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RPG Story Telling vs Game Play

Updated on March 31, 2010

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?


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      busterchops 8 years ago

      I agree that in a perfect world you would have both areas heavily involved but the reality of the our world is that the effort to make every quest chain in a game like WoW have a special ending wherein your character gets a special item or title or whatever is just too daunting. There are several quests that form chains like that and I find that there are actually many people who follow a number of "useless" chains just because they like the story told therein. For me, the story is somewhat secondary to the process of getting the quests and achievements done. However as I said I know people who take forever to get to max level because they are following all sorts of different questlines to find the whole story. Is either correct? No. It all comes down to the fact that you can never please everyone because we all have different ideas and goals. Ultimately the most successful franchises are able to walk the line and hold the attention of as many people as possible. Both Wow and FF have done this in spades.