Go with me on a journey, if you will. Let’s imagine some big developer is going to revolutionize the RPG genre by truly merging the two more distinct sub-species of such titles into one extreme high-profile release. This isn’t some half-baked joining of the two philosophies like we’ve seen so many times before, this is going to be a serious, hardcore, inbred concoction of role-playing goodness.
Got that in your mind’s eye? Okay, now imagine we were going to list out a set of requirements that such a game would have. This is the journey I would like you to go on with me today. Do I think it will ever happen? Not for a while. Do I think it is an interesting and creative exercise that developers within the industry should be performing on a regular basis? You bet I do. I think it could make one of the most interesting RPG concepts in the history of gaming, if something this out-of-the-box was ever to come to fruition.
So, listed within this article are some things I think would be highly interesting in an RPG of this nature. None of them are original in and of themselves. However, mashed together and mixed by some of the greatest creative minds in the industry – on both sides of the Pacific – they could really fuel a change that may leave the genre in better shape than it is in currently.
Okay, here are the goods. As you read through these, though, imagine them, not in separate, distinct titles, but all together in the same awesome RPG.
Open world. I love the concept of an open world, even though it has one inherent problem. That problem is that typically in open world (or sandbox) games, distractions are at a high. Distractions keep you from pursuing the main story to the point that sometimes you may even forget about it completely after several hours (or dozens of hours) off doing side-quests and exploration. However, in this situation I think it is safe to say that we want a huge open world with varied environments. This is a heavy Western RPG trait that I think Japanese developers would do well to take into consideration for their titles and I think it would go great in a mash-up of the magnitude we’re discussing here.
JRPG-style visuals. I’m not talking strictly anime style, but here is my thought process. Western RPGs tend to be so dirty, gritty and just generally dark. It got to the point that, late last year and earlier this year when I was playing and reviewing a slew of Western RPGs, I just wanted to stop, I was burned out. It wasn’t because they were Western RPGs, it was because they were all the same – they were dark, brooding pieces of entertainment and that continual depression just eventually took its toll.
Instead of giving us that, imagine the entire world with the slick, clean, lively visuals from Final Fantasy XIII. No matter what anyone else says about that particular entry in the franchise, almost across the board the visuals are recognized as some of the most appealing of this generation. Take that and imagine and open world Oblivion-like title designed with those visuals in mind instead of the hyper-realistic, post-apocalyptic or often gloomy environments of typical Western titles.
Why so serious? This goes along with the visuals of Western RPGs being downright depressing much of the time. I’d like to see Western titles take some lessons from Japanese writers, who add in quirky humor and light-hearted story moments to augment the narrative. I’m reminded of a favorite moment in Final Fantasy IX where Zidane and Vivi are having a discussion one night before going to sleep. It is a poignant discussion, while still having a light-hearted side to it, because we catch them both peeing off a cliff. This scene bonds the two together within the framework of the story, enhancing their relationship and the relationship the player has with those characters.
While sometimes I feel JRPGs go overboard with the quirky nature of the characters, if properly balanced this is not a bad thing at all. Of course, some of you manly men who only play games with unnaturally bulky, bald heroes with scars all over their bodies might not appreciate it, but that is your loss. Humor and silliness, in moderation, add a lot to how enjoyable a title is and in the best cases, improve the player’s relationship with the characters. That, ultimately, connects them more emotionally to the story.
Pre-defined story and characters. Please, none of this “create your own character” and “make your own story” crap that the Western RPG developers keep feeding us as what makes a “real” RPG. That is simply ignorant. Let’s instead take a cue from Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption (oh noes, I just threw a 3rd person action game into a discussion about RPGs, how dare I!). I want a protagonist that can be either gender and, perhaps, even player designed, but that has a pre-defined identity like Commander Shepherd or John Marston. Of course, we’d need voice tracks and dialog to support both genders, but that shouldn’t be too difficult, seeing as how huge games like Mass Effect 1 and 2 accomplished a similar feat.
I want a character that I can get lost in, one that I can feel for and one that I can relate to, not some player-made abomination of a one-dimensional NPC-like character. That is just absurd. And I want the story to be impactful, well-defined and relate to the entire world, not just the main character(s). I will explain that in the next point…
The world should revolve around the story, not the other way around. What I’d like to see – and this is a tricky thing to accomplish – is a slew of side quests and extra stuff to do that won’t let you forget about the main story and, ultimately, makes you want to progress. I mentioned this earlier, but too many times in these open world RPGs, I get lost in the side quests and tend to forget about the main story after a while, because the side quests have nothing to do with it. Some lady wants me to fetch her cat that ran off to the farm next door or some guy wants me to keep the bunnies from eating his crops. Oh, and the elf down the way wants me to go hunt boars for him because he’s just too lazy. Who cares?! Give me side quests that help promote the main story and keep that at the front of my mind so it is hard for me to go so long without continuing the main narrative.
I want to see the whole world revolve around and be involved in the main story. To some degree, other games in the past have attempted this. Oblivion changed the world in certain ways based on your progression through the story, such as opening the oblivion gates up after a certain point, for example. Mass Effect 2 connected many of your party members’ stories to what was going on in the galaxy, which almost exclusively revolved around Shepherd’s past or current actions. Perhaps that is all I can hope for, but I suppose it is something to aspire to.
Persistent events and quests. Let’s take a cue from Red Dead Redemption here and give us random events that mean something either for our main character or for the world around us. Most of the random events that you can stumble across in Red Dead Redemption relate more to the setting than to any story element – and this can be changed, if needed – but they do add a sense of adventure and even danger to your travels through the Old West. A woman’s cry for help may be fake, exposing you to certain danger if you answer it. Someone claiming they need a ride into town may just be drawing you close to yank you off your ride and steal your horse. Yet, at the same time, these may be legitimate requests for help from the people that populate the world. You just never know.
They also aren’t structured – they could pop up at any time and place. To take this a step further, with all the online connectivity we see in the gaming market today, wouldn’t it be cool if quests were thrown in at random by the developer without anyone knowing? Let’s say you’ve passed this one point a dozen times with nothing there, but suddenly, after a brief update or even unlocking the quest on the disc (something I wouldn’t particularly have a problem with if used in this manner), there is now a set of quests from NPCs that have decided to camp in the area. Perhaps they even move around from location to location within the game, making things even more random. All this could work together to make a more interesting experience.
Co-op. Now, I’m not a huge proponent of co-op, especially of the online variety and in my single-player RPGs. I feel it tends to dilute the single-player experience, the story and character development if the developers take too much time to add in a multi-player component. However, if done right, I feel optional co-op could add to the experience. Think of what we’ve talked about so far: A third-person, open-world game with the visual style of Final Fantasy XIII. Now imagine online co-op with, let’s say, three of your friends. Just imagine co-op in Oblivion. How awesome would that have been if done right?
Those are my ideas for a great RPG genre mash-up, which include (hopefully) the best of both worlds – some great elements from both Japanese and Western RPGs. Now, I’d love to hear what other suggestions you, the readers, have in regards to this idea, so let’s have them in the comments!