Post­cards From The Clip­ping Plane

Con­ve­niently ig­nor­ing the se­ri­ous side of videogame de­vel­op­ment

EDGE - - CONTENTS - JAMES LEACH James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer whose work fea­tures in games and on tele­vi­sion and ra­dio

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

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