Recently I finished playing through Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on PS3. For those of you unfamiliar with the title it is a JRPG produced by Level 5 in coordination with Studio Ghibli. The former responsible for titles such as Dark Cloud and Professor Layton. The latter is arguably the pinnacle producer of anime cinema in Japan; producing such works as Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle.
Needless to say as a fan of RPGs and Studio Ghibli’s trademark style and storytelling I was highly anticipating a chance to play the game. Not to worry though, I am not about to turn the blog into a review platform for video games. This is the internet after all, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a fledgling video game reviewer or critic. What I want to speak about is not the merits and flaws of the video game itself but in the thought it sparked in my mind after the credits rolled.
I had just completed 65+ hours of a game under false pretenses. I was sold a lie and gobbled it up like full size candy bars on Halloween. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was billed and reviewed by multiple sources as an RPG. But looking back on my experience as the credits rolled and by a cruel twist of fate subsequently watching Idea Channel’s ‘Controlling Vs. ‘Being’ Your Video Game Avatar’.
The game I just sank hours into under the illusion of an RPG was in fact not an RPG. To state then what a role-playing game is let’s use this definition from Wikipedia:
A role-playing game is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting or through a process of structured decision-making or character development.Actions taken within many games succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines
I reviewed the time spent playing Ni No Kuni and realized at no point, not one singular instance, did I make a decision that led to character development or impacted the narrative. The only decisions available to me as a player was choosing my stable of monsters (absolutely in no way… or absolutely like Pokemon), equipped gear and items, and which if any of the side errands I completed. None of the side errands impact the game’s narrative. It would be difficult to call the plot linear because it not just resembles a line, it is a line. Point A to Point B and you’re just along for the ride. Awkward tactical time, strategic combat and ‘quests’ don’t make a game an RPG, though apparently people think that now. If I as the player have no agency in the plot and its outcome other than binary success or failure to complete the game it is not an RPG. This game then is no more an RPG than the average shooter or fighting game.
Upon further reflection I came to a strange epiphany, did I now take part in a culture of video games where sports games where actually more RPG-like than the games being billed as RPGs. Recently in addition to Ni No Kuni I have been playing MLB The Show. Playing the Road To The Show mode the player creates and controls one player from the draft, AA & AAA minor leagues, and MLB career to the All Star Game, and Hall of Fame. Every choice and action during and in between games has the possibility to advance the player’s career or penalize him. The character has to deal with the whims of the manager, fighting for a place in the starting lineup (or losing it), negotiating contracts and dealing with being traded to another team. Each facet of the RTTS career mode gives me agency. I determine the strengths and weaknesses of the character, how well he performs in clutch situations, whether he goes to free agency. And unlike many RPGs where losing a battle just means try again or reload the latest save file to make a second attempt in an identical battle sports games are never the same. If my pitcher blows a save opportunity and loses the game I don’t get prompted to retry the event, I live with the results and try not to suck at the next game (one nice thing about having over a hundred games in a season). Even reloading the latest save won’t prompt you with the same situation. Replaying an individual game is always different.
There’s no grand storyline in sports games. It’s a character driven story. I create my own thrilling victories with walk off home runs and crushing despair by striking out the last out of the 9th inning at home with the bases loaded. Even XCOM: Enemy Unknown, is more an RPG than some recent RPG titles. At least in it I have to determine which country I ignore alien abductions within. There is a difference between an RPG and interactive storytelling. Perhaps Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation in his review of Beyond Two Souls stated it most poignantly when referring to interactive storytelling video games as watching a movie you have to pause every few minutes. That’s a frustrating movie experience and an even worse gaming experience. I should not have to feel like I’m doing busywork to watch a predetermined story unfold.
I guess for me an RPG must consist of controlling an avatar that must make a difficult choices, often moral in nature, and live with the consequences of such decisions. The decisions and their consequences then coalesce to define the development of the character. At least for me this is something I try to bring to the forefront in my games from behind the screen. To watch characters and their associated players chew through difficult decisions to which there is no singular, sterling plan of action with no consequences.
In a recent game the party invaded a camp of dwarf workers in the beginning of an underground construction. The camp and its construction site had been overtaken by kobolds. In the fledgling beginnings of a great hall the adventurers battle through the last of the kobolds. The final kobold surrenders begging the party, and freed dwarf workers, to spare the two white dragon wyrmlings. The party found themselves in a dilemma. They might butcher innocent, infantile creatures or allow them to escape and grow up and potentially ravage the countryside one day. Half the party was for slaughter and the others had moral hangups with the murder of majestic wild animals on a ‘what if’ situation. In the end the party decided to let the kobold and the two wyrmlings free. Will it come back to haunt them, or perhaps pay unexpected dividends? Maybe, maybe not.
What do you think? Some people enjoy the beer and pretzel games of slaying monsters, gain loot, and never going beyond that. But at least from my own personal experience and most other people I have seen weigh in on complementing issues is that the nature of those who play RPGs is to delve in and develop characters. That means making difficult decisions and of course making mistakes and living with the consequences of a PC’s actions.