Let me ask you a question. It’s not the greatest question on Earth, it should not give you the meaning of life, it should not make you the bearer of some strange secret that might give you power over other men. This question might be a bit strange but nevertheless I’ll ask it.
Do you think you do a lot of roleplay in Final Fantasy VII?
I’ve been struggling with this question for a while now. The older I became, and by extension the more mature the games became, and the harder it is to classify games in predefined genres. Well... Not all of them, it’s not hard at all to say that Gears of War is an action game, or that Fifa is a football game (People who call that soccer. Please... Seriously?). What I’m talking about is the Role-Playing game genre.
I couldn’t really put my finger on it before I launched Mass Effect : Andromeda for the first time. And in retrospective I think this feeling started a little while ago with Fallout 4.
I’m a huge space aficionado. I won’t use the word nerd or expert because I could not give you the name of most stars for the life of me. But, what i love is the idea of space, the fantasy of it. Where most people see fatality and a place where all is lost and empty and small, I see a place where anything can happen, where the wildest beasts or craziest ideas can flourish, can live. This setting is, for me, the most interesting of them all because anything can happen in space.
You could have the weirdest, craziest thing happen in a story in space and it would still be possible. After all it’s still out there, waiting to be discovered. It has a lot to do for me when I play, as it’s easier for my brain to relate with something on another planet, another space, than to have to build all this fictitious story around why some guy named Geralt could use magic but we can’t anymore. When that happens, most of the time I end up telling myself it’s actually another planet, in another solar system. And it works. I also do that with Final Fantasy.
But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I love space for all the possibilities it gives me. And that’s why I needed to play Mass Effect : Andromeda, a game I actually like, a good 7 out of 10, but this game is not, by any means, an RPG.
Where his ancestors were indeed RPGs, this Mass Effect 4 is anything but. It might have RPG gameplay elements such as skills sets, levels, experience points, inventory management but it lacks the soul of any good RPG. Something that is of the utmost importance for me.
The possibility to make the character your own, a reflection of anything you want him to be.
And it’s where it hit me, do we really call RPG games that are not?
Is Final Fantasy VII an RPG? Do you personally project any personality traits to any of the characters that might change your view of the world or the way you approach a situation?
This is the most important part of anything that can call itself a ROLE PLAYING GAME. You have to play a role, and it has to be you who decide which role you’re playing or else any game is an RPG as long as you play someone that has a motive and a bit of backstory for you to understand what kind of a character he/she is.
The role you play has to be a tacit agreement between you and the game where you will not change course, and stay in character all the time. Are you a bastard? Or the nicest man on earth? Do you like bread over corn? Would you rather wear black or red? You give yourself constraints then try to keep it that way. You invent yourself a role, a character. and this is why RPG are great, because it empowers you but it also makes the world around you matter.
Most of the time, some people believe it’s just a matter of being Good versus Evil in the grand scheme, but it’s not even that. You can clearly stay on one end of the spectrum but still give you character enough personality to go on. To be subtle.
An amazing example of that is the wonderful The Witcher 3™. This game is incredibly well written and is great for this simple reason. You are a Witcher and you are required, by convention, to slay monsters and help people. This is what you’ve been engineered to do.
This puts you in the ‘good guy’ pile. No matter what, you’ll help the people to defeat the big bad guy. And even if in this story you are not the hero, per se, you will still help your Daughter to fulfill her destiny and save the world, even though that can go wrong a bit but shhh.... You can never be the bad guy, the one who destroys everything but, and that’s a very big but, you may want to chose to play it as a kind-hearted man who will do everything in his power to help anybody or not even bother yourself to try if they don’t give you any money. You have enough leverage on this spectrum to define yourself as an asshole even if you are by definition a good guy.
This was the same thing we used to have with Mass Effect 1 to 3. And all that gives you the possibility to see the world through a different lens than the man next to you who decided his Geralt to only wear incredibly good looking, and often very bad, gear because his Geralt is someone with style, which will also mean he will always choose to answer any question asked to him with the classiest answer possible.
The difference here with Mass Effect Andromeda is that my choice has meaning and can change the world. Or at least the way I percieve the world. The universe is acting a certain way thanks to me, and not the other way around.
I’ve been playing a lot of Prey recently, and the more I play this game, the more I want to call it a RPG, I am giving my character personality by choosing the path she takes, the story is not that great but I choose who Morgan Yu is with these meaningful choices, I can be the evil Yu who lets people’s head explode or I can be the nice Yu who decide to free them. I can project any traits I’d like him/her to have, and this is Role Playing as long as I keep playing accordingly with who my Morgan Yu became. I’ve personally chosen to play someone who has a strong desire to make sure nothing that happened there will happen anywhere else, even if that mean killing some people sometime or auto-expose myself if that means someone I know can understand what’s happening here.
This feels empowering, this feels amazing.
Mass Effect : Andromeda doesn’t do that, and the reason is simple. None of my choices has meaning, I can’t threaten anybody, I can’t be an asshole but I can’t neither be a boy scoot, everything is toned down and everything ends up feeling like I’m choosing four possible things that will lead to the same outcome. It actually felt the same in Fallout 4, and, like Fallout 4, the game is enjoyable only when you stop thinking you’re playing a RPG, because you’re not.
“Okay, great” you’re telling me. “Now that it’s done about those two games but you were saying some shit about FF VII? Where is Final Fantasy VII, in all that?”
It’s simple. Most Japanese RPG don’t do that either.
Before going further, I love those games. I grew up on weird, lovable, crazy Japanese RPG. Final Fantasy, Vagrant Story, Chrono Trigger, Kingdom Hearts or even Super Mario RPG and others were my jam when I grew up. They are part of what I’m using every time I’m designing a game. They helped me grow as a human and a designer and someone who just like stories. They made me who I am and I can’t thank them enough.
But no matter how hard I turn my head around and how much I want to include these games into my definition of RPGs, I can’t.
There are no meaningful choices that define your character in any of these games.
Then why do we call them RPG? Well, mostly it can be explained by something else, the RPG genre is old and at the time when those games came out, and by those games I’m talking about the first Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest, as long as you were playing a wizard that had to fight strange monsters in a turn based combat mechanic, of course people were going to say you’re playing a RPG, and it was probably what was the closest from what you could get when you were sitting at a table with your pals.
But when games like Wasteland, Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, and others started to arrive, we should have understood that just having a game where you fight monsters with a health bar in a turn based combat (Which is not even the case anymore with game like FFXV or Kingdom Hearts) is not enough to get the RPG classification.
And now, more and more games are actually using things that were only reserved to RPGs like character customization, skills, levels (You would not say Saints Row or Batman Arkham anything are RPGs) but they forget the most important thing. And that’s choices, real, important, meaningful choices that define your character. Not just the world.
For a bit, I thought that I was just forgetting what a real roleplaying game was, after Fallout 4 and Mass Effect, that I lost my way, that this is what they are supposed to be, that maybe I was just getting old, that I just lost the taste for it. But after playing again at Pathfinder (Nothing related to Mass Effect, it’s a D&D type of pen and paper RPG) I understood what I’ve been missing, and playing Prey made me yearn for more games like this, and only reinforced the fact that I love RPGs, RPGs as I see them.
It also made me realize that I’ve been mis-categorizing all these games and when you want to play a RPG and you don’t get what you want then you end up disliking a game that could have been great if categorized differently.
So, sorry Final Fantasy VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XII you’ll always be in my heart. But, for me, you’re no longer an RPG.