Story Mode: What I want from RPGs

I love video games. RPGs in particular have a special place in my library. I’ve spent more hours in the worlds of Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, The Witcher, etc than I care to count. I love a good story. There’s nothing more to it. I seek out and relish a good story, wherever I can find one. I don’t care for epic adventures. Even a simple fulfilling story like the Journey, or Firewatch will keep me rapt, in front of a screen, for hours. I also tend to devour stories in the form of books. While most of my reading has mostly been fantasy, I also enjoy reading history. I’ve poured over the wealth of stories that have been collected on Wikipedia thanks to the enduring work of many people working for little more than the joy for preserving what is known.

Recently a lot of RPG developers have been optimizing for, in my opinion, the wrong metric, the number of hours of content. There’s nothing wrong with having a wealth of content, but the quality of the content must be held to a standard. For me, most of this came to a head in the 3rd installment of the Dragon Age series, Dragon Age: Inquisition. The game released in November 2014; I preordered it, and to date I’ve only spent around 11 hours in the game. This beautiful game full of bandits to slay, demons to vanquish, dragons to slay, an empire to build… you get the picture. The game’s developers boasted that it has a 50 hour main story! 50 hours! That right there is the main problem. I don’t want to be forced to spend 50 hours in a game mindlessly killing and looting demons and bandits to experience a great story. Usually, I put up with it; revelling in the little chunks of story that are dished out to me every now and then, for soldiering my way through the filler content that makes up most of the game. This game, however, made the mistake of setting up an illogical situation. It told me “You’re the key to the survival of the world! You’re the only one with the ability to defeat the demons and the supreme evil” yadda yadda yadda, and made me the leader of a powerful faction that has both military and political might. The developers then make me go out looking for my lost troops, so that a wayward mage or a marauding bandit can stick a dull blade through me. That makes no sense. It destroys immersion (for me). There were so many other ways they could have told the same tales, allowed me to explore the magical and beautiful realm they labored long and hard to craft. The nth time I died to some random mob while wandering around yet another strange locale, looking for my idiotic troops (who can’t seem to do any mission right), I’d had enough. I refuse to endure this game for it’s story. I’d much rather read a summary of the story or watch a movie made from all the cutscenes in the game instead.

Building a detailed world with a lot going on isn’t a bad thing. No, it is in fact one of the things that define video games as a storytelling medium. The ability to suspend disbelief and experience a world using your visual and auditory senses. The medium allows the storyteller to create and populate a living world. It’s a treat to see villagers gossiping in the background (although when you hear the same dialogue for the 10th time, it gets kinda jarring), to have the people of a place react to you, or any of the other millions of little details that help establish the credibility of a world. Heck, even hours of slaying monsters, bandits and others who seek to harm you, can be fun as long as your storytelling is up to the mark, like in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. Many of the smaller tales that you experienced very truly significant, not just another fetch or rescue quest that had no impact whatsoever on the story. I don’t intend to put that game on the pedestal, either. There was a point where I got sick of all the pointless ambushes and all the damn walking and riding around, (I get that you’ve created a beautiful world but please don’t make me run across every inch of it!) that I installed a mod that allowed me to “fast travel” to and from anywhere. I like how the Witcher is set in an unforgiving world, where any leisurely stroll in the woods could be your last, but I wish I didn’t have to fight so many damned drowners (I do see the intractability of my wish, but…)!

Alright, I’m done ranting. I have a proposal instead. I wish more video games came with a story mode. Fighting when it’s appropriate to the story and little otherwise. Boss fights should be just as hard as they are in the more “hardcore” modes. There should just be less rabble on the streets trying to kill you every 100m. Keep the fights challenging, just not as frequent. This kind of mode does exist, but I think it’s done all wrong. As an example, I think CD Projekt Red botched up their attempt at this. The Wild Hunt’s ‘Just the Story’ mode has the same amount of filler content, it’s just that the enemies have significantly less health, and don’t do as much damage to you. This makes for ridiculous boss fights where this all powerful, fully armored, well trained enemy is brought down in ~10 sword hits (none of them being fatal strikes, just glances on him armor etc.).

What would it take to convince studios that ‘casual’ doesn’t mean less difficult, it just means less tedious, especially when it comes to RPGs with an emphasis on story?

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