Posted on January 6, 2008
The Role Of A "Story": My Time In The Wilderness Of Japanese-style RPGs
A few years back I was aching for new RPG to play, but I wanted something would remind me of the classics I played in the 80s. I had just finished Star Wars:Knights Of The Old Republic, and while that was a very good game, it’s linear nature (past the first planet) was too limiting for me. I craved an RPG like the ones I played on my Atari 800 and Atari ST years ago. At the time though (2005), nearly all other new PC RPGs were online and in real-time. I wanted turn-based battles, multiple characters in my party, leveling-up and huge dungeons to explore and I was not interested in paying a monthly fee. I had tried Neverwinter Nights on the PC, but if any game could be “too hardcore” for me, that was it. On the other hand, Dungeon Siege seemed appealing, but the real-time strategy-style fighting and ridiculously large and unmanageable party size turned me off very quickly. I played and loved the cotton-candy action RPG Baldur’s Gate:Dark Alliance on the PS2, but the subsequent sequel and Everquest branded copies were simply not fulfilling.
I had never tried many Japanese-style RPGs, just a couple games on Sega Master System and Final Fantasy VII on the PSX, but I had heard horror stories about them. I was told that they were far too linear, focused on long “story” interludes, killed-off main characters without input from the player, and focused too much on “grind” (the action of doing things repeatedly simply to advance your character to the level required to continue in the game). My time with Final Fantasy VII back in the 90’s had proven this to fault. Even though it was a gorgeous game to look at, I spent about 30 hours watching a semi-interactive back-story with only the slightest of RPG elements. When I finally got control of the game, it was a simple grind outdoors until another long story sequence. Since I abandoned the game near the end of disc #1, I never found out if it became a more immersive RPG or not. All I knew was that, compared to my favorite classic RPGs (Ultima IV, Dungeon Master, Phantasie, and Fallout), it simply did not appeal to my RPG sensibilities what-so-ever. Still, I was desperate to play a new game, and when I found the Nintendo GBA version of Final Fantasy I & II for $9.99 at Toys R US, and decided the price was right to try it out. I’m always interested to play the first game in legendary a series (the same way I love hear the first album from a rock band) because it usually contains the “essential essence” of game play that is carried through an entire series. I figured that Final Fantasy might have started out as a true RPG, and just got lost along the way.
At first, I appeared to be correct. The essential essence” in Final Fantasy seemed like a dream come true. The “throw-backto the games of my youth” game play of FFI was so familiar, yet so refreshing to me I played it continuously. It benefited greatly from being on the GBA. Since I didn’t have hours to sit and play a game at home, I was able to smuggle the GBA into work, in the bathroom, in waiting rooms, at my parents house, and any other place I could snatch a few minutes of playing time. By the time I finished it ,the experience was so rewarding that I ranked the game as one of the best I had ever played. What drew me even further into the game was just how much this “revolutionary” game “invented” by Japanese game developers, had barrowed so liberally from American-style games created years earlier. If this was the rule, and not the exception, I felt I could be on the verge of a Japanese-style RPG treasure trove that I never really considered prior. I figured that there must be dozens of games that I had missed over the years, and if any of them were like FFI I would be playing them for a long time to come.
After final finishing Final Fantasy I, in mid 2006, I moved logically to Final Fantasy II, since it was included on the GBA cart. After the euphoria of FFI, FFII was quite a let-down. The game was much more story-based than its predecessor, and included the most bizarre leveling system ever to grace an RPG: you have to get “hurt” to get experience. That’s right, experience points were only gained by losing hit points. FF2 was an odd and frustrating game, but I looked past it because FFI was so good. I read someplace that the developers realized their mistakes and tried to improve them with Final Fantasy III. However, with the original FFIII unreleased in the USA, I skipped to Final Fantasy IV for the GBA (Which I believe was named Final Fantasy II on the SNES). While FFIV started well, it quickly fell into a heavy story mode that killed-off and/or swapped out the characters in your party with alarming frequency, just like FFII. Red flags instantly went up. This seemed to be the type of Japanese-style RPG I had been warned about. In fact, it reminded me too much of Final Fantasy VII. I quit the game 1/2 way through because I was frustrated at watching a game instead of playing it, and at losing characters that I had invested so much time in building-up.
It’s not that I did not want a “story” in my RPGs. My favorite games of the past all had a “story” to some extent. Ultima IV had a very solid story about virtues and the Avatar, but it didn’t really force you to play the game in a linear way. Phantasie, while definitely a “grind” style early RPG, had the “Black Nights” that over-shadowed the entire game, and their story culminated at the finish of the adventure. Fallout had a deep story that was unraveled as you played the game, but it more “show me, don’t tell me”. On the other end of the spectrum was Dungeon Master that really had no story besides “get to the bottom of the dungeon and destroy Lord Chaos”, but was so compelling to play that it simply did not matter. I wanted to find a game like that, and I was still willing to try the wealth of Japanese-style RPGs that I had missed over the years. I sampled Dragon Quest and the Tales Of series, and while they were both interesting, they just did not hold my fascination for very long.
However, I was not done with the Final Fantasy series. When Final Fantasy III was released for the Nintendo DS in November 2006, the first time it was ever released in the USA, I jumped on it quickly and was very satisfied. The RPG elements, maps, leveling, classes etc. rivaled FFI, and in some cases were much improved. Besides having an almost too-difficult ending that required hours upon hours of “grind” over familiar territory to build-up a party capable of finishing the game, it was still very satisfying. I was surprised at how much I liked it, especially after the disastrously bad Final Fantasy II and story-heavy Final Fnatasy IV. I talked to my friends over at gamerdad.com, and found out that there was a “theme” running through the Final Fantasy series, and it had to do with the way the games were numbered. All the “odd” numbered games (up to but not including Final Fantasy VII) were more traditional RPG games (i.e., the ones I liked). All the even numbered ones were story based, and were to be avoided (by people like myself). This meant that with the upcoming GBA released of Final Fantasy V, and Final Fantasy VI, there was a good chance one of the games would be to my liking.
Encouraged by Final Fantasy III and the news about the odd numbers in the series, I bought Final Fantasy V in mid 2007. Along with a solid (but linear) story, and Final Fantasy V boasted what some people call “the greatest class system ever”. At first, I loved it too. A handful of classes are available to your characters at the beginning of the game, and more open-up as you progress. Any character can change to any class at any time. What’s better, you could retain one skill from any other class when you switch. For instance, if you have a Thief and you get the “Find Passages” skill you can keep that skill, even if you change to a Geomancer. As a Fighter, you can keep the “White” magic skill you may have received as a White Mage. As you can imagine, with 30+ classes the combinations are almost limitless. As well, Final Fantasy V allowed you to keep your party for the whole game, so you did not have to worry about losing a character that you had built up for hours just because some arbitrary plot point was forced upon you. It all seemed too good to be true.
It was. With all these combinations you would think that the game would also allow for multiple solutions to in-game quests. However, you would be wrong. The severely linear story-line of FFV leads to a particular bottle-neck that requires some very specific classes and skills that, because the game up until that point allows so much freedom for the player, might take hours upon hours of grind to obtain. Only by reading the Prima hint Book did I realize that I needed to retrain my characters for many hours before I could pass this area. Without the hint guide, I would have played forever and probably never figured this out. This infuriated me. How could a game that got so many positive reviews, and was heaped with so much praise, have such fatal flaw that made it nearly unplayable? At that point, my enthusiasm for Final Fantasy games crumbled. With only 15% success rate (if you included reportedly story-heavy Final Fantasy VI and my stint with Final Fantasy VII), it seemed games that appealed to me in the series were an exception, not the rule.
This made me recall why I started this whole process with Final Fantasy games in the first place. I wanted a good classic RPG, and I stumbled upon Final Fantasy I, and it hooked me. At about the same time, I was submitting our game “Space Eggs” to Flash game sites. I searched for “Space Eggs” on Google and I discovered that there was already a game named “Space Eggs” from Sirius software, released in 1980. I looked up the game on The Giant List Of Classic Game Programmers, and noticed it was developed by one Nasir Gebelli. As I scanned down Gebelli’s list of credits, an alarm went off in my retro helmet.
If the name Gebelli doesn’t ring any bells, then how about the name “Gebelli Software”? Gebelli software was one of the very early computer game companies, and Nasir was one of their chief programmers. Starting in about 1980, they made most of their games for the Apple IIe. Nasir Gebelli also did a lot of work for Sirius Software, In 1986, when the Apple IIe was in its death throes, Nasir still wanted to program games, but the computer games industry was imploding in 1986, and the only real money-maker was the NES. Gebelli went to Japan and interviewed with several companies including Nintendo and Square. The people of Square knew of this older games, and were excited to have him. Nasir went on to program Final Fantasy I plus Final Fantasy II , and possibly Final Fantasy III, before he quit and left the games industry for good. Oh by the way, Nasir Gebelli was an American. I was shocked. I had no idea that the world shattering Final Fantasy series, the same series I was then having mixed-feelings about, was not necessarily created only by the Japanese. Of course Gebelli did not make the games on his own, but the influence of American role-playing games on Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy III is undeniable. The game play is a cross between the free-roaming maps of the Ultima series, and the ranked, turn-based battle of the Phantasie series from SSI. Consequently, these are the same things that made me enjoy the game immensely when I first played it as part of the GBA “Final Fantasy I & II: The Dawn Of Souls” package back in 2005.
When I saw that his credits included Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy II, all of it a suddenly made sense. I never really liked the Final Fantasy series itself, just the American style RPG influence on the first few games. It seems Nasir Gebelli’s contributions to the Final Fantasy series might have been same things that I found so enjoyable in the first place. It was possible that, without his input, the later games became more like the Japanese-style RPG games that I feared: melodramatic story-driven adventures that replaced “role-playing” with “watching” and grind”. I decided then and there to take a break playing Final Fantasy games. It was tough to let them go, because for nearly 2 years they represented what could have been a treasure-trove of RPG enjoyment that I had never played. What I had thought would be a gaming panacea, turned out to be a bit of fraud to my gaming sensibilities. I traded away most of my Final Fantasy games through Goozex (keeping FFI), and felt a weight lifted. I no longer had to pretend to like these games just because just because the first and third in the series had given me so much joy.
Left in a void, I needed a new place to turn. Since I was a newly minted owner of Nintendo Wii, I decided to try a few Japanese-style games that were only lightly considered RPGs. Since I had never owned an Nintendo console prior, the Virtual Console along with Game Cube backwards compatibility opened up a slew of gaming options that I had never experienced. The first series I tried Paper Mario. At first I really liked the game, and was very pleased at how much different it was than the Final Fantasy series. In fact, I was so drawn into it that I wrote this blog entry early last year:
Dear John (err, I mean Final Fantasy) 4/8/2007
Dear Final Fantasy ,
Final Fantasy , do you believe in love? I hope you do, because I think then you can understand just what I have found. I have found true love and its’ name is Paper Mario. It is the perfect game. We’ve had some good times Final Fantasy, but do to recall those little things that always bothered me about you: your over-serious stories, tired fantasy setting, and all that spikey hair? I overlooked them because I just wanted us to work out, you know? However, I can’t overlook them any longer. I have found the perfect game for me. What’s more, you know how you only ever really tolerated my kids, Final Fantasy.? How they liked you, but you did not always like them back? Paper Mario is not like you at all. It embraces my kids, and it loves them as much as they love it. Soon I will embrace my new true love, just like I did with you. . I will try to discover its’ history, its’ present, its’ future, and just what it is thinking right now. Please, no hard feeling Final Fantasy, I wish you the best. Remember Final Fantasy , I do still care about you, and I hope we can still be friends. Please remember Final Fantasy , it’s not you, it’s me.
However, the charm of the game soon wore off. While immensely fun, and great to play with my kids, Paper Mario simply did not fill the classic RPG shaped hole I was trying to fill. The same could be be said for the Zelda games, which were a little closer to what wanted, but still did not feel quite right.
I started to wonder if something was wrong with me. Millions upon millions of people love Japanese-style RPGs with their heavy story elements. It’s not like I was immune their power either. I could see how players could get sucked into the games. If you let yourself get into them, the stories could be quite compelling. However, they seemed more like old Sierra style adventure games with RPG stats dropped-in than actual role-playing games. This got me thinking about the idea of “Story” itself in RPGs. From my time playing actual pen and paper RPG like D&D and Palladium with friends when I was in Elementary school and Junior High, I recall that the games had very distinct stories. However, the game master along with the players moved the story along, not the other way around. The stories were triggered by our actions while playing, but were hardly ever forced (unless, of course, the Game Master’s mom was coming home soon and we had to get out of the house). When I thought a bit more about it, I realized the the best “stories” we ever played in the RPGs were made-up by ourselves. The story of our actions, our adventures, the monsters we fought, the treasure we plundered, and the interactions we had with each other in the game was the most compelling part of playing. Long exposition and grind were hardly part of the process. In short, we made the story by playing the game, the game did not make the story for us.
In December of last year it occurred to me that I should maybe, possibly, try a modern, American style PC RPG just to see if they would appeal to me after my flirtation with Japanese-style games. I looked at the online games again, and I almost bought Guild Wars (because it had no monthly fee) but I was still not ready to take that step. Instead I installed a copy of Dungeon Lords that I found at Best Buy for $9.99. While the game had possibly the best leveling system of any RPG I’ve ever experienced, the bugs and technical problems made it nearly impossible to play. I also purchased Dungeon Siege 2, but it seemed too “forced” for my liking. After that, I looked up both Neverwinter Nights 2 and Elder Scrolls Oblivion on metacritic.com, and I was pleased to see that they both had great reviews. Fearing that Neverwinter Nights 2 would leave me as cold as the first outing, I considered Elder Scrolls Oblivion my only choice. The problem was, I did not have good relationship with that series either. I had purchased and subsequently fumed over Elder Scrolls Daggerfall almost 10 years prior. That purchase still strikes me as one of the worst I ever made. Daggerfall was supposed to be a huge, open, revolutionary RPG in-which you could do “anything”. However, playing it was an immense chore. There just seemed to be very little to do, and very little direction. It was more like job than a game, and I quit after only playing for a few hours. This seemed to be the downside of an RPG without a forced story: the player had to patient enough to forge their own adventure with little help from the game designers. However, I had been reading praise for Oblivion for almost 2 years, and I decided to take the chance on it. I really had no other choice, I had exhausted nearly ever other single player RPG in existence.
As I installed Elder Scrolls Oblivion I realized the game had a few features that might make me turn away from it rather quickly. It was single player game (no party) and the fighting was in real-time. Dungeon Master was also real-time game, so I felt I could get past this part, but the single-player aspect worried me. I love the idea of a group of adventurers out in the wilderness fighting as a team, finding treasure and destroying evil. Going at it alone seemed, well, lonely. However, within the first few minutes that notion was dispelled. You might only play single character, but that does not there are not other characters to play with and help you along the way, you just don’t control them. As well, the character creation process allowed me to create nearly any type of alter-ego I wanted. By the end of first area, I had a very good idea of what the game was about, and I had forged a character that I was very pleased with( a Battlemage with thieving skills,). I left knowing exactly what I had to do, but with no forced story to make me do it. I entered the first city and I was amazed by the architecture of the buildings and the varied look and feel of the NPCs. I entered a couple buildings and started picking up objects and putting them in my inventory. Everything was free! I got more daring and entered pub where I tried to take some things behind the bar. Instantly the guards were called and I as arrested. I realized that a life of crime was not for me, so I changed my ways instantly. I found an Inn and slept for 8 hours, then woke-up and searched for a store. The one I found had a few weapons for sale, so I chose a small sword and then began investigating my surroundings. I searched around and talked to many people, and eventually found the Arena. I bet a on a couple matches, and then found the Bloodworks where, before I knew it, I was fighting in the arena on my own. I fought several matches, winning all of them until I faced a couple twin female elves that kicked my ass. I reloaded my game and decided to try to advance my character a bit and return to the arena. I left the city and started walking up a hill. I walked across the the landscape and found an old, crumbling castle. I entered the catacombs beneath it and was soon battling skeletons and trying to unlock chests of treasure with lock picks. I forged as far as possible into the catacombs, before I realized I was getting in too deep and returned to the surface. I went back to town and sold some items I had found, and by talking to the shopkeeper, I was told that he needed help with another shopkeeper in town who was possibly selling stolen goods. Soon, I was using my “sneak” skill to follow NPCs around at night trying to find evidence. It felt like an adventure inside an RPG. I played the game for several days like this, getting more involved in the world and the characters.
At about this time, I noticed a red arrow on the in-game compass. I checked the instructions to see what it meant. The instructions told me that this arrow pointed towards my current quest. I checked my quests and saw that my “current quest” was the quest given to me at the beginning of the game…the quest that represented the main story of the game. However, I had not completed any of it. I had played the game, forging my own way for days. and had never even touched the main quest of the game. In short, I had created my own story. A reformed thief and up-and-coming Arena warrior adventured across the land, fought skeletons in the depths of catacombs, and became a private investigator on his way to glory. That may just be the beginning of the story, but I think I may have finally found the perfect game for me: an engrossing adventure that feels like a classic computer RPG, but lets me decided my own path. After nearly 30 years of playing RPG games, Elder Scrolls Oblivion might just be the last game I ever need to play. And thus, my interest in the world of Final Fantasy was finally broken. I can firmly say that I gave the world of Japanese-style, story-heavy RPGs a chance, but in the end they were just not right for me. It was tough to wave goodbye to Chocobos, Geomancers, Monks, and guys named Cid with dirigibles, but in the end, I knew it was for the best.