the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Conclusion

Conclusion

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read. You may also wish to read the previous article.

Now to draw it all together.  What is it that makes a great RPG?  If you say story, then I suggest erasing your save file (sorry; I couldn’t resist) and starting this series over from the beginning.  I will now attempt to draw all of this together to get an idea of what makes not only a good RPG, but also a masterpiece.  Most of this piece will be the assessment of successful (and unsuccessful) games and measuring their individual elements to determine what really matters and how much a very good thing can overpower bad ones and vice versa.  Let us begin with the basics.

In Japan in 1986, Dragon Warrior, known there as Dragon Quest, set the standard for JRPGs.  It created a solid base upon which the entire genre was built.  You have two button commands: confirm and cancel.  When nothing is going on, confirm brings up a menu of commands, such as talk, use items, open doors, etc.  You use this to interact with objects during every single part of the game except during battle.  You traverse the terrain by moving a little sprite around a map with an overhead perspective.  Battle, unlike in most other genres, is waged by selecting commands from a menu, such as attack, magic, items, guard, and escape.  Winning a battle gets you money – for purchasing supplies and restoring your health at inns – and experience, which goes toward your next level.  Increasing your level causes you to become stronger and sometimes learn new spells.  It’s so simple, which is what makes it such a popular formula, especially during the Third Generation.  Games that use this formula are aptly called Dragon Warrior clones.

The Dragon Warrior clone was incredibly ubiquitous back in the day because it took a lot of experimentation out of the development process, creating a situation reflecting the main criticism of today’s First-Person Shooter market: games are accused of being the same thing over and over again because the developers are taking the safe road.  Of course, First-Person Shooters are incredibly popular, so while they are often criticized, their commercial success is hard to deny.  It’s really not so bad, either; several Dragon Warrior clones were created to deliver a licensed product, such as the pleasant diversion, Doraemon: Giga Zombie no Gyakushuu.  I was suckered into playing it because I like Doraemon, but didn’t experience any of the regret that comes from playing a bad licensed game, because the game itself was good; I was even impressed by the beautiful underwater landscapes in the second area.  If you add little or nothing to the formula, it’s really hard to screw up a Dragon Warrior clone, since you don’t need to have any sort of timing or physics engine programmed into the game, leaving less variables for failure.  Graphics and sound aside, a high school student could likely create his or her own Dragon Warrior clone after taking a half-year programming course.  I haven’t written a single line of C++ in close to a decade and I probably could, too.  It’s the antithesis of innovative, and it might be a little lazy, but it’s a fairly consistent way to make a good product, and that’s much better than an unplayable cash cow.

Relying on such an easy formula, you can focus more upon graphics, sound, and scenario, since the rest has already been done for you.  You can use it to deliver a message or a lesson, making it more fun to learn something, as was the case with Musashi no Bouken.  You can also play around with themes and time periods; Mother eschewed swords and sorcery for a modern (at the time) setting, and did so with enough success to spawn two sequels.  I suppose that one could technically call the first four Phantasy Star games Dragon Warrior clones, even though the first Phantasy Star came out only a little over a year after Dragon Warrior, since they followed the formula fairly closely, though not as much as other games that bear such a label; Dragon Warrior didn’t have dungeons crafted in the first-person, nor did it have interplanetary travel.  This trend even continued into the Fourth Generation a bit, not only with the second, third, and fourth Phantasy Star titles, but also with games like 7th Saga, which spiced things up a bit with improved graphics and backgrounds, a unique musical score, and an interesting, if a bit disjointed and convoluted, story.  That’s the thing about evolution within the genre: it can either expand upon the formula, or do something magnificent with its current incarnation.

There were plenty that expanded upon the formula.  Some just bent it, like Sweet Home, which took the formula, and wrapped it around a horror theme.  Not content to just be “Spooky Warrior”, it added quite a few impressive cutscenes to increase tension, and made the sense of death very tangible.  The only way to heal yourself consistently is to use a potion, and there is a limited number of them throughout the game.  Your party members can be killed both in battle and in traps found around the house, so death also comes from all angles, and unlike in most RPGs, death is permanent in Sweet Home, and affects the ending you get to see.  Taking into account the game’s structure – eschewing the typical town/overworld/dungeon structure to confine you to the house in which you are trapped – it becomes a pretty terrifying experience.  So while the formula wasn’t changed or expanded, so much as tweaked, the result is an excellent game, and all it did was start with the same solid base, focus on making the graphics, sound, and story all work together – even weaving gameplay into the theme – to make a solid, cohesive project.

An improvement upon the formula makes a superior product.

An improvement upon the formula makes a superior product.

The Breath of Fire series also began with what was little more than a tweaked Dragon Warrior clone.  They made the first game sizzle with tall sprites, an isometric perspective in battle, and dragon transformations, which really translated to little more than a snappy way to boost your attack power.  Like the Dragon Warrior series – or at least the vast majority of it – elementals are absolutely meaningless in this particular game because every spell does a fixed amount of damage, including the dragon attacks.  Most of the characters had out of battle actions that they could perform, making world exploration more interesting than just traveling to the next town or dungeon, which was made even more awesome by the impressive overworld music.  You also had a character that could meld with other members of your party to make super forms.  Feedback in battle was well done, as every enemy – including bosses – had a life bar, though the bosses would get back up and fight after their bars were drained.  The characters are from a wide variety of different races, many of which are anthropomorphic animals, and they treat these racial differences as being very minor; a solid, yet subtle statement against racism.  In fact, you will have no two members in your party that are of the same race, unless you count the three soldiers, who are temporary members that you’ll have near the beginning.  These, however, are fairly minor tweaks, and the first entry in this series is, at its core, a Dragon Warrior clone.

A bit of shine brings average up to good.

A bit of shine brings average up to good.

Paladin’s Quest is another slight twist on the classic formula, this time being even more slight.  Aside from the fact that the character roster is one of the biggest you’ll ever see this side of Suikoden, due the fact that the vast majority of it is comprised of mercenaries, and the fact that you can smack people with your breastplate, there isn’t that much that it does differently.  Spells still go by the old single/group/all targeting system that has been around since Dragon Warrior 2, battles are in first person perspective, and you’re still grinding around each town to get the best equipment to move on.  There is only one thing that makes this game noteworthy, and it single-handedly brings it up from good to great: its world.  The world itself isn’t just the “Earth with a different name” motif; it actually looks unlike you’ve ever seen in any other video game you’ve ever played, unless you played the sequel, and that’s just cheating.  Not just in nature – with its blue, round trees, strange ground patterns, and mountains that look like they’re from an alternate dimension made entirely of origami – but in the architecture of the buildings throughout the game, you’ll find such alien visual splendor; particularly the temple in Jurayn.  Even the different races throughout the world look radically different, and this just goes to further the lore and depth of the world that has been created; none of these things feel like an afterthought!  This game has a subtle anti-racist message, too; the most powerful warrior in the entire game is Mouth.  Mouth is a Lubott, which is the game’s name for a hybrid of any of the two races.  So again, a fairly standard game is made incredible, this time solely by creating such a rich and unique world.  People talk about how incredible the world is in World of Warcraft because its lore is so deep, but from what I’ve seen, the world itself is anything but unique.  Meticulously detailed?  Yes, but it’s still the same generic fantasy world you’ve seen in nearly every other Western RPG out there.  Paladin’s Quest had the courage to try something that’s actually different, and while it’s not on the top of every RPG enthusiast’s list, it made quite an impression on me.

A unique experience means quite a lot.

A unique experience means quite a lot.

There have been other RPGs that added one small feature to the tried and true, and became great games because of it.  Phantasy Star 3: Generations of Doom has an interesting idea with its storytelling device.  There are three different generations, and your characters in each will be different depending upon whom you marry.  It’s a neat idea, but the story isn’t terribly deep, for the most part, and feels a bit disjointed at times, though it was very intriguing toward the end.  What makes it a great game is the character design; the characters are unique and very detailed.  I’d even go so far as to say that they are among the best-designed characters in the genre, and I wish that other games would put as much time and effort into their character designs, rather than always falling back on lazy, pre-established conventions.  This one small detail was enough to make an otherwise average game quite good.

Most regard it as a black sheep, but that's part of its charm.

Most regard it as a black sheep, but that’s part of its charm.

Dragon Quest 8 was actually able to overcome real flaws – particularly glaring ones, mind you – with its positive aspects.  I’ve gone on and on about how much I hate the endgame, characters, story, music, and voice acting, but in the end, I did like the game.  Though I was cynical about the reviews that drooled over the lush, verdant hills, I was absolutely floored when I actually saw them for myself.  Of course, visuals alone aren’t enough to make a game good – especially one with many flaws – so it was really the gameplay that saved it.  Now, part of what made this more than just a – and I hesitate to use this term for reasons that should be obvious – lackluster Dragon Warrior clone with bad voice acting and a soporific soundtrack was the exploration element, which lends much of its success to the visuals.  If a world isn’t visually interesting, you’ve already lost much of the allure of exploring it.  Even still, a bad battle system would easily have buried this one; it wasn’t revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination – it wasn’t much more advanced than even Dragon Warrior 2, which came out almost eighteen years prior – but it wasn’t bad.  A mediocre element or two can easily be overlooked if there’s something great to back it up, and because of the world and the manner in which you make your way through it, the game becomes a grand adventure, which a hard concept to quantify or even explain, but it is nonetheless a much desired attribute of an RPG.

Gameplay still carries it.

Gameplay still carries it.

Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium, after finally recovering its battle system from the gigantic mess of the second installment and the slightly cleaned up mess of the third, got the series back to its roots in nearly every way.  There was now a bit more focus on interplanetary travel, which was one of the greatest things about the series to begin with.  Having a large roster of playable characters – a high point of Phantasy Star 2 – made the game a lot more memorable, especially since they were given a great deal more characterization than anywhere else in the series.  What really blew me away, though was the way that the game presented itself.  It made an effort to be exciting at every turn, and continually outdid itself without being obnoxious about it.  You have to play the rest of the series to truly appreciate it, but for long-time fans, it is an excellent swan song – the MMORPGs don’t count.  It’s the Rondo of Blood of the Phantasy Star series; it wasn’t the last by far, but the games after it were quite different, and its particular style went out with one hell of a bang.

A glorious spectacle for the senses!

A glorious spectacle for the senses!

Some just went for the all-out method; make the game so memorable on every level that it’s bound to be a hit.  Chrono Trigger did just that; a superstar development team of Hironobu Sakaguchi, Nobuo Uematsu, and Akira Toriyama got together and made the time traveling adventure of a lifetime.  As sick as I am of hearing about how great it is, and while I don’t regard it as quite a masterpiece, there is no denying that I played it to death and back again when it first came out.  There was excitement, sadness, and abject terror to be had throughout this marvelous adventure, and everything was very well done.  The battle system, though flawed, was quite interesting, especially the unusual target ranges for some of the techniques.  The soundtrack was strong, and the visuals had that distinct Akira Toriyama look to them, which was unlike anything I’d seen here in the West.  The story itself wasn’t particularly deep, but it was very gripping; it’s a little embarrassing, but I admit that there was a time when I was convinced that Lavos really would burst out of the ground in the year, 1999.  Twelve years of age is a bit old to be believing something like that, but it was just so enthralling; never before had I saved a world that had already been destroyed by going back in time and undoing it.  Oh, and Lavos itself was very intimidating; imagine playing this game for the first time back when it first came out and knowing that your enemy was big enough to be visible on the world map – it’s even bigger than many of the domed cities!  It might not be a terribly profound or innovative game, but it was one incredible ride, which is why New Game + was a privilege, rather than a chore.

The all-encompasing approach.

The all-encompasing approach.

There were a select few RPGs that were hybrids with the old First-Person Adventure genre – games like Shadowgate, Deja Vu, and The Uninvited.  They’d play just like the aforementioned classics, but you’d occasionally encounter a random battle upon entering a screen.  Of course, you’d gain experience and earn gold in order to purchase better equipment, so it was also an RPG.  There were a few Japan-only examples on the NES, such as Maharajah and the Kujyaku Ou (Peacock King) series, but most North American gamers will be familiar only with the likes of the Sword of Hope games on the Game Boy, if any.  The first Sword of Hope was an absolute grindfest, and while an improvement, the sequel wasn’t entirely free of an absolutely insane end-of-game grind.  The Kujyaku Ou games weren’t all that good, either; like the Phantasy Star 2 text adventures, the combat relied an awful lot upon chance, so unwinnable scenarios were common, even if the player didn’t screw up.  Of these, only Maharajah was truly solid throughout, but they are all quite memorable, even if only because of their unique style of gameplay.  Personally, I enjoyed most of them because they’re a blend of two genres that I absolutely love, but from a more objective standpoint, they’re more memorable than good.  As anyone who has had a bad Pop song stuck in his or her head for several days straight can tell you, memorable doesn’t always equate to great.

Tweaking an existing formula doesn’t always make a great game, either, as Phantasy Star 2 has shown us.  Yes, I finished it, and I might even play it again some day, but it was a pretty grueling experience.  So where did it go wrong?  It tried to evolve too quickly.  The first Phantasy Star followed the Dragon Warrior formula fairly closely, adding little more than the first-person dungeons and interplanetary travel to the mix.  While slight, they were important evolutionary steps.  Phantasy Star 2 builds from this, adding a bit of depth and change to everything.  While the first game had a good over-arching story, not much happens between the beginning and the end, aside from what you, the player, are doing.  Phantasy Star 2, on the other hand, has a more constant story, with events driving you forward, rather than quests.  The graphics are obviously more detailed, because it’s on a more advanced system.  For the same reason, the sound is more advanced than the bleeps and bloops of the Sega Master System, and opts for a soothing MIDI synth-like sound, rather than the Genesis’s usual gritty sound.  It removes any sense of gravity from the soundtrack – the boss battles sound like a documentary from the 1970s – but it’s pleasant to hear.  The game still pays little attention to elementals, but you have two main enemy demographics now: biological enemies and machines.  You have techniques that work better on machines, and ones that work better on living things, so there’s a primitive elemental system of sorts.  The battle system is streamlined, making a sort of auto-battle the default option, and not having scrolling text describing all of the action.  It is a lot of these innovations that become the game’s downfall, however.

The streamlined battle system works extremely well for the many easy encounters you’re going to have, but if you want to change what any of your characters are going to do, it’s a tedious process to change their actions, even if you’re doing it for just one of them.  Since you’re not likely to be healing the same person every single round, this makes the recovery process almost painful.  The graphics look decent, but they’re not as visually appealing as they might be; the simple, single-colored brick dungeons of the first game are a lot prettier; they have all of these new colors, and they don’t know what to do with them.  Before you use the “Genesis is incapable of making colorful games because of its limited palette” argument, I suggest that you play Ristar and see if you can still make such a claim; the Genesis is more than capable of producing works of great beauty.  The other problem with the dungeons is that most of them have some sort of visually obstructive foreground objects, whether they be pipes in the ceiling or some sort of mist.  This worked well in a number of SNES games, but here, the system does not have the ability to create transparencies, so they get in the way, and often just feel tacked on.  The story, as previously mentioned, doesn’t conclude properly, and its inclusion of the series’s main villain, Dark Force, is also tacked on without any thought.  The music is pleasant enough, but nothing really remains memorable or stands out.

Gameplay is still important in an RPG, especially because they're very long.

Gameplay is still important in an RPG, especially because they’re very long.

It’s a classic example of too many spices ruining the stew.  If I may be domestic for a moment, I’d like to make a parallel.  When I make hot dogs, I usually make some sort of potato side to go with them; they go well together.  My favorite addition to this main course is a fried potato dish I make.  It’s simple; I dice up some potatoes (I buy the frozen diced potatoes in a bag when I’m strapped for time) and toss them in a frying pan with some vegetable oil.  Think of the potatoes as the battle system, and the oil being the story; the potatoes are the base, and while you can use different types of oil for a slightly different experience, it is essential.  Add not enough oil, and you have a dried-out experience, but add too much and the intestinal aftermath is going to be unpleasant, and you’ll need a lot of napkins.  The time spent frying them is like the pacing; too much and the player burns out, but not enough will leave the player uncooked, feeling like he or she was rushed through the experience and never really got to warm up to the experience.  When all’s said and done, the dish is good, but not excellent.  Sometimes, I like to sprinkle on a little garlic salt (visuals) to add a bit of texture and flavor to the whole thing; it’s something simple, yet effective.  In addition, I’ll pour on a little hot sauce for an experience that might not be enjoyable to some, but all together, makes a rich experience.  Think of the hot sauce as a fast-paced soundtrack, so you might prefer the more mellow harmonies of ranch dressing.  With either of these, adding too much will easily ruin the dish, and the more things you add, the harder it will be to get something tasty.  Now, with my hot garlic potatoes, I am ready to experience spud Nirvana, but some might not stop there.  No, it’s time to add some parsley.  And saffron.  And paprika.  Some bay leaves.  How about a few sprinkles of cocoa.  Maybe some strawberry syrup, and maybe a scoop or two of ice cream.  Top it all off with some hunks of steak and lobster, and you have an amalgamation of things that, while delicious (to most; I don’t eat red meat or like lobster) by themselves, will render your meal inedible, unless you’ve somehow managed to remove all of your taste buds.  Adding something more to something basic can make it into a masterpiece, but when you add too much, you lose a delicate, and very important balance.

Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai walks this balance perfectly.  I’ve already reviewed it in detail, but I think it’s the perfect example of a game’s elements all working together to make something cohesive.  As I said in that review, the game is comprised of a lot of things that I don’t like: a battle system that adds movement to the mix, somewhat gritty visuals, an orchestral soundtrack that’s mostly forgettable, and a story that isn’t about a hero, and doesn’t have much in the way of deep lessons to teach.  Yet, while I’d ordinarily give each of my four main categories a low score for this game, they work extremely well in context.  They are so beautifully interwoven that the game transcends my usual tastes and becomes something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts, and actually made me feel something!  Those who know me are painfully aware that this is not an easy thing to achieve, and while I wouldn’t call Ancient Magic a masterpiece, it is still a very special game to me.

Greater than the sum of its parts.

Greater than the sum of its parts.

It is a balance walked by every RPG, and sometimes, a single flaw can be powerful enough to break it.  For Kouryuu Densetsu Vilgust Gaiden, it was just the fact that you had to talk to everyone in town every time you completed a dungeon.  It was otherwise a great game, but the fact that these people didn’t even say anything new in most cases made this a difficult trigger to find and a tedious and pointless one to execute.  Dragon Warrior 7 had a similar problem in one of its scenarios – I couldn’t advance because I’d forgotten to talk to a cat (who just said, “Meow,” anyway) – but the people at least said different things when you talked to them.  Star Ocean‘s biggest flaw was its main selling point: its action-based battle system.  As you might’ve gathered if you’ve been reading along, an RPG’s battle system is kind of a big deal, so when you blow it, you’ve usually ruined the whole game.  Final Fantasy 10 had a slew of mandatory minigames that were just outright awful, which was enough to destroy an otherwise decent – if a bit pretentious – game with a fairly poignant message about religion.  If a flaw is bad enough, it can ruin even a great game.

Sometimes, a lot of minor flaws gang up on a game to pummel it into a quivering mass.  Legend of the Ghost Lion has such a situation with its gameplay.  You have a high encounter rate; okay, that’s typical of RPGs on the NES, so it’s not a big deal.  You can’t level up naturally, but find level-ups in treasure chests, which affixes your stats at any given moment; a little weird, but not fatal just yet.  The enemies toward the end are extremely powerful, and the journey to the final boss is long; not normally a flaw, but when your levels are fixed and every encounter – a common occurrence – is a drawn-out fight for your very survival, it’s less challenging and more tedious, even if you don’t die along the way.  Now, throw in that your party members are contained within items, and you have a problem.  Do you try to soldier through the battle yourself (bad idea!) or do you waste a turn – as enemies damage you with impunity for an entire round – summoning an ally?  How many turns do you waste summoning allies, and which ones will actually be useful?  It was annoying throughout the game, but never as stressful as that final stretch, so what was an interesting experiment turned out to be a failure.

So, all of these examples; now we get to the fun part: using this data to determine exactly what is important in making a great RPG and what is less important.  This is also not going to be a catch-all; if you’re someone who only plays RPGs for their story, then you’re only going to care about story.  This is for the average player looking at the whole experience.  It should be obvious that all four of the elements that I will be using – gameplay, graphics, scenario, and sound – are essential in creating a masterpiece; determining that much is easy, but a game can be great without being a masterpiece.  What I’m trying to do here is determine which elements can be sacrificed; it’s no easy task, but having enough examples to create a works cited for each article thus far hasn’t been for nothing, you know.

First off, bad gameplay makes a bad game, and if you have great gameplay, then you have at least a good game; it’s really that simple.  You can’t have a good game with bad gameplay; if you have bad gameplay with even perfect graphics, scenario, and sound, you have – at best – a great movie, but that’s a different medium.  Video games are NOT movies, nor should they aspire to be!  So no, that’s not going to work out; go sell your idea to the Wachowskis and make an awesome movie instead.  However, contrary to what the melodramatic sensationalism of the Internet might lead you to believe, things aren’t just perfect or abominable; average is average, and sometimes, that’s an acceptable thing to be.  A Dragon Warrior clone has very basic, primitive gameplay, but just because it has no innovation doesn’t make it not good.  Did you enjoy Dragon Warrior?  If so, you’ll enjoy a game with identical gameplay, unless there’s something particularly awful about its other elements that drag it down.  So, while excellent gameplay can sell a game without any other redeeming factors, average gameplay is something else entirely.

I cannot stress this enough!

I cannot stress this enough!

So, with average gameplay, what does it take to make a game worth playing?  With exceptional visuals, I would say that an otherwise average RPG becomes good.  It sounds shallow, but remember that in a genre that emphasizes exploration, you want your world to be worth exploring, and aesthetics can do that.  In this way, graphics can enhance the gameplay, much like oregano enhances the flavor of a pizza.  Good sound can do much the same, enhancing your mood to change how you feel when you play.  However, I’d say that for an average game with subpar graphics and an uninspired story, sound isn’t enough to make a good game.  It’s important, yes, but you can always play the game silently or with your own music, not to mention that you can just buy the soundtrack, so sound alone cannot make a good game.

Sound is like a minor topping.

Sound is like a minor topping.

Now, the big one: scenario.  As much as I hate the overemphasis on scenario these days, I cannot deny its impact.  Imagine playing through a Dragon Warrior clone with so-so visuals and a bland soundtrack, but with exceptional scenario.  Even if the rest of the experience is just mediocre, having a particular character that really resonated with you or a deep or mind-blowing story will really stick with you.  I love Mega Man, but rarely have I finished a game in the series that really left me awestruck at the end.  There have been a few that made me crave more of those beautiful bright colors, jammin’ tunes, and peerless action, but none of them really made me stop and think about the experience.  So, while the style component alone cannot sell an otherwise average RPG – though it can sometimes mask bad gameplay by making you focus on how you’re feeling as you play – a particularly good story or character can potentially change your life.  A good story or good characters can turn an average RPG into a good one.

Giving meaning to a game makes it better.

Giving meaning to a game makes it better.

Now, for the other end of the spectrum: the bad.  I’ve already mentioned that bad gameplay will ruin a game.  Sound is also very easy; if it’s bad, just mute the game.  That’s exactly what I did with Great Greed, and I wound up enjoying the game a fair amount.  The point of graphics, on the other hand, is a tricky one.  It’s a bit of a tug of war; excessively bad graphics make the game an eyesore, but it’s something that can fairly easily be overcome by outstanding gameplay or scenario.  It turns out to be a bit of a tug-of-war between how bad the graphics are and how good everything else is.  If I deeply and truly love someone, I’m not going to turn the person away if he or she is ugly; it just doesn’t make sense, and it’s the same with games.  Likewise, as you can love someone and accept his or her flaws, you can play a game that’s less than perfect and still enjoy it.  Spoiler alert: you’ve done it already, because there’s no such thing as a perfect game.

Scenario is also a tricky one, because there isn’t a whole lot out there that’s explicitly bad, at least that I’ve played.  I’ve seen trite hackneyed up into a pile of cliché, but that just means it’s average; for a story to be actively bad is rare.  Since Lester the Unlikely doesn’t have an RPG spin-off (of which I’m aware, anyway; Barkley Shut-up and Jam has one, so maybe it does), the same can be said of style.  Though the Mega Man Battle Network series certainly fits this category, it was that in combination with where I saw the battle system going by the later stages in the game that ultimately made me abandon it; not just style alone.  Usually, the only truly bad encounters in scenario come with characters.  Maybe it’s the annoying cheerleader type, a whiny mama’s boy, or maybe it’s an obnoxious little puke – like Grandia‘s Justin – that you just want to strangle until his or her eyes pop out and go flying across the room so that you can pour salt into the empty sockets.  Whatever the case, if you hate one of your characters so much that you don’t want him or her to succeed, it can sometimes be bad enough to ruin the experience entirely.  Again, it’s a bit of a tug-of-war of how bad versus the merits of the rest of the game, but if you can’t stand the main character, it’s a strong pull in the wrong direction.

When you don't want the protagonist to win, it's hard to save the game.

When you don’t want the protagonist to win, it’s hard to save the game.

So, no matter what, it’s something that requires balance.  In a straight Action game, it’s a lot more straightforward, since gameplay is almost everything.  In an RPG, the gameplay – while still present – is a much smaller part of the equation, though I’d give it the largest part.  For me, gameplay is half of the battle, with scenario at about a quarter, graphics at fifteen to twenty percent, and sound comprising the rest.  Just to reiterate, that’s for a game to be good; a masterpiece almost requires a strong positive in each of these categories.  Of course, depending upon your particular bias, this formula might change, but this is how it relates to mine, and I think that I’ve sufficiently justified that.  I may not have just handed you a formula that works for you, but hopefully, I’ve at least made you consider your own with an open mind.

While this concludes the thesis I laid out in my introduction, I have a few things left on my agenda.  I’ve touched on the idea of the masterpiece, and while it wasn’t relevant to determining what makes an RPG work – again, that’s just making it work as something you sit down and enjoy; not making it a work of art – I’d like to address it.  Next time, I’m going to be talking about every RPG masterpiece I’ve ever completed, and what exactly makes them so magnificent on every possible level.  Perfection is impossible to achieve, but these RPGs have gotten closer than the others I’ve played.  Yes, I’m going to gush, but it’s going to be a structured series of gushes with justification, as well as admission of the games’ faults.  These faults are relevant both to my status as a non-fangirl and to what flaws a game can endure and still be a masterpiece.  If you’re only tuning in for the occasional hijacking of my writing by Madame Firebreath, you might want to call this the end, but who knows; you might find a new favorite game!

A special thanks goes out to Drumble, who runs Backloggery, for the permission to use the emoticons used in the many bar charts you see in this article.  It’s a wonderful community of which I am proud to be a part.

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Works Cited:

Format: Game Title (Alternate title; Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

7th Saga (Elnard; Japan). Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/23/1993.
Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (Castlevania: Rondo of Blood; all other regions). Konami, Turbo CD, 10/29/1993.
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