Gaming on a Timer

Ideas – Four RPG Tropes, How to Improve Them, Part 2

Disclaimer: The following article is merely a gathering of ideas, thoughts that I have collected throughout my gaming experiences regarding certain tropes found most commonly in the RPG genre. They should not be taken as fact, but instead as a provocation for thought for the improvement of the medium.

Amnesiac Protagonist
and similar back-story delivery tropes.

In Planescape: Torment, you play as
the aptly-named Nameless One…

What’s Wrong: As is common with most RPG cosmologies, new players are often unfamiliar with the various aspects of the game world their characters inhabit. This leads to a very common problem designers need to address during development: How to justify explaining the world to the player in-character (without communicating with the player directly; usually, this means an in-game “tutor” character conveys explanations to the player’s avatar instead). Amnesia is sometimes used in this regard; by having the main character suffer from memory loss, the designer can use them as a player surrogate, allowing the game to describe various aspects of itself without breaking immersion (an amnesiac character being treated as a blank slate for the purposes of exposition).

 While this approach certainly has a few advantages – it saves time during development, provides narrative cohesion and enhances immersion (if done properly) – it is often used as a crutch when character design is either lacking or non-existent; many offenders of this trope are bland, one-dimensional characters that use amnesia as an excuse to not have any personality of their own.
…an amnesiac immortal with a
penchant for dialogue.

What’s Right: On the flip-side, amnesia used correctly can be a very powerful tool of narrative delivery. The quintessential example is, perhaps, Planescape: Torment, the 1999 RPG by Black Isle Studios – based on the titular Planescape campaign setting of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop RPG – it provides what I consider the best use of amnesia as a plot hook. In the game, the protagonist (The Nameless One) is an immortal being, who (at the game’s start) has no memory of his past lives. 

Torment is structured around this concept, with most (if not all) of the game’s mechanics being explained via amnesia; gaining levels is mostly remembering past knowledge, most of the party characters are linked to his past incarnations and a good part of the game’s plot revolves around acquiring his previous memories. It’s therefore apparent that amnesia can work as (and even enhance) the game’s story and narrative if it’s treated as an integral part of the experience, instead of a fall-back method to shave time off development.
What to Improve: The best remedy in this case (aside from going the Planescape: Torment route) would be to refrain from using amnesia altogether; after all, this is probably one of the most overused tropes in the narrative delivery department. Barring that, however, better integration into the story is probably the best way to go – as an example, gameplay tutorials can be incorporated as “flashbacks” into the protagonist’s past – while making sure that said integration remains an interactive part of the player’s experience (don’t resort to non-interactive sequences such as cutscenes or take over the controls to illustrate such scenes).
Game Mechanics / Story Segregation

In Final Fantasy VII, weapons like
this are hard to get…

What’s Wrong: At its’ core, the inconsistency between the story and gameplay sections stems from what (at first glance) amounts to bad/no communication between the story and game mechanics aspects of game design or, in some cases, a desire to cut costs by reducing development times. A perennial example found in most RPG’s is the inconsistency of gameplay and cut-scene avatars; a character might appear to have equipped any number of items/armour/weaponry during actual gameplay, but in non-interactive scenes they’re always depicted in their default, stock models.

Such actions often shatter the in-game world’s verisimilitude – the suspension of disbelief that helps immerse the player into the experience – effectively wreck any attempts at atmosphere the designer(s) may have tried to implement.

…though, judging by cutscenes, the
starting blade is Cloud’s favourite.

What’s Right: Admittedly, such techniques can sometimes reinforce verisimilitude instead of destroying it; with sufficiently plausible justification, the inconsistencies instead become defining traits of the cosmology – thus allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief far more easily.

What to Improve: Facilitate better communication between the story and game mechanics teams during development; often, the challenge of integrating (and explaining) various gameplay aspects into a coherent story line can be difficult, but offers great rewards by means of immersion and consistency. Alternatively, if you absolutely must break the game world’s “rules”, at least attempt to justify such actions; in the above example, the character could have been inflicted with a status effect that disables resurrection items from being used (which would also work as an actual in-game ability for better cohesion).

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