Role-playing games (or RPGs) are, without question, my most favorite video game genre next to fighting games. Ever since my teenage years, I have unregrettably spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours on these particular games, from popular classics like Final Fantasy to obscure gems like The Legend of Dragoon. I have played not only the traditional turn-based variety, but even the action-oriented and tactical sub-genres as well.
This genre alone has many different styles and forms, offering something for any gamer depending on their tastes: open world exploration, personal customization, real-time combat, turn-based combat, morality and alignment systems, ally and monster recruitment, multiple endings, the list goes on and on. No matter what kind of gamer you are, I guarantee there’s at least one RPG that’s tailored to your favorite type of gameplay.
I’m certainly not the only one who loves this genre. Ever since 1997 when the legendary Final Fantasy VII took the world by storm, especially in the West, RPGs have become viable in the video game market and continue to receive worldwide acclaim and celebration across various franchises. Even at the time of this writing, this genre is steadily evolving in interesting ways, proving it can stand the test of time for generations to come.
For my fellow RPG fans who are reading this, I need not explain to you the appeal of these games and why I still indulge in these masterpieces. You already understand the essence behind my love of RPGs. However, for the gamers who don’t play or haven’t yet given this genre a chance, I’d like to provide an answer to the question of exactly WHY these games are so beloved to myself and many others. Perhaps in discussing my passion I may persuade those who don’t play RPGs to give them a try. Personally, I would love the chance to inspire potential new fans and present them with the opportunity to enjoy an experience that only RPGs can provide. Who knows, maybe I can go more in-depth and offer recommendations in another post? We shall see!
In order to properly explain just what the big deal is with this genre and how it has endeared itself to many, we must examine what I believe to be the three fundamentals that serve as the cornerstones of any RPG. As mentioned above, RPGs have a wide variety of flavors and styles, but each and every one of them possesses these three core traits in their design…
AN EPIC JOURNEY
The first central trait I'll talk about is what I've come to dub as "the epic journey." RPGs generally have a strong sense of adventure that is usually done on an epic scale. These aren't games you simply blitz through in a day or two before moving on to play something else. No, these games are odysseys incarnate, a sentiment that is reinforced by their very design itself.
RPGs are definitely NOT short games by their very nature. You know how many hours it takes to complete an RPG on average without speed-running? FORTY TO FIFTY PLUS hours! And guess what? That’s only counting the main story campaign, not including the optional content on the side that may well stretch the game’s length towards even a hundred hours total! Don't believe me? Then check out the screenshot below of my Digital Devil Saga save files. As you can clearly see in the top right-hand corner of the first save slot, it took me a grand total of SIXTY-TWO HOURS to beat the game on my first playthrough, and I hadn't even completed all the sidequests before doing so!
It would seem this design choice was always intentional on the game developers’ part as, looking back at the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis era, even the early RPGs took around the same amount of cumulative time to beat. This means that playing an RPG is a long undertaking, one where the player has to be committed in order to reach the end with the fullest experience (pun unintended).
Because of this aspect, it's hard not to envision your playthrough as a journey. One you personally take as the game has you travel fantastic landscapes, meet memorable characters, discover fascinating worldbuilding, recruit worthy allies, fight hordes of enemies, grow in strength and skill, face challenge after challenge, conquer boss after boss, all until you land the decisive blow on the final boss and watch the ending unfold before your eyes. Once those credits start rolling, you'll instinctively reflect on all the time you spent to reach that point, recalling all the highs and lows you've experienced in your virtual journey. And it all starts from the moment you select New Game at the title screen, with a soft jingle signaling the beginning of your long quest.
What helps to solidify and enforce the feel of this idea even further is the next central trait on our list…
RPGs are arguably the most plot focused genre in all of gaming. There's a reason why I personally like to describe them as "interactive movies" to non-gamers. Compared to other gaming genres where the plot is often treated as either secondary or an afterthought, RPGs thrive on storytelling and thus present intriguing narratives that can potentially be of the same quality and depth as bestselling novels and movies (this can vary, obviously). Combine this with the interactive nature of video games and the result is an experience unmatched by any other media. In novel and television, audiences can only read and observe the characters and their stories, respectively. But video games, on the other hand, can allow their characters and stories to intimately shape the audience's experience.
These games don't just take you on a world-spanning adventure. You embark on this odyssey with beloved characters you get attached to and care about, becoming immersed and invested in their personal sagas and tribulations. As you embody them throughout the game, you develop a unique relationship with these characters as you help them to overcome their challenges and reach their goals. You watch them grow and develop as their story progresses, with them either maturing into stronger people or taking a turn for the worse.
Personally, I see character development as an integral part of the RPG experience. Given how much time you'll inevitably be spending with these bands of individuals as noted earlier, it naturally makes for a more pleasurable experience when the same protagonists you embody grow in tandem with you. I think it's an ingenious juxtaposition: the main characters mature through the story while YOU as the player mature through the gameplay, the both of you getting better as you proceed on your adventure. It's a nice poetic touch that helps to add more weight to your RPG experience.
As a natural consequence of producing great stories, RPGs also tend to have good worldbuilding, which can be of exceptional quality when done with attention and care. While RPGs are definitely not the only games to offer immersion and exploration in a virtually constructed world, I’d argue they are the best at presenting these core gaming elements. Few other gaming genres give you the freedom to explore an entire world, talk to various non-player characters (or NPCs), and occasionally engage in leisure content on the side (i.e. mini-games).
Whenever I play an RPG, I ALWAYS find myself partaking in conversation with the NPCs without fail, even when I’ve already played through the same game multiple times. Unlike retro RPGs where talking to NPCs is often vital to even progressing the game at all, chatting with NPCs in modern RPGs today can largely be avoided and isn’t mandatory outside of required instances. However, while you could play an RPG this way, I personally think doing so is a huge disservice to its worldbuilding.
Although some of the dialogue can be throwaway lines with no particular relevance, much of the game’s worldbuilding and storytelling nuance is contained within these optional pieces of information provided by the denizens of the game’s world. If you take the time to actually engage the natives in conversation, you can learn much about the world’s culture and status quo, discover small interesting details regarding the characters themselves, and even gain tantalizing hints that foreshadow major plot events and twists. It’s all presented in a natural word-of-mouth fashion not unlike real gossip, feeding the player breadcrumbs of info and rumors to string them along.
One aspect of NPC chatter I find most appealing is how their dialogue can change to reflect recent plot events. If you talk to one NPC and revisit them later on after progressing through the game, chances are they will have new lines of dialogue where they’ll comment on the current state of affairs. It’s a small detail, but I very much appreciate its inclusion. It’s very fun to see the people in the background react to social upheavals and world changing events in much the same way we would in reality, allowing the game’s world to feel more real and immersive as a result.
HIGHLY STRATEGIC COMBAT
The final and yet most important central trait of any RPG is none other than its combat system. Here's a fun fact I wish to share regarding myself as a gamer: the games I enjoy most are those where strategic thinking and planning are keys to success. I LOVE the challenge of figuring out my opposition and overcoming them by using only my wits alongside the tools provided by the game itself. I would argue that this same sentiment I have for this type of game design is what best defines RPG battles.
Regardless of whether it's turn-based or real-time combat, thoughtful and calculated player input is a necessity in this genre. You won't get far in these games by just attacking and healing when necessary, for each enemy offers unique obstacles to overcome on top of having to manage your own limited resources (those items and magic can only be used so often, after all). Making these encounters easier and smoother requires the player to analyze and learn their enemy: what are their skills, what are their weaknesses, how many health points (HP) do they have, are they a cakewalk or are they too troublesome to deal with, etc.
To help illustrate my point, let’s examine one memorable enemy encounter from Final Fantasy VIII. I'm referring to none other than the one and only… T-Rexaur!
The T-Rexaur is essentially a beginner’s trap. Despite the fact that you can encounter it randomly during the very beginning of the game, it’s a powerful enemy that hits like a freight train and can easily kill your baby-level party within seconds. Defeating such an enemy early on in the game seems impossible and you'd think the best thing to do upon running into it is to run like hell, right?
Well, what if I told you it has one glaring weakness in the form of blind status magic? Meaning that, if you simply blind it before it can hit you, ALL of its attacks will miss and thus you can wear it down with no problem whatsoever, even with a low-level party? This is exactly what I mean in regards to RPG combat strategy. You must know your enemy and make use of all the resources you have at your disposal. The majority of these fights, especially the bosses, will require critical thinking in order to progress. It’s stuff like this that makes a game very engaging, rewarding and absolutely satisfying.
While we’re on this topic, I want to take the opportunity to talk about my most favorite RPG combat system of all time that is a prime example of this genre’s defining strategic combat: the Press Turn system from the Shin Megami Tensei franchise.
Shin Megami Tensei games that utilize the Press Turn mechanic may appear to have basic RPG combat at first glance. During random encounters, both the player’s party and the enemy team alternate turns in attacking one another, with the total number of action points allowed for each side corresponding to the number of respective party members. For example, the player’s party of four gets four action points during their turn and the enemy group of five gets five action points during their turn. Easy to understand, right? Where things get tricky, however, is this interesting little detail: Press Turn both rewards and penalizes either party for certain actions taken in battle.
Let’s explore the benefits first. Press Turn will reward players with EXTRA action points for their turn whenever they either strike an enemy’s weak point or land a critical hit. Critical hits are a luck-based factor and thus not within the player’s direct control, occurring every now and then. Striking an enemy’s weak point, on the other hand, is simply attacking the opponent using magic they’re vulnerable to (i.e. fire magic, poison, sleep spells, etc.). Because this inherently serves as your primary way of earning extra action points within a single turn (not to mention dealing more damage), exploiting enemy weaknesses necessitates you learn the various enemies as you encounter them, trying out different types of magic against them and using Scan to reveal all their info after fighting them once.
These benefits may sound very exciting (as they should), but beware the penalties that come alongside them! Press Turn penalizes players by SUBTRACTING their action points whenever their attack misses or is repelled/absorbed by the enemy. Similar to critical hits, attack misses are based on luck and not directly within the player’s control, but their occurrence can be minimized by certain magic. However, the act of your opponent repelling or absorbing your attacks must be avoided at all costs, as it’ll either shorten or forfeit your turn and allow your enemy’s turn to begin much faster. Again, this means you must know your opponents inside and out or else you can die within seconds. And that’s even not the worse part: the SAME BENEFITS outlined above apply to not only you but your ENEMIES as well. That’s right, your opponents are also capable of exploiting your weaknesses and getting extra action points as well! It’s a two-way street for both sides!
Shin Megami Tensei is an RPG franchise that’s known for its notorious difficulty, and given the Press Turn combat system, it isn't difficult to see why. These games are, without a doubt, the shining example of games that challenge players to think. You will not survive off of simplistic thinking in this genre!
Epic journeys, engaging narratives and highly strategic combat: I perceive these as the fundamental traits of any and all RPGs. Together they weave an experience unmatched by other gaming genres and even non-gaming media. I believe these three traits are the reasons why so many people, including myself, continue to indulge in these games with joy and love for years and years and years until our dying breath. I give praise and applause to the many game developers who are blessed to create and give us these masterpieces of game design and storytelling.
As you can clearly see here, my life is forever impacted by these games. For my fellow gamers out there who either haven’t played an RPG before or have yet to find the one that gives the spark, I’m sure the same can happen for you. No matter what kind of gamer you are, there exists an RPG just for you.
Take two of my close friends for example. Friend A primarily plays action adventure type games like Uncharted, God of War, Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us. He typically doesn’t play RPGs in general (especially ones with turn-based combat), yet he loves Marvel Ultimate Alliance (an action RPG) due to his love of Marvel and superheroes. Friend B, on the other hand, primarily plays games like WWE, Def Jam: Fight For NY, Grand Theft Auto, NBA 2K and Fight Night Champion among other things. Imagine my utter surprise when I discovered he absolutely loves The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the LAST game I’d expect him to even try!
If the above examples should tell you anything, it's that any gamer who is unlikely to ever play RPGs can find their beloved role-playing game. All it takes is a willingness to broaden one's horizons. Trust me, once you find that one RPG you love, it'll feel like you struck gold. As if you discovered a hidden treasure, a treasure you'll be glad you found as it will remain forever in your heart until the end of time. Such is the essence of role-playing games, and is why I adore them...
My dear readers, thank you so much for your valuable time in reading this post, especially if you read every word from start to finish!
I know it's been four months since my last post, but despite my lengthy silence, I'm still writing the good word! I've been excited to publish this post, and I have many more opinions I want to share with you all! Beginning with this post, I will start publishing more video game and anime related content, so stay tuned for that!
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In the meantime, I wish you peace, blessings and a wonderful day! Stay tuned for the next post on THE DAILY BRIAN!