OPINION: RPGs Aren’t What They Used to Be


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This may come as a shock to some of you, but I’ve been accused of being stuck in the past. Dearly beloved friends refer to me as a walking time capsule, an “old soul”. I’ve become infamous in my inner-circle for being a hardcore gamer, but only owning Nintendo systems from about 2006 ‘til around the time Sonic Generations came out last year. To be completely honest, I never felt too deprived while only owning a Wii and DS until just after last year’s E3 (which is admittedly why we’re all here). But I had missed out on playing through some of the critically acclaimed “Western RPGs” like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Fallout. As soon as I bought a PS3, I immediately laid down cash on some of those games and Final Fantasy XIII as well.

Prior to joining Operation Rainfall, I was affiliated with a few other communities, one of which was pretty much exclusively devoted to PS3, 360 and PC. I was most assuredly an outlier of the group; everyone insisted I should come out of the “dark ages” and experience all of these new, cutting-edge, “next gen” RPGs. Their sentiments echoed across my head as I played through each of these games that handfuls of people expected me to instantly fall in love with. I wasn’t impressed at all. Perhaps I’m too old-fashioned, but playing through these “modern” RPGs created by both Japanese and Western developers…just really made me miss how things used to be.

Gather ‘Round Kids, Let Grandpa Tell You a Story

Videogames have evolved faster than almost any other entertainment medium. Twenty years ago, people were just beginning to experience handheld gaming on a large brick that played simple black and white games. Now many of us are basically carrying a pocket-sized Gamecube around collecting Streetpasses and the like. I don’t want to devote too much time to discussing the evolution of technology, but… I’ll be twenty-five in December. While I still consider myself quite young in the grand scheme of things, the rapid evolution of technology kind of treats videogame hobbyists as though they age in “dog years”. The influences of someone who is seventeen versus someone who is my age bring about a cultural gap similar to that of you and your parents. Perhaps that’s why we’ve taken to referring to one family of consoles to the next as “generations”.

Yes, in my generation, role-playing games were a little different. And there’s no better way to elaborate upon these differences than discussing the game that made JRPGs mainstream, Final Fantasy VII.

 

I could write volumes regarding how Cloud Strife is a sort of black hole that sucked the life from Final Fantasy ever since VII became as wildly popular as it did, but a) Final Fantasy IX came after it, so my argument would be invalidated rather quickly, and b) he wasn’t Cloud Strife to me in the beginning. I’ll freely admit, the leading characters in my RPGs have often been named “Jon” after me, and I would name his companions after my friends. Ever since reading the instruction manual of the first Legend of Zelda game on NES where it insisted, “YOU are Link”, I’ve understood that the essence of the role-playing game was to place myself (and the people I care about) in these unique situations.

The philosophical link between player and character(s) has not changed over time, but I would argue that the RPGs considered “relics” offered more opportunities for the personal growth of the player, if only for the fact that “Cloud” could be “Jon” if I wanted him to be. Sure, it’s understood that Cloud would be Cloud to the masses. But my memories of VII, much like many of my memories associated with the Zelda franchise, are about my personal journey through the game.

  

Voice acting was the first mark of the modern age that truly began to take away the personal nature of JRPGs. Naming characters and other personal touches were taken away in favor of adding an extra layer of reality to the overall experience offered in the games. Cloud and other characters from Final Fantasy VII have cemented themselves as being completely different than I remember, now that Advent Children, Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core have separated themselves from the simple story of my youth.

Zelda is truly my last bastion when it comes to this. I’ll never be one of those people that yearn for voice acting in my Zelda games. The day “Link” becomes anything other than “Jon” will truly be a sad one.

Naming characters has been taken away in favor of voice acting. World maps have been removed in favor of labyrinthine towns and dungeons that can be visited on a whim via scrolling through a series of menus versus exploring the world. Simple turn-based combat with menus has been forcibly removed in favor of complex systems that, for the most part, bog the player down even moreso than menus did back in their day. But, all this subjectivity aside, the biggest detriment new games face over old ones is their graphics. Final Fantasy XIII may be aesthetically superior to Final Fantasy VII in every conceivable way, but this focus on graphics and presentation has taken priority over telling a good story anymore.

   

It’s been too long since I’ve seen a life-changing story in an RPG on a console, outside of the Operation Rainfall games. Everything seems to borrow from everything else in the east. Maybe that’s why many consider the Japanese RPG to be a fruitless endeavor anymore. Don’t get me wrong; games like Mass Effect probably have amazing stories, but I cannot for the life of me play through them because I find elements of both their presentation and gameplay absolutely jarring. Like I said, I’m probably too old-fashioned. Could the stories of Bioware be told if they had the graphics of something like Chrono Trigger? Something I’ve often questioned, something to think about.

Respect your elders! Head to page two for my next point.

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About Jonathan Higgins

Jonathan joined the oprainfall Staff a few months before the US release of Xenoblade Chronicles. He began as a dedicated editorial writer for the site, but over time was recognized for so much more than just that. He is now a co-owner of the oprainfall website, helping to maintain the site itself, as well as ensure its content is given proper quality control. Motivated primarily by philosophy and “knowing his roots” as a gamer, Jonathan spends his time playing games for their stories or creating his own.