest, most people won't be willing to play through fifty hours of an RPG with a boring story. It's still too soon to really hammer out a concrete formula for RPG story-telling, but developers can still put in the effort to figure out how to deliver the best possible product. In this three part editorial series, I'll compare/contrast movies and RPGs, and attempt to sort through what works and what doesn't work in their respective narratives.
Without a doubt, the most important part of any type of narrative is its characterization. Whether it's our lead protagonist or his hated nemesis, every major character in a story needs to be well-developed and interesting. Movies, averaging at about two hours viewing time, can take the liberty of only focusing on one or two strong heroes or villains; RPGs, however, usually have to concentrate on many more characters in a typical fifty hours of gameplay. Unfortunately, game designers tend to think that the extra time allows for superfluous scenes like the infamous Tidus/Yuna laugh-off in Final Fantasy X. Just as in a good movie, every scene in an RPG should either advance the plot or develop a character. The focus, however, should be on development; poor plots can be excused with excellent characters, like in Grandia II, but even the most exciting stories can get boring without an intriguing cast -- Chrono Cross, I'm looking at you.
Memorable film personas like Rick Blaine (Casablanca) and Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) can stick with you for a very long time, to the point where you can almost imagine how they would act in a given situation. Video game characters like Solid Snake (Metal Gear Solid) and Cloud (Final Fantasy VII) can make people feel the same way, but they are exceptions rather than the norm. Looking back, I can barely remember anything about Maxim (Lufia 2), the hero of a game I played at least ten times back in the mid-90s. In contrast, I can recall almost every aspect of Aladdin, a character who still holds a special place in my heart despite the fact that I haven't seen his movie in over ten years. I would happily immerse myself in a story with Jack Sparrow or Solid Snake no matter what sort of situations they were put in; their characters are so appealing that they don't need any sort of epic plot to attract audiences. Unfortunately, most RPG designers seem to believe that a save-the-world plot will excuse any sort of poor characters, resulting in games like Legend of Dragoon and more recently, Spectrobes.
What can make a character fascinating? Acting is a big factor, of course, both in movies and more modern video games, now that voice-overs are the norm. Most importantly, a good character has a clear motivation and desire, a background that reflects who he is as a person, and some sort of flaw that he learns to overcome over the course of the story. Look at Cloud: he is driven to find out the truth about nemesis Sephiroth, he has a hidden past that shows us why he has made the decisions he has, and over the course of Final Fantasy VII he learns about love, protection, and the true meaning of humanity. If a character meets these standards, he is rounded and dynamic enough to be interesting, but on a more general scale, characters are most appealing if they're either relatable to the audience in some way or are extremely good at what they do.
It's a shame that the importance of characterization has only been realized by a select few designers; most RPGs feature archetypical heroes who, bored, suddenly decide to save humanity and maybe fall in love along the way.
Stay tuned for "Narrative in RPGs - Dialogue (Part Two of Three)," coming soon!