RPGs, Then and Now


A thought occurred to me, and it has been building for a few months now: are RPGs getting worse? I don’t know if that’s the right question to ask, but it’s where I’ve started. Why do I keep turning off Final Fantasy XIII‘s PC port and going back to play older numbered titles like V or VIII? I think Dragon Age: Inquisition is an all right game, so why instead of beating it have I instead gone back to Dragon Age: Origins? After finally watching someone play in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, why does Skyrim feel smaller with less options (before mods, of course)?

Macho Dragons Mod for Skyrim

Not that this mod hasn’t kept me from thinking Skyrim is GOTY for every year.

It’s an honest question, I think. IGN’s top 100 RPGs has Final Fantasy VI as the number one RPG. In the top five, there wasn’t a single game after the year 2000. In the top ten, only Skyrim is from this decade, if you count 2004 as World of Warcraft‘s release date as a whole. PC Gamer has a list with more current titles on board, but the top title goes to Planescape: Torment. And why not, I’ll throw yet another list at ya: Arcade Sushi has their own, with Chrono Trigger taking the prize and our good friend Skyrim the only game from recent memory on the list.

Of course, this isn’t about the best RPG, but all of these older games seem to be topping the lists. Is it nostalgia and our rose colored glasses that make us hail these kings of the genre, or were they actually better games? Surely, there’s a reason we claim there was a golden age for RPGs, right?

My answer is mixed, of course. On the whole, I think the huge AAA companies are letting their franchises down. They’re making huge, grandiose, glorious cinematic works of graphical majesty that take up way too much space, so things have to be cut from the game. The Elder Scrolls has come a long way from its first title to the widely-hailed masterpiece of Skyrim, but things have gone missing from prior games. For the purpose of this argument, let’s pretend there are no mods, ok?

The ability to wear different pants has disappeared, for one thing. Armor customization has done nothing but go downhill as the wearable pieces grew more and more intricate. In Morrowind, you could pick different shoulder pauldrons for each shoulder when you made your armor, with robes over your plate. Not the case anymore. Different skills have disappeared over time, like Acrobatics, while the standard RPG stats disappeared completely. Cities being placed in separate cells meant that the magic allowing characters to take to the skies had to be removed, and put a small disconnect in the seamless world. And of course, no game will ever have a map the size of The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall even if it had some random generation to it.

Skyrim sneak kill

Look at that sneak kill! Oh sorry, I uh… I play with a lot of bloom.

We did get things in exchange as our options shrank and the world grew more beautiful. Combat, for one, finally was real-time when Oblivion came along, and had amazing animations for combat kills in Skyrim. NPCs had their own schedules. As the world grew, however, the options for the player seemed to shrink.

Final Fantasy VI had a playable roster of 14 characters. 14 characters! And while some of them may have had slightly weaker stories than others (looking at you, Umaro), it still had an amazingly large cast of characters. When you made your party, you had options, and to get through the final dungeon, you needed the majority of those characters. There was a world map filled with random encounters, tons of side quests to learn more about your party members and collect other espers, and a story that still stands out as absolutely amazing. Oh, and that world? Spoiler alert: It has its own huge development halfway through the game. (Are there still spoilers after 20 years? Don’t we all know it was his sled at this point? I digress.)

Looking at Final Fantasy XIII, I see a world where the hallways got a hell of a lot bigger and the world got so much smaller.  The nature of the story means that we wouldn’t be going to shops to buy potions like before, but exploration and meeting NPCs outside of my core group has been lackluster. Almost everything is told to me through cutscenes. I love the cinematic experience, but when I have to sit through another three-to-seven minute scene where characters discuss their motivations on the off-chance that the story will be progressed, it does leave me a bit frustrated. I can’t even read the text and skip through it at my own pace because it has to be shown to me in a full-motion video. The characters are insanely detailed and fleshed out, but now I feel less like I’m playing a game and more like I’m a passenger for the story. The feeling is emphasized by the option to auto-battle. And on the whole, my hand was being held throughout most of the game with a minimap that had a big blinking icon to let me know the general direction I needed to go in.

On the other hand, my party is so vibrant and alive to me, and while the world feels so much smaller, it is incredibly detailed with new options for movement and new design for avoiding encounters or setting them up how I want for tactical advantages. There isn’t a best weapon that I need to get, but I get to upgrade my weapons and decide for myself what my optimal playstyle is with equipment that works for me. That’s a huge difference from “go get the Ultima Weapon, find something that gives haste all the time, stab things a lot.” Of course, now there’s no big quest or adventure to get a super weapon, just pumping more materials into the one I have.

Have RPGs have become more generalized and streamlined? That’s not a strength when you’re supposed to be giving me a world I can lose myself in. Chrono Cross World MapWe’re losing some of the magic of exploration with big blinking arrows and maps that tell us exactly where we’re supposed to be going or where the quest objective is. The map to the left is from Chrono Cross, a recent rediscovery I’ve gone back to play and enjoy. That’s it. That’s your world. It’s a tiny archipelago of islands, but it lets you explore the area with a huge party of characters and never feels really small. For me to get that huge world feeling back from Skyrim, I had to ignore Fast Travel, one of the new perks of gaming, because otherwise I’d miss so much from the game by skipping back and forth. The Dragon Age series has never had the biggest maps, but even Inquisition felt kind of small once you realize you’re only exploring tiny little spots on the map and you can just jump back home whenever you’d like. We can render large, detailed areas of a game now, but because it would take entirely too much space or effort to show the player the whole world, we only get tiny snippets in our RPGs now. Every Elder Scrolls game at least gives me that big map, but older RPGs made you earn your quicker travel via boat/car/airship. The horse is nice, but it loses the magic if I can teleport 90% closer before walking.

Thankfully, we still have games like Dark Souls where half the time I don’t have a clue where I’m going or what to do and I can get through it by trial and error and paying close attention to everything I’ve been told. I’ve seen almost every inch of the first game because I was given my goal and just told to go make it happen. The story unfolded in snippets through item descriptions and the short conversations with the memorable NPCs. There’s a reason it has received so much praise. Honestly, Dark Souls wasn’t really the insanely difficult monstrosity it’s made out to be, but just a game that used older RPG mechanics that we’ve forgotten. It didn’t hand you your victories; you either realized you’re not ready for the area and went somewhere else , or you started learning everything you needed to get through and survive. The boss didn’t telegraph a weakness with a giant glowing point or have party members telling you to “try this.”

Comparatively, I never thought that a dragon falling from the sky in Skyrim was a threat. It was going to be my level and I could quicksave just in case I didn’t know how to beat it. There was zero risk, so I wasn’t really involved at all, despite my many hours logged. And Dark Souls II turned around and made a world where you teleported from the very beginning with generic bosses that all felt like they were named “The X.” While the original had many nooks and shortcuts to make the world feel connected, the sequel has you reach a bonfire at the end of a path after a boss, as if to just say “dead end: use me to leave.”

Currently, I’m replaying Final Fantasy V. I’m at a part of the game where I know my goal, but not where to go. Final Fantasy V - Bio SoldierThat guy on the right is called a Bio Soldier. When exploring, I found him, and he proceeded to deliver my first game over of this playthrough. I learned very quickly that either I need to level up or that I’m not supposed to be there, and that’s incredible if you think about it. There wasn’t a big map with an arrow pointing “X-marks-the-spot,” but I very quickly drew a conclusion about the game, and I’m going to go somewhere else without having to be told in a popup text box. Conversely, I didn’t have that experience of “maybe I shouldn’t fight this” until 20 hours into FFXIII.

Maybe all the changes to RPGs are good things though. Maybe they help other, newer people get into the genre. I’ve seen so many people who would never have played a Super Nintendo RPG that really enjoy Final Fantasy XIII. I know people that hated Baldur’s Gate who really enjoy Fallout 3. I love that Pokémon is such a solid RPG with a lighthearted (well, mostly…) story for younger gamers, and yet it has an intricate system for the older competitive players to master.

Maybe RPGs aren’t getting worse, they’re just changing, and my tastes are more towards the past. This is me as an old man complaining to the younger kids about “how back in my day, we had to fly the airship through the snow on a flat world map and memorize where every town was, and you fast traveling punks don’t know how good ya got it!” Things have changed quite a bit from all of those #1 RPGs on the lists however, and I think some of the magic was lost along the way. The closest feeling I’ve had to that recently was Divinity: Original Sin, so maybe it’s not all RPGs. Even as an adult I get more enjoyment and have more fun with Diablo II, Dragon Age: Origins, and old SNES/PSX JRPGS than their sequels and the newer generation of RPGs.

What do you think? Do you think RPG quality has gotten better over the years? Has it slipped downhill? Is there an RPG in particular you’d like me to play or think would just blow my mind? Got something recent to make me change my opinion? Let me know in the comments below. In the meantime, I’m going to find that Earth Crystal, and then I’m going to go look for my copy of Skies of Arcadia.

About David A. Reeves

David is a 25 year old graduate with a BA in English, and he's wondering how all of this adult stuff crept up on him. He has a large love of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy, a lack of budget sense during Steam sales, and is involved in an abusive relationship with the MMO genre. Outside of gaming, David can be found reading books with swords and magic, suffering from writer's block on that story he said he'd write, enjoying a hookah or a beer with friends, and trying not to say anything inappropriate despite the overwhelming urge. He's an odd fellow.

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