Role playing, no I’m not talking about the LARP or table-top variety, although hugely popular in some circles and you can see why. Offering the chance of escapism, leaving the monotony of day to day life behind for a brief moment. Being anyone or anything you want, conjuring up a story for your new self and being able to live out that fantasy. Nothing else really offers that. But I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about games, being a gaming website, and wanted to ask (and try to answer) what makes a good RPG?
All this talk reminds me of the meme: I’m a gamer not because I don’t have a life, but because I choose to have many. I don’t know how the quote makes you feel but it makes me cringe more than remembering what you did the morning after you’ve been drinking. I don’t scream from the rooftops that I’m a gamer, but I also don’t feel like I have to defend myself if people view the hobby as cringey or a waste of time. The same people that say gaming is a waste of time, are the ones lobotomising themselves staring at Tik-Tok hours on end. But I digress, what am I writing about again? Oh yeah, what makes a good RPG?
I think I should preface this by saying I bring up The Elder Scrolls, Fallout and The Witcher games a lot. I totally get that these aren’t the only RPGs out there, but they’re my favourite, so naturally I’d refer to them.
One of the make or breaks of role playing games, for me. I know it isn’t a must have, some RPGs can be enjoyable for people solely based on the gameplay. I’m not even saying that the story has to be groundbreaking, writing doesn’t just allude to the story. I often hark back to the Bethesda’ Fallout games when talking about RPGs, but let’s just use them as an example here.
The stories are garbage, completely forgettable in 3 and 4 and mostly interchangeable with the words Son and Dad. What we remember, the moments that stick with us are the stories interwoven with the world building. Anything I remember from them is from the side quests, the characters, speech options, terminal logs and item descriptions. Then you look at New Vegas, where all of the writing is good, if I were to make a game I’d prefer to hire the writers over at Obsidian. It makes the difference, it can make the change of skipping through dialogue to reading every single line.
The lore behind an RPG is what will turn people from casual to hardcore fans. If a series has no backbone to it, you’ll probably play it once and forget about it. Think about all of the major fantasy series, whether it be Lord of the rings or Game of thrones (RIP), these garner a huge fanbase because they’re so well written and planned out (until D&D dig their fingers into it).
This completely ties in to the writing, and it should be a given, as side quests are what you’re going to be sinking a big chunk of your time in to when you play said RPG. When a game has side quests that are solely of the fetch, protection or (god forbid) follow variety, you know that’s going to get stale very quickly.
Side quests are where the writers have the option to play around a little. If it’s a serious main story, they gain creative wriggle room to sprinkle humour and silliness but that’s not always the case. Some sidequests even feel like fully fleshed out stories in their own right, and can span over the course of a few hours. Having the variety in style really makes a difference, if it’s all one tone throughout you’re not going to enjoy the experience as much.
Map & art design
There’s nothing worse than an RPG, or any game for that matter, where the world you’re expected to put multiple hours into is uninspired and boring. In some ways this relates back to the lore behind a game. If there is a rich description of the environment that the art team can sink their teeth into, it obviously makes their lives easier and the game a lot more interesting to look at.
I’m going to sound even more like a Bethesda nut here but some vivid images come to mind from Skyrim. The first time you climb your way up to Bleak Falls Barrow, shivering in your cloth armour that barely covers your skin, probably poking all of your adversaries eyes out with your erect nips. A stark contrast to the first time you entered an Oblivion gate in The Elder Scrolls IV. Throwing yourself into (by clicking a) the eye of Sauron-esque gate, transporting yourself to a fiery hellscape. You can start to smell the BO leaking from your pores as you dance around oncoming fireballs and pits of lava. If that’s what’s waiting for me in the afterlife, I better start seeking absolution and repent for some of my sins right now.
These experiences just wouldn’t happen if the world was dull. I was praising Obsidian earlier but now I won’t. Who else was excited for The Outer Worlds? Me too. The world wasn’t interesting at all right? That could be down to it being a completely new IP but I don’t think so, I wouldn’t be able to tell you the name of one location. The map needs some interactivity and plenty of things to do. Take Red Dead Redemption 2 as an example, not an RPG per se, but a great example of an open world map done right. The random interactions you get when you’re just minding your own business. These moments make the world feel alive, in turn keeping you playing in it. I have a friend that put 60 hours in to RDR2 and barely touched the story. He was practically role playing as a crazy hunter that lived off the land, solely tracking and hunting animals. Isn’t this what a good RPG should provide?
Man oh man, RPG games are home to some of the best music in my opinion. Having a composer, well, compose completely new music that fits the ambiance and style of the game just brings it to another level. Again, sorry to do this but I’m gonna badger on about a Bethesda title. Skyrim is where my mind first went, strolling past a tent full of Khajiits trying to peddle their wares, making your way up the slight incline to the gates of whiterun. Somewhere behind the incessant mumblings of sweet rolls, arrow-filled knees, and the intermittent clang of hammer on anvil, you hear a tranquil song in the background. ‘The streets of whiterun’ transports you to another place, if you haven’t heard it before, go to Youtube now!
That’s just one example of great ambient music, now on to the exciting stuff, boss/battle music. The music has the power to elevate your heart rate to uncomfortable levels, and the game to a whole other level. One of my favourite boss tracks comes from The Witcher 3, titled ‘Welcome Imlerith‘. I love music but technically I know nothing about it, so wouldn’t be able to do it justice if I described it so just give it a listen. You’ll feel ready to fight to the death after approximately five seconds. Another series of games with amazing composed OSTs is the Soulsborne FromSoft games, just wow.
When a game has an OST composed specifically for it, it goes a long way. That’s all I’m saying.
This seems like a given right? What’s a game without gameplay, it should be dead in the water faced down amongst the reeds. Not entirely true though, I’ll use Mass Effect as an example. One of the best RPG trilogy’s created, the first is an absolute slog to get through. The shooting and cover system is totally rigid, in this case the game was saved by the writing. So many of these categories can combine, if your game has all of it, I would consider it a masterpiece. Mass Effect 2 definitely upped the bar in the gameplay department though, and the series really needed it. It’s a shame how the ending of the third game turned out, could’ve been a legendary series. Let’s not bring up Andromeda.
I’ve completely ignored turn based combat, and it’s just something I can’t get in to. I don’t like the whole planning stuff out and thinking ahead. It’s a system used on a lot of JRPGs and the like, and I know a lot of people love it. I did however like Child of Light, but I put that down to being a simplified version. Talking about RPGs and not really mentioning turn based combat seemed sacrilegious so, I thought I’d mention it.
A lot of RPGs will try to innovate with their own unique feature to gameplay. Take the Fallout series (Shock I brought this up again) with V.A.T.S as an example. Kind of blending genres a little bit, blurring the lines between real time FPS and turn based strategy. Being able to choose a specific limb/body part to aim at whilst slowing down time worked really nicely, helping a lot with how clunky the gameplay was. Selecting someones head, watching your dynamite slowly bend it’s way through the air only to bounce off their noggin and then blow them to pieces makes for quite a fun gaming experience.
I’ve even completely ignored games that otherwise looked interesting to me just based on how bad the gameplay looked. Take Technomancer for instance, looked interesting but didn’t play it. Even Outward looked like something that could scratch my RPG itch, but ultimately I didn’t play it because it just looked outdated.
And then of course there’s variation in gameplay. Being able to choose how you want to play, be it stealthy, all guns blazing or even talking your way out of a situation. Most RPGs offer this, (the good ones anyway) and it’s essential for being able to role play and play the game how you want. Sure, being stealthy might not always work and you’ll end up in a sticky situation but that’s life, not everything works out the way you want.
The last thing I have to say about gameplay is difficulty, I enjoy the games where there is one set difficulty. You know no matter who’s playing it in the world they’re going through the same experience as you, even if they’re going at it a bit differently. For me difficulty sliders are good for other genres of games but not RPGs. Take the Dark Souls series for instance, imagine if you could just turn easy mode on, and no I’m not talking about a Dexterity build. It would completely ruin the experience and sense of achievement when you beat the game.
Character customisation isn’t a must in an RPG, if the character you are forced to play as is well written. In a lot of cases this is a better option, but that’s solely down to the writing, again. If the character is well written and you can empathise with them, I’d 100% prefer that than some random mute character that looks the way I want. Although it can be a lot of fun creating a Shrek-like monstrosity, that goes on to look hilarious in cutscenes.
There should always be some level of customisation though, like armour for example. Dark Souls is a great example of this, as you can find amazing armour that will no doubt let you take more hits or give you some kind of effect boost. But instead you’ve chosen to wear armour that makes you look better – this is referred to as ‘fashion souls’, we’ve all been there. Aesthetic over practicality, always.
Limited bugs and issues
I’m going to be brief here, RPGs are the genre home to the most bugs. It’s understandable why, the games are massive, some are bound to slip through the cracks right?
Of course bugs are mostly bad, if they affect the way you play in the sense that it hinders your progress. Sometimes questlines are bugged so you can’t even hand them in, or an object isn’t where it’s supposed to be. These types of bugs really need to be ironed out and fast as you’ve essentially paid for a product that isn’t finished, but that happens a lot in the industry now anyway.
Some bugs however have some charm, and can even make the game more enjoyable. Sorry to bring them up again but how can I talk about bugs and not mention Bethesda? I don’t think their titles would be as fun if they were completely polished and bug free. When it’s simple things like a giant yeeting you in to the stratosphere ’cause you stole his toe and a wheel of mammoth cheese from under his nose, all you can do is shrug, laugh and accept it.
Thank you for reading through my ramblings, I hope you enjoyed the article. I’m sure some of you have a lot more experience in the RPG genre as a whole, as I’m somewhat limited to aRPGs. I’d love to hear what you think on the matter, leave a comment below on what you think makes a good RPG!
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