Last time I introduced you to the idea of writing for videogames and started talking about the options using Visual Novels. This time, aside from learnign that I sometimes miss a week because life, I will take a dip into the big one: RPGs. Not the rocket launcher brand, role-playing videogames. Lets go!
If you boil it down, the RPG is remarkably simple in concept. Think back to the visual novel with its characters talking to each other the whole game through, interactions happening almost exclusively in dialogue options.
The RPG retains those dialogue options, often down to the way dialogue is presented and adds a few layers to that. At its most basic, it adds a map for the characters to walk around in. Here the player can find stuff and other characters to interact with, adding a layer of space to the social interaction. Most RPGs will also add combat of some form to keep players occupied between story scenes, or to directly enhance the story if it is about combat.
There are many ways an RPG can appear. 2D RPGs show a flat map on which characters move around, adorned with buildings, trees, and other features one may or may not be able to interact with. 3D RPGs are essentially worlds to move around in seeing either through the player character’s eyes or following them like an invisible camera. They can be story-driven or gameplay-driven (i.e. combat-driven), though I will concentrate on the story-driven ones.
Writing an RPG can be a daunting task. All characters need dialogue throughout the game, even if it is just somebody saying they don’ want to talk. The map needs to be built, adding environmental design on top of character and background design. Luckily, many parts of the map like trees and different types of ground tend to be readily available to fill the landscape. Still, there needs to be a world to move around in.
In return, players will reward game authors by acknowledging it as a game, at least. Even if they call it a terrible game, they still call it a game. This can’t be said of visual novels. So that’s a plus.
Expectations are for an epic tale filling upward of 70 hours, often hundreds of hours. But short tales can be done and garner positive opinions from players and critics if they are good. Actual Sunlight took me less than 90 minutes and it is considered one of the most profound RPGs currently available. Similarly, the heavily praised To the Moon takes about 4 hours to finish.
So really, the RPG form is so diverse, anything is possible as long as players know exactly what they get into.
Genre-wise, the form skewers toward fantasy, with the occasional science fiction tale in the mix. Everything else does exist but is exceedingly rare to the point I have never seen a romance RPG.
For those wanting to try and make a 2D RPG without programming experience, there is basically one option only: RPG Maker. This is a commercial software available in different editions for a range of prices from about US$20 to just under US$100. The only competitor worth mentioning is the RPG Creator.
I can’t really talk about software for making 3D games because I have almost no experience with those, even though I do own a license for Game Guru and have played around with it a little. Game Guru is nice enough to get some idea how 3D games work, but I can’t recommend it for any actual products one would want to sell.
Get to Know the Genre
The RPG genre is one of the most durable and diverse ones out there. Listing the important or good ones alone would take up entire books, so instead this list will focus on games that showcase RPG storytelling potential. I will also focus on games that can be made be newbie developers willing to learn the basics.
This means the usual favorites are out for various reasons. For example, Chrono Trigger is an extremely well-told game, but to large in scope. Pokémon is rather simple, if large, but not that noteworthy in its storytelling. Skyrim is something that takes the equivalent of a Hollywood studio to even approach. And so on.
Mind you, 3D RPGs are perfectly doable with software usually used for things like first-person shooters, I just have not managed to find any remarkable ones that stay small enough to be handled by a newbie. For whatever reason. And I refuse to scare people away with the daunting titles available. I am, however, planning to close just that gap at some point and would like to encourage you to try so, too. I believe a small-scale 3D RPG is sorely missing. They have proven very effective for 2D titles, as we’ll see with stuff like To the Moon.
is the title of the header image, but while it does do a nice showcase of the genre’s evolution in terms of graphic, it is unremarkable in its storytelling aspects.
The Princess’ Heart
Let’s start with something typical.
A fantasy tale about a princess fighting her inner demons. And quite a few outer ones. Fantasy is the most common genre for RPGs from tradition. True to the form’s Japanese origins, the story heavily features emotion and a personal journey behind its superficial plot and can get very close to the visual novel. There are hundreds like this one out there, it features for being a good example of your typical 2D RPG, aside from the framing device which is somewhat unique to it.
Available on PC (Steam) for about US$ 5.
Actual Sunlight is here as an example of a simple game going for a smaller, more emotional and intimate scope. It’s about depression and compresses its protagonist’s adult life into a few pivotal moments to cover as much of its history as possible.
The writing here is not perfect. At various points, I got the impression the writers are trying to hard to make the protagonist’s depression justified. Still, it’s an attempt worth mentioning for tackling such an issue.
Available for about US$ 5 to 6 for PC (via Steam and Itch.io) and Playstation Vita.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
Now here’s a controversial one. Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (the exclamation mark is part of the title) is, for the most part, a satire on the media’s coverage of the 1999 school massacre at Columbine High in Littleton, CO.
The incident has by now passed into history far enough to talk about it, but back in 206 it was an extremely controversial title. This game drips with sarcasm, and in the context of an actual school shooting, no less.
Crudely done on an aesthetic and gameplay level, it nevertheless is a milestone title in the evolution of games into an artform.
Available for free for Windows on its dedicated website.
To the Moon
One of the most praised 2D RPGs of the last few years, To the Moon tries for an emotional story, and it succeeds.
In the near future, it has become possible to alter memories. The player takes the role of two doctors using that technology on a dying man to give him some happiness. His memories are to be altered so he believes he achieved his life-long dream of traveling to the moon. As the doctors travel backward through his memories, they learn the reasons for this dream.
To the Moon is an impressive game with commentary on topics such as loss, psychological illness, and the nature of lies. This is actual literature coming in the form of a game.
Available for PC and Mac for about US$ 8.
Try it! There is a very active and supportive community surrounding RPGMaker. Creating an RPG is certainly a project in the same scale as creating a novel, but it is doable in just about the same vein. Nevertheless, doing this comes with a completely new skillset, so don’t expect your first project to be a masterpiece.
Next time, we’ll tackle the remaining forms of games in a quick overview. Realistically, an author with little to no experience in making games will be able to use visual novels and RPGs well to tell a story with some training and relatively cheap software taking away the need to learn too much actual programming. The others are harder to pull off, either requiring actual programming knowledge or just being less fit for storytelling.