All the Feels: Does Story Really Matter in RPGs?

The RPG genre is evolving. Is story the most important thing to focus on?

Most of us can remember a time when a great RPG and complex storytelling went hand in hand. Games like Dragon Quest V, Xenogearsand Final Fantasy 9 are all famous for their stories and how well they were told. Their intricate story lines held these games and their worlds together. 

As RPGs have become incredibly popular, studios continue to look for ways to make them increasingly accessible to the masses. One of these ways is to condense the main storyline, so that those more interested in gameplay, or a quick run, are more likely to enjoy their playthrough. This is a largely unpopular move for dedicated RPG fans, and sometimes lends to new gamers skipping so much of the world around them they end up disliking the game.   

Separating story and lore is a daunting task in older RPGs.

The main story forced you to learn about the world around you, sometimes in very time intensive ways. Newer RPGs, such as Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition take a slightly different approach. While the stories are still pretty consuming and interesting, they are just cliff notes compared to what you can learn about the world around you by exploring it. 

Giving players both options, in my opinion, is a step in the right direction. I understand the nostalgia and desire for story driven RPGs, and I hope they will continue to be available. I also get that distilling the story is a push towards including a more casual player base, which is largely frowned upon in the gamer community.

While it is difficult to imagine our most beloved RPGs without their stories, I would argue that removing the main story (for whatever reason) is a step towards unlocking an RPGs full potential. 

In a well-designed RPG the main story line does not matter as much, because the player creates their own. 

The most important aspect of RPGs is choice. From the character customization screen to the last skill points you spend, people love the genre because of what their character can become. This does require a world to explore and challenges to meet, but creating a story for them is not always necessary.

It's interesting to wonder how some games would be different if more technology was available when those original RPGs were created. Would they even be focused around a main story line? Would they instead be more solidly products of player creation?

The ultimate player control is removing a pre-narrated story and allowing the player to craft their own. The overwhelming success of MMORPGs relies heavily on this tactic. Many still include a story to follow, but their lasting success comes from the community driven stories those game allow players to create. Every guild war, auction house upset, raid boss takedown, and in-world discovery creates a lasting connection to the game, especially if you accomplished it yourself. 

In a first-person and primarily single-player world, this requires a different approach. Not just a multiple endings type effort, but a seamless experience from beginning to end. I hope that it's only a matter of time until AI and procedural generation will be able to take on first person RPGs in more impactful ways.  

As RPGs head into the future, I'm excited to see more reliance on innovation and less reliance on story. There is a place in all genres for a well-told story, and maybe we'll even see a genre emerge that is specifically for this purpose. But pushing the limits of the RPG genre's capabilities and creating the most memorable role-playing games will come down to customization and player choice, not storytelling. In many ways, a good story is holding us back.

Story matters, but is not the most important thing in a great RPG. Do you agree? Where do you see the genre heading in the future? Let me know in the comments!

Published Feb. 3rd 2017

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