RPGs and the Great Myth

by Mark R. Yohalem 

Submitted by: Mark.R.Yohalem@Dartmouth.EDU (Mark R. Yohalem)
Spelling 2
Grammar 2
Coherency 3
Strength of Arguments 5
Presentation 4
Originality 3
Penalties 0
Total 19

Role-playing games have long enjoyed a special sort of status in the eyes of their fans; they have been considered "thinking games," and the ability to appreciate them has long been deemed a sign of intellectual superiority. This basic premise, which has long informed the reviewing, playing, and understanding of RPGs, is false. It is a useful fiction - particularly for game creators - but it a fiction that ultimately undermines the foundations of solid gaming; it is a fiction that is slowly coming back to haunt console gaming.

I should state now that for the remainder of this editorial, reference to RPGs will denote console role-playing games, and not PC role-playing games, save in those cases in which PC role-playing games are clearly deriving their gameplay from console games (e.g. Septerra Core). Note that I am referring specifically to traditional console RPGs, and not action or strategy RPGs, though many of the same criticisms generally apply. I will use "he" as a neutral pronoun in accordance to grammatical rules. I should furthermore offer the caveat that I am a semi-professional RPG story-writer and designer (that is to say, I receive a professional salary for my work, but I am a student first, and a member of the labor force second.)

RPGs are not thinking games. They are, in fact, non-thinking games, insofar as any game can be considered non-thinking. At the core of them is a combat engine that is based upon repeatedly selecting a single command, without any direct control over the actions of the character. Furthermore, the reward structure of role-playing games encourages repetition; repetition and rote are antitheses to thought. Leveling is not only allowed, it is encouraged. Hence, players are prevented from solving situations by using their brain, they are reduced to ignoring their desire for variety and interaction - they are forced to turn off the creative centers of their game while "playing." Outside of combat, dungeon exploration is based upon a similarly unintellectual endeavor. The player is not given access to the entirety of the map, and rarely are logical clues provided; moreover, by hiding treasure down random paths, the player is again encouraged not to seek the path through the maze, but rather to seek out all the dead-ends first. He is punished for finding the best route.

One can argue against the various unthinking elements of RPGs by citing counter examples:

The RPG is therefore not a thinking game. Can it then be argued to be a thinking endeavor? RPGs, traditionally, held a lock on the story-telling aspect of video games. With a few exceptions (Ninja Gaiden, for example), older console action games made no effort to offer a coherent, developing storyline. But does this historically unique condition still hold weight?

No, for two reasons. The first deals with content, the second with form.

During the period in which RPGs monopolized story-telling, they did so fantastically poorly. Even compared to the pulp fantasy paperbacks that one can find at any bookstore, the plots of even the RPG greats - the Final Fantasies, for example - seem rather dismal. The dialogue ranges from acceptable to atrocious (not even considering the butchery done by translators) and the plots themselves are so rife with clichés as to be laughable.

By the time RPGs evolved to the point of offering serious, mature plots - which are still rather inferior to any other story-telling medium - other games had begun to do the same. Action games such as Metal Gear Solid demonstrated an ability to offer a superior plot without the tedious RPG conventions (inane townsperson dialogue, lengthy expository speeches). Any claim to preeminence in regards to story-telling seems tenuous, but even if one grants RPGs the blue ribbon for stories, a greater question remains.

Do stories matter? Yes. Do they matter enough to justify bad gameplay? No. A game is a game is a game is a game. If it cannot offer gameplay - and traditional RPGs cannot - then it is not a game. At that point, the RPG must somehow topple other means of story-telling, which it cannot.

Consider, then, the flight of RPGs from RPGs.

The most popular RPGs of recent times have all boasted "innovative gameplay" and "new takes on an old genre." Vagrant Story abandoned random combat, gold acquisition, townsperson dialogue, party members, and the traditional RPG combat system. Chrono Cross abandoned leveling and random combat. Moreover, almost every "traditional" RPG has tried to hide its shoddy gameplay under a veneer of mini-games; no series is more shameless about this than Final Fantasy.

On the one hand, there is this disappearance of the RPG qua RPG. On the other hand, there is the depressing cosmetic surgery that the "traditional" RPGs inflict upon themselves. The lengthy Guardian Summons of Final Fantasy, the pre-rendered and uninteractive worlds, the reliance on FMV as a means of developing a story, all point to this lack of confidence in the inherent nature of the product.

This lack of confidence in the genre itself lends a special edge to those games which employ eye-candy most gaudily. To a casual gamer, or even an experienced one, lousy gameplay has become a given; all that is left to seek out is graphical excellence.

The RPG, like the adventure game on computers, offered up its wisdom and yet refuses to ride off into the sunset. It brought story-telling to games, which, when executed in conjunction with solid gameplay, is a plus. If the RPG survives, it will survive because it changes; if it changes as drastically as such games as Vagrant Story, is it still appropriate to refer to it by its inherited name? The traditional RPG, however, is no longer viable. It offers nothing except nostalgia, and the opportunity to indulge in the elitist conceit that because these games aren't played by the masses, playing them must bestow some special honor. It does not.

Now this is a daring editorial if I've ever seen one. It's certainly a wake up call, and I might even dare say it's the most controversial of all the editorials, and will no doubt bring back an awful lot of response and discussion.

Well, it can be easily seen that the writer spent quite a bit of time to write this, even with the disclaimers, giving it a very professional look. Well formed, no spelling or grammatical mistakes.

It was also very difficult to attempt to crack his facts for faults. There was one exception which came to my head, and that would be concerning his assertion about the lack of 'thinking'. You could define games which require a lot of puzzle solving and lateral thinking to shoot out of that, and although they are very few and far between [The one I can think of is Lufia 2] they do exist. Acknowledging these but pointing out that they are very few and far between would have helped just a little bit.

In conclusion, while it may not be a pleasant editorial for many readers, it nonetheless recieves a very well-deserved S grade.

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