RPG Story Telling vs Game Play
As someone who loves RPGs (the Final Fantasy series in particular, but it is also hard to go past Zelda Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask) and someone who has recently gotten into making indie RPGs (more on that later), I wonder about people's preferred balance between story telling and game play.
The most recent installment in the Final Fantasy series, FFXIII, or Final Fantasy 13, is getting a lot of hate from critics for its linear style of game play that essentially takes the player through a story. Traditional RPG grinding is all but put aside, as are things like options and choices. Final Fantasy XIII doesn't even have towns, because towns are unnecessary for a game that essentially is a story.
Of course, all good RPGs have a fairly solid story line, but there is always a trade off between game play (ie, grinding by killing monsters to gain xp or magic, killing bosses for items,) and story telling, which, lets face it, doesn't really require the player to do anything other than mash the X button or equivalent thereof.
Ideally of course, story and game play should be interwoven in such a way that the game play seems to cause the story to move forwards. However most games in the last decade have thrown that concept to the wind. MMORPGs in particular laugh at this concept. We may be drifting slowly off topic here, but one of the major irritants in games like World of Warcraft is the fact that the thousands of quests you will complete whilst you play the game have only one point, to give you XP. You can skip 90% of the quests entirely and arrive at maximum level without sacrificing anything. What you do at level 10 has no bearing on how you are at level 80, and that's just wrong.
Ideally, in a perfect gaming world, every action would build on the action before it. If you take a quest at level 10, it should lead to a chain that has a direct reward at max level. That's just good story telling. If you were once a young rogue who defeated Xenon the Terrible, then you should reap the rewards for that with a unique item or ability at level 80. But that's not how it works in WoW, there is a total disconnect between the path you take and where you end up at the end of the game. (At the end of the game you end up forced to group with others in order to play the end game content, a fact which I personally find to be an incredible deal breaker.) That alone makes WoW a bad game, a pointless grind fest. Now sure, there are parts of the game in which this does not apply. The initial Death Knight quest chain, for instance, is a coherent and interesting story that you play through. If all of WoW was as well made as the starting Death Knight quest chain, I'd have a great deal fewer issues with the game.
But it isn't just WoW that makes you grind meaninglessly for hours upon hours. Plenty of modern RPGS do it, and interestingly, when the makers of FFXIII removed the grind from the game, people complained loud and long because the game was now 'too linear'.
So I put it to you readers, what is the perfect balance? Has any game ever achieved it?