Before we begin, you should probably read this background article I wrote at Cubed3, because I’m going to be building a bit from that, though I’ll be repeating some of it, too, so I’m not sure how critical that article will be. With that out of the way, I’m just going to dive into it, because the millions of thoughts I had for this article as I lie in the bed this morning trying to fall asleep are fast attempting to escape.
RPGs Are Long
We all know that RPGs constitute the longest video games out there. Whatever form it comes in, from the improperly-named “Strategy RPG” that is more appropriately called a Tactical RPG, to the Action RPG to the Western RPG to the Eastern RPG, some of these types of game can take upward of 40 hours just to finish the main story, and sometimes well over 200 to fully complete the game.
In fact, this has always been the case, but I’m not really sure that what constitutes an “RPG” these days truly qualifies any of these games as Role-Playing Games, and they are all at least 80% fluff: mindless grinding and repetitious battles. This has also always been the case, from the earliest console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, if you cut out the grinding for gold and experience, then the games can be completed almost as quickly as a speedrun of Super Mario Bros.
In other words, these games take a long time to play, but they aren’t actually very long games. Using Hex Editing, it isn’t too difficult to start a new playthrough of Dragon Warrior on NES at level 30, with 50,000 gold. Doing this results in a game that takes about 15 minutes to beat. The only necessary parts are visiting Garinham for the harp, rescuing the princess, getting the three tokens, and defeating the Dragonlord. While that sounds like a lot, most of these are just out-of-the-way places that are protected not by a large amount of landmass but by obscenely powerful enemies that force the player to grind to have even the smallest chance of reaching them. Contrast this to games like Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, where there actually is a huge amount of “landmass” that must be traversed separating the player from the goals.
Maybe Dragon Quest is a bad example. What about other RPGs? What about Ultima: Exodus, on NES or PC? This game is firmly 99% grinding. If we remove everything that isn’t canonically a part of the story and start the characters at level 25 and with max stats, the game can be beaten in less than ten minutes. Both Ultima: Exodus and Dragon Warrior, however, are RPGs that can take a player twenty or thirty hours to beat. That’s a huge amount of tedious grinding that serves only to keep the player busy.
Final Fantasy follows the same pattern. Cutting out combat yields a game that is slightly longer than either Dragon Warrior or Ultima: Exodus, but not by a whole lot.
Does this trend continue today?
Bethesda’s developers always have an in-house competition before a game is released, where the programmers play against the game designers and race to the finish, to see who can finish the game first. If I recall correctly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took a little under three hours. Part of this is that much of the game’s content is optional, but if we’re removing combat then we’re also removing all the quests that involve combat, and that cuts the game down substantially. With all monsters and monster-slaying quests removed, except the ones that involve dragons because they’re canonical, it’s likely that Skyrim could be finished in under an hour, and completed in less than five.
An RPG Without the Combat
For years, perhaps even a decade, I’ve rolled my eyes and mocked people who classify the Zelda games as RPGs. They’re not RPGs. They’re Action Adventure games. However, they’re just as fairly called RPGs as any of the games I’ve mentioned above. As I wrote in the Cubed3 article, an RPG isn’t defined by having things like character levels, a strength stat, a defense stat, and things like that; those are just the tropes and cliched gameplay mechanics. An RPG is defined as a role-playing game. In the Zelda games, yes, players play the role of Link just as much as they play the role of Mario in Mario games, and just as they play the role of the Dragonborn in Skyrim.
An RPG with the turn-based combat and leveling systems removed would look exactly like the Zelda series, in fact. The reason I bring this up is that, aside from the entire genre of RPGs, what is the longest type of video game? Zelda games, hands down. The original Legend of Zelda was huge for its time, and even being an expert player it takes me about an hour to 100% the first quest. They’ve only gotten longer as time has gone on, and removing the combat from Zelda games would only knock off a little bit of that–and then only in the first game. By the time A Link to the Past rolls around, the game itself is enormous, and even running through the game uncontested would have it taking several hours to finish. Ditto with Ocarina of Time.
The same is true of most well-developed games. Super Mario 64, without its combat, would still take a considerable amount of time, as would Super Meat Boy and, honestly, the majority of games. No other genre of game has its overall playtime impacted nearly as much as RPGs when combat is removed.
So let’s return to square one: we want to make a role-playing game. Adding character levels, character stats, and turn-based combat won’t be enough to qualify our game as an RPG any longer; in fact, people are so tired of those that they would just call our game a Calculator Simulator, or a Wall Street Kid duplicate where players spend their time watching animations that swap a number in one column from a slightly larger number in another column with the aim of producing a gain in net resources. Just as players accomplished this in Wall Street Kid by selling a bunch of stocks and buying other stocks, players in RPGs accomplish it by using a magic spell to do x damage to this enemy to earn y gold and z experience, which eventually increase m MP available for that character as well as x damage. Stripped down, it’s nothing more than a numbers game.
I hate puzzles. I tolerate them in Zelda games, but I generally don’t play video games because I want to do a lot of thinking. Most puzzles in Zelda games are okay, but others–like the dual statue puzzle in Twilight Princess–are irritating and overkill. I roll my eyes in frustrated anger when I have to do the stupid Fade in Dragon Age: Origins, or in Dragon Age 2, or in Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening when presented with the stupid ring of fire puzzle. You can’t give players mindless, repetitious combat and then interrupt it with a puzzle. Without fail, I simply look on the Internet how to do these puzzles, because I can’t be bothered to even try to figure them out–although, as a member of MENSA, it’s pretty definitive that I could if I wanted to. The Wind Waker is the first Zelda game since A Link to the Past that had puzzles that weren’t overkill, in my opinion. Twilight Princess also had absolutely ridiculous ice block sliding puzzles that were atrociously tedious.
Besides, would a Zelda game that features a challenging puzzle in every single room of every dungeon really qualify as anything more than a Puzzle Game that forced players to move a Link-shaped cursor from one puzzle room to the next? Would such a game really be any different from hacking Link into Blek? Not by my estimation. But, to be fair, by my estimation Final Fantasy XIII was nothing more than an overly elaborate DVD menu that, instead of having people press up and enter on a remote to trigger the next scene, required people to hold up for x seconds and then press A y times before the next scene triggered.
In fact, one of the best role-playing games that I can think of is none other than Stardew Valley.
“Role Playing Game? Aria, you lunatic. That’s a Harvest Moon clone, not an RPG.”
But think about it. One of the biggest things we would need to add to our new RPG in order to even allow players to actually craft and play a role, are lots of complex NPCs with whom the player can form relationships. The interplay of the player and NPCs in Stardew Valley is no different at all from the interplay of the player and PCs in Dragon Age 2. The mechanics are simply different, Dragon Age 2 features voice acting, and Dragon Age 2, being a AAA title, rightly includes more robust dialogue trees and interaction options.
We’re wanting to let the player play the role of a character in some video game world that we’re creating. The exact mechanics of interacting with the world aren’t terribly important, but it is critical that we provide the player with the tools to craft their character to their liking. This is far more than just cosmetic options, and this is the point that Dragon Age 2 nails with its dialogue trees and Stardew Valley nails with its robust cast of characters: choice. In fact, because of the wider plethora of options available, I would hazard the statement that Stardew Valley actually beats out Dragon Age 2 in this category.
In Dragon Age 2, if you want to be a gay male, then Anders is your only option. If you want to be a lesbian, then the sexy but slutty Isabella is the only option. Possibly Merril, honestly. I don’t remember; it’s been years since I played, and Isabella is so hot that she’s irresistible as a love interest. However, once the player has made their choice, interacting with that other character is where Dragon Age 2 tops out Stardew Valley. While Stardew Valley contains a known ten male love interests and ten female love interests, the selection in Dragon Age 2… is extremely limited compared to this indie game made by one dude. Moreover, every NPC in the game can be romanced by any gender of character, which brings me to a side issue I want to discuss.
Not Everyone is Bi
In order to avoid dealing with controversy from the inordinately powerful LGBTQ group in the United States, most developers choose instead to simply have every romance option be bisexual. This is not only unrealistic, as a transsexual lesbian I argue that this is offensive and exclusive of straight people. There have been countless females I’ve been interested in, just through the last year, with whom I could not pursue a relationship because they weren’t interested in another woman or a transsexual woman. It sucks, but it’s the real world.
People would make the argument, “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a character of the same sex, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are straight.”
And that’s true to an extent, but a very narrow way of viewing the world in others. In fact, the converse is easily just as true: “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a straight character, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are bisexual.”
It seems to come as a surprise to SJWs and the LGBTQ community, but straight people exist, and if a person is bisexual then they aren’t straight. There are lots of men who wouldn’t want to have a relationship with a woman they knew had enjoyed same sex relationships in the past. Such a woman is, by any definitiion, not straight. Bisexual is not some middleground to make straight and gay people happy; it’s a distinct sexual leaning in its own right. If a person is gay, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is a lesbian, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is bisexual, then they aren’t straight and they aren’t homosexual; they’re bisexual. Having zero heterosexual characters in a video game is exclusive to straight people. Every character being bisexual is not some happy middleground to please both straight and gay people. How can my female Dragonborn sleep next to her “straight” husband knowing that her “straight” husband is actually bisexual and has possibly been fucked more times than she has? It’s an absurd question, yes, but it underscores the point: bisexual isn’t straight.
Back to RPGs
Dragon Age 2 was panned by a lot of people as being a Dating Simulator, and I suppose that’s a fair criticism, but what else could any true role-playing game do in order to allow a player to actually roleplay? Again, as I pointed out in the Cubed3 article, we’ve forgotten what the “RP” in “RPG” stands for. It quite obviously stands for “role-playing.” Instead, we think an RPG is a video game where the player avatar has a character level and a bunch of other numbers attached to him/her that go into complex damage algorithms a la buying and selling in Drug Wars or Wall Street Kid.
That RPGs are so naked was revealed to me by the Paper Mario series, where that is literally what players do, though the actions are accompanied by flashy animations. Players expend one SP to do one damage to the enemy and gain one coin and one EXP point. Players take one damage from the enemy and from their pool of 10 HP, meaning they can be hit ten times before dying. Since each enemy dies in one hit, this means that they can kill 19 enemies before having to use a healing item that restores 10 HP and costs 10 coins. Voila! The smart and skilled player makes a net gain of 9 coins and 19 Experience, which accumulate and increase the player’s pool of HP to 15, thereby allowing them to take more hits before having to use a healing item and making an even greater profit while swapping numbers in one column for columns in another.
It’s exactly like Wall Street Kid. The only difference is that there are more resource types, the Buying/Selling mechanics are a bit more convoluted and masked as Attacking/Defending, but it’s otherwise exactly the same. In fact, our little complex relationship system is the only thing truly unique to RPGs, and thus the only things that can qualify a game as an RPG.
I actually have to end this here to do something else. I didn’t even get to the main point, which is that RPGs need a severe overhaul, and need to stop wasting players’ time for the purpose of padding out gameplay. Yes, there can be action elements in an RPG that take the form of battles. Yes, there can be abilities, spells, strength stats, and hit points. But the “brunt of the gameplay” shouldn’t consist of that.