The Evolution of Epic RPGs

I’ve been simultaneously playing two role playing games recently: Mass Effect 2 on my 360 and Dragon Quest V on the DS.  On the outside the two couldn’t seem more different.  DQV features cute, cartoony sprites and combat that my wife notes is little more than me “Hitting the A button for two hours.”  Mass Effect plays out like a high intensity shooting game with a dark, cinematic look that calls to mind Blade Runner, Star Trek and Farscape.

Dragon Quest
Mass Effect

What struck me about them both, and caused me to think about how Role Playing Games have evolved since their inception on computers and video game consoles, is that they both tell epic stories that sweep you up and give you the will to ignore any weaknesses in their gameplay as you play out the story.  DQV spans three generations of a family with a destiny, and through the game you experience  birth, the death of loved ones and a sense of loss that literally almost brought me to tears as I witnessed it last night.  Mass Effect is the tale of an intergalactic hero out to defend all sentient life from impending doom.  The way these games each tell their stories is quite different, and is in a way indicative of how the genre has evolved differently in Japan and in the West.  DQV is largely a directed narrative.  There is a story to tell and you play through it.  They do give you some interesting choices, including the woman you want to marry, but ultimately the story is largely out of your control.

Mass Effect on the other hand has a common beginning and a common end, but the story that gets told is your own.  The origin of your character, whether it’s a man or woman, who they want to fight and how, the relationships they have, etc.  The depth of logic and the amount of content that must be made to make this believable is truly amazing.  I could get into how games like Mass Effect must make Japanese developers quake in their boots- pulling together an epic narrative in a giant world is much less challenging when the world is made up of 16×16 tiles and all of the dialogue is text on the screen. I’m not saying its easy, but try blowing that up to HD, doing motion capture for all of the “actors”, recording thousands of lines of dialogue with professional actors (even Marsheen!) and developing a system that allows for a consistent narrative when almost every choice in the game is variable.  I’m not saying it’s perfect, but just comparing my game to those of friends, all of our outcomes are quite different.

Getting back to my point:  The video role playing game (as opposed to your table top version) is designed to tell a world spanning, epic tale of adventure.  The conventions of the genre have your character becoming more powerful throughout the game, accumulating skill in weapons, magic, conversation and any number of other variables.  As the game progresses, the hero and her party become so powerful that a battle with an enemy from the beginning of the game is trivial, even laughable.  To counter that power, the game creators have to create an equally powerful adversary, thus we get generations of rpgs where the endgame is literally stopping the end of the world.

The makers of RPGs have been trying to create a visual parity to the epic storytelling since the inception of the genre.   With the advent of the CDROM, they were able to include cut scenes- movie shorts that visualized the scope of the game in a way the tiny sprites could never do.  Over time, game graphics got better as did cut scenes, with Final Fantasy 7 ringing in an era where rpgs were just as much synonymous with rich computer generated cut scenes as much as they were battle systems or storytelling.  Through this perspective, games like Mass Effect and the upcoming Final Fantasy 13 are the ultimate expression of epic narrative that game makers have been yearning to tell since they began creating these games.  Both offer high adventure and incredible, cinematic visuals, and they’ve also been accused of “dumbing down” the genre as they’ve either removed or cut back on the statistics driven gameplay and exploration that are considered hallmarks.  What they haven’t removed is what I consider to be the true heart of a good role playing game:  They put the player into a world-spanning story filled with emotion, excitement and drama.  Only now it looks like we always imagined it to.