Editorial: The Complication with Complication

Recently, on account of having nothing of worth to play on the 3DS, I have attempted to finish up my playthrough of Golden Sun: Dark Dawn using the system’s backwards compatibility. The game is fun enough and a good RPG fix for lovers of the genre such as myself, but it also is a prime example of my biggest frustration in story-heavy games. The developers appear to believe that a more complex plot makes for a more engaging story.

But really, what warrior would dress like this?

No clothes, no personality.

I touched on this issue years ago, but it is worth bringing up again. In Dark Dawn, cutscenes happen often and are frequently multiple times the length they need to be. It is clear the developers have lovingly crafted a detailed world full of history and culture in which to deliver their meticulous plot. However, while I moderately enjoy the game, I dread the cutscenes. Not because the plot is bad, and certainly not because the world is poorly crafted, but rather because Golden Sun tells no story at all.

Silent heroes are not new to the RPG genre, but Matthew is such a forgettable protagonist, I had to look up his name just to use it in this article. No characters have arcs or discernible motivations. The rare instances in which interesting dynamics are set up, they are presented in such a dry plot point-focused way that all the humanity is sucked out of them.

Golden Sun is so wrapped up in trying to hammer home every plot detail that it forgets to make the player care about the people who inhabit the world and the characters through whom they are supposed to experience the story.

This problem surely does not begin and end with Dark Dawn, though it is a more notable culprit. Many RPGs appear to be developed with the mantra that a complex plot is required and that characters should be one dimensional pawns filled to the brim with clichés touched off by a single “quirk”. But being quick to anger like Tyrell from Dark Dawn does not mean a single thing if there is not a reason for his anger. There is no reason to care about Jaster’s daddy issues in Rogue Galaxy if there is no reason to care about Jaster. Lloyd’s stupidity from Tales of Symphonia is not charming when there are not more dimensions to his character. Even dim people have layers to their personalities.

Powerful stories begin with character. Shadow of the Colossus tells a very powerful story that moved many gamers although its full plot could be thoroughly described in a paragraph. The game creates a simple and powerful motivation for the protagonist, Wander, right off the bat. Then it allows the player to experience the extent of Wander’s resolve through the gameplay experience.

A simple plot is not necessarily the answer either. Final Fantasy VII is known for its complex plot, but is still justly adored by its fans. That is because despite the intricate tale the game weaves, Final Fantasy VII takes special care to focus on character relationships, backstories, and personality nuances through dialogue and cutscene interactions.

Both these games – in very different ways – made sure to place character first. Players experience the world and stories of these titles without being beat over the head with pure plot-points. As such, even the very text-heavy back-story section of Kalm in Final Fantasy VII is a delight for players because they are already invested in the characters, story, and world at that point.

100 hours worth of dialogue could be cut from this game.

Riveting dialogue

It astounds me how game after game fails to grasp that players will not care about saving a world if he does not care about the characters whose world is ending.

Personality is about far more than picking a quirk or primary emotional state. Decisions are based on more than just good and evil.

I do not even mind the RPG clichés so much. Final Fantasy IX proved that originality is not a necessary ingredient for a strong story. In fact, the entire basis for the game is callbacks to older titles. Yet despite the runaway princess struggling against her fate, a young thief with an unknown past, and melodramatic villain, the title puts character arcs above plot points and clichés to create a successful story.

RPGs continue to be my favourite genre, but I grow increasingly frustrated with the incessant focus on needlessly complicated plots coupled with either one dimensional or no focus on character. It is like developers fall so in love with their complex lore that they forget that players need a reason to give a crap about it. Rogue Galaxy and Golden Sun: Dark Dawn are two games off the top of my head that are reduced to decent battle systems with pretty graphics when they could have been so much more.

Do you fellow Lusi-Sprites have the same issues? I recognize this is largely a JRPG issue, but I do not believe it is solely limited to them. Sound off in the comments below.

8 Comments

  1. Enrei
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 12:52 | Permalink

    Dark Dawn sucks.
    Nearly every cutscene was a review of what happened in the last cutscene, with maybe two or three new bits of info. “Remember, you’re the children of the Heroes of Vale, who saved the world and caused the Golden Sun event which made the beastmen, who are oppressed, but they built all these ancient structures, and you are on a quest to find this feather to fix your jet packs! Oh, right, hi, I’m a random NPC.”
    The best part is that over two thirds of that game is the stupid feather fetch quest!

  2. Ethos
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 13:26 | Permalink

    You know, that sums up that game better than I ever could.

  3. Matt Dance
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 13:54 | Permalink

    I totally agree that character development and interactions are key to feeling invested in the story. Case in point: Chrono Trigger’s eponymous silent protagonist still feels like a worthy character based on how his friends interact with him. That’s quite an accomplishment, actually.

    My favorite JRPG stories seem to follow a character as they pursue their own particular situation, which inevitably encounters other characters along their personal journey, and ultimately the larger world-story at hand. It’s this type of storytelling that has me married to that side of the genre versus the western, where you could be anybody but the world is there for you to explore and make a difference in according to its terms. Then again, I prefer to read a book than play in the sandbox.

  4. Durga Syn
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 17:01 | Permalink

    I agree that complex needless story lines with generic characters seems to be the genre standard right now for RPGs. I honestly cannot remember the last game with characters I cared about the way I cared about them in PlayStation, and even Super Nintendo RPG’s. There have been good games since, I’ve just never been as invested in them.

  5. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 21:04 | Permalink

    I cannot think of any effective narrative (of any medium) that isn’t character based on some level. Why should the audience care about a series of arbitrary events if they have no personal baring?

    The Tales of series has made a lucrative industry out of demonstrating that character development >>>>>>> original plot.

  6. Lusipurr
    Posted 2011.12.20 at 23:17 | Permalink

    Real characters = real fun.

    Boring characters = boredom.

    ’nuff said.

  7. SiliconNooB
    Posted 2011.12.21 at 04:15 | Permalink

    This is why I hate the fact that literary unversed members of dev teams *coughMotomuToriyamacough* are allowed to contribute toward the scenario, because it tends to ammount to 80% plot twists + explosive choreography ejaculations, 15% anime tropes and 5% pure daytime television grade drama .. *_*

    Garbage in, garbage out.

  8. Ethos
    Posted 2011.12.21 at 05:21 | Permalink

    Like I said in the old article I linked to, it often feels like a bunch of non-writers sitting around a board room saying “and then wouldn’t it be cool if THIS happened?!?!?!”