30 August 2010

RPG Week — Introduction

Yes, I used to play this stuff. No, I'm not crazy.
Now that I have internet again and some time to spare, I'm planning on getting back into the swing of this. In fact, I plan on writing a little every day and theoretically posting most of it here. I am thinking of trying to record as many of my memories as possible, and most of that project would not make it's way here. But otherwise, I'll be reviewing and discussing films, video games, and books just about every day from now on. My goal is to keep this up for a month. After that, it'll be wedding time and I may miss a day or two.

At any rate, I plan to start things out with a little feature to span the entire week. I'm going to write a post each day discussing a different RPG that I've been playing lately.

But first, I thought I'd lay down the groundwork for you on just what I plan on doing.

Why RPGs?
Believe it or not, my first foray into role playing games was, in fact, old text-based games. I never beat any, but I enjoyed them immensely. Imagine my surprise when I found out about Final Fantasy VII, the first console RPG I ever played. And then I beat my first RPG—Chrono Cross. And from there on out, it was truly a love that was meant to be.

In general, I tend to enjoy the strong storytelling element in RPGs. Furthermore, they are also more about strategy (or for some, grinding) than dexterity—battles are not won with quick reflexes and split-second decisions but with tactical planning and creative thinking. I usually prefer the "mental" challenge of RPGs to the "physical" challenge of many other genres. Though don't get me wrong, I've beaten Mega Man 2 and the Scott Pilgrim game and shooters like Red Faction. I love me some shoot-em-ups, and I like fighting games. But role playing games are where my heart lies. They are my bread and butter. I cannot deny that fact.

How do you intend to review them?
I am always keenly aware that reviews are a mixture of objective observations and subjective opinions. To a certain degree, one can objectively discuss the facts of a work of art. One could say that a film is poorly animated, with numerous animation errors. Perhaps a book is written in a manner that is overly simplistic. We could fault a video game for having numerous glitches. However, we ultimately have to make a subjective decision on how much these observations matter.

Maybe the glitches in the game make it more amusing, and they are thus easy to overlook. Maybe the animation errors add campy charm to the already campy film. Perhaps the overly simplistic writing makes the book easily accessible to children. At a certain point, we have to make a judgement call based on the facts. Our final verdict is therefore a mixture of objective and subjective reasoning, and it is for this reason that many films, books, and video games can receive wildly differing reviews.

It is also for this reason that I avoid giving easily digested reviews on this blog. I don't have a number system. I don't give something X stars out of 10. I don't give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. I discuss the work of art. I discuss what I thought it did well and where I thought it was lacking. I'll often say if I liked it or not. But I never try to imply that what I say and think is the fact of the matter. Ultimately, I leave it up to you to decide if you agree with me or not. I leave it up to you to decide if you want to pursue it or not.

This is, perhaps, an entirely too complex concept to fully flesh out here, so I will get on with the matter at hand.

What makes a good RPG?
That is, what makes a good RPG for me. For ease of understanding, I plan on dividing my discussions into categories that deal with different aspects of RPGs that I feel are important. They are:
Characters: This tends to be one of the most important parts of story-telling for me. I want characters that I care about. I want to feel for them as human beings and connect with them at some level. I want characters that are realistic. And no, despite what game developers seem to think "realism" means these days, "realistic" doesn't mean darkness and grit. Yes, conflict exists and is a part of life. Yes, it's true that life doesn't always work out to a happy ending and that there is darkness in the world and pain and suffering. People die, and often it is very sad. However, life can also be happy. People smile and laugh. There are times where things are peaceful and beautiful. And no, that time is not just the past, some bittersweet memory. Sometimes, even in the midst of difficulty, people can laugh and smile and be happy for what they have. I want characters that are like real people, who feel a large range of emotions. And while the ending doesn't always have to be "happy" in the classic sense, I still want to see them grow. I want to see them become better people.

Plot: The story is important, and I want it to be moving and interesting. That doesn't mean it needs to be overly complex, though. Though I will not be discussing Final Fantasy XII, I will mention here that it's story is just too crazy for me. There are so many little plot points and details and they create all these characters and all this back history that I feel like I need Cliff's Notes just to understand what is going on. I think a lot of RPGs like FFXII will sacrifice character development for creating a complex and intriguing story. In the end, I feel as though something great and inspiring has just happened, but that I missed it. I missed it because I never became emotionally involved in what was going on. It just sort of happened, and it all seemed to be riddled with plot twists and so forth, but I never really cared at a personal level. Plots can be interesting and powerful without being extremely detailed. Sometimes, a very simple story can be much more powerful. More is less, to a certain degree.

Gameplay: Essentially, is it fun to play? The core of RPG gameplay is text-based story and battles. So what's the battle system like? Does it feel challenging? Or is it too easy? Is it rewarding to do well? Does it do anything new? Or does it do the old standard well?

Another facet of gameplay is how you explore the world. In general, I want some level of exploration without it being overwhelming. I want the game to help guide me through a vast and amazing world. Tell me where to go and what to do, but give me some freedom in the matter. Just not so much freedom that I get lost.

Ambience: This last part would include things like graphics, music, and sound effects/voice acting. If the other three aspects above are like the ingredients in a dish, ambience is sort of like the seasoning. You only really notice it when it's so bad that it ruins the experience for you or so good that it pushes it from good to purely amazing. A game with terrible ambience can ruin the whole mood of it. A game with great characters, plot, and gameplay but mediocre ambience can still be a lot of fun. The best, though, is when the other elements are good, and then the ambience makes it purely unforgettable. Music can be a big part of this for me. Just think of the music in FFVII and how much it adds to that game.

Well, tomorrow (Monday), I'll be posting the first actual review. It will be on Lunar: Silver Star Harmony, which I actually beat a while ago, but is still fairly fresh in my mind.

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