Stairwell Philosophy – Is an RPG without a story still an RPG?

Word on the street is that some fellow at Square-Enix made the strange statement that role-playing games don’t really need to have good stories these days. If you’re not deep enough into gaming to understand how bizarre that sounds, it would be as if a McDonald’s representative declared that their customers aren’t interested in burgers anymore. How do the makers of some of the greatest RPGs in gaming history come to this kind of idea? Well in a strange way it may make some sense if you look back over the RPG genre’s history. From a certain point of view, there’s always been a bit of a disconnect between gaming and storytelling.

In the earliest days of gaming it was rather difficult to tell any story at all within the limits of the technology. You could print up something in the manual or on the side of the arcade cabinet but your gaming experience was rarely drastically improved by knowing why your dot was attacking the other dot. The only real benefit was knowing that that thing that looks like a duck riding a giant letter Q was supposed to be a dragon.

The 8-bit era gave us some of the first attempts at storytelling. Being able to render text on the screen meant that the story wasn’t locked away in a little booklet or the back of the box, it could be right there in front of the player. The rise of tabletop role-playing no doubt also gave it some steam; it’s easy to look at a flowchart-like pen & paper RPG module and see it as a potential video game design document. A room over here with these dimensions and these decorations, some items stashed away over there, an NPC who has this list of dialogue options, etc. Player-characters and non-player-characters alike in these games are also defined mechanically by an assortment of numerical statistics that can easily be adapted and expanded upon in a video game. It’d be a pain to use piles of dice and mathematical equations to precisely calculate the way the undulations of the terrain affect the handling of a car based on how each individual wheel contacts the ground and the speed of the vehicle, but a video game can do it in the blink of an eye.

Debatably all video games are role-playing games because you are playing the role of some sort of protagonist (or antagonist, as the case may be). Although not all games need a story, any game can have one. I’ve played D&D games with no narrative at all beyond going into a dungeon and killing a dragon just because it’s there. I’ve played Street Fighter as a form of co-operative storytelling about a man’s journey around the world and within his soul to find his fighting spirit. Both were a hoot. At least 1.5 hoots. So if any game can be a role-playing game then what makes ‘true’ RPGs special?

In this early age an RPG was primarily defined by its interface. An action game involved directly hopping around and hitting things with sharp pointy sticks, an adventure game usually involved less jumping but maybe added an inventory system or something, and an RPG involved little or no jumping around and a lot of menus. You might say the trade-off for a decrease in gameplay was to have a more detailed story of some sort. You can see this a lot as you go through the years. Action games told only the bare minimum of story necessary to explain what was flying around the screen, adventure games had a loose narrative generally involving a collection of macguffins necessary to defeat the big bad evil guy, and RPGs piled on increasingly massive scripts choc full of characters and dialogue. And as technology improved, so too did the complexity and production values of the storytelling.

Square and similar developers spearheaded this charge. The beginnings of branching storylines could be found as developers learned how you could easily swap out some sprites and change some dialogue and craft entirely different scenarios with very little time and money (a big plus back before game companies had billion-dollar development warehouses). An additional development was the cutscene, a fun little aside wherein the player sits back and watches some dramatic events play out. On the surface these two tools seem like they would converge to make for some great storytelling (and often they do), but they may also have contributed to the wall between gaming and stories.

To my knowledge the first game to feature cutscenes was Ms. Pac-Man, showing quick bits of silent-film-like exposition between levels about how the happy-Pac-couple met. For many old-school gamers however the game that introduced us to cutscenes as dramatic storytelling was Ninja Gaiden. Playing as a ninja fighting legions of demons monsters and of course other ninjas needed little or no explanation for the player (in fact the original arcade version had even less story than the more famous NES adaptation). Ninja Gaiden upped the ante with decently (for the time) animated cutscenes between each level telling a classic story of revenge, rival ninjas, interesting side characters, and enough posing dramatically on rocky outcroppings to fill a complete trilogy of 80’s/90’s ninja tribute pieces.

This helped the series stand out against similar games like Shinobi and Ninja Spirit, which may have arguably had better gameplay but less-developed stories. Granted you don’t need a whole lot of story to explain why a ninja flips out and kills things, but it’s nice that it was there. This is an early example of the story not necessarily being a part of the gameplay but a reward for the gameplay. After successfully navigating a maze of flying bullets and hungry demons devilishly-persistant birds, you were rewarded by getting to sit back and watch a little mini-movie play out and deliver the latest slice of the storytelling pie.

RPGs took this idea and ran with it, again with Square at the forefront. Final Fantasy VI can be found near the top of many gamer’s lists of legendary RPGs, often right alongside its successor. FF7 in particular can be seen as the herald of the modern cutscene age wherein the player may be sitting back not just for a few dozen seconds but for minutes at a time, watching the story unfold in shiny explosive detail. You even see this in more action-oriented games these days, nowhere more boldly than Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid games. MGS4 infamously has a solid ten minutes of cutscene exposition sitting on the game’s opening, and a later cutscene weighs in at just shy of an hour. Whether that’s a bug or a feature depends on how much you love Metal Gear (though despite my tremendous borderline fanboy appreciation for the series even I can’t deny that many parts of the series need an editor armed with a rocket-propelled-chainsaw). The border between RPGs and the rest of the gaming world is also blurred by games such as Kingdom Hearts, which have all the menus and inventory management of a traditional RPG but keep the combat squarely (no pun intended) in the realm of real-time action/platforming.

But I digress. Time to lasso that diverging storyline factor back in here and explain the volatile cocktail it makes when mixed with epic cutscenes. As said above, making a branching storyline was far simpler in the early days because all you had to do was alter some typed dialogue and sprites. In modern games if you watch closely enough you can even sort of see the strings, re-used animations wherein a part in a scene will be played by a different character model but still physically be doing basically the same thing. This is because the more amazing the whiz-bang cinematics become the more expensive they become.

The big weights hanging around the budget’s neck go by the names of voiced dialogue and motion capture. Simply put, involving more humans can jack up the expenses rather quickly. Just as when a movie script gets a last-minute change and they need to re-shoot a scene, changing a game’s story no longer just means altering some text. Now you’ve got to call folks back into the studio, have the mo-cap guys tumble about on the set some more, rent the expensive AV recording equipment for a few more hours (or maybe even days), and generally give the budget a good solid punch in the stomach.

This is a little less of a problem in the east than the west because of the diverging tastes of the locals. Traditionally RPGs of the east prefer more linear stories in which the player goes along for the ride in a pre-planned story, somewhat like watching a movie in which every so often you pick up a controller and tell the actors how they should go about vanquishing the assorted evils. By limiting player control over how the story plays out the developer can craft a tighter narrative through scripted events. This can limit the replay value a bit since there’s only one way things can play out, but like a good movie if it’s a good story you’ll want to see it play out again and perhaps again.

The west, on the other hand, tends to dislike being forced along a specific track (no matter how pretty and well-designed that track may be). Western nerds love to voice opinions and make decisions and declarations on things, and we like our gaming stories to be the same way. You’ll notice that nowadays they try to at least cram a basic moral choice system into tons of games these days whether they need it or not. Making a cohesive story is a great deal harder with a branching path because of the lessened control the developer has on how it plays out. If the player is tasked with clearing out half a dozen dungeons and you want the villagers to be able to comment on the hero’s conquests you’ll need dozens of alternate dialogue tracks depending on how the player chooses to proceed. If you can’t afford to record hours of dialogue that the player may never hear and decide to limit the interactions to generalized statements that could fit anywhere (or not mention the events at all), the player has less of a connection to a game world that doesn’t seem to notice what they choose to do or not do. However, when it’s wielded with care and precision (usually by Bioware), you can have an epic sweeping tale with you as the player taking center stage making decisions that drastically alter the way the world turns out and really make the story your own.

The strange juncture here is that a game with choices doesn’t necessarily need a story. Nobody would accuse Gears of War of thoughtful storytelling, but the game does have lots and lots of choices: not just tactical decisions, but also assorted branching paths where the co-op players split up to tackle two sides of an encounter. You can even toss in an alternate cutscene or two, both as a reward for picking one path or another and to add a little replay value for players who like to see every inch of the game. You can also have games with a lot of choices that have little or no impact on the path of the narrative such as recent 5×5 subject Red Dead Redemption. The big setpieces change little depending on my extra-curricular activities, but I felt a great connection with my Marsden because of the decisions I made wandering the open game world and the reception I get in town for my honorable (or dishonorable) actions.

So now we’ve got these great tools of player choice and epic cutscenes that can in theory be used to tell not only great stories but different stories tailored to the player’s actions. Or no story at all. And as mentioned above, both detail and deviation can drastically increase the cost of game design. No matter how altruistic or artistic a game design company’s motives, it’s still a company that’s spending quite a lot of money to make their product and if money going out overshadows the money coming in they won’t be able to keep their heads above water.

This next part is a bit of a difficult admission for one who wants to see gaming grow as an artistic storytelling medium, but the unfortunate truth is that today and throughout gaming’s history a good story isn’t what sells a game. Hearing a game will have a great story can help your purchasing decision, but it’s not the #1 reason you pick one box off the shelf or another (possibly because it’s rather difficult to represent in a commercial or on the box art compared to showing off graphics and gameplay). The most important question for any game is whether or not it’ll be fun to play.

I enjoy the story of the Metal Gear games (even if it’s poorly presented at times), but I keep replaying them and lined up to buy the new ones because I enjoyed the gameplay and knew I’d enjoy the next ones for the same reason. The great Zelda franchise has a simple charming narrative, retelling a classic story in a variety of flavors, but you probably won’t find many folks who say the story is why they play Zelda; it’s because the gameplay has always been solid and I’ll buy ever new Zelda they make because I know I’m gonna enjoy the gameplay. Call of Duty games (the ‘real’ ones made by Infinity Ward, at least) tell some great stories within the overall theatre of historical warfare to which everyone already knows the endings, but the reason they sell is because you know that Infinity Ward makes solid frantic action-packed holy-carp-everything’s-exploding-we’re-gonna-die shooters and if you liked the last one you’ll like the next one.

(So epic in fact that upon rewatching the clip in the process of snagging the embed code I was momentarily so caught up in remembering the experience when I first played the sequence that I got all philosophical and, ironically, forgot about the philosophical article for which I’d went in search of the clip in the first place. But back to the show.)

Compare this to games where the primary selling point is the story. A game frequently held up in memorium is Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts, reviewed thus with a minimum of punctuation by Yahtzee. I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that the idea of a kid running away from the circus to join a summer camp for psychics wherein he ventures into the LSD-trip-metaphor minds of his fellow campers is something that’s never been done before or since. It was even set up to be a headlining title to champion the industry newcomer Xbox. But for whatever reason the gameplay just didn’t make people pick it up (not early on when there were non-pre-owned copies on the shelves that would put money in the developer’s pockets, at least), and despite great reviews it did so poorly financially that it killed Majesco. Similar tales are told of games like Okami (a Zelda-like romp through ancient Japanese folklore with a magic paintbrush), or Schafer’s more recent jaunt Brütal Legend (a world of metal album covers come to life); marketed on a premise of a great story or setting idea, poor sales to follow.

Time to bring it all together. The games that sell most reliably these days are the ones with little or no focus on the story (if it has one at all). From Mario to Master Chief, the gameplay (good or bad) is what gets a game sold on day one, not the story (good or bad). My take on this is that it’s because a rather large chunk of the world’s gamer population is in the west, possibly because the Xbox 360 (arguably the system pushing the most games month to month even though Nintendo still sells the most hardware) just can’t seem to get Japan’s attention. Thus the games most likely to sell the eleventy hojillion copies necessary to cover the cost of all that bloom lighting and 7.2 surround sound are the ones with western appeal: highlight the gameplay and opportunities for player choice, downplay the story.

No matter what we say we’d like to see in our games, the only kind of voting that really matters to the publishers (and by extension the developers) is the kind with our wallets. They’ve got bills to pay, and unfortunately rentals and used game sales doesn’t put a dime in the coffers that need to be refilled to pay for the next big game project. I also blame this partially on the folks on the other side of this standoff who don’t seem to catch on that the reason used game sales are so prolific is because a game that’s awesome today for $60 will still be awesome someday down the road for $30 or $10, but I digress.

Looking through this lens I think I can see why Square may not want to put development time and money into a story when they don’t have to put forth that effort in order to make the sale. Final Fantasy XIII is getting some savage criticism for it’s sub-par story and gameplay that sounds like it consists of pressing the ‘continue to flip out and kill things’ button and then sitting back while the game plays itself because it’s too cool for you (possibly the subject of an upcoming 5×5, stay tuned). But it sold. It sold like hotcakes because it’s Final Fantasy. And despite how this one went, even if FF14 is even closer to the coming apocalypse of a game consisting entirely of mind-blowingly amazing cutscenes occasionally interrupted with quick-time events (like some bizarre second coming of the Sega CD) I bet it’ll still sell because it’s Final Fantasy.

Or will it? Between the Square statement of ‘why bother spending development time and money on a story when you’ll buy the game with or without it’ and the reception of FF13, maybe folks will be a little slower to accept the next one. Red Dead Redemption is getting lower review scores than predecessor GTA4 despite wielding comprable or better storytelling and gameplay in many places, but despite lacking in carjacking and hookers and wearing the nametag of a sub-par earlier attempt at the genre (granted for some strange reason RDR is the first western game to actually be good) sales are doing great. Bioshock heavily marketed not only its story but its lineage of storytelling and did well enough to fund a sequel (which admittedly was a pretty generic shooter with only a dash of the delicious story of its predecessor but hey at least part 1 was cool). Keep putting money on games that have what we like and we might just see more of it.

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