Friday, June 14, 2024

What Makes a Great RPG? A Discussion

I’m joined today by Roseanna and Joe D. to talk video game RPGs. Our goal today is to discuss why we all love the genre, what we love about it and what we find most (and least) compelling within the genre. - G

Let’s start with some personal history - what was the first RPG that really captured your imagination, and what was your journey from there? 

Roseanna - So I had played various RPGs before - hell, I’d played this series before - but it was lockdown that kicked it off for me. I was on furlough for 12 weeks (which I would extremely not recommend, by the by), and the thing that got me through it was binge-playing first all of Dragon Age then Mass Effect straight through in a… probably unreasonably short time. BioWare in general, but Dragon Age as a series specifically, kind of catalysed my recent love of the RPG. From there, it was just chasing that high - that obsessive, hyperfocused investment in the story and characters that BioWare does so so addictively well.

Joe D. - Weirdly enough, the genre has grabbed hold of me at different points of my life and, as I changed, continued to find new ways to create an aura of adoration. My very first JRPG was a Capcom game called Breath of Fire III. I’d play it whenever at my cousin’s place (it was his game). We were always so excited to advance the story and unlock new genes (stone-like items that transformed the character into different entities). We loved experimenting with the different gene combinations and finding new areas to explore. While a lot of PS1 era kids point to Final Fantasy VII, I was hooked on Breath of Fire III (and Pokemon Blue!). This opened the floodgates for other JRPGs like Grandia, Lunar, and Final Fantasy IX/X. It wasn’t until Dragon Quest VIII that I found another JRPG that recreated that magic that I had found in my youth. It would later be one-upped by the Persona series (Persona 4 Golden/5 specifically).

On the flip side of the globe, in 2007, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion took any potential social life I could have had, lit it aflame, and spread the ashes across a tempestuous ocean. I had tried other western RPGs that I had liked to varying degrees, but nothing as captivating as Oblivion. There was a point during which I literally played for three days straight with no sleep. I wish for a modern day Bethesda remake, but I can only hope.

G - The first RPGs I played were Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radianceand Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire. I was young, though - and didn’t have access to any walkthroughs or game guides, so never finished either. Never really got that far, to be honest! So I went back to point-and-click adventure games, real-time strategy and first-person shooters, which were my genres of choice as a child and teenager (even long after point-and-click games went out of fashion, I might add). The idea of the RPG did take, however. 

Fast-forward a dozen years to an older me who read about a new game coming to the Xbox called Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. As you both know, I’m a bit of a Star Wars fanatic, and there hadn’t been a truly great Star Wars game in years - it had been 8 years since Dark Forces and 9 since TIE Fighter. So I was in, regardless of genre.

Knights of the Old Republic is a stunning game, one I replay every few years - and one of the absolute best Star Wars stories told on any medium. That was basically it for me - I was hooked on the genre. From there I continued on to Jade Empire, also a BioWare property, on the Xbox - and played both the original Deus Ex and its sequel, Deus Ex: Invisible War, on PC. The 360/PS3 generation brought the Mass Effect Trilogy, which I adored, Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - which is probably my favorite game of all-time. On PC I poured countless hours into Pillars of Eternity and Tyranny, both developed by Obsidian. At this point in my life, RPGs probably account for a good 75% of the games I play.

Let’s talk preferences. Console vs. PC? Turn-based vs. real-time combat? Medieval fantasy vs. science fictional?

Roseanna - PC master race dialing in. We got a Switch a couple of years ago and a PS5 last year, and they’re both great and all (I like the portability of the Switch, especially), but PC first, last and foremost. I’m not even really much of a modder (except for the Sims, which barely counts), so it’s not like I have a good reason for it. Pretty sure keyboard and mouse gave me significant wrist damage a couple of years ago. But they just feel better, and nothing will ever persuade me otherwise.

Ok also the menu wheels in the PS5 version of BG3 made me want to set things on fire. That’s a good reason.

I’m not enormously fussy about combat - there are games I enjoy that do all modes - but I always appreciate the ones that do a good job of difficulty sliders. As someone who wasn’t allowed video games growing up, my twitch skills are uhhh… ropey at best, and I need some heavy handholding. I generally get there in the end, but I like games that aren’t snobby about that, or feel the need to punish me for it.

Joe D - Console peasant here. Super happy with my PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox consoles over the years. It’s what I grew up on and never adjusted well to keyboard and mouse for video game input. I can manage with a PC, but I prefer the sticks. Plus, most big JRPGs that I want to play release on consoles first. I built a high-end PC back in the day for schooling/gaming and I never ended up playing games on it. Even my first foray into the MMO world (FFXIV: ARR) I played on my PS3, then PS4 when they released a new version. I fully admit that PCs have superior options and input control, but I like the simplicity of console ecosystems.

As for the type of gameplay/genre, I have no specific preference as long as it’s done well (as you’ll see in my rather varied list below). Give me a space opera, give me epic fantasy, or give me a tale of a bunch of high school kids fighting demons. Turn-based or real-time. I’ll take it all.

Roseanna - actually reading Joe’s thoughts here has reminded me of something - I think to some extent consoles suffer from being much better catered to people who don’t have puny lady hands. I don’t prefer the sticks because I simply cannot reach (well, not comfortably, not easily). The Switch is the exception for me, but I swear half of my problem with the rest is I just can’t react quickly on them if I have to sort of scooch it sideways to hit the menu button or whatever. Whereas I have a relatively dinky keyboard and mouse, and so my miniscule mitts are content.

G - Roseanna, there are some smaller controllers out there, like the PowerA Nano, that are designed for smaller hands. I can’t vouch for their quality (large-handed male gamer here) - but might be worth looking into?

As for me, I’ve always split my time between console and PC. At one point I was 90% PC; at another, 90% console. Now it’s probably 67% console and 33% PC. I think, all things being equal, I prefer sitting on the couch facing a TV. But it really comes down to gameplay mechanics: certain games and genres are just much better suited to a mouse and keyboard. RTS games, for example, don’t make a lot of sense to play with a controller; point-and-click adventure games too.

As far as RPGs go, I tend to prefer playing action RPGs on console, with feet up on on couch and controller in hand - and turn-based RPGs on the PC, where the mouse really comes in handy. Turn-based cRPGs like Shadowrun Returns or Pillars of Eternity are profoundly annoying to play with a controller (or a touch interface). Both great on PC, though!

On the setting question, I guess it depends on when you catch me. I probably prefer science fictional settings by a hair, but my favorite RPGs are fairly evenly split between SF and fantasy. I’m keen to play Disco Elysium, which I understand is a very different type of fantasy RPG.

What are the crucial ingredients, in your opinion, that make an RPG successful? What do you need to get immersed in the game? Conversely, what are things that can drag an RPG down?

Roseanna - I jokingly say that all you need is a fishing minigame and a dating sim. Which is not entirely true, but it does have a nugget of something meaningful at the centre. Basically, I like games with a strong romance angle because those games tend (not always, looking at you Fire Emblem: Pepsi-hair, but generally) to put more investment into creating well-rounded and engaging characters for you to interact with. And that’s what I’m after. I really like dramatic moments with an epic soundtrack behind them, don’t get me wrong, but my angle of interest is always about the people enacting those moments, and interpersonal relationships are the best way to showcase that.

If you start talking to me about a game, chances are I’m going to pretty quickly get onto favourite character/who did you romance. Because it’s what I find most interesting. BG3 really leaned into that - thinking of relatively recent games - and it meant the fomo was intense when I couldn’t play it on my janky, busted up laptop. Which is… most of why we got a PS5, honestly. To allow me to romance - as Adri put it - “the sad fuck-wizard”. It was worth it.

The other crucial ingredient I think is genuinely meaningful choices, where you can see the outcomes of your decisions (even if they’re not earth-shattering). Take Stray Gods, one of my favourite games of 2023, for example. The choices you make determine the style of the music sung by the characters. There’s an immediate on screen/audio outcome of personal decisions, and because this happens throughout the game, at a choice by choice level, the soundtrack I got is going to be wholly different from the next person who plays it, and I love that. It’s that feeling of personal-ness, intimacy almost - the gaming experience being altered by you, tailored to you, as you experience it.

So what drags it down? Flat characters and railroading, obviously. But also games that stray too far away from the core story. RPGs are a great medium of storytelling, and if you get distracted by too many other things on the way, the end product can feel bloated and tangled.

Joe D - This needs a multifaceted answer because RPGs come in so many shapes, colors, and sizes. I considered “meaningful choices” as my first answer, not necessarily exclusively for story, but for romance or character build options. But then I think of how absorbed I was in some JRPGs like Breath of Fire and Dragon Quest VIII, which didn’t give much player choice at all, it was the story and characters that sucked me in. So then I thought, “it has to have a great story and main character”, but then I remember Oblivion and the thousand hours I spent pickpocketing guards, hoarding cheese wheels, and discovering Cyrodiil’s secrets as my non-speaking orange-haired dark elf. The main story was forgettable (though the guild quests were fantastic). An immersive open world with tons of lore must be the answer! But alas, no.

I think the answer, for me, is this; the RPG must choose where it wishes to excel, whether it be characters (Persona, Witcher, Dragon Age, Mass Effect), world/lore/interactivity (Oblivion, Fallout, CyberPunk 2077), story (Disco Elysium, Final Fantasy), or choice (Mass Effect, Disco Elysium, Baldur’s Gate III). The examples provided may mix, match, and excel on multiple fronts, those are just the prominent facets that I thought of (still waiting on my BG III physical edition, so I haven’t played yet, unfortunately). Also, let’s not forget gameplay systems. A game that’s fun can keep you playing despite some shortcomings. To sum up, I think an RPG should incorporate almost all of these things, pick one or two to excel in, then do a good job on the rest.

I think we see an RPG become a slog when: A) a developer tries to do too much and instead of excelling everywhere, the game just becomes mediocre all around; B) they do excel in the one area they wanted to, but everything else falls to the wayside; or C) as Roseanna said, railroading, (super immersion breaking) and awful characters/uninteresting world/stakes.

G - I agree with that 100%. Pick a lane and then be the best you can be. But there are a few ingredients I don’t think RPGs can live without:

1. A compelling quest

This is a narrative-driven genre, more than any other, so the quest needs to be compelling. When it isn’t, you leave the experience disappointed. No matter how beautiful Starfield is, or how good the gameplay is (and it is excellent), everyone I know who has played the game has found the main quest underwhelming. I honestly found it hard to care.

When I think about the RPGs I truly love, they fall into all of the categories Joe outlines - but what they have in common is that I am fully invested in the hero’s quest. Bethesda games are often more vibes than story, but becoming the Dovakhin in Skyrim is still probably the most compelling moment I’ve ever experienced as a gamer. Becoming Starborn in Starfield? Er…not as much.

2. Memorable side quests, minigames and other secondary content

Going back to Roseanna’s comment about fishing minigames, the secondary content has to be compelling. There are many ways to go about this. Many RPGs have extended side quests and DLC that play almost like short stories or standalone novels set in the same universe and timeline as the main novel series. In others, like AC: Valhalla, side quests are more often like vignettes - but many of these are highly memorable. And anyone who played Skyrim will recall the simple joys of leveling up by making dagger after dagger at the blacksmith shop.

And I absolutely love minigames. Some are actual games within games - Gwent in the Witcher games is best in class for me, but Paazak in the KOTOR series is a lot of fun too. Others are tasks, like hacking in the Deus Ex series, Shadowrun Returns series, Fallout series or in Cyberpunk 2077. Also fishing, though I never know what to do with my fish.

3. Gameplay mechanics

Captain Obvious here, but ultimately a game lives or dies on how fun it is to play. You can have the best story and characters in the world, but if people don’t enjoy playing the game, they’ll go do something else. Even when the core gameplay mechanics are solid, games that rely too heavily on “schlep and fetch” quests, have bad map mechanics or are poorly calibrated in terms of difficulty will struggle to keep my attention. A pet peeve of mine is when you can’t adjust the difficulty settings. I almost always play on normal, as I want games to be challenging but not frustrating - but I appreciate that the option is there. RPGs in particular should be accessible to different types of gamers who want a tailored experience. 

Roseanna - I think I’m going to disagree here - I absolutely will slog through some atrocious clunk for good characters. Case in point, I absolutely hated the Fade section of Dragon Age: Origins. I thought it was clunky, unnecessarily difficult, confusing and just… bad. I have grown to… tolerate… it at least these days, but it never stopped me playing DA:O. Because Alistair was sufficiently babygirl that it was worth it to me.

G - That’s a good point. Though I guess “clunk” is also in the eye of the beholder. A lot of people think the combat in The Witcher 2 is clunky and frustrating, but I loved it - or maybe I tolerated it because I loved the story and world so much. To be honest I can’t really remember. I don’t specifically remember disliking the combat but it’s also been a long time since I last played it. Maybe I only tolerated it!

If you had to pick 6 RPGs to recommend to someone interested in the genre, what would they be - and what would be your one line elevator pitch for each one?

Roseanna - well my first three are all the Dragon Age games, for which my pitch is simply: hot sad men with religious trauma, cheese jokes and an absolute banger of a plot. And hot women who should be lesbians but tragically are not.

1. Dragon Age: Origins

2. Dragon Age 2

3. Dragon Age: Inquisition

(The temptation then is to give you three Mass Effect games (spicy take - not the original three, because I’d cut Mass Effect 2 in favour of Andromeda, and yes, I will fight you), but that is a boring BioWare whitewash, so I will restrain myself.)

4. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Instead, I’ll say Fire Emblem: Three Houses - a game in which you are press ganged into being a completely unqualified school teacher, and thus decide the fate of three nations, a religion and a whole ass deity as you try to corral a bunch of chaotic privileged school-children into being functional adults. It marries the silliness of the JRPG with some genuinely thoughtful and heart-wrenching politics, character arcs and difficult decisions, and has you fighting characters whom you have to oppose, but with whom you sympathise intensely. It gets people, all the way down.

5. Stray Gods

Then Stray Gods, where you suddenly become the holder of the spirit of a Muse, which gives you the ability to solve interpersonal dramas by having everybody sing it out. You now must use this power to solve a murder. It’s quick, it’s fun, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played before or since, and the soundtrack was my most-listened to album on Spotify for 2023 by a considerable margin.

6. Stardew Valley

And lastly… well I couldn’t not include my other lockdown addiction, Stardew Valley. It has a fishing mini game (that will make you want to fight god out of frustration) and a romance sim (where all the men are genuinely terrible and yet you can prise them from my cold dead hands), and so it is the perfect game. Also you build a farm or some shit? And then lose 126 hours of your life (and counting) without noticing.

Joe D - This will be a tough one…

1. Persona 3 Reload/4 Golden/5 Royal (pick whichever, though 4 has my favorite characters): Solve a mystery/save the world as a group of high school kids all while maintaining a decent GPA, forming friendships, and making the moves on your crush. Soundtracks are extremely catchy.

2. Disco Elysium: Solve a murder after a drug and booze induced amnesia. Are you more Sherlock Holmes or will you solve your crimes with pure muscle? Will you do it clean, or will you take one more hit? Will you listen to the voices in your head, or ignore them completely? The choices are yours.

3. Dragon Quest VIII/XI (pick either): Akira Toriyama’s art style is evident in every corner of these charming yet dangerous epics that keep you hooked for dozens of hours. Great characters, fun stories, memorable soundtracks.

4. Mass Effect: A galactic threat looms large. Play as Commander Shepard (gender of your choosing) as they recruit unlikely alien and human allies from different star systems. A sci-fi lover’s dream. Also, potential human/alien romance doesn’t hurt.

5. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Oblivion for better guild quests/overall writing, Skyrim for better gameplay): Explore lore-rich open worlds that capture your desire for a sense of adventure and character build over the course of hundreds of hours. Epic sense of fantastical elements.

6. Cyberpunk 2077: In a race against time, take control of V as she/he attempts to save her consciousness from utter oblivion. Set in a neon-lit, high tech dystopian world; hack enemy electronics, slice them with a katana, or shoot them in the face. Choose how you wish to dispatch your enemies and approach the world. Also, romance.

I mainly chose games that still work well enough, Oblivion and Mass Effect being the most aged gameplay-wise. I think the other Mass Effect games are better from a gameplay perspective, but Mass Effect is the foundation of the series and should be experienced first. Fallout (especially 3 and New Vegas)/Dragon Age (Origins/Inquisition) could easily be swapped in anywhere. I always forget to include Pokemon games as well, as I see them as their own kind of special, but I would happily recommend Heart Gold/Soul Silver as a place to start that series. I just finished Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, an enticing, hearty, highly recommended JRPG. There are so many I’d love to list, but these are a great start for RPGs that are relevant and playable.

Reading Roseanna’s response, I didn’t realize people considered Stardew Valley an RPG, I always considered it more of a farm-life sim. Upon reflection, I can see how it can fit in the genre and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to live a cozy farm-life sim/dungeon crawling character in the charming little town of Stardew Valley.

Roseanna - I think whether you consider it an RPG is also somewhat of a reflection of how you play the game? While I do like my nice tidy crops with their nice tidy sprinkler systems, I don’t play Stardew valley for profit optimisation. I’m making friends (and more) in town and using the game to tell a story about someone escaping big city life and what they make of it. So it does somewhat feel RPG-y to me. But I can totally see that you could spend a very fun and profitable time making the peakest efficiency farm, and never really consider an even remotely RPG-y side to it. Genres are fuzzy, even in gaming, and some of it is just what you bring to the table.

Joe D - I agree with you there, the genres definitely get quite fuzzy. Something like the Horizon series is considered an RPG, but some people see it as an action-adventure game with RPG elements. Speaking of Stardew though, I am PUMPED for Haunted Chocolatier. Can’t wait to put a hundred hours into that one.

G - I have not played Stardew Valley yet - though I hear it’s great. Maybe that’s a good one for the Switch? Switch or PC.

So, okay - I know I posed this question, and asked for a list, but I’m struggling to answer it well. But here goes:

1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I have never played a game that warps reality like Skyrim. It’s a Bethesda game, so it’s more about immersion than story, but…I also lowkey loved the story? It’s the only Bethesda game where I can say that and truly mean it. But for those 120+ hours or so I lived in that world, dealth with those dragons and - yes - made all those daggers. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go back and play again, but I’m also scared that I would just marring the perfect gaming experience

2. The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings/Tbe Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

I’m cheating a bit here, but hear me out. The Witcher 2 is one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve played through it twice and did every possible side quest and task the second time around. It’s also the game that started my subsequent obsession with the Witcherverse - and led to the ultimate conclusion that The Witcher Saga is the best fantasy novel series I’ve ever read. The Witcher 3 is objectively a better game than The Witcher 2, so it should take this spot on my list…but I do want to show Witcher 2 the love it deserves.

So why do I like these games so much? Character, story, lore, worldbuilding, complex and deep gameplay, replayability, decisions that matter, serious politics, a distinct anti-racist perspective, Gwent, some of the best and most meaningful romance I’ve ever encountered in a game.

3. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

As I mentioned before, this is the game that reignited my love for RPGs. I replay it every few years, and even though it’s dated in some ways, KOTOR’s storytelling and unique blend of turn-based and real-time combat is still a lot of fun 2 decades after it came out. Also, in my humble opinion, the single best Star Wars game ever released.

It would be great to see KOTOR and its sequel, the unfinished mess KOTOR 2, remade in full. I’d happily pay for both.

4. Mass Effect 3: Legendary Edition

Like a lot of people, I was frustrated with ME3 on release - the way it forced you to play the (good not great) multiplayer mode to get the good ending, which to be honest I don’t remember if I managed or not. But the Legendary Edition remake (I’d argue it is a remake, Joe) does a fantastic job streamlining the process. Sure the multiplayer mode is no more, but now we have a tighter, more visceral single-player game that - I have to say - beat out the more widely loved ME2 for a place on this list. Gameplay, pace, character development, narrative tension, meaningful choices with major outcomes…ME3 has everything you could want from a mission-based sandbox RPG.

5. Cyberpunk 2077

I waited a year from release to play this one - and am very grateful that I did. CD Projekt Red have patiently worked through the (many) bugs that marred this game at launch and have delivered an absolutely superb narrative experience. You can see the lineage it shares with The Witcher games, but really this feels like a halfway point between the Bethesda and BioWare models - more character- and narrative-driven that your typical Bethesda game, more open and immersive than your typical BioWare game. Gameplay is top notch - and, as Joe mentioned, the relationships (romantic and platonic) are superbly well done.

6. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

I can feel the nerd rage cascading out of every subreddit at the heresy of choosing this 2011 Ubisoft sequel over the original Deus Ex. And it’s true, the original Deus Ex was a landmark game, one that pioneered many gameplay elements that are common today in action RPGs. It is justifiably considered a classic. But try playing it today and…well, let’s just say I didn’t enjoy the experience. Human Revolution, on the other hand, doesn’t really feel dated at all. And it’s a criminally underrated game - one of my favorites from the 360/PS3 era. Great story, great characters and voice acting, a fully-fleshed out and believable cyberpunk world and tight gameplay, where you can choose to focus on combat, stealth or cybernetic implants. Sound familiar? Cyberpunk 2077 owes a great debt to the Deus Ex series.

Honorable Mentions:

Assassins Creed: Valhalla
Mass Effect 2
Mass Effect: Andromeda
Deus Ex

Okay, so now that we’ve covered what we do like, let’s talk about what we don’t. What are your pet peeves when it comes to RPGs?

G - I’ve already mentioned a couple of mine, but here they are:

1. Maps that aren’t functional. There’s no excuse for this in 2024, or even in 2014. Good maps that help you get from point A to point B are a fundamental quality of life improvement that no developer should dismiss or overlook. Bonus points for a good fast travel system that doesn’t disincentivize exploring but cuts down on tedious and pointless wandering. I’m looking at you, Starfield.

2. Cutscenes and dialogue you can’t skip. Some scenes/dialogue are more vital than others and I should be able to choose what I want to see/hear and what I don’t. Further downgrading for games that make you watch unskippable cutscenes right before a particularly challenging boss fight, which you then have to watch again on every subsequent try.

3. Limited save points. I know Soulslike fans see this as a feature not a bug - and to each their own - but for me it’s definitely a bug. My gaming comes in fits and spurts, 30-90 minute intervals rather than long sessions. Being able to quicksave makes gaming doable for me.

4. Choices that should matter but don’t. Again, it’s 2024 - if you present the character with a seemingly meaningful decision, make sure it actually impacts the narrative.

5. Too many “schlep and fetch” quests. For the uninitiated, a “schlep and fetch” quest is one where you have to go from point A to point B in order to obtain an item that you have to bring back to point A (or to someone at point C). It’s okay to have a few of these, but some games have…a lot. Oh hey, look - it’s Starfield!

Joe D - I agree with some of the points that G made, though I differ slightly with some.

1. Too much bloat without a suitable disguise - The Ubisoft open world format that has become prevalent in the industry includes climbing a tower to unlock a portion of the map and unveils nearby quests and objectives. The Horizon games made it interesting with the inclusion of tall necks, but if this type of exploration is in the game, it better be masked by excellent gameplay or complementary lore.

2. Unskippable cutscenes/dialogue - I am okay with the first viewing being unskippable, as that’s the developer’s vision. After that, however, it should be at the player’s discretion.

3. Forced grinding - If a game is unbalanced and the player has an extremely difficult time with a story-related mission and then is forced to grind to level up, I find that frustrating. End game grinding is fine for hardcore players, but story stuff should be challenging without being a slog.

4. Distracting from the story pace - This goes hand in hand with the bloat, but even if the content is good, if it doesn’t feel directly related to the main quest, the pace of the story gets ruined. I’ll sometimes even forget what I was doing until I look at my main story objective.

5. Illusion of choice - As G said, if you’re going to include options, make them impactful. This is why I think one-off RPGs are suited to choice-based gameplay. The more impactful the choices, the harder it will be to make a sequel that meets everyone’s canon. Despite their flaws, this is why I like Quantic Dreams’ games (though they aren’t RPGs).

6. Slow starts - A lot of RPGs can have slow starts, hoping to hook you after ten hours. Sometimes trying to figure out the controls and all of the statistics and abilities can be daunting, especially in a massive game. I’ll spend a lot of time looking at a menu so I don’t spend too much time watching the game over screen, but at the cost of looking at menus and not playing the actual game.

7. Breakable weapons - They are not fun, and I don’t care if the developer wants me to use them all. I find a stick I like, I keep stick, I use stick, I upgrade stick. Thanks Roseanna for reminding me.

Roseanna - Lack of difficulty settings! I am so bad at, for instance, shooting. I need to be able to lower the difficulty settings, at least until I’ve learnt what the heck I’m doing. Give me baby mode, and I’ll work my way up to competence eventually.

Somewhat related, but “hard” bosses that are just scaled by adding more hit points. And sloggy fights in general. I am not, for the most part, here for the act of fighting, and especially the repetitive bits. I like fights where there’s a trick to it, or a strategy, but once that has been done, if you just have to keep going and going and going… nah, tap out.

And infrequent ability to save. This seems mainly to be a JRPG thing, but the horrible feeling of starting a game and being an hour in, still baffled about where, when and how you might be able to save it, and starting to desperately need the loo, no thanks. Let me pause! Let me save! Let me have a life outside my computer screen, however briefly!

On a totally different note, games that unexpectedly force you to be the bad guy. Part of why Mass Effect 2 really doesn’t work for me is that you go from being the big damn hero of the first game, to suddenly working with the evil corp you’d been fighting previously in the second. There’s no way out of that, it’s just the framing of the game, and your character just sort of… goes along with it. There’s even a bit where one of the characters from the first game shows up and gives you shit for your poor choices (Kaidan, I am so sorry, you were so right), and none of the character dialogue you get really… acknowledges that they have a point. It doesn’t matter that there are a lot of gameplay improvements in ME2, I simply cannot stand working for the outlandishly evil corporation.

What are some RPGs that disappointed you, or which you liked but found frustrating?

G - For 'liked but found frustrating' - and this won’t come as a surprise - it’s Starfield. There is a lot to love about Starfield. It's gorgeous, in the way all Bethesda games are gorgeous. The action gameplay is superb - miles ahead of Fallout 4 or any other game they’ve made. And it's a charming game, the way Elder Scrolls games are charming - hard to put your finger exactly on why, but there’s a distinct “sensawunda” that no one else can replicate exactly.

At the same time, it can be a very frustrating game. The story is barebones and the companion characters range from wooden to extremely irritating. You never feel invested in events the way you do in a BioWare or CD Projekt Red game. There are moments when you just can’t get to a certain planet and there’s no intuitive way to figure out why or how. Also, there are no city maps! I sank the requisite 100+ hours into the game, with no regrets because I did enjoy myself, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to play it again.

As for ‘disappointed,’ I’ll go way back to Knights of the Old Republic 2, a game BioWare farmed out to Obsidian but evidently didn’t give them enough time to work on. It starts off great but then at some point you realize the game isn't finished. There are tons of bugs, missing dialogue, broken missions and other anomalies - and then the last 10 hours of gameplay are just…narrated. It's a full on train wreck.

Joe D - I could probably list a decent bunch here, but we’ll skim down…

Undertale - A friend and I got into a discussion about this game recently. This game did nothing for me. I had seen the reviews and memes and heard so many great things about the game that I had to see it for myself. Once I beat it, I had to search blogs and posts to see what I was missing. Not that I didn’t understand what was going on, but that it felt shallow without creating a compelling character/narrative connection. The ability to do a pacifist run was cool, but I couldn’t tell you much about the game a few years out. It was forgettable.

Skyrim - G may not like this choice, but I want to clarify that I still loved Skyrim overall. I was just disappointed. After falling deeply in love with Oblivion, my anticipation for the sequel was through the roof. While I think that the main quest of Skyrim was better than Oblivion’s (if only slightly), I think the rest of the game was underwhelming in comparison to its predecessor. The combat was in Skyrim better, and the random dragon encounters were cool, but the guild quests were a huge letdown after Oblivion. Also, the game cut back on different build options by narrowing the scope of potential skills. Still a great game. It just kills me that Skyrim is the game the series is known for and has had a billion remakes and updates while Oblivion sits in the corner of a decrepit cellar yearning for just one more taste of sweet, sweet air. Maybe I’m just bitter.

Morrowind - On the other side of Oblivion, yet another highly recommended game, I actually did not like this one at all. This game made me skeptical of Oblivion, as I had tried it beforehand. The game relies on a more and D&D approach to combat, where each swing of your weapon equates to a dice roll, and the lower level you are, the higher the chance you miss. None of this is explained. I started the game, swung at a worm on the ground for a few minutes, died to said worm, shut the game off and returned it. I tried it again after Oblivion (with the knowledge of how the game/combat works) and it was too antiquated for me. It’s too bad because I’ve heard some of its side content is even better than Oblivion.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild - I loved Ocarina of Time in my youth, so I thought maybe I’d like the new direction of Zelda. While I don’t consider it an RPG, that is the category it’s frequently slotted into. I didn’t care for the characters or the gameplay. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t hold me. Music was great, of course, but the breakable weapons and lack of strong objective didn’t do it for me. “Kill Ganon” wasn’t enticing enough for me.

Recent Pokemon games - Especially the Switch games. The developers don’t realize that a huge chunk of their audience are in their thirties, and yet they continuously dumb down the stories to appeal to younger audiences. I’m not saying that they should make the games fully adult, but keep with the good old days from Black and White. Add a tad of complexity. I feel like I’m playing a game made exclusively for someone under seven. If Pixar can manage it, I’m sure the number one entertainment franchise in the WORLD can do the same.

Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter - I have heard wonderful things about this game in recent days. As stated above, you can see how much of an impact Breath of Fire III had on me as a youth. I also dabbled in BoF II on GBA. When I saw a new Breath of Fire game for PS2, I had to get it (despite my limited funds)! Unfortunately, this game shares a lot of similarities to the rogue-lite genre, which I am into now, but had no idea about back then. Basically, I got nothing close to what I expected, and I think that it strayed just a bit too far from the formula. The jump from turn-based JRPG franchise, to action rogue-lite is quite a leap. I might love it if I were to try it now, but I just remember how disappointed my younger self was.

Roseanna - Well, I’ve already talked about my problems with Mass Effect 2. In general though, I’m quick to drop a game if it’s not working for me, so I don’t have lingering memories of things that I didn’t enjoy, because I didn’t carry on not enjoying them for very long.

The only one recently I can remember that I bounced off quite hard was Persona 3. A number of people have told me to play the series - and I do like JRPGs generally - but I found the fight scaling… frankly nuts. I had to change up the difficulty settings constantly to go between laughably easy fights and massive, grindy, impossible-feeling ones. I ended up just giving up on it after quite a while, which was really frustrating because I had been enjoying the story and the concept.

Otherwise, it tends to be older games I didn’t play when they were fresh, and so the mechanics/graphics/what have you are so old, so clunky that I just can’t immerse myself in them. I tried playing FF… errr… the one with Cloud and Sephiroth? Whichever number that one is. I tried playing it on an emulator on PC, and I simply Could Not. Likewise Planescape: Torment. If I had nostalgia for it? If I had fond memories of playing it when the level of graphics was normal or good? I imagine I would be fine. But it’s really hard to come in with current expectations to older systems, many of which just aren’t as user-friendly as some modern games.

I guess there is one big one, if it counts as an RPG - Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Everyone talked it up a storm. And I did enjoy it at first… but then I sort of fell out of it. It just didn’t manage to keep my attention in the way other Zelda games have, and it stacks and stacks and stacks different skills/tools/subtasks so if you stop playing for a couple of months, the learning curve to come back into it is an absolute cliff. Too hard. Not gonna happen.

G - Roseanna, I feel you on older games. I often romanticize the idea of playing older games but the mechanics are almost always frustrating. I loved Deus Ex when it came out but I find it more or less unplayable now. Same with Fallout and Fallout 2. I do a lot of retro gaming, but I focus mainly on the 2D era (8- and 16-bit) and the skip forward to the PS2/Xbox era. I can’t play most games from 1995-2001.

Okay, final question - say SquareEnix, EA or some other behemoth publisher gives you unlimited funds to create your own RPG. What is the elevator pitch for your concept - in one paragraph?

Roseanna - Magically, I’m getting Bioware under David Gaider, don’t ask me how, but a Bioware RPG set in the world of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series. Necromancy! Talking Cats! Prophecies! Magic spells! Ancient powers beyond the knowledge of man! Sword-wielding librarians! I think it would be amazing. And there’s a lot of potential scope for lore, and places someone could come from in the world to make a difference in a story, and it would bring me such joy and nostalgia.

Joe D - I would happily play that Roseanna! I love the Old Kingdom and think it would have a unique, enticing gameplay loop. They could even create something super cool like an abhorsen attempting to escape the deepest precinct of death and make it a rogue-lite RPG. I would eat that up.

For my concept, I have a few ideas. One of them was a Harry Potter game, but in the turn-based Persona style with social links, and multiple years to master new spells. But I don’t want to give J.K. Rowling money to spew her hatred, so I’d go with plan B; A Game of Thrones inspired massive RPG where your decisions will directly affect who sits on the throne at the end of the game (or if there is one left to sit on). There would be a ton of permutations that make it difficult to attain the throne yourself, but through your choices, characters die and certain events will or won’t take place. Where you place your attributes will directly determine your capabilities. Also, this wouldn’t take place during the books, maybe long after or long before. Every playthrough would be different from the last, and no character is safe. With unlimited resources, we could have as many character animations and cutscenes, even if the majority of players won’t see them all. The house you choose for your character will directly influence the opening of the game (and also the difficulty of attaining the throne, or being throne adjacent). In reality, this project would cost way too much money to exist, but unlimited funds means anything goes. It’s essentially a ton of storylines crammed into one and it would be incredibly satisfying to replay. I’d probably do a Larian/Bioware combo for this one.

I’m honestly coming up with this on the fly as something relatable, as my other ideas are personal, unique IP that I’d have to explain in great detail. I’d also love to see a Brandon Sanderson Cosmere focused game where you can choose your character’s magic system and work within the great game of splinters, shards, and gods. This could also be an amazing MMORPG if done properly, with different magic systems fulfilling different in-game roles.

G - In books I’ve always preferred soft magic over Sanderson’s hard magic approach, but the idea of developing an RPG around hard magic systems, and really operationalizing that within the game, is very intriguing. That sounds like a cRPG to me - where you are using the mouse and full keyboard, but I’ll stop - it’s your idea, afterall, not mine.

For my project, I want to go in a very different direction: an RPP centered entirely on stealth. There is already some precedent for this: the Deus Ex series gives you the choice of whether you want to focus more on stealth or combat (I always use stealth), a few of the Assassin’s Creed games also incentivize stealth gameplay and the Hitman reboot has some light RPG elements. But I want to go a step further - I want to make a game with Splinter Cell’s level of focus on stealth gameplay, but with an interactive story, extensive side quests and where everything is upgradable as you level up. I could see this going either SF or fantasy, but for this exercise we are going SF. I’m now working for CD Projekt Red and this is a direct sequel to Cyberpunk 2077. Would you guys play this or am I crazy?

Joe D - I personally get bored with stealth games, but I like the concept. I love blowing things up or getting into a sword fight, so stealth goes against every instinct I have when playing a game. I enjoy stealth when I get it on the first go, but if I fail and have to redo the same slow mission repeatedly, I get frustrated. That said, I enjoyed the stealth options in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and would love to see expanded options in the next Cyberpunk game. I feel like, if it were a direct sequel, you’d still have to have action based classes to appease people who bought the previous game. If it’s a spinoff, you could get away with a full stealth game. I haven’t played Phantom Liberty yet, but I look forward to getting to it eventually. I think a hard stealth game in the Cyberpunk world would be quite unique, especially with more hacking optimization and CQC cybernetic enhancements.

Would you like to incorporate heat detection, night vision, wall-climbing and the like? What would a fully-stealth Cyberpunk look like to you? I’ve only barely played a bit of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and never got into Hitman (though I hear good things). Is there a specific mission or mechanic that triggered this concept for you?

G - Yes, exactly - as you level up, you unlock new abilities and can equip new gear. Also, I get why stealth games could get frustrating - I think it’s in part because stealth in “multiple-approaches” games tends to be…well, bad. Even in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Cyberpunk 2077 it’s still at best just okay.

Hard stealth games like the Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid suffer from another issue: linear gameplay, where you can’t really go around a problem. Sandbox stealth games like Hitman give you more options on how to solve the puzzles. Say your assassination target is holed up in a hotel penthouse - well, you can disguise yourself as a bellhop and take the elevator, disguise yourself as room service and deliver a poisoned meal, sneak up the stairs or snipe the target from a nearby building. And in my RPG, if you find a puzzle too difficult, you can go level up and come back!

In line with Cyberpunk 2077, I’m thinking you can play either as a thief-for-hire or a corporate espionage agent. But I’ll take it a step further than CD Projekt Red and say stories follow separate mission trees up to a critical point where the stories converge, but with each character approaching the final missions with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Maybe the corporate espionage agent has access to better gear but the thief can buy unregulated cybernetic enhancements off the street. Maybe your networks help you accomplish certain tasks more easily, while others are challenging (and this is reversed for the other playable character type). A game like this is probably never going to be made - too niche - but I’d play the hell out of it.

Joe D - If you could allow me to have a speedy stealth character (like a cyber-enhanced ninja), I’d be all about it and would play multiple times to discover the different origin stories and how they play out. I feel that in too many games the origin story is so barebones and doesn't offer much in the way of variation (beside some NPC chatter about the player character’s background and some dialogue choices). Dragon Age: Origins (it’s in the name!) does a good job with this, but it would be intriguing to see that in a sci-fi world like Cyberpunk.

This but upgradable

G - I like it - the speedy cyberninja is in. 

And that's a wrap! Thank you Roseanna and Joe D for joining me today, and thanks to all of you who took the time to read our long-form thoughts. 


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.