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Game Vs. Story: Can They Coexist?

by Thomas Manson 

Warning: Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest IV Spoilers.

Much has changed with (console-style) RPGs since Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy made their 8-bit debuts back in the mid- to late-1980's. These games had a simple plot that remained mostly in the background while your hero(es) wandered around battling enemy creatures in order to win their much-coveted Monetary Units (be it Gold Pieces or Gil) in order to purchase more powerful equipment (primarily weapons and armor), and to attain these intangible units of power called Experience Points in order to increase personal competence at whatever they do (fighting, spellcasting, etc.) so, in turn, they can hold their own against more powerful enemy creatures, and thus the cycle repeats. The plot (which ran along the lines of "Kill the Bad Guy" or "Save the Princess") served mainly as an excuse for the character(s) to fight these bad guys and amass power. The emphasis for these older games was strictly on gameplay.

Today the games dance to the beat of a different drummer. Most modern RPGs (including most Playstation games and all Final Fantasies since the fourth installment) contain a long, convoluted plot often involving abstract concepts concerning some odd existentialist theory. These stories usually center around a main protagonist who seems to attract others (whether through personal charisma, shared background, or a common enemy) to a "Call to Arms" to destroy the obligatory Bad Guy. A long, epic quest ensues, as the main character fights many demons (from within and without) with the help of his (or, on occasion, her) friends. Most of these battles will be won. Few won't. Most all battles lost lead to the obligatory "Game Over" screen. The gameplay serves primarily as the means to the end, in other words from point A of the story to point B. Emphasis here is undoubtedly on story.

It is without doubt that most RPGamers prefer the modern games more than the older games, because that's what they are: stories. They see RPGs as little more than electronic stories with menu-driven combat, which only serves as a means to progress the story. Gameplay elements are overlooked. The term "Role Play" has been horrendously ignored. The player seems to be satisfied enough to just watch the events happen, rather than to instigate the events, which is one of the things that made Role Playing Games so great since Dungeons & Dragons.

Now to the real question: can story and game coexist (in electronic format)? Or does one always have to supercede the other? I would like to believe that this is not the case, that, like Espers and Humans, they can live in perfect harmony with one another. In fact, I believe for a game to be truly great, they must. Indeed there are many games that blend story and gameplay considerably well. Most of these games, however, still favor one aspect over the other. There is one game that is an incredible exception to that rule, and remains one of the favorite RPGs of most all that have played it. This game is Dragon Warrior IV. In my opinion this game outdoes every other RPG before or since while still today setting the standard as to what all RPGs should offer if their creators desired them to be truly exceptional.

Some might say "How can a game made on an 8-bit platform with crappy graphics and sound be more gooder than Final Fantasy (insert Roman numeral IV or higher here)?" Here's where I explain myself. First off, there's the story. Dragon Warrior IV is an involving and deep story broken down into five chapters of varying length. The first four chapters serve primarily as exposition, introducing and providing an expository quest for the seven characters (the "Chosen Ones") which eventually become the allies of the Hero (you) introduced in Chapter Five. Your village is destroyed and you are believed to be dead. In actuality, (I believe) your sister is killed while impersonating you. Eventually you'll meet the other seven chosen ones and you all embark on a quest to end Saro's (the most powerful monster in the world) reign of Tyranny. These facts are exposed as the story progresses and are not left to interpretation: you don't have to guess that this is what's happening. The story is clear.

With the story being so deep, you would think that the gameplay must suffer. Not so. The gameplay elements, unlike many newer games, complement the story, rather than exist as an "in addition" sort of thing. You need certain items to do certain things to progress the story, but unlike many newer games that contain that feature, you have to know what item is needed where. In other words, what you do moves the story along, rather than what you see the characters do. This makes the story put on at least a semblance of personal immersion that is really lacking in most newer games, while still having a story there to immerse oneself into, unlike older games. Story and gameplay are at a nearly perfect balance, while admittedly graphics and sound are below par. Then again, Enix had to make do with what they had. And what they had was a Famicom/NES.

I once heard "Role Playing Game" defined as "quantified interactive storytelling." The quantification aspect is shown that statistics and such are represented in numbers. This part hasn't changed at all over the years. The interactivity was well represented in the older games, where certain actions and items triggered certain events. The player interacted with the surroundings. This part has been much overlooked recently, since the player is just led along by the nose by the characters and what they do. The characters interacted with their surroundings while the player watched and enjoyed. The storytelling is just not there in the older games. They had an exposition and conclusion, but the meat of the "story" was just level building and equipment buying. The newer games, however, have lots of storytelling. The stories have many twist! s and turns and the main characters all have individual personalities. They interact with each other as often as they do with the auxilliary characters. No electronic RPG has managed to combine all elements seamlessly, and thus they are never truly RPGs. Enix truly had something special with Dragon Warrior (or Dragon Quest) IV, the only true RPG ever to exist on a home console that plugged into the television set. Or maybe just one of the few. It's the only one I've ever played.

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