Monday, September 7, 2015

Balancing Storytelling and Gameplay in RPGs

After recently playing the Mass Effect trilogy along with other story-heavy RPGs, I wanted to try something a little different. I decided on Diablo 3: Ultimate Evil Edition, having no prior knowledge of the game or the franchise other than constantly hearing that it had great combat mechanics, awesome loot, and a lackluster story. That was the consensus of nearly every review that I read before buying and playing the game, so while I was looking forward to the game, I was also mildly curious about this storyline which was supposedly the weakest link in the game.

After a couple of false starts, I played the game all the way to the end of the expanded campaign with a demon hunter, going as high as Torment III in my difficulty settings. I had a blast killing hordes of monsters, leveling up my character and equipping all the new goodies I was finding. And how about the story? It was minimal, certainly. In fact, I had considered at first doing a review of it, but to be honest there just wasn’t enough to really review. The characters are very minimal, the conflicts are clearly explained, and even the rare ‘twist’ is so clearly telegraphed that I was never even slightly surprised. But was that all a bad thing?

Not every RPG has to be a Final Fantasy or Star Ocean to be good. Ten minute cut-scenes and long periods of time spent “talking to villagers” don’t necessarily make for immersive gameplay or an engaging storyline. The truth is, a role-playing game needs a healthy balance between its mechanics and storyline. While one may be stronger than the other, a game needs both to be successful.

Last year I tried out a JRPG called Lost Odyssey for the Xbox 360. I still remember the evocative storyline and immersive world with its engaging characters and subplots. I never finished the game, and sometimes I still yearn to return to that amazing, fanciful world. But then I remember the gameplay. The combat was horrible. Every normal attack was a quick-time event, all mage characters were incredibly over-powered, and the leveling system was a convoluted mess. For me, this game’s engaging story just couldn’t make up for the terrible gameplay, and I put it away forever as a result.

So, what about Diablo III? Did the gameplay make up for its storyline? For me, definitely. While earlier versions may have had some mechanical issues, the Ultimate Evil Edition has perfectly balanced difficulty, engaging combat, and an addictive leveling system. Actually, my favorite aspect of the game is also the biggest break of the fourth wall. All earned gold, stashed equipment, and character progress above level 70 is shared between each of my created characters. Because of this, I started the game over with a new character just a day after beating the game the first time, something that I’ve never done with an RPG before.

I think the difference here is that it’s much easier for an RPG to be good with minimal storytelling rather than minimal gameplay. A perfect example is Chrono Trigger for the Super Nintendo. Look up any list of the best RPGs ever, and you’ll find this game as either number one or close to it. Because of the limitations of the system it was developed for, this game has to tell its story without the benefits of voice acting, lengthy cut scenes, or huge game worlds filled with dozens of NPC interactions. And yet the story is both beautiful and complex, with every line of dialogue crafted carefully for maximum efficiency.

I’m not saying that there’s too much story in all of today’s games. After all, one of my favorite series of games is Uncharted, which often feels more like an action movie than a video game. But no matter how good the story might be, a video game also has to still engage the player with its interactive elements, whether that’s combat, puzzles, or actual decision-making role-playing. In short, storyline needs to serve the gameplay just as gameplay needs to serve the storyline, and that’s often easier to do with minimal story telling rather than minimal gameplay.

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