Postcards From The Clipping Plane
Conveniently ignoring the serious side of videogame development
James Leach ponders the elements that make his beloved RPGs tick
After a lot of diverse and hugely enjoyable game-making, I’ve just been given the chance to work on a new roleplaying game. And I have to say it’s like going home. I’ve spent more time working on this genre than any other, and I love them. And in their sword-clattering, chest-opening, chicken-eating, shop-keeper-chatting ways, they’ve been good to me.
Making an RPG is a complex endeavour, though. I was briefly minded to compare it with playing one, but as an idea, that’s going to flounder before we even reach the mountains we’re inevitably going to cross. So let’s not. Instead, we should have a look at why I think they’re still king of the gaming pile, and what can still go wrong with them.
Firstly, a good RPG is the ultimate vehicle for storytelling – nothing captures the imagination like a world, familiar enough to understand quickly, but rich and deep enough for players to lose themselves in. The classic setting you’re thinking of is, of course, some medieval-type Lord Of The Rings world, but consider Fallout 4 or even GTA V in story mode. You can’t argue those aren’t rich, deep worlds, and they’re definitely RPGs. The characters, complete with stats, grow and change as they make progress, there’s a lot of freedom to pursue the elements you enjoy, and there are quests, including an overall aim. And when you’re in those worlds, you’re truly in them. There is, of course, a lot of combat, and weaponry with which to carry it out. But RPGs don’t need citadels and princesses. In fact, I’m of the opinion that those worlds are done to death. And don’t even mention collecting crystals, runes or chapters of some world-changing book.
To make the story, any story, work, the characters need to be exceptional. If we’re the strong, silent protagonist, everyone else has to be more than an information-delivery system in humanoid form. It’s tricky, though. We’ve got to keep our cutscenes and interactions short; they are, after all, interruptions in the action for the majority of players, no matter how necessary. Humour works, though, and I hope always will. Great voice acting also helps, but there’s no substitute for tight writing.
For a long time we’ve been wise to the pitfalls of the damsel in distress, but let’s also steer away from the strong, no-nonsense female characters who replaced them. And let’s really tiptoe away from the will-they, won’t-they love stories, no matter how tempting it is if the artists have over-clicked the gorgeous and pneumatic tools when designing them. If players are going to fall in love with an NPC of any gender, it’s not going to be because we want them to.
Staying with characters, let’s swell the ‘no’ pile with children. If they’re not ciphers representing innocence, they’re supremely powerful supernatural objects with wayward capriciousness. And because hitting them with axes isn’t allowed, let’s not have them at all. Also it’s a no to animals you can bond with, because Fable II pretty much covered that.
This is all a bit negative, so what can we have? Shops are fine. They always seem to sit outside the game or story and that’s OK. If there are credits, shillings or gold pieces to collect, make it easy and simple and we can get straight back to the questing. Shopkeepers shouldn’t be holders of story-based info, though, especially if there’s more than one, or our noble journey is at risk of turning into a tedious Saturday morning high-street schlep. Unfeasibly massive inventories are fine, too. If I can carry ten weapons, I can carry a hundred. And it mustn’t slow me down, thank you.
So, travel. To be epic, the world usually has to be physically large. As in real life, there’s something satisfying about travelling to mountains, across deserts or entering new towns, but if it takes ages to get around, my meandering fun is prised from my cold, dead feet and I’m just going to go where I’m told. It’s a tricky one, this, so as a writer I’m happy to bail and let smarter developers than me sort it. Just don’t ask me to walk everywhere.
Finally, what’s it all for? Sure, we can be out to save a kingdom, rid the world of evil or defeat the hordes of undead eyeing our lovely green homeland. A big game deserves a big story with big consequences for success or failure. It doesn’t have to be like that, though. On our journey we are, without doubt, going to be double-crossed, to see a character die unexpectedly and to have something we’ve come to rely on taken from us. I’m happy if the tale is clear and experiencing it is fun.
Oh, and let’s have dragons. There isn’t an RPG, no matter where it’s set, that wouldn’t benefit from having a dragon. That can talk.
Also it’s a no to animals you can bond with, because Fable II pretty much covered that