Why Most RPG Writers Need A Lesson In Writing

Well, it seems that I’ve not posted in ages. Not a good thing at all.

Fun as it may be, it’s a massive time sink. I would have picked a different art style for the cover, though.

But I don’t have much to say. I mean, honestly… I’m in Canada, so I don’t get Toonami, and there’s been very little to talk about lately, aside from some more Neptunia stuff, but I don’t think very many people care about those, so I’m not gonna be posting them anymore unless there’s something particularly interesting. I’ve been spending most of my time sleeping, coding, watching anime, or playing Tales of Graces ƒ.

However, I suppose I may as well use this as a chance to rant about something. Ironically, Tales of Graces handles this slightly better than most, but it’s still not perfect.

In RPGs, one of the recurring problems you run into is that party members come and go as the story demands, typically taking all equipment and other upgrades spent on them as they leave.

I mean, it’s so common and annoying that TV Tropes has a trope on it, named “So Long, and Thanks for All the Gear“.

Warning: Spoilers for Final Fantasy IV and all remakes/ports thereof, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness and all remakes/ports thereof (as well as its anime adaptation, but not the manga), Tales of Graces and its remake and, last but not least, Hyperdimension Neptunia are below. Though I tried to avoid directly stating the spoilers, some information has to be let loose for the sake of the argument.

It’s the sort of thing that requires that a player have a walkthrough open at all times in certain games, if they don’t wish to waste in-game money and items. One particularly bad offender is Final Fantasy IV, during which every single character, even Cecil in a roundabout way, does this at least once (further details on the TV Tropes page I linked).

In fact, until I realized what Tales of Graces was doing, I made sure to not equip anything I spent any significant degree of effort obtaining onto anyone but the two main main characters, Asbel and Sophie, who should generally be in the party for most of the game. For the record, Tales of Graces has all returning characters keep the same equipment they had before. If anything, you’ll need to re-equip their title, but that’s all. There’s one particular character who you would assume sticks in your party, but instead becomes a recurring villain after a certain point. I’m quite lucky that I spoiled myself and avoided giving that character anything important.

Also, both luckily and unluckily, the only things that more than one character can equip are armour and gems. Though non-upgraded armour is still an issue because of their price, upgraded armour is an issue because those take work (and luck with drops) to assemble well, and and gems are ONLY created by upgrading armour with stuff you get from monster drops, making it a huge issue to lose them. There’s also the whole accessory issue, with some DLC stuff and some non-DLC being equippable by all, but those are purely cosmetic. Losing weapons and the like, however, is a non-issue, since only that character can equip those anyway. Though that causes spoilers when you see progressively stronger weapons for a character that left your party an hour ago appearing in shops.

But, even knowing this, I hesitate to give anything important to anyone but Asbel and Sophie. Why is it that I have come to pre-emptively expect this? I shouldn’t be expecting such problems, which are generally writing failures.

Yup, you’ll be seeing a lot of these three; since Gust, Nisa, RED, 5pb., Noire, Vert and Blanc are all optional.

For all the complaints people had about the first Neptunia title, Hyperdimension Neptunia, this is something they did very well. Nobody ever leaves your party, except Neptune twice, and only for a dungeon each time. Though her equipment was reset to default after each time, you could just re-equip her old stuff again in a few seconds.

How were they able to write a good story like this? Simple, the story was about the adventures of three girls. I mean, there are 7 optional party members, but 4 are DLC and 3 require grinding just before the final boss and a difficult, optional one-on-one fights after said grinding to obtain. And I should note that the type of grinding you do for each one sets you back on the others, since the grinding is about moving shares between each goddess, which are finite and need to be taken from one to be given to another.

Of course, the game does not inform you that you can get those characters, nor how, so they had to assume that you were using just Neptune, Compa and IF for the entire game. I’m sure this would have been great for game design if the game wasn’t so low-budget.

From left to right: Etna, Laharl, Flonne

One game, however, that was a total dick about this was Disgaea: Hour of Darkness. One of the main characters, the female lead Flonne, is fairly useless unless you know what you’re doing (and it takes a lot of work to actually do it, too), in which case she is your best character unless you’ve unlocked the Majin class. Period. The game, however, punishes people who know this while not affecting those who don’t, by kicking Flonne out of the final boss fight via turning her into a flower. Really, Nippon Ichi?

Something like that is completely inexcusable. While that did a good job of showing Laharl’s character growth in the game’s multiple endings, it was nothing more than a huge penalty for the most difficult non-bonus fight, from a gameplay perspective.

This was also an issue for Etna Mode, which was present only in the PSP and DS ports. Etna Mode, unless you go on the internet and get the code to start in it, is unlocked after beating said final boss fight, which would be difficult since Flonne’s gone, and lacks Laharl, who is probably tricked out with your best equipment. You only unlock Flonne after going though half of the game in Etna Mode, too, as opposed to early on, and this mode is head and shoulders above the regular mode in terms of difficulty (unless, again, you used the code on the title screen, in which case it’s normal difficulty). All of this when the only character of the main cast that you get to keep is Etna, easily the worst of the trio and not even as useful as some characters like Captain Gordon, the Defender of Earth who is absent from the mode.

This is a writing issue, not a gameplay one, though. Yes, I am indeed implying that the writing in Final Fantasy IV is inferior to Hyperdimension Neptunia‘s. Mainly because it is. I’m sure Final Fantasy IV‘s story would make a pretty decent anime or something, but it’s nothing short of terrible for the medium they chose. Nothing but punishing to those unacquainted with it.

And, of course, this isn’t even accounting for the games that were made unwinnable by mistake due to this.

If I were to make an RPG, if would be one that avoids this issue entirely, because that would be the logical thing to do. An important thing to pay attention to when writing for games, is how any given twist will translate into the player’s experience. If anything in the story would greatly annoy the player from a gameplay perspective, then it should be thrown out, or the gameplay should be revised to decrease the amount of annoyance it would cause.

For example, don’t allow the player to alter other party members’ equipment if they’re gonna leave. Or give everything they had equipped back. Or at least stop the player from giving anything unique or hard to obtain to anyone but the main protagonist. Throw us all a bone, writers, or find a different job. Preferably one that does not involve interactive media, since you’ve already shown a disregard for the end-user experience.

Of course, this is far from being the only writing issue that plagues many RPGs, but this post is long enough. I’ll get around to other problems at a later date.