Sunday, December 19, 2010

Game Over; Party Perished; Thou Art Dead

We seem to be on a nostalgia kick that started a few days ago, so while we're still in the mood to reflect on past and present, allow me to bring up an issue that's been bothering me for the better part of a decade: I never used to die in RPGs.

Roleplaying games used to be just below platformers on my list of favorite video game genres, in part because I had an uncanny knack for staying alive. Frequent death was a fact of life in any given platformer, but RPGs all carried the unspoken rule that a total party kill would bring shame and disgrace on my reputation as a gamer.

My very first turn-based RPG was Dragon Warrior for the NES, which instilled in me the value of strategy and good preparation. While the hero of Dragon Warrior was slain countless times under my command, there was an understanding that (a) a one-man army and his tiny bag of wimpy healing herbs isn't destined to last long in a perilous world, and (b) I was six years old. To survive, I had to study my foes and learn when to fight, when to heal, when to run, and when to spend an hour beating up on weaker enemies to gain the money and experience necessary to progress safely through the next area.

Having graduated at a young age from the school of hard knocks (or "terrible blows," in the case of Dragon Warrior), I found other RPGs to be easier because I practiced good inventory management, stocked up on necessary supplies in advance, pushed myself to conserve items and magic points, and spent excessive amounts of time leveling up from the very beginning.

At the start of Chrono Trigger, for example, I found that smashing 'shrooms in the forest until about level 4 or 5 is sufficient experience to get you through the entire game unharmed without ever needing to go back and grind for experience. There were certainly some close calls my first time through the game, but the only time I ever remember dying was when I let myself get killed off by the final boss in order to see the "bad ending."

EarthBound was a similar story. Yes, I got my head handed to me a few times in scuffles with the local ruffians, but like Dragon Warrior, chances of survival are not high when your combat options for your lone hero are Run, Fight, Burn All Your Magic Points On One Attack, and Suck Down a Can of Juice. After the initial learning curve, however, I was a force to be reckoned with.

I knew how to take advantage of my environment to avoid some enemies and sneak up on others. I knew the abilities of my party members, and I kept a well-stocked arsenal of hamburgers and bottle rockets. After the first hour or two of the game, I'm not sure if I ever got a Game Over again. I can think of one or two places where things got extremely bad, but my memory is about as fuzzy as pickles.

Obviously, death in RPGs was not a common occurrence if I have trouble remembering if and when my entire party got wiped out.

Even if the heroes were decimated, I always had an excuse that lifted the blame off my shoulders. In the first few hours, it was always the learning curve. Anytime after that, death was due to bad luck. Sometimes I traded strategy for luck and intentionally pushed my weary and bleeding party too far to grab just a little more GP and XP before returning to town. Sometimes every one of the enemy's instant death spells succeeded before any of my characters got a turn. As long as it was honest bad luck or I was utterly to blame for my failure, my record was clean.

Fun anecdote: The most hilariously embarrassing death I've ever had in an RPG came from Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Prior to having much of an opportunity to buy items and equipment, the very first real (and unavoidable) battle pitted me against three run-of-the-mill forest Brownies who (a) got a surprise round, and (b) ALL got critical hits. Needless to say, the only bards who ever sang of my exploits were the ones who needed approximately seven seconds to fill at the end of a performance.

I held myself to a high standard with my earliest RPGs because I was inherently good at them, or had at least put in the training with Dragon Warrior to avoid being bad at them. RPGs don't give you extra lives—you've got one chance to save the world, and you'd better make it good. It's pathetic to die at the hands/claws/tentacles/etc. of a peaceful roaming monster you accidentally disturbed; lesser bosses don't deserve the satisfaction of extinguishing your party; and it's a waste of an adventure to get all the way to the final boss and die like a chump. In a fairly designed RPG, there should be no reason for me to die.

Either I'm not as good as I thought I was, or modern RPGs are wickedly unfair.

I think of all the Final Fantasy games where "run away" was a command the designers never thought would be used, and thus was never programmed to work. I think of bosses like Abyssion in Tales of Symphonia and Dullahan in Golden Sun: The Lost Age, where everything you know about tactics go out the window, along with your notions of being a high-powered and well-leveled party. I think of Disgaea DS, where the sheer number of variables makes identifing good equipment nearly impossible.

You shouldn't have to die on a boss battle before realizing you need to completely reconfigure your party to have a chance of success. There shouldn't be items that get your party killed because the in-game descriptions are incomplete or misleading. ("Makes body cold." Thanks for not telling me the Relic Ring turns Celes into a zombie who dies and makes us throw the battle when I try to use healing magic on her!) Nothing I learned from Dragon Warrior applies anymore.

...Or does it?

If you learn nothing else from Dragon Warrior, it's that endless leveling up is the only guaranteed road to success. I've played Dragon Warrior II and III, and it's the same deal there: you spend some time leveling up, and you'll live long enough to do it again. Imagine my surprise while playing Dragon Warrior IV recently when my party of two kept getting assassinated by flying mice with big ears.

I've officially spent more money resurrecting dead cohorts in this one part of Dragon Warrior IV than I've ever spent on any game other than X-Men Legends. To add insult to fatal injury, about a third of these resurrections have taken place after the entire party was wiped out and brought back in pieces to the last save point. I can place some of the blame on the characters' abilities not being ideally configured for my style of combat, but the truth of the matter is that I haven't spent the time leveling up to not return to town on a stretcher.

In my defense, DWIV has multiple chapters starring different characters who all start from pathetically low levels, so repeatedly grinding my way up from Level 1 in such a relatively short span of time has finally gotten to me.

During the first chapter, I was violently reminded to refrain from being too ambitious with my dungeon exploration—this was Dragon Warrior, after all, and not Chrono Trigger on New Game + for the seventeenth time. During the second chapter, the enemies increased in difficulty gradually enough that I could poke around to my heart's content without slowing down too often to grind for XP. During the third chapter, I spent copious amounts of time fighting enemies for gold and saleable loot that would pay for something I needed to buy to advance the plot, but I rarely felt my life was in danger. By the fourth chapter, I was through with grinding and just wanted to get to the part of the game where I could hit enemies with magical swords instead of wooden sticks. How foolish of me.

After a string of defeats in roughly the same spot of a certain dungeon, it dawned on me that I hadn't lost my touch—I wasn't a washed-up, has-been RPG player. My tactics were still sound, save for one important detail: I was willfully ignoring my training. Grinding for gold and experience was no longer the relaxing, rewarding experience it had once been. I demanded instant gratification from a game—nay, a genre—that only provides instant gratification if you enjoy watching your party of Light Warriors get Rubbed out of existence in one turn by a pack of Mages in the Ice Cavern.

Side note: I maintained a perfect, "no death" streak in the original Final Fantasy by resetting the game the one time it looked like my whole party was going to be wiped out by those accursed earthquaking Sand Worms, and by never entering the dangerous final dungeon until college, where saved states on an emulator continued my winning streak. For shame.

I still contend that too many modern RPGs hand out cheap deaths like people hand out flyers on street corners, but even the worst of these can usually be mitigated by overleveling your characters. I evidently need to find more games like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where success is more dependent on wise character customization and creative battle tactics than how many times you care to wage war on the local slime population before proceeding.

This begs the question, though: Did I enjoy RPGs more when I was younger because they were better games, or because I was more willing to go out of my way to make winning easy?


zharth said...

I'll play RPGs purely for the story, but when it comes to gameplay, I think it's tricky to hit that sweet spot where the game is challenging enough to be exciting, but not so hard that it's just frustrating. If you level up too much, you run the risk of breezing past all the bosses like they weren't even a threat. And while that gets you through the game, and it sure beats getting your head handed to you fifteen times before you finally manage to pull one over on the Orc Lord (or whatever), it kind of takes out some of the fun if every encounter on your adventure is a cakewalk.

But that's a tricky thing to engineer, because different players will have different strengths and experience (and I'm not talking about experience points). Strategy is a good component. Having to use your brains to turn an impossible challenge into a manageable task (like figuring out the fire sword will work wonders on the ice dragon) makes it fun. (And it's a whole lot preferable to having every weapon work about the same, or only giving your character one weapon to use at any given time).

I remember in either Final Fantasy VII or VIII, the random enemies you encounter were designed to level up as your party does, such that if you went back to the first dungeon at level 99, you'd be fighting level 99 imps, instead of the level 1 imps you fought the first time around. Gearing the enemy's levels to your party helps to maintain a balance, so that you don't accidentally level up too much, rendering the rest of the game too easy. But then, that takes away the potential advantage of a player intentionally leveling up in order to reduce the challenge - because after all, some players are better at these games than others. And above all, it's madness to be walking through the field at the end of the game, having every single random enemy encounter be a battle to the death against a level 99 monstrosity.

I've always wanted to design my own RPG, but it's pretty complicated.

Flashman85 said...

You're thinking of FFVIII. I had a thought about how to remedy the overleveling situation--as you increase in levels, additional and more powerful enemies start showing up in places that were previously low-level stomping grounds. In addition to basic slimes and imps and whatnot, there's suddenly big scary things that may actually kill you, or at least make a dent. This is doubly good, because not only does it continue to challenge you without nullifying your progress (as is the case with enemies that level with you), but it introduces new enemies who give more XP and GP to speed up your grinding.

Ultimately, I think it should come down to tactics, as you said. One of the reasons I'm such a big fan of Chrono Trigger--you can't just mash the attack button and hope to win. I also appreciate Chrono Trigger in that a significant amount of leveling will ease the difficulty of tactics-heavy battles, but without removing the tactical element. Same deal with Super Mario RPG and EarthBound, my other two favorite RPGs.

I've seen one or two straightforward RPG creator programs, but I've always wanted to design a nontraditional RPG. Maybe that's a post for another time, though.