I've spent a lot of time playing games. I've played them so much that I can't help but grasp how a game is constructed simply by playing it. When a plot twist comes, you know it's coming. You can see it in the horizon. A shadow it may be, it is still visible and easily discernable in even the deepest of darkness. So, I have to ask myself "why do I KEEP playing?". If all these games are the same, then why do I keep buying them? Am I expecting something different? Do I WANT something different? Am I expecting game conventions to change all of a sudden? Why does it feel like I'm jumping from one "innovation" to the next? Am I hoping to find one that finally fulfills all I've desired in a game? But then, even if it does, won't it stop being "innovative" as soon as it stops being "new"? After a while, the word innovation loses its meaning...
When people talk about the future of games, you have to wonder whether it's a good thing. In the recent years, we've seen such wonderful treats as action adventure card-based strategy games, with RPG elements. Why? Because it's new? At what time has that become enough justification to slaughter something that we have come to know and love? Is this really necessary? Somebody sure thinks it is...
How many times have you tried to read the description of a game and found that statement: "...with RPG elements". What does that really mean? Random Battles? I don't think I want that. There are just certain things that shouldn't be done. However, that doesn't seem to stop them from trying. What is it about Role Playing Games that make them so alluring to innovate game design? What do they have that no other game can possibly do without?
That's a good question. Let's find out...
Role Playing Games are often defined by their relationship to the story they tell. They are so entwined with it that it is hard to see the RPG as anything more than a playable story. Many gamers who love RPGs will be willing to sit through hours and hours of grueling levels and battles just to get the strength they need to get that last bit of character development. Often times, the victory itself is worth more than the spoils.
A storyline is made up of three main components: the people, the places, and the plot. You need eyes to see, which is why a main character is necessary. You have to understand why playing the game is necessary and this is usually defined in relation to a single character. The places define the world, which defines the towns, the dungeons, and eventually the enemies themselves. There wouldn't be much to play if there wasn't something to overcome. The plot serves its own purpose: to get the hero through these towns, dungeons, and enemies, in order to fulfill some grand, imposed scheme.
A Role Playing Game is unique in the way in which it is built. In general, the game is an endless loop. When you move from one location to another, it swaps out the current map for another one. Each door you enter leads somewhere else. Each event you trigger gives you access to yet another door. In this way, you fight to gain your freedom from the infinite clutches of a giant State Machine. It isn't that RPGs are the only games that use State Machines and Graph Theory -based Flow Charts, but rather that storylines themselves tend to support this kind of structure. A location is a State and a plot is just a sequence of triggers that take you to different States. RPGs support story because they are built in the same manner as a storyline is. It supports growth and change but controllable from one level to the next.
I'll take a second here to discuss something that I find important that is often overlooked. It's a little thing known as Montage. Those that have seen either South Park or Team America might laugh at the name; others understand but don't often fully get what it describes. I'll go ahead and explain through example. Let's say you have a picture of a guy holding a gun. Next, you have a completely different picture of another person lying on the floor who has obviously been shot. Separate, these two images have their own meanings. However, when put together, you get synergy. Your mind puts them together and gives you a justification for believing they are one and the same. This concept of relating two things based on their similarity is called Montage. In more technical terms, this concept is the same as the Gestalt Theory of Association by Proximity.
What does this have to do with RPGs? Very simple; for obvious reasons, I'll use Disgaea as an example. Let's say you're playing as Laharl and are standing in a room. To the left and the right are doors. Since the backgrounds are made up of static images, the doors will always remain in the same place. If you were to navigate Laharl towards one of these doors and then go "through" it, you would expect to end up in the next room. This makes sense. The only thing wrong with this is that as far as a video game is concerned, the rooms cannot possibly be connected. They are each a different image of different things and are swapped out to replace one another. The idea that you are in fact leaving one room and entering another is an illusion. This illusion is Montage. This technique is used to allow movie scenes that are filmed at separate times to be believed as happening at once: in this case, the division is called a Cut or Fade.
All video games rely on this concept and use it quite heavily. However, RPGs tend to use them more often than others. It divides the overworld from the towns. It separates the town from inside the buildings (often times without regard for size). It allows the plot to be subdivided into segments that can be told via separate cutscenes. It allows battles to take place on alternate fields that don't have any real relation to the one in which the characters are standing. As long as the separate images are similar enough, the audience will assume they are describing the same thing.
Role Playing games take much longer to produce than any other kind of game. This is because of the vast amount of content required to bring its world to life. Because each location has to have its own resources, it takes quite a long time to produce all the necessary materials that make up the world around you. Making all these things would appear extremely difficult, but it's really very simple; the only problem is that it's very time-consuming. This process is made somewhat easier by the basic story structure of an RPG. The world can be deconstructed into parts that are best created individually and then reconstructed when completed: much in the same way that a movie is made. This process is made evident by simply describing its parts.
First, there is the Overworld. This particular part contains what most would call the world itself. This is usually the place that separates one physical location from another and creates the illusion of connectivity. From here, you can enter various towns. The Towns are a stage on which different characters can play their parts in order to give the player the sense that the world is full of life. This is where information is gathered and helps to guide the audience through the plot. Usually, you end up entering various sub-maps inside various buildings that are usually connected only by the music playing in the background. Eventually, you will find yourself in a Dungeon. In these, the game takes an action-oriented view. You get to run through mazes, solve puzzles, and actually get to play all kinds of little mini-games that pop up here and there, like when you fight monsters. The Battle itself has its own point of view and its own rules and controls. Though it's a minigame itself, the Battles are an important part of playing the RPG because it allows an easy method by which to control the amount of time it takes to get from the beginning of the game to its end; this is simply done by requiring you to level up.
So all of these things are what Role Playing Games have to offer. They are a way to break storylines down into easily managed components. They also provide the illusion required to integrate these separate parts. Not only that but they also manage to clearly define the things necessary when creating an artificial world: freedom of choice, a land of exploration, but still a guiding hand to point the way - the plot. They also give us a means by which to keep a player occupied in order to extend the length of a game. In a way, it gives us a model of game design that offers the largest expected bang while still requiring its proportional amount of buck.
There are many games out there attempting to take on the aspects of Role Playing Games in order to win not only its audience but also to create a fuller, richer world that has come to be necessary for large budget games. When trying to add story, they end up adding RPG. When they try to add a central world-hub / overworld, they add RPG. When they want to allow a character to develop and grow, they add some RPG. A little here and a little there. RPG Elements. A phrase that has no clear meaning and yet requires no explanation.
As for Role Playing Games themselves, the future of games isn't so apparent. Montage, the story structure, and dissected world allow the RPG to encapsulate any other genre of game. When another game is put inside the RPG, it is often called a minigame, battle-system, or, to emphasize its story structure, a side-quest. In these ways, an RPG acts as a game that contains other smaller games, or a sort of omni-game. It differentiates itself from recent Party games by simply not allowing itself to be played as such. When another game uses RPG elements, it does so while acknowledging its source. When RPGs encase other games, it's called a minigame and never sees the light of day. Eventually, RPGs will have to acknowledge what it's doing or it will continue to absorb games from all genres until all games are RPGs and all RPGs are RPGs.