Are RPGs Doomed to be Dumbed Down Forever?
Any long time player of RPGs can tell you that that genre has changed a lot over the last few decades. And, unfortunately, the things they have to say about the current state of the genre aren't positive.
The first commercially available tabletop RPG was the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, released in 1974. A few years later, the concept of the RPG would move over to video game platforms such as the Atari 2600 and the NES. While these early games were rough and, for the most part, don't hold up too well, things quickly improved.
Many of the RPGs from the 90s are known as some of the best games of all time. The Final Fantasy series really hit its stride with numbers IV, VI, and VII, Earthbound showed that the genre could have non sci-fi or fantasy based games and still be a success, and the greatness of Chrono Trigger is denied by none.
What made these, and numerous other RPGs from this time, special weren't the refined gameplay or updated graphics compared to what had come before, but the stories. Stories which had never been told before, that had real, meaningful themes, and rich characters which players could relate to and care about.
Sadly though, its been a long time since stories like these were the norm for the genre.
To be fair, in the 2000s, things still weren't looking too bad. Final Fantasy has arguably its best iteration of all time in IX, players gained more control over the direction the stories took, the action and strategy RPG genres gained a lot of popularity, and of course, there was the release of my favorite game of all time, The World Ends with You.
However, it was during this time that the tropes and cliches of the genre became more noticeable and prevalent. There were even tropes which didn't come into existence until the 2000s that people got sick of within the decade. Ex. Morality systems.
This game still rocks though.
And now in the present, AAA RPGs have, for the most part, become a joke. Gone are the days of stories with actual meaning, and in their place are games which feel they can get by solely on flash visuals. Even the gameplay seems more shallow now.
For the sake of comparison, lets look at Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, released in 1985, and Final Fantasy XIII, originally released in Japan in 2009.
In Ultima IV, there is no antagonist for the player to go up against. Instead, you, as The Avatar, spend your time traveling the world, teaching interesting lessons about morality to others, and by extension, teaching the player.
In Final Fantasy XIII, your party consists of a ragtag team of idiots who are, for the most part, very difficult to sympathize with, and you travel around never really understanding what's going on because most of the game's lore is only available to learn about in data logs. And even if you do understand what's happening, there is no depth to the story beyond "We are friends and that makes us strong."
Sure, Ultima IV's graphics are horrendous compared to the beautiful presentation of Final Fantasy XIII, but it's clear which of these games is more interesting.
So, are we stuck in a world without great modern RPGs?
Not in the slightest!
Major developers may not be bringing their A game, but these past few years, the indie scene has been picking up the slack.
Evoland paid homage to all of the classic RPG tropes without simply recycling them, Gingiva threw logic away and worked as a surrealist masterpiece, and Undertale, with a story that can stand aside Final Fantasy VI's and Persona 4's as one of the greats, was one of the most popular games of 2015.
And with basic programs like RPG Maker available for an affordable price, we've got people whom, despite their limited resources, can bring their visions to life. Sure, there are tons of generic and downright bad RPG Maker games, but for everyone of those, there's a The Logomancer.
So no, we don't have anything to worry about. As long as there are independent developers with a story to tell, the gaming community will never stop getting great RPGs.