A RPG Plot Dealbreaker

When I was younger, every review of a RPG had two concerns.  They wanted visible armor changes, and visible enemies on screen.  The length of the game, the quality of the story, the graphics – all of that was usually secondary to those two concerns.  Today, novelty is a common concern.  People look for unusual battle systems, or plots that have some kind of meta statement going on. Unfortunately, this kind of criticism doesn’t work for me.  You see, by focusing with laser precision on a checklist of your perfect RPG, it’s easy to say that a game is “perfect” or “terrible.”  However, it’s ignoring the actual experience of playing the game and the fact that not every person in the world loves the same checklist.  So, if I’m going to complain about what other people look for in a game, I should talk about what I look for in a game.  Let’s start with a plot dealbreaker.

After several hours of these kinds of battles and drawing maps on the lower screen, Etrian Oddyssey has you meet a sentient race.

For me, a dealbreaker is a game that should have never been played, plotwise.  A good example of this is the old Infocom text adventure, Infidel.  In this game, you play a archeologist who has a chance for finding a great treasure in a pyramid.  Basically, by completing the game, you kill the character.  Now, the character is a rather unpleasant person, but that doesn’t mean that hubris had the only ending being death.  Chrono Cross had the final hours of the game basically saying that all your actions in Chrono Trigger made the world worse.  Etrian Oddyssey has a major plotline where the only way to get more things to do, you have to do something horrible.  Now, that doesn’t mean the game can’t have your character doing stupid things, or misguided things.  Final Fantasy VI destroys the world, but your characters end the game with the conviction to try to fix the world.  Xenogears destroys the world, but you are saving it from a worse fate.

In this animated ending from a remake, your hero in Chrono Trigger gets married. He'll likely die in five years, according to Chrono Cross.

For a game to be a dealbreaker, the choice often feels arbitrary, or purely to make a point.  Chrono Trigger’s characters, even if you play the game as quickly as possible, are practically capable of taking on an army single-handedly.  When canon says that they were defeated by a comedy villain, it feels like a cheap attack on fans.  When the “tragic” choice is one that feels like you could do something else, then the game feels like it’s forcing a choice just because you want to finish the game.  It’s not immersive, because the choice is artificial.  It’s not shocking, because the alternative is to stop playing the game.  It’s not commenting on the moral code of the player, since the player is stuck with a stupid choice, or no game to play.

Breath of Fire III has a number of unwinnable fights in the early game where your kid has no choice but to be beaten up.

So, for me, this kind of plot falls utterly flat.  It’s not dramatic.  It’s not a shocking pleasure.  It sours the experience of playing the game, and makes the game a tiresome experience.  Of course, you can ignore a bad plot point or enjoy the other elements of the game.  However, if the game doesn’t offer enough to make up for a questionable plot, it really doesn’t seem worth it to play.

  1. Rav’s avatar

    I kind of feel the same way about Xenosaga versus Xenogears. It’s kind of the rule of cool. I don’t care if you change how the world works, but the new plot better feel as cool as the old one. I don’t care that Xenosaga is basically an alternate world from Xenogears, but I do care that Shion Uzuki feels like a focus tested “cute” girl. Shion has the last name of a incredibly powerful character in Xenogears, but none of the statistical greatness of the character. Citan Uzuki, in Xenogears, has deep ties to multiple factions and is juggling multiple roles at once. Shion feels like half her stuff was designed to make her adorable or appealing to the audience. I personally find her kind of both irritating and pandering.

    Chrono Cross has a complex plot idea under everything that kind of survived the way the game was cropped down and translated. However, doom kitty and holy fisherman of death – the frozen tidal wave – the dead party – your horde of mostly paperthin characters don’t feel as cool as your upbeat (but cliche) and narrowly focussed plot in Chrono Trigger.

    I think I feel that way about Final Fantasy VIII too. The world idea (Sorceress, a war torn world that tried to make peace, mercenaries losing their memories to try to fix the future, a hidden prophecy of what will happen) is nifty. The execution and the gameplay just doesn’t seem that fun and the cool stuff doesn’t seem to interest the game, which seems more interested in playing around elsewhere.

    I think Chrono Cross, in particular, suffers because it feels like an enthusiastic fanfic. You know, someone running out and going “I have the coolest what-if story ever! It tells you all about Dalton, and Schala, and says what a stupid idea it is to play around in time!” And the audience mostly is just going “Dude, you killed off the old guys, and I don’t think I like your Original Characters that much. Why do I care about Dalton again?”

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