18 Sep Why I Love RPGs
Sometimes Ideas hit you at strange times. I was sitting around over the past Saturday with no plans or reason to go out. I love days like that, they don’t come along too often but are always appreciated. I’ve been super busy lately with my band, Bad Mary. We just went on a tour of Japan and had some shows back stateside when we got home, so while life has been amazing, it’s been just a bit exhausting. I had the night free and started playing Fire Emblem at around 6pm. After hours of battles and tea parties I made the terrible decision to look at my phone to check the time. As if no time had passed it was six hours later and I was shocked to see that I just sunk a quarter of the day into a video game. I don’t do that frequently and I never did it in my youth. While I was growing up, I certainly played a lot of video games, but when you have time to play every day, you tend to not marathon games as much. Sure, we may have played Smash Bros. for 6-8 hours straight at sleepovers or something, but I was always a 2 hour gamer. Jump in play for 30 mins, 1 hour, but I’d max out at 2 hours. Now, as an adult, as my time is much more limited I rarely find the time to play games every day. What happens is my time with games is condensed into a single day or weekend. I sink what available time I can into playing a game and seeing where the day or night take me. The genre that gets me to this point most frequently is the RPG. While I tend to prefer Japanese RPGs (JRPGs), I’ve also seen this happen with games like Fallout and The Witcher. Sadly this post isn’t about binge gaming or what not, it’s actually about the genre itself and why I find myself lost in it so frequently. I love platformers, action-adventure games, fighting games, and many others, but if I’m going to accidentally lose a day to a video game, you can bet all your dollars (or currency of your choice) that it’s going to be an RPG.
I first got into RPGs with the Final Fantasy series. I had a close friend who lived nearby in elementary school and he showed me the joys of RPGs with Final Fantasy on the NES. We used to talk about it in school and he’d bring in his older brother’s issue of Nintendo Power that focused on FF. After school we’d often go to his house and play hours upon hours of Final Fantasy. I didn’t quite know what an RPG was at that time, or what it meant, but I knew I liked the slow pace and the brilliant flourishes of story and theme. The music was burned into my memory and seeing the sprites of the characters is always quite nostalgic for me. I even have a little black mage decal on my car. Before my adventures into Final Fantasy I spent all of my time playing Mario, Sonic, Mega Man, Zelda and a mix of platforming, action/adventure, racing, beat ‘em ups, and fighting games. What spoke to me about Final Fantasy is that there was so much more. You start on the map, you then can walk into a town and talk with people and buy things. Or you can go fight imps in the forest for hours. It was like Zelda, but bigger and with much more to do. Characters had classes and different things they can do, I was awestruck. I had played Zelda II a bunch before this point, but I had no idea what experience points meant, I just always got killed at the palace and shut it off. Through Final Fantasy I learned about random battles and experience points and the importance of levelling up. I then applied all this to Zelda II.
I didn’t really or truly learn what an RPG was until my favorite game, Super Mario RPG released in 1996. I remember asking myself “What’s RPG mean?” I found out it meant Role Playing Game, and that meant it was like Final Fantasy. As a glutton for just about anything and everything Mario (except Time Machine and Missing) I got Mario RPG as soon as I could, as a reward for a great year of school. I spent the entire summer playing the game, but also reconnecting with Final Fantasy. I finally bought my own copy from Kay-Bee Toys in the mall by my house (Broadway Mall in Hicksville, NY Forever!) for $20. I started renting games like Final Fantasy III from the local Blockbuster. I knew that I wanted to play more games like this and I’d do what I could to make it happen! My free time became devoted to RPGs and as 1997 finally showed up in my life everything was sacrificed to all that was Final Fantasy VII. I became an RPG kid who has now grown up into being an RPG adult and I have no intentions of turning back!
What first grasped me about RPGs was their scope. I love a good saga or overarching story. My favorite comic book stories as a kid were those that were told over many parts. Stories that rewarded you for reading early on and ultimately made you think back to issue #1 in the last chapter of the story. Whether it was Spider-Man or Batman or the X-Men, my favorite stories were those that kept you wanting more. I gather this is why I also enjoy anime, especially of the Shonen variety. I love how each chapter continues the story and how non-episodic it is. In general I felt and still feel the same way about RPGs. I try not to use this word too frequently, but when you start a new RPG there’s a sense that you’re about to embark on something that’s truly epic. While many RPGs will start you off in different ways, they tend to help you understand the scope immediately. Whether it’s a game like Final Fantasy that starts you on the open map with a strip of land to explore, or Skyrim that starts with a failed execution as the result of a dragon attack. RPGs feel big and set you up for adventure and if you’re someone who has that spirit they tend to capture your attention. Even a game like Persona 5 that takes place solely in Tokyo has a certain size and scope to it. The games feel like they’re bigger than the player. This is also very true about open world action games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption, but I feel like there are stark differences in the way in which those games are presented.
To this day I’m a sucker for the “world map” of early JRPGs. While I’ve softened my need to have one, I used to love leaving a town only to have an entire planet to explore. You could walk around and fight monsters, get into trouble, accidentally stumble onto side-quests and the like. While the games I started with are quite limited by today’s standards, being able to “go where you want” was a very great concept for someone who wanted to see more of the worlds surrounding the character. I loved being able to run from left to right in Mario, but I wanted to see what was going on behind him, in the castles and fields of the Mushroom Kingdom. Zelda had a great feeling of exploration, but it was lacking in narrative. Today RPGs love to allow you to play with the world in varying degrees. Some games are much more open than others, as in a game like Skyrim you can go wherever you’d like and do whatever you want from the start of the game. Others like to give you a set path but also give you options to break away. It’s amazing to get into a world that feels as though it’s been lived in with characters and history already baked into the story. These games put you into a world that has a backstory and you’re often given the ability to learn more as you climb all the mountains or journey to the bottom of the sea. These games are easy to get enraptured with as the world pours over you as the player.
While I don’t often have the time to finish them, a long game is always a nice idea. There’s something very comforting about starting up a game that you’ll live in for the next few months. While many genres do this, RPGs often feel the best at fleshing that out. As stated before Rockstar is also exceptional at this, which is why I love games like RDR2 so much, but I always feel as though they’re the outlier, and their work is quite remarkable. While many other genres have begun to employ RPG mechanics to their franchises, the only games that truly feel like they’re on this level are RPGs. The worlds have endless scope and potential for growth on both a personal and narrative level.
Most RPGs start you at the bottom. I’ve played countless hours of Mario, Mega Man, and other platformers over the years, and while you tend to get better gear and better items as the games go on, your character often doesn’t improve on their own. You may get better as a player, but Mario has the same set of verbs and abilities that he has on level 1-1 that he does on level 8-4, only affected slightly by the powerups he has. In an RPG you start at a low level like 1 or 3 and over the course of the game you may end up at 20 or 30 or 50 or 99. This plays off the scope of the world and story, but in RPGs you’re constantly getting better in game. This always spoke to me as a player, your characters get better the more work and time you put into it. While I know this is a bit of a Capitalist approach to gaming, I like being rewarded for hard work. I’m a level 1 weenie? Time to go kill slimes in the forest for 3 hours! While grinding can sometimes take the player too far out of the game, I appreciate a nice, comfortable grind for a little bit in between large, tentpole events in the story. Most recently, Octopath Traveler was great at this, in between chapters I could spend a few hours grinding up my characters just a bit so we could go on to the next part of the story. While I don’t like overgrinding, I appreciate that power gamers have the ability to jump levels and waltz through the game at a brisk pace. As for me, I like being strong enough for bosses to be a challenge but not a cakewalk.
This stands out against other genres, in many 3D action games you’re already super powerful at the start. While your equipment in these games can get better as time goes on, you’re still a god or apex warrior or expert. In RPGs you start as a forgettable, blank slate who barely has a name. People in towns don’t know you by name and even big bads laugh at you when you challenge them, as you do in the first 3rd of so many great RPGs. I like the idea of progress and that the tools you start the game with will continue to grow over time. It’s like weight lifting or reading or studying a language in real life. The more you get out there and experience the world, battle monsters, and finish side-quests, the more powerful you’ll become. Character progression is also the perfect excuse to experience more of the worlds and environments that were developed for the player as though the game wants you to invest in both yourself as a player and the world that was crafted for you to play in. Often while you grow in RPGs you can in addition customize your characters. Which is something else that has always been appealing.
I remember first playing Final Fantasy on NES and seeing that you could choose any of the six character (job) classes for your 4 starting characters. You could make a party with 4 fighters or 4 Black Mages. You could mix it up and have a smattering of different jobs or abilities. I always like the Agile Fighter, Strong Fighter, Healer, and Caster. I often play these games with a Monk, Fighter, White Mage, and Black Mage. It’s probably the D&D in me, but that’s how I operate. In games like Fallout and Oblivion you can adapt your character from their inception and choose which skills and perks you gain as you level. You can specialize in whatever abilities you like and the games give you control over your own destiny. Freedom of choice in an RPG ultimately makes the game so much more personal and expansive and no two playthroughs should be the same. Some games fall into linear traps lacking customization, but those tend to be outliers for the genre. And when they do, like in Final Fantasy IV, they tend to make up for it with better characters and story. Customization also allows the player to insert themselves into a game a bit, I play Final Fantasy Tactics differently than some of my friends. My party in Bravely Default is always some mix of: Ninja/Thief/Monk, Samurai/Knight/Valkyre, Black Mage/Summoner, White Mage/Priest. It’s how I like to operate, but some people have no problem really messing with the mechanics and breaking the game. In Fallout and Skyrim I like to build swift fighters who fight with one-handed weapons or dual-wield and I max out on speed and dexterity while other people choose to play… HULK SMASH!!! Even games like Diablo allow you to customize your class by choosing your skill tree. This means that even if two people are playing the same class, my barbarian is going to be different than your’s and so on. RPGs often require this level of personal investment and they allow you to let your personality shine through your build. Honestly, I wish they made more ninja RPGs….
In conjunction with the size and scope of RPGs often comes a certain degree of ambiance. It’s a combination of the worlds and visual and also the music. I’m a gamer who plays video games primarily to relax and escape from the hectic nature of the world around us. As I explained earlier, I’m constantly running from work to the gym to rehearsals to band gigs and what not. All of that hustle and bustle tends to add up and it gets exhausting! Add in the insanity that is the constant barrage of social media and it’s no wonder why so many folks are constantly exhausted both physically and mentally. Video games allow me to escape for a bit and get out of dodge mentally. I can sit in Hyrule or the Capital Wasteland for hours living in the shoes of a different character, like a portal into a different realm. Few genres handle this aspect better than the RPG. They are, in their purest form, the most ambient of the genres. It’s because they often require the most of your attention emotionally. Between massive landscapes, giant battles, and beautiful music RPGs set the stage for the best examples of escapism on the market. Other games may require your attention and may need you to be more alert, but the RPG often commands you to be focused with your heart, mind, and soul, that is when you’re invested in progression through the story. If you’re just sitting around grinding while watching cartoons on Hulu, then that’s not the case, but I often like to play RPGs in a dark room on a large TV with the music at a nice volume, looking out into the world in front of me.
RPG music is some of the best video game music around. Composers sink countless hours into fully orchestrated scores and some of the most sophisticated melodies and themes in all of video game music or music in general. This is one of the most underappreciated aspects of gaming, composers often get little credit for their genius. Imagine having to write the Super Mario Bros. theme song? You have to compose a 2 minute loop that for some reason NEVER gets old or annoying, but is still catchy enough to remember! As for RPGs their music varies from quiet and moody to racing and invigorating. The music needs to capture a full range, from the dulcet tones of a calm town in the countryside to the giant fanfare of a huge battle and everything in between. Without great music it’s often hard for me to fully love an RPG. It’s also why I don’t often turn the music down while I’m grinding or listen to podcasts or something while playing, I want to hear the world I’m in. It’s hard to get lost within a game if you can’t hear the world around you, or if the music doesn’t fit. The music doesn’t always have to be memorable for me, just fitting to the environment I’m in. I don’t want to be hit with nonstop speed metal if I’m running around a giant field. Though…I bet in some circumstances that could be cool.
RPGs feel a cut apart from the rest. Some are bustling with character and characters, while others are deeper, more personal, and quieter. In general though, they have wide casts of characters and interesting stories to find within strange and different worlds. I don’t think that the RPG is superior to every other genre, it’s that they do things a bit differently and I appreciate them for that. They often require a large investment from the player as well, which is often their biggest downfall. RPGs can be obtuse and often off putting at the start, which is possibly why they’ve always been one of the more niche genres in gaming. That being said, there’s a real reason to explore into the odd world of RPGs and I suggest you try them out if you haven’t. Start simple though…because some of them get a little intense….