Adventurer crossing a river with a castle in the background.

The Story in an RPG.

Above all the features created for an RPG, one component, which should be placed front and centre, is the story. Like other narrative mediums, storytelling needs to be compelling to keep the interest of the player going, so they can finish their game in the 60+ hours it would take to finish. Should the experience fall short, game developers are only asking for the game to be turned off almost immediately. So what should an RPG story have to keep a players invested? Personally, I can think of at least four criteria for this.

An Interesting World

Whether we’re talking about a small region in South-East Asia, an area of space some thousands of light years away, or even a whole new dimension entirely, the world the characters interact in should give moments of awe and wonder for the player to witness. When I hear of something called The Jade Sea, I envision an entire body of water coloured in a jade-like hue, or perhaps a literal sea encrusted with jade like the magnificent phenomenon found in Guild Wars: Factions. Ruins and caverns scattered across the land, with ancient relics just waiting for that one brave adventurer, or band of legendary heroes, to come and claim them. Overall, a world with substance, to scratch that itch of exploration, while adding a bit of lore on top of it, makes it all the more interesting to play.

Believable and Engaging Characters

One of the concepts of writing a character is to make them as relatable to the reader as you can. Such a premise is hard to portray if the character is dealing with abominations from the nether realm in a medieval steampunk world. In this case relatability doesn’t come from the experiences the character faces, but rather how they express their dealings. To get to know what makes them tick, or laugh, or cry, helps the player understand the character more, and cheer them on when they overcome adversity; or, in contrast, shed a tear at the loss of an endearing soul.  One game I felt achieved such a goal is Persona 4, where as the characters interact with one another, you do get a true sense that these are teenagers interacting with one another, all the while dealing with a supernatural mystery as best they can.

The Right Amount of Drama

Drama is a great driving force in a story. It is a concept that holds a genre of its own, while it also seeps into other genres to propel their plots forward. It’s that moment when the main character’s goal becomes clear, that shot in the dark that sparks the motivation to change the world, that final farewell to someone that fuels the fire of justice. A good dramatic moment stirs the hearts of the characters, just as it should stir the heart of the player.  But that being said, there can’t be too much occurring, lest the player become too frustrated in the moment, and lose interest in what should be guiding them towards to the end.  Much like the death of Aerith (Aeris) in Final Fantasy 7, where we had our moment to grieve over the flower girl, make our peace, and strove forward with our sights on Sephiroth.

Not Overstaying Its Welcome

No matter the plot, while we do choose to play an RPG for its story, we do have to remember one thing: We are still playing a game, and not reading a visual novel. An RPG needs to establish as much of the story it can before returning to its core mechanics. While too little story will make the experience uninteresting, too much will either come across as either overreaching or daunting, and make the player lose interest altogether.  Take the open world of the Elder Scrolls for example.  While it is a treat to read about the culture behind the region your character resides, be it Morrowind or Skyrim, with rich lore in the text, sometimes there is too much text to sift through, when all you require is an understanding on the topic.  A balance is great in this instance, so the loremaster inside one player can feel they understand the world better, while the gamer inside another can return to the action after a short diversion.

What do you think? Is there something here you would change or add? Or do you think the story matters at all?

3 comments

  1. Like you mentioned, balance is crucial. I’d like to get lost in another world but not to the point where I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything in a four hour play session.

    1. And that’s where I feel a lot of the current generation RPG players are having some frustrations. They want to get into the action as much as possible, while wanting to get lost in the story, but they had to sit through a good half an hour cutscene to kill some more baddies for another twenty minutes. That’s why something like Skyrim is touted to be great, while (and this is hurting me to say) games like Chrono Trigger are losing their places at the top because of the length of dialogue.

  2. For me, I would say that variety and agency is important. I have a hard time getting excited for a lot of modern RPGs because of how one-note the settings seem. I understand that having a single location with a lot of depth is objectively a good thing, but like dressing up to go to the city or planning a swamp safari sometimes.
    As for agency, it annoys me that I can spend my time ether escorting the actually important characters to were they give their speech or kill single bad guy and save the world. I want to talk about of cool MY character looked when sassing the king, not some other dope.

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