It seems that recently one of the things that defines RPGs is the length. There is a tendency, more often than not, for them to be very long. For this opinion piece I want to take a look at whether such a length of game is really necessary or even healthy for an RPG.
The idea that gamers today are too busy to play games is one that I do not buy into myself. I feel it is self serving. However, that does not mean that length of games should be a concern, regardless of whether a game is too short or drags on for too long. I recently read a good article here on Destrutoid in defence of shorter games
. The article criticises the baseless criticism of game for being short, using the recent Metal Gear Rising as its example. It is all rather agreeable in my opinion, and I wanted to chime in when it comes to RPGs.
I am very much a fan of Terry Pratchett, preferring his works over the long epics a lot of other authors try to push out. I like being able to read a hundred thousand words of a book, and then put it down knowing I got the entire story without having to go through at least two more hundred thousand word books. I sometimes wish these big name RPGs could take a similar attitude.
It seems whenever a RPG is advertised the marketers like to bang on about how long the game is. From Skyrim’s supposed two hundred hours of content to Final Fantasy XIII’s seemingly endless corridor, every RPG maker wants their game to be bigger, longer, and no doubt filled with even more story. However, I cannot say that either of these games had a story that really gripped me or made me feel anything particularly special. Quite a lot of the time the length is padded out with repetition, such as Skyrim’s many dungeon crawls. I could forgive that game in the end, since those were optional side-quests most of the time, though even the main story seems to find most of its hours in a dungeon.
As someone interested in writing I have learnt that pacing is vital to keeping a story burning alive. The problem that big RPGs suffer from is that the pacing of the story usually gets killed off completely, especially in the sandbox kind. It is understandable why this happens; because most players want to have fun exploring the world and doing side quests or just random nonsense for fun. This however does not blend well with the typical sort of “save the world” story that RPGs tend to go for. “Yes, I’ll be right there to kill those evil dragons… right after I help this old lady across the street”. The story the game is trying to tell does not match the lengthy nature of the game.
So how can games solve this problem? Of course I do not have the answer. What do I know about designing games? There are however a few things that I feel did work in the past which I think writers of RPGs might want to pay attention to.
The first is to go the whole hog on the sandbox, open world style ala Mount & Blade. This is a game that lacks any significant plot other than the one the player forges out for themselves. The story of Mount & Blade is the personal tale of the protagonist worming their way up in the world. The world moves around the character regardless of what they are doing. Lords get captured in battles, city and castles are besieged and taken. You feel less like the centre of the universe and more like one of many cogs that effect the flow of events.
Another possibility is building the story with the idea that the main character may be a bit of a drifter in mind. I have always had a fondness for open world RPGs that did not push you too hard in any particular direction, or gave you plenty of reason to go and wander. Morrowind demonstrates this nicely in its main quest line, where at at least two parts early one you are given storyline reasons for your character to go out and explore the world and join guilds. I much preferred this to Skyrim, which did not accommodate to the desire of player to explore and instead tries to funnel them along the main quest without a logical break in the story.
The other way is go the way of old school JRPGs and focus down on the actual story. I hope you can forgive me for a moment of nostalgia, but I miss the days of JRPGs when you played to the final boss and that was the end of the game. I rarely find that I have the motivation to do any of the end game grind or pointless side-quests they try to add to these games nowadays. While we might decry the trend of streamlining or dumbing down, I personally think some RPGs could benefit by narrowing down on the story.
In the end, I think if developers want to make long RPGs then they have to do more to make the story fit that ambition. Either that or they need to take the stories they have and ask themselves for how long would this story be interesting to players for.