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.
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.
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.