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GamesFirst! Magazine

The RPG Experience:
Conventions and Not Beyond
April 20, 2001


Part 1: What’s in a name?

What is a Role Playing Game? This seems like the best place to start. Warren Spector offers:

RPG is a game in which character development and character interaction take precedence over other factors and where each player's experience of the story is determined by individual choice rather than designer fiat . . . Of greatest importance, this definition eliminates adventure games, which share with the RPG an emphasis on story and character. What adventure games lack - and this is a critical point - is the capability for players to grow and develop their characters, and to affect, if not the outcome of the story, than the way in which the story unfolds. Without both character development and genuine choices placed within a player's control, a game cannot be called a role-playing game, as I choose to define the genre (Remodeling 1).

Spector’s definition is suitable for my purposes, with the exception of the last line which I am forced to take issue with. With regard to consoles at least, the take is a bit too Romantic; it is telling us more what the genre could be than what it is. If we grant that no game can be an RPG without genuine choice then we must disqualify the bulk of the console RPG line-up. Let us say rather that RPG’s offer either the illusion of choice where none exists, or at least the illusion of a meaningful choice when any decision has the same outcome as any of the other options. What separates RPG’s from action games are the advancement or development of characters in one way or another, and the inclusion of RPG conventions whose very presence defines the game as an RPG. Yet now I see we’ve gone too far forward too quickly and missed much of what an RPG is. To be accurate we should back up to the days of twenty sided dice, encrypted scribbles on volumes of paper, and a modest library of rule books, but backing up this far would keep this paper off its focus for quite some time. So instead I will once again move forward and focus on the recent evolution of console RPG’s, how this latest generation came to be, what it is made out of, and why it has failed.


Part II: This place, this day

Some people say that it is tough to argue with success. This is certainly the mantra of today’s console programmers. Console role-playing games are among the most successful games on the market. Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy series leads the charge, having sold an astonishing thirty million copies since its inception. It has spawned a loyal (some would say fanatical) following of fans not only willing but eager to stand in line and shell out fifty dollars each to experience the next Final Fantasy. Within the industry it is widely acknowledged that Squaresoft’s initial offering on the PlayStation, Final Fantasy VII, contributed greatly to Sony’s overwhelming commercial success. It became the showcase of the system; in gaming conversations it was cited as an example of what the PlayStation could do and the competition could not as often as it was discussed for its own merits. It set the bar, not just for the PSX, but for the console market as a whole.

With the success of Final Fantasy VII, Squaresoft had defined the terms and expectations for that generation of RPG’s. The competition followed en masse, but with surprisingly little innovation. Square itself settled into the tried and true routine. It made use of console RPG conventions as old as the games themselves and tried to perfect them. Indeed this is tactic of the industry itself; the overwhelming focus on console RPG’s is to do the same things that worked last time—only do them better.

If commercial success is our gauge, then Squaresoft, in fact the industry as a whole, is beyond reproach. Yet even the casual observer can note the striking unorigionality of RPG’s. By contrast, the formulaic narrative structure of role playing games allows the modern romance novel to bask in the radiant glow of its own originality. The genre has become one organized around, even based upon, simplistic and limiting conventions. That is to say, while any medium may employ conventions as part of its structure, the RPG defines itself by these conventions and does so unnecessarily. The RPG genre has been much praised for its originality and deep stories. In regard to the stories, this praise is particularly misplaced and serves only to reinforce the perceived quality of narratives undeserving of the praise. The success of these games, and therefore the narratives, should not be seen as an endorsement. Give the people what they want is surely the rebuttal. Commercial success in no way implies even that the gaming audience is being given what they want. It simply defines what they are willing to settle for.

In a recent interview Hironobu Sakagughi, president of Square USA, expressed a surprising frankness about the failings of the genre he has played a critical role in defining. When asked what was lacking with today’s console and PC games he answered, "There are many factors lacking in today’s games. They range from the constraints of the hardware itself to problems stemming from the network or user interface. Of course, the story, characters, and world settings aren’t being given much thought either" (Design 53).

So what’s wrong with RPG’s? Here’s the short answer: Joe public just bought the newest of the new role-playing games. The shiny holographic cover promises a mind blowing cinematic experience coupled with an amazing story. All the critics raved. Before the disc is in the drive, before the plastic is off the case, before the receipt is in the bag, what does the gamer know about the game? The answer: everything but the details (and a few of those).

While obviously not every single RPG will employ every convention, virtually every one will employ several of them and many will employ all of them. We can divide these conventions into two basic categories: setting conventions and story telling conventions.


Part III: The Setting

"It’s the Economy, Stupid" – popular democratic saying during 1996 presidential election.

Metaphysical conventions are those devices by which the world functions and operates. The obvious are included such as physics, and advancement, as well as the less obvious conventions such as geography and the economy.

Advancement is an integral part or RPG’s. Far from being a convention that the genre makes use of, it is a game convention that defines the genre. In RPG’s characters begin relatively weak. Through successive battles, characters gain levels that allow them to grow stronger, smarter, faster as well as learn the ability to use bigger and more deadly spells. While it is true that hard work pays off in RPG’s, and advancement is about a hero rising in power in order to confront the bad guy and save the world; it’s also kind of strange. This strangeness is exasperated by the fact that it is nearly identical in every RPG ever created.

As a gamer, I have always wondered why it is that a peasant boy can be chased out of his village by evil doers and into a forest. While in the forest he fights a series of battles against oversized chickens. After defeating the chickens he goes up in levels and returns to the village. This time he routs the evil doers and saves the day, not just because he was more skilled with his weapon, but because his experience with the chickens has substantially increased the number of times he can be whacked in the head with a sword before dying.

It’s not my intention to lecture on the suspension of disbelief. Indeed in our postmodern world, I often wonder whether such a thing is always necessary or even fully possible. Yet the current system is troublesome for a variety of reasons. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it’s fully predictable. By repeated battles, characters can grow in power along a relatively smooth grade. Enemies and bosses, however, have fewer options. Characters can grow so powerful that they undermine the narrative by simply removing the element of risk. This can even happen on accident. An RPG party that gets lost in a dungeon may find the diversion an advantage rather than a disadvantage. By the time the party actually finds the evil zombie dragon, they are so powerful they simply stomp him into oblivion and proceed on without a second thought.

In large, RPG developers are hesitant to experiment with the current system. Many of the devices of the genre have evolved, but character advancement sits virtually unchanged from its paper and dice roots. Yet alternatives have been introduced to the mysterious "level-up" system. By dropping many of the RPG conventions, many modern games are finding it simple to include a system of power advancement that is articulated to greater satisfaction. Shenmue, for example, is a hybrid of classic RPG elements (minus the conventions) and a standard action game. A classic avenge-your-father’s-death story, gamers are put into the shoes of Ryo Hazuki, as he searches for answers and seeks revenge against his father’s killer. Information must be gathered by talking to and interacting with the people of Yokosuka. Battles are fought via martial arts action in alleyways, bars, and warehouses. Along the way, Ryo encounters friends and allies. Some of them teach him new martial arts moves to add into his arsenal. When next he is forced to put them to use, the battle will proceed much easier. Thus character advancement is woven elegantly and simply into the narrative. The gamer has a sense of accomplishment and progress, while the second function of advancement is also fulfilled; Ryo is prepared to fight more and more dangerous foes. This system fits Spector’s definition of an RPG by virtue of the choices presented to the gamer and the ability of the character to evolve. Spector’s own creation, Deus Ex, is a similar hybrid design. Players are given a variety of choices that have a significant impact on how the game unfolds. Characters in the game also advance through a variety of available technological implants that make the character more powerful. By Spector’s definition, Deus EX is also an RPG. Yet in the mouths of gamers and critics, neither game is referred to as an RPG. In Spector’s "Postmortem: Ion Storm’s Deus Ex" he calls his game: "Part immersive simulation, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game" (1). While many of the tags are added to properly define all the elements of the game, the inclusion of both RPG and action game is notable. Spector’s definition of RPG’s seems to suggest that the only inherent difference between the two is the presence of the RPG qualities of advancement and player choice. Yet after fulfilling these criteria, he is hesitant to simply proclaim Deus Ex an RPG. This hesitation is understandable. In the minds of the game playing public, the title ‘role playing game’ invokes images of classic game conventions as much as it suggests character development and player choice. Shenmue followed a similar pattern, being referred to as an action/RPG by both critics and audience. Even if we define RPG’s with Spector’s suggestions, and most critics offer similar definitions, the unwillingness to shift our vernacular to encompass this definition is symptomatic of the fact that we are simply not satisfied with it. Gamers who had purchased either Shenmue or Deus Ex under the pretext that is was an RPG would undoubtedly have felt mislead as to the actual contents of the game. This is reason enough to suspect a definition of RPG’s that excludes the necessity of genre conventions.

To further understand these conventions, we ought also to consider the enormous impact of geographic and economic conventions on RPG structure. In large part both economic and geographic conventions are interwoven with the advancement convention to create a seamless, ludicrous, alliance that is the single greatest defining factor in an RPG. Money in an RPG setting is plentiful and easy. Monsters always carry vast amounts of gold with them wherever they go. While I can see why a dragon or even an ork or a goblin might have gold, why do bugs, giant chickens, and fire elementals always carry around massive amounts of currency? The stronger the monster, the more money it has. The money is clearly intended as a reward for defeating the monster. The system is so ingrained in the minds of gamers that it no longer seems in the least bit odd that this is how the world works-- every single time. You would think at some point a developer would sit back and notice that if everything the player needed to buy cost less then they wouldn’t need to find giant stacks of gold next to the corpse of every fish, tree or bugbear that the party did battle with. Money could then be handled in a way that somehow propelled the story forward or at least added to it. For example, having to find a sunken treasure chest, stealing something to sell, or taking out a loan with the local knee-breaking con artist. Yet this is not the case. Money is never a real plot device because players always knows how to get as much as they want, so long as they take the time. At this point, I seriously doubt that even developers think their way through these conventions before using them. This is simply how things are done in a console RPG.

The geographic conventions are a subset of the economic conventions. There aren’t a lot of universal truths in our world that can withstand a rigorous cross-examination. In the universe of the RPG there are many such truths, and this is one of them: no matter where you are in whatever world you initially find yourself in, the blacksmith closest to you sucks at making weapons and armor, while the one furthest from you can make a mean set of plate mail and can craft a sword that will put the fear of god into whatever gets in the hero’s way. Why are entire continents composed of weapon and armor makers that cannot craft anything more solid than leather or more dangerous than a brass knife? The answer is simple: It’s because players have access to limitless amounts of money. If the first continent were capable of making advanced armor and weapons then players would have them early in the game, and in so doing would unbalance the story. Instead every town has a better blacksmith than the one before it, and this blacksmith is able to make slightly better weapons.

Recently I was playing Final Fantasy IX. While trying to help save one city from another invading city, which had been encountered earlier in the game, it struck me that the second city obviously had better trained blacksmiths who could provide equipment advanced enough to simply slaughter the unfortunate aggressors who happened to be armed only with bone daggers and leather armor. As it turns out, this was not so. Geographic conventions apply to characters only. Perhaps my favorite example is found in "Ever Grace", a sub par RPG launched earlier this year for the PS2. During the character’s exploration of the strange land, they encounter teleportation crystals that warp them to the safety of the world’s all purpose shop. The equipment available depended on which crystal the character teleports in from. The desire is simple; keep characters from having access to weapons and armor that they should not be allowed to have yet. This could have been accomplished in a thousand different ways. But it wasn’t. Developers, and gamers, have already learned to instinctively dismiss these logical inconsistencies with respect to how they affect the story. Changing the geographical convention to the same principle with only one actual store made perfect sense.

Part IV: The Story

"The diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more abundant than those of the body." --Cicero

RPG’s have long been praised for their great stories. The long, narrative driven structure puts RPG’s in an excellent position to invoke innovative, creative, moving stories. This is rarely, if ever, the case. For the most part RPG’s use stock story structures and attempt only to improve on the telling of that archetype. Recently I discovered tactical RPG’s, a variety of RPG with a signature style of tactical battles fought on 3D maps. I found them so enjoyable I played all I could find, in rapid succession. I played: Vandal Hearts I, Vandal Hearts II, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Ogre Battle Tactics. It was incredible how little variety existed in the stories told. They are all virtually identical, excepting only names and small details. This is prevalent to lesser and greater degrees across the entire industry. Virtually all RPG’s make use of some or all of the following story convention presented here:

    1. The protagonist
    2. The girl
    3. Sidekicks
    4. The betrayal
    5. The hidden evil

The protagonist is a male. He is marked by an exceptional birth. He may be an orphan, but at the very least he will have only one parent. Some quality will separate him from his peers. He has a pure soul, he can draw the sword from the stone, he can cast the forbidden spell or wield the gem of unworldly might.

The main character will meet up with his soon to be significant other. This will happen during the first twenty percent of the story, probably a little earlier. This female character will be a sorceress, a healer, a summoner, or some other sort of spell hurling heroine. In most cases she will also be marked at birth. Princess sidekicks are the norm, but some variations exist. The two, while clearly in love, will not confess their feelings until the game is over.

Additional sidekicks will join our hero. One or two will probably join the party before the entrance of the significant other. The childhood friend theme is common, but good natured allies who, early in the narrative, bail the hero out of a jam are also a possibility. One of the first characters will be the stern, strong, bruiser.

A betrayal will happen eventually – count on it. All too often it is by a trusted member of your party, but occasionally you will instead be betrayed by an NPC. The Final Fantasy series is particularly renowned for this convention. So much so, that when playing the new FF I like to try to guess which character will ultimately betray me. (It’s quite often the most unorthodox character). Fortunately, this convention seems to be declining in popularity. Perhaps it is simply the easiest to see, or maybe it just gets old quickly.

The bad guy is never quite what you think, and neither is the story. There will be no Ring to drop in the cracks of doom, no quest visible from the beginning. Instead the story will unfold and the gamer will realize that the evil king, queen, wizard, duke etc., is simply a pawn for a far more sinister evil wizard, demon, king, duke, or otherworldly monstrosity. In all likelihood this process will duplicate itself several times until at last our hero confronts the puppet master at the root of the current evil. In a recent review of Final Fantasy VIII published by ZD Net, Andrew Vestal raved about the story, "The twists and turns the story takes will leave you reeling; at the end of disc four, you'll laugh at the misconceptions you had about the plot with which you first began" (1). Is this always a good idea? I’m all for twists and turns in the plot, but there is also something to be said for other methods as well. The overshadowing, foreshadowing, looming and approaching inevitable darkness of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings comes to mind. Of course the narrative had twists and turns, but from relatively early on the reader is invited to anticipate, imagine, and fear the approaching climax of the story. Had Lord of the Rings been a contemporary RPG, no mention of Mordor would have been made until the third disc, after all other options of head evil guy had been exhausted (that is to say, killed).

My intention starting out was to bring attention to RPG conventions, even their necessity to the genre, in order that they at least be considered by gamers and developers. Although I believe much of what has happened over the last five or six years, or what hasn’t happened, has hurt the genre, I do not believe the situation is hopeless. The hybrid RPG’s are the most promising prospects by virtue of their willingness to experiment and omit what is tired or what doesn’t work. The conventional RPG’s have a much tougher road ahead, creatively if not commercially. We have seen a definite improvement in story telling. Characters have become more sophisticated and developed; even though they are sentenced to wander through archetypal stories. While fans keep applying pressure for bigger and better things, the industry must consider the inherent limitations of the traditional RPG. There are many things that they are simply incapable of doing without first reconceptualizing how the genre is conceived. New technologies are opening the door, inviting developers to take more risks. If they accept that challenge, and certainly at least some will, we will see new game structures, fewer (or different) conventions, and more evolved stories. Others will not take this chance and will instead try to do what worked last time—only make it a little bit better. This will work for awhile. It may even make some people happy for some time to come. Ultimately, however, as is the way with all such things, those who refuse to evolve will eventually find themselves left behind, tired, and obsolete.

Jeff Luther


Work Cited

Vestal, Andrew. "Review of Final Fantasy VIII". ZDNet: GameSpot. July 31, 1999. March 15, 2001

Saltzman, Marc, Ed. Game Design: Secrets of the Sages. Indianapolis: Brady Games 2000.

Spector, Warren. "Postmortem: Ion Storm's Deus Ex". Gamasutra. December 6, 2000. March 15, 2001.

Spector, Warren. "Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium". Gamasutra January 15, 1999 Vol. 3: Issue 2 March 15, 2001.


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