Role playing games have always been an important genre in video games, from the early days of Final Fantasy to the later rise of western series like Mass Effect and the Elder Scrolls. To the uninitiated, however, the sheer breadth of the differing kinds of RPG on offer makes it hard to decide exactly what to play. To this end I propose a rough scale of emphasis by which to guide your forays into this most hallowed of genres. Depending on the style of RPG, there will be a focus on either story at one end of the scale, and choice at the other. Typically JRPGs tend to focus on story and Western RPGs tend to focus on choice. To illustrate this I will give some examples. I will also critique the strengths and weaknesses of the different approaches.
Emphasis on Choice – The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls games are well known for the huge amount of volition they give to the player. After the initial prologue quest the hero is given the entire world map to explore, in whichever order he pleases. All quests therefore can be completed in any order, allowing players to effectively ‘create their own story’. The strength of such an approach is obvious enough, you can create a far more realistic, living world by not imposing restrictions on the player – since such restrictions would be reminders of the fact that the world is a virtual one. Additionally RPGs are about role-playing, and the extent to which the player is allowed to fulfil the role they wish to is furthered by giving them a wide range of possibilities.
However, as in any scale, the more one goes towards one end the further one gets from the other. Thus games with an emphasis on choice tend, as a rule, to simultaneously sacrifice story. Now many will immediately call me out on this and say ‘Skyrim has a great story what are you on about?’ If you look more closely however, you may see what I am trying to say. The problem is that the ability to freely choose where to go and what order to do quests in limits the story by isolating separate quests from it. In other words, each quest line has no impact on each separate quest line, the stories are divided. If I end the civil war with the Nords winning, it will not alter the events of the mage’s guild one bit, and vice versa. This isolation prevents large payoffs from previous story events, and indeed, prevents a large story structure evolving at all. What you are left with is a large number of separate stories, linked only by taking place in the same world.
Personally I find this story deficiency unsatisfying, but for those who seek to role play rather than be involved in a story this is not much of an issue.
Emphasis on Story – Final Fantasy VII
The ironically named franchise has always placed story at its core, and 7, its most famous entry is the best example of this. Players are plunged into a quest to save the very world from sinister forces, along the way recruiting a ragtag group of companions all with fleshed out characters which are developed over time. Progression is focused on story-based objectives, including a mandatory order in which to complete main quests. This leads to a much stronger story driven experience than the Choice focused games as everything you do feels tied to the story in some way, even secondary quests evolve along with the events of the main plot, and your actions thus always feel necessary and connected.
However, by focusing on story, one necessarily limits choice to a degree also. Thus, players must play as the predefined character Cloud, limiting their role-playing ability. Furthermore their path is more restricted and linear reinforcing the fact that the world is a game and not a real one. To my mind however, as I argued in my Beyond: Two Souls feature, this linearity has its advantages – giving us purpose in what we do rather than falling prey to the meandering, random choice of games like Skyrim.
Mixed Emphasis: Story and Choice – Mass Effect 2
Really I could have named any Bioware RPG for this middle ground, since it seems to be an approach pretty much cornered by them. By falling somewhere around the middle of the spectrum Bioware games allow player a larger degree of choice than JRPGs while a larger focus on story than games like Skyrim.
The way this is achieved is by creating intricate plots involving mutually dependant but not chronologically fixed main quest lines which can be tackled in different orders, but are all interrelated to the main overarching plot. for Example, in Mass Effect 2 your goal is to go on a suicide mission to save captured human colonists, and to do so you assemble a team. Which order you assemble the team in is up to you, but each quest is related to this need to save the humans, so all feel purposeful. Additionally most Bioware games include subtle differences in these quests depending on the order in which they are completed.
Another key element of limited choice is the companion characters. Like in JRPGs companions accompany you to form a party, but unlike in JRPGs, you are given a good deal of control over how you develop your relationships with them – whether they hate, like or even love you. The different perspectives offered by different companions can really alter the experience of the story, while still keeping it focused. For example in the first Mass Effect title, taking Liara with you to Noveria results in a bittersweet reunion with her mother, and more insight into both characters. This in turn would not be possible if you had not previously completed the mission to recruit Liara on Therum.
For me, this is the best kind of approach as it balances the strengths and weaknesses of Choice and Story focused games. however, there is no right answer, and which kind of game you prefer will be different to you. Hopefully this guide will at least give you a basic idea of what kinds of things to expect from the varying RPGs out there.