RPG Ranting Part 2: Stories and their Foolishness
October 31, 2007

So, I was reading through the responses to my last blog entry (all of which, with the singular exception of EmP) were well-thought out (including the one busting on EmP) and one made me do a bit more thinking than normal (ie: a bit of thinking).

Spaceworlder had a good point about how RPGs are being ruined because of how too many new players are buying/playing them just for the story. And you know, that’s probably right and definitely would explain why so many games of the genre today have really easy main quests with all their difficulty being focused on side quests and optional post-game dungeons.

The sad thing is that, for the most part, these “stories” have, to use a tired phrase, “jumped the shark”. Remember how thrilled I was with Wild Arms 3’s story? How my review gave it a high score despite a few admittedly big flaws mainly because I really dug how the game fleshed out the villains, making them more than simple one-dimensional cackling evil-doers?

Well, yeah....that seemed reasonably new to me at the time (and done with better storytelling here than in other earlier games), but it’s gotten really old by now. Virtually every halfway recent game in the Tales of... or Wild Arms series are loaded with overly complex villains whom you oppose because their “noble” goals (tending to involve saving the world from itself or fighting back against the oppression/discrimination of their people) tend to involve less-than-cool methods like purging the world of all who aren’t on their side.

Some do a better job of this than others, but it all gets tiresome after a while. Partly because “complex” villains have become so plentiful they’re now more generic than the lovable old “I gots mad powerz and am taking over the world, you fools!!!! MUHUHUHAHAHAR!!!!!” folks like Garland (FF, not FFIX) and Baramos (DW3). And partly because heroes are still as boring and generic as they were back in the day when you controlled nameless guys with no history....just in a different way.

Nowadays (as in for the past decade-plus, it’s “cool” to have your hero be an angsty dweeb with a big, dark secret that threatens to destroy him....unless he can overcome it, learn the true joy of love and friendship and use that to prevail against all odds against the enemy. Oh, and while looking more like a teenage girl than an actual heroic warrior.

That’s probably why I look at Dragon Quest VIII as, by far, the best RPG of recent times. By making the hero a old-school silent protagionist without a slew of personal issues that come up at really awkward times (like when a really badass enemy turns into a big dragon and starts stomping his hometown), he actually seems like a breath of fresh air, even though he’s the same quiet guy from all the old-school RPGs. And the main enemies tend to lean toward being evil-for-the-joy-of-being-evil thanks to being possessed by an evil deity. The story revolves around chasing evil folk around and stopping them from doing evil stuff.

More or less, it’s the RPG I was playing back in the days of the NES and SNES, but with better graphics and sound. And that’s what I want. A fun romp with good guys fighting monsters and saving the world — not a bunch of emotionally challenged heroes fighting a bunch of emotionally challenged villains in a bunch of fights that make me wonder if I should be happy or bummed out because I won.

Most recent blog posts from Rob Hamilton...

EmP EmP - October 31, 2007 (11:14 AM)
I'm playing through DQVIII right now. But I disagree: I'm tired of silent protaganists.

When Ryu spoke in BoFV, I yelled "Thank God". The whole idea of these characters is that the player is meant to pretend that it's thgem, but I don't use a sword, I can't turn into a dragon and my natural style of hair isn't 90* pointy spikes.

I'm as old school as the next guy (as long as the next guy is OD) but it's an angle I wish was left to die its deserved death.

I'm with you on everything else.
honestgamer honestgamer - October 31, 2007 (11:59 AM)
Silent protagonists are absolutely the way to go. Chatty protagonists ruin RPGs more often than not. They're innovation for the sake of satisfying people who want a story, and that's not me. If I want a coherent, 'awesome' story I'll read a fucking novel. Give me battles and exploration and a fantastic fantasy world (or a mix of fantasy and technology, if you prefer) and I'm happy. So yeah, I agree with your post completely, Overdrive. I've regularly thought the same thing myself through the last 4 or 5 years.
overdrive overdrive - October 31, 2007 (12:49 PM)
The problem with non-silent protagionists is that all the chatty ones are utter idiots. I mean, I haven't found one I truly like. Off the top of my head for a few games I have played or am playing.

Senel (Tales of Legendia): One of the most annoying characters ever. He has Cloud-n-Squall's antagionistic personality, but is a lot more impotently whiny.

Vaan (FF XII): Look up "pussy" in the dictionary and I'm sure his face will be in there.

Cloud (FF VII): A moody, standoffish guy who also has extreme mental issues only overshadowed by many other chatty heroes in RPGs.

Squall (FF VIII): Get Cloud and make him a bit more feminine.

Zidane (FF IX): Fun-loving, easy going guy.....until he finds out he was artificially created by Garland or something.....at which point he turns into Cloud/Squall while PMSing (aka: Senel-lite).

Fayt (Star Ocean: TtEoT): Not only is he an anorexic wuss, but he is nearly immediately teamed up with over-the-top macho dude Cliff, which makes his utter lack of manliness even more pathetic.

Then, in Wild Arms 3, you have this quartet:
Virginia: blindly optimistic and cheerful.
Gallows: 95 percent comic relief.
Clive: generic smart scholar type.
Jet: Wild Wild West version of Cloud.

That's the problem with talkative heroes. I find them more annoying than a benefit to the game much of the time. A few exceptions I've played recently are Suikoden III and Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm. Suiki did a nice job of evolving two of the three leads, while AI3 had more of a lighthearted and fluffy story instead of an overwrought dramatic one. Grandia was like that, too. That kid there never grated on my nerves because he never took many things too seriously.

If more RPGs had guys like that, I'd be cooler with chatty heroes. But instead, they go for the excessive drama in their stories and give us a bunch of whiny, angst-ridden losers. I have an easier time pretending I use a sword, can turn into a dragon and/or have wacky spiked hair than I do in relating to or getting behind these guys.

As a fun little side project — pick a current-gen RPG that's been out for a bit and immerse yourself in the story before playing it. Go to GFs and read the game script if available or at least skim through a FAQ that's not shy about giving away massive spoilers. Now play the game AFTER learning everything that happens and just focus on the gameplay.

After I started thinking more and more about this sort of thing, I did that with Tales of Legendia and it's amazing how less enjoyable this game is now that I know what happens and when it happens. Gameplay-wise, this game is GENERIC. It's extremely easy, the dungeons are linear and boring, the overworld is nothing but long, boring walks from one place to the next and battle "strategy" for nearly every fight consists of mashing the "x" button for regular attacks or mashing the "o" button in conjunction with the directional pad for special attacks.

That's how essential the story is to this game. Its hook is that it uses a bunch of paint-by-numbers dungeons as bridges between one storyline segment to the next. You don't necessarily notice how tedious the game is because you're rushing through the dungeons to get to the next revelation (the story does move at a very fast pace). Take that out of the equation and you have a boring, bland RPG that doesn't hold a candle to even the old NES/Master System era.
Genj Genj - October 31, 2007 (01:40 PM)
Good talkative hero: JUSTIN from Grandia.

"*Eeeeck* PAAAAAANTIES!!!!"
joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - October 31, 2007 (02:04 PM)
Hiro from Lunar 2 is a good "talky" protagonist. Instead of being angsty, he has an endearing enthusiasm. We don't know much about his past and we never learn about it, which is refreshing.
EmP EmP - November 01, 2007 (06:41 AM)
So you picked out some bad 'talky' leads: now pick out some great silent ones.

Can't, can you? Because they're all just persona-less blobs. Hero from DQVIII is a great example because if the rest of the cast had been as vanilla as he, the game would have lost all its charm. And there's the biggest flaw in your point: silent protaganists need to be carried by the cast members you're saying you loathe so much. Chrono was carried, Ryu was carried and Surge... well, all the characters in his game were as flat as he because Cross is shit. Hell, that's why Cross is shit.

Here's the other point you're missing: games that end up having the story swallowed up the gameplay often fail. You just have to look at Xenosaga II to see a game with a great plot that's a chore to play and see everyone complain about it. It doesn't work.

Even the best old-school RPGs shyed away from "..." leads. Rolf wasn't a mute and PSII was all the better for it.

Conclusion: silent protaganists are the one thing I'm very glad to see RPGs moving away from. It's a shame they've left behind any form of challange, too.
joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - November 01, 2007 (10:46 AM)
Good silent protagonists:

Max (Shining Force)
Bowie (Shining Force II)
Alex (Original Lunar 1)
Ryu (Breath of Fire III)
Crono (Chrono Trigger)
Super Mario
EmP EmP - November 01, 2007 (12:18 PM)
You;re not going to get by me by throwing (what you know is!) my favourite series in. The Shining Force guys were awful leads in awesome games. Especially Bowie who had dumb hair. Chrono and Ryu, as previoulsy mentioned, were carried by superior cast members. And Ryu III? ..... eh.

Mario's not silent nor is he anything but an outdated stereotype.
joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - November 01, 2007 (12:52 PM)
Mario was completely silent in Super Mario RPG, and he never actually speaks dialogue in the other RPGs he appears in.

While none of the protagonists I listed talk, all them are infinitely more likeable than the majority of "talky" protagonists in other RPGs. Besides, the whole idea of having a protagonist speak is to give them dimension, and most of the "talkies" I've seen display none of that. Cloud might have dialogue, but all of it is as flat as Natalie Portman. Guys like Max or Bowie may speak in ellipsises, but I can at least pretend those ellipsises are a stand-in for dialogue that doesn't suck. Lastly, being silent doesn't mean you can't have a personality. (See: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, etc.)
EmP EmP - November 01, 2007 (01:52 PM)
Then feel free to supply a silent guy with said personality. So far the closest you've got is "I can pretend they have one!" while relying on the Square guys as ammo when everyone knows they serve up the very worst the genre has to offer when it comes to characters.

The Justins, the Vyses, the Ryudos the Judes* and the Claude/Renas of this world shed a tear.

*well, not so much Jude, he was pretty arcetypical. But Arnaud and Raquel rocked!
Genj Genj - November 01, 2007 (02:23 PM)
Cloud might have dialogue, but all of it is as flat as Natalie Portman.

Fuck you, man. Fuck you :(
joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - November 01, 2007 (02:38 PM)
Aside from Hiro and Terra (add the Popful Mail crew if you consider that an RPG), I can't really think of a talky RPG hero, Square or otherwise, that has been endearing to me.

The point of giving a protagonist dialogue is that it makes them more interesting, right? But that's only true if a character has anything interesting to say. Most RPG protagonists don't. They're one-dimensional hero arche-types who are all about fighting evil and fufilling Their Dream™. They say boring things like "I'll only do 'x' for a price!" or "I want to be an 'x' just like [Insert Great Hero's™ Name]!" or "No one should have to give their life up for anything!" etc.

Might as well have an ellipses.
EmP EmP - November 01, 2007 (02:57 PM)
I did a list, man, a list!

Also, add Rolf to it. Rolf owned them all.
overdrive overdrive - November 02, 2007 (09:12 AM)
Instead of simply listing great talking leads, it might be best to come up with great "serious" talking leads. Justin from Grandia, Alex from the PS Lunar:SSSC, etc. were great talking leads because they had a certain youthful exuberance about them. They wanted to be great adventurers and those piddly minor details like saving the world just kinda came along with the territory.

The problem is that with very few exceptions, I've never really been pleased with the personas given to talking leads in those games with more serious plots. Seems like way too many of them follow the same generic template:

1. Standoffish, don't play well with others.
2. Dark secret about their past divulged.
3. With help of friends, they overcome this and learn a valuable life lesson.

It's a rare game that overcomes the temptation to fall into this trap. If more games had leads like Chris and Hugo of Suiko 3, I'd have no complaint. They were regular people filling their roles on two different sides of a conflict, who gradually learned both about the other side and about themselves WITHOUT needing some deus ex machina like how they're artificially created robots without a past to trigger any of that.

To me, it just diminishes a game when you get put into control of a character you look at as an annoying bitch-boy. I'd rather have a silent dude where you have to "imagine" his personality traits than a guy like Senel (Tales of Legendia) or Fayt (Star Ocean:TtEoT). You usually get enough quirky personalities from the supporting cast to need another one from the main player.

Don't get me wrong — I have no problem with the concept of a talking hero.....I just can't stand most of the ones I come across because it seems no real imagination or heart went into creating them. And at times, no logic. I mean, I spend a lot of time wondering if Vaan was created and inserted into FF XII at the last minute to satisfy Square's quota for overly feminine guys per year. Think about it: you have a small revolution looking to overthrow a corrupt empire. It's led by a dethroned princess who is supported by a fallen knight looking for justice. They're being assisted by a daring space pirate and his companion. Oh, and some random street kid and a chick he knows. Despite the street kid's only connection to any of this being that his brother was killed (supposedly by the fallen knight, although you don't need to be Sherlock Holmes to immediately figure out differently), he's invited to stick around with the revolution AS A VALUED MEMBER OF THE PARTY!!!! I try not to think about that too much....me poor head starts hurtin' somethin' fierce, it does....
draqq_zyxx draqq_zyxx - November 03, 2007 (07:12 PM)
I find that the gameplay in RPGs restricts the main character more than anything else. It's still about a character who defeats monsters for experience, gains money to buy better and better weapons and armor, defeats progressively more difficult bosses, gains access to more places for exploration - you get the drill. There's little room for a character other than a young male protagonist that follows the traditional male hero archetype to tell the story with how the gameplay traditionally progresses.

One reason why Hayao Miyazaki uses female heroines, with the exception of Princess Mononoke, is his affirmation that they allow for more emotional development than a male one. The development of masculinity from boyhood to manhood is rigidly classical, so trying to tack on some emotional richness usually ends up failing. And in an industry where male protagonists rule, the gameplay has only had to cater to those male story arcs. Even silent protagonists have a Clint Eastwood quality, where silence not only allows the player to enter the shell of the main character more easily, but can remain unemotional in the face of danger and war - stemming from the fact that men are more easily emotionally flooded than women. Silence (and pithy) is a natural defense that men can identify with more easily than talky and whiny.

I find it fascinating that Suikoden III works a large part because of Chris, a woman in a knightly role but still is feminine without being overtly sexified. Without her, the story would have had been led by two male archetypes, Hugo (boyhood into manhood) and Geddoe (the silent type). This isn't to say that Hugo's and Geddoe's story arcs were generic, because they were developed quite well (the manga is great, by the way). It's just that the addition of the other gender, along with the drama of warring factions and experiencing different points of view, turns what might have been a common story on its side.

Now, I'm not saying that adding a woman will solve the problem. It's that our ideas on the male action hero and how we want that male hero to be confines the story and its emotional depth - and all of that is encompassed by how the gameplay is structured in a way that tracks classical male development. Trying to tell the story of the "serious" yet more passive, gentler, romantic, or melodramatic male - that of Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day or Tom Hank's character in Sleepless in Seattle - through the predominantly active male protagonist in a video game is near impossible without being sappy and unbelievable.
dragoon_of_infinity dragoon_of_infinity - November 04, 2007 (01:41 PM)
Did...did someone just call Alex a silent Protagonist?

I mean, yes, he doesn't talk much, but at the same time he does talk. He has a very clear motive, palpable resolve, and he's very clear about that. His personality simply isn't as...overbearing as certain other members of the cast (i.e. everyone else).

I'd say he's more of another point for the non silent side. But at the root of all this is the fact that neither side really has much of a showing as far as quality protagonists goes. If I were to try to assemble a list of really good RPG leads, I probably wouldn't even use up all of my fingers.

And that's a tragedy.
joseph_valencia joseph_valencia - November 04, 2007 (10:16 PM)
Alex was a silent protagonist in the Sega CD version.
dragoon_of_infinity dragoon_of_infinity - November 05, 2007 (02:17 PM)
Well, in that case, color me mislead by the PSX making of disc where they constantly reference Alex's voice actor in the Sega CD version and the PSX version being the same person. I suppose he must have just done battle noises in the CD game.

Not being able to play the Sega CD version of Lunar is a long running regret of mine.
zanzard zanzard - November 12, 2007 (07:43 PM)
May I, a lowly HG Neophyte, share in a few thoughts?

Recently, I have seen the Phantasy Star I fan-translation from the original japanese to english (which basically was made because many people felt the oiginal SEGA translation was poor).

In seeing the vastly more interesting japanese plot, I noticed something: In the American version, the characters of Alis, Odin, Myan & Noah interact very little. Meanwhile, in the japanese version said characters interact... also very little!

The novelty in fan-translated Phantasy Star was not that the MAIN CHARACTERS were given deeper personas, it was the GENERIC PEOPLE OF ALGO who were given more lines.
You had the cake-baker in the monster-filled cave who moved there to evade taxes, the guy who sells you a roadpass early on urging you to "say nothing about a missing courier", and finally the big foozle (LaShiec) who gave a much more interesting speech before he proceed to fry thy arse.
But talking between party members? Very little added.

Bottom line: Square and its copycats invest in deep CHARACTERS, while other companies (like SEGA and defunct Black isle) commonly invest in deepening GAME WORLDS.
PStar gave you the world of Algo, which was the background of three other games later on. The coolest parts of PStar 2,3 & 4 were, to me, seeing again familiar places like planet Motavia and cities like Paseo and Piata, as well as references to characters of elder games like Lutz, Nei, and Alis.
Think about one of the greatest RPGs ever, Fallout 2. Fallout 2 had a generic protagonist who was basically 'you'. But it had a incredible scenario, the post-apocalyptic Wasteland, as background, and seeing in Fallout 2 how Shady sands, vault 13 and 15, and how characters like Tandi and the Ghoul Harold turned out was a blast.
Of course Square can't invest in deep gameworlds, their games change their scenarios in every installment.

Personally, I think teenagers probably like seeing deep characters because they can relate to them and to the conflicts they have inside of them that, as teenagers, they never would like to admit they have.
Gamers of the old school, like me, probably prefer exploring amazing lands just like we enjoy the idea of travelling 'round the world someday.
lasthero lasthero - November 29, 2007 (10:41 PM)
Damn you, Overdrive, for making me agree with EmP.

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