I was starting my playthrough of Bethesda’s latest blockbuster epic RPG, Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, when I had an epiphany. I was customising the eyebrows of my character; deciding between styles, bushiness, and what height they should be on my character’s face. I’d been inching the two dark lines up and down on the slider for about a minute, when it hit me: this game wants me to design every detail of this person’s face, even though I will immediately put a helmet on it, even though the game encourages you to play it in first person, even though whenever I go into third person and try deliberately to see the face my character will turn with the camera and stop me, even though my character will never so much as speak, I am being asked to design his eyebrows. And I, along with millions of other gamers worldwide, had done it without a second thought, all in the name of greater player interactivity. Interactivity has become a buzzword in gaming in general, and RPGs in particular, especially since western RPGs replaced JRPGs as the dominant force in the genre.
Not that I’m complaining; gamers everywhere should see a game’s interactivity as important. Every new artistic medium, throughout history, has only endured if it has something unique to offer, something to make it stand out in a significant way. Interactivity is what makes gaming stand out; it fuels the games we use as examples when people ask us how videogames can have artistic merit. Developers know this. The real question is ‘Do they know what ‘Interactivity’ is? I’m not so sure.
Back in 1987, arguably the birth of the modern RPG as we know it, Hironobu Sakaguchi described the idea that drove the game that would become ‘Final Fantasy’; ‘I don’t think I have what it takes to make a good action game. I think I’m better at telling a story’. The developer, like the proverbial storyteller, had complete control of the narrative, simple as it was. The large-scale moral choices that have become the staple of Western RPG developers like Bethesda and Bioware were completely unavailable; the technology just wasn’t there yet. The ‘Interactivity’ came from the gamer’s emotional investment in the story being told.
So, I hear you ask, why couldn’t Sakaguchi have just written a book? What’s so unique about this idea? People have been telling each other stories since we learnt how to speak to each other. And it’s true, a lot of Final Fantasy, the static cutscenes, stable character elements and plot devices (amnesia, anyone?) has its roots firmly in stories of the past. But, there’s another element to the classic Final Fantasy formula that made it work, not just as another story, but as a new kind of story; the ‘unique element’ that sets this medium apart; gameplay. Within the cutscenes, the characters were the property of the scriptwriters, the animators. Outside of these, in the heat of battle, the gamer became the key to their survival. Levelling up allowed the player to simulate the lifetime of physical and mental training the story would have us believe these sprites had been through, to make their magical powers, enhanced strength not just cool, but justified through the battles we had taken each of them through. The combination provided, and still provides a unique drive, that pushes gamers through the sort of forty plus hour stories RPGs are known for.
The gaming landscape has changed a lot since the 80’s. Technology has made it easier to accommodate the concept of player choice, in gameplay and in narrative. The Western RPG has developed a unique style all its own, and made it work. They encourage the gamer to put their own spin on every element of the game. It has gone from Sakaguchi telling you a story, to you telling a story to Sakaguchi. The pros of this situation are enormous, and really have heralded in a narrative landscape unseen in any artistic medium to date. No matter where you stand, that is exciting. I’m just worried that, in pursuing this new idea that offering the player choice automatically makes your game a better, more interactive RPG, developers, both Western and Japanese, could lose sight of the interactivity which made those earlier games so magical.
The biggest shift in the RPG spectrum has been in gameplay. While older RPGs employed slower, turn-based battle systems, Western RPGs have focused more on the action side of things, preferring to limit the player to a single, endlessly customisable avatar. Gameplay has moved from traditional turn-based fare to a player only directly controlling the party leader with a set of one-to-one controls, the rest of the party being controlled by friendly AI. It’s one of the first trends to really cross the boundary between Western and Japanese Role Playing Games, in this new age of RPG duality; in a recent interview with Edge magazine, Square Enix Producer Yoshinori Kitase referenced the trend of the ‘action-RPG’ with regards to the company’s future products; ‘you ignore these things at your peril’.
But perhaps the most worrying thing about this trend of player choice is the implied hit narrative design will take. While the triple-A RPG titles of today are setting a new benchmark for production values, action RPGs are still limited by the fact that their stories have to revolve around a character who could not only be any personality, but whose personality could change moment to moment, depending on the whims of the player. On the one hand, this means many gamers will come away with a unique experience, encouraging multiple playthroughs and a more personal experience. On the other hand, it means the entire story could be undermined any moment by inconsistent characters. If this is because the player chooses it, that’s fine. But too often, it is because the designers overlook something. It may seem like the second one wouldn’t happen much, in this shiny modern age where RPG developers brag about how many lines of dialogue they’ve recorded in case the player shoots his own father with a BB gun, but there are glaring examples of character’s magical personality jumps in everything from Mass Effect 2, in which a character begins hating you because you disagree with her in an argument, despite the fact you’ve just saved her sister, to the Fable 3’s moral choice system placing saving a lake over saving the lives of thousands of people. And this is where the problem comes in; we need to reign in this obsession with player choice, before developers start prioritising gimmicks over meaningful narrative and gameplay changes. A deeper experience for an unseen pair of eyebrows.
What do you make of Tom’s arguments? Do we need to ‘reign in this obsession with player choice’? Are developers really prioritising gimmicks over meaningful narrative and gameplay changes?
Tim Bates is a twenty year old English student, currently halfway through his last year at University. He has lived in Kent for the last ten years, and Belgium for the five before that.