Modern role-playing games, as we know them, have been in the marketplace since the pen-and-paper days of the 1970s. Overtime, we've seen this quest-based genre evolve into several distinct subgenres. Each of these variants have their own flavor, but all boast some level of character customization, items or some form of equipment, statistics, experience tied to performance, and questing. Many RPGs, regardless of their differences on the surface, also tend to feature the same clichés. These character, setting, and plot elements have been overused to the point of losing effect — with some becoming both predictable and irritating. Today, we'll be discussing a few of the more prevalent clichés native to the RPG genre.
The Sky is Falling
How many RPGs would you say that you've played that have thrown the fate of the world as you know it in your hands? Somehow, your rag-tag team of misfits always finds themselves opposing a singular, dark figure who wants nothing more than to take over the world/universe and mold it as he/she sees fit. If they're really evil, they'll want to destroy the world or incite an apocalypse that would put an end to all existence. I understand that RPG designers want the stakes to be high in order for your quest to be epic, but has this plot not been done ad nauseam? It seems to be crux of any Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, or Elder Scrolls entry. I get why it's there and it works, however, I see nothing wrong with your ultimate goals deviating from saving the world. The lack of an apocalypse is the reason why the cheerful tone of the earlier Pokémon games works. All you want as the protagonist is to become the very best Pokémon trainer. Your character will squash the efforts of whatever team of evildoers you encounter, sure, but your primary motivation stays the same. To that point, I maintain that there's nothing wrong with simple plots and the world doesn't always have to be threatened.
The Silent Protagonist
In as much as I get that your protagonist is sometimes silent in order to act as a player avatar, I also feel like this is a bit of a narrative cop-out. All due respect to Link, Chrono, Ryu, Adol, The Avatar, and every Dragon Quest hero, but it does a disservice to the plot when everything has to be explained in detail to your character. Going from NPC-to-NPC and cycling through numerous dialogue trees only serves to deliver exposition like a brick wall. That's not an interesting way to tell stories. The finer points of the universe you exist in, the characters you meet, and the motivations that push you should be carefully woven into gameplay. Novels tend do this by only allowing one piece of information to come to the reader at any time. This lack of understanding leads to temporary confusion and theorizing on your part until you dig in deeper. Because you're working for details, the narrative is more enriching. This often is missed in titles with silent protagonists. Don't get me wrong — there certainly have been amazing RPG plots that feature a blank-faced main character. However, usually the side characters will have to work twice as hard to not make it feel as though you are being spoon-fed the plot, and you can still be fatigued by the many text blocks you are barraged with.
Your character is an able fighter, actively participates in conversation, and understands how to interact with objects effectively, but has no functional memory of his/her past. Why? The protagonist was subject to a traumatic event and has managed to suppress the life they had before you fell in love with them. They've since either wandered around aimlessly or fabricated details of their previous life using bits and pieces of the few memories they can still make out. If your hero is in the latter category, any reference to the traumatic event will scratch away at their psyche — often making the amnesia abrasive towards anyone who questions his/her understanding of the past. Obviously, Final Fantasy VII's Cloud Strife is a shining example of this cliché, but he is far from alone. For example, your player character in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic has completely forgotten the extremely important person he/she once was. To the same effect, MagnaCarta 2's Juto lives in complete ignorance of his horrible past. Hell, Tales of Graces' Sophie loses her memories twice to traumatic events. I get it; this convention creates a level of mystique around the character. It's just unfortunate that it's been done so often.
I understand that many Eastern RPGs today are stylized after anime and therein subject to the same design conventions, so maybe this is a bit of a write-off, but something needs to be said about outrageous hairstyles in the RPG genre. All due respect to Tetsuya Nomura, but a lot of the hairstyles he and likeminded individuals design for RPG characters are bizarre. The men and women of the RPG genre are subject to well quaffed yet wild spikes, along with a plethora of unusual colors (blue, pink, and green seem to be fairly popular). Cloud Strife once again deserves a special mention, as I'm not sure how his hair could possible stay up like that unless it was encased in wax. Could it be that the world Final Fantasy VII takes place on boasts a different gravity than our earth? Maybe Cloud just likes to stop the journey every now and then in order to wash his roots out and re-gel. I'm guessing that's what other RPG heroes do, as Lloyd Irving's hair is almost a foot high and Sora has managed to shape his wig both outward and upward. Outside of making cosplay a downright pain, these hairstyles are both incredibly improbable and impractical. I understand that designers want each of their characters to stand out, but I don't think this is the right way to do so. If you want memorable characters, develop their personalities and give them a decent role to play in the story.
The Kooky Party Member
Another mainstay of Eastern RPGs is the inclusion of a weird, overly energetic, or completely bonkers side character for diversity's sake. For whatever reason, this is usually a girl. Often played up for comedic purposes, these characters tend to be confident in the face of trouble, loud in social situations, and too curious for their own good. Your other characters will often react to this type of party member by rolling their eyes, being astonished, or appearing exhausted. This cliché is a favorite of the Final Fantasy series, with Relm, Yuffie, Selphie, Eiko, Rikku, and Vanille all making their respective titles a little kookier. That's not to say that this cliché is exclusive to Square Enix though. The Fire Emblem, Star Ocean, Tales of, Suikoden, and Pokémon series all feature their fair share of women who need to stop drinking so many energy drinks. I honestly have no reason why this character is so often female. Maybe the concept of an overly energetic girl is a part of Eastern culture that I can't wrap my head around. Regardless, the kooky party member comes up a lot and is often more annoying than endearing.
Bad Guy, But Not REALLY the Bad Guy
So, let's say that for the past forty hours you've been fighting the same explicitly evil villain. He or she has wronged you, your fellow party members, and most of the world you traverse. You've seen villages destroyed and countless people killed by their hands, and now it is finally time to take them to town and end the game. Just one problem: they aren't the real villain. The character positioned as your greatest foe is revealed to be just another pawn of someone else pulling all the strings. This string master is so powerful, that your characters will have to grind that much harder just to stand a chance. Who is this evil doer? What are his/her motivations? You'll never really know. There isn't much time left in the game to find out, and what has been revealed by this point is vague at best. This is one cliché that I hate with a burning passion. Final Fantasy (again) likes to do this a lot, but it is most egregious in Final Fantasy IX when your party is unexpectedly greeted by Necron with little-to-no explanation. This cliché can also be seen in Eathbound, The Legend of Dragoon, Kingdom Hearts, Shining Force, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door, and every numbered entry in the Phantasy Star series. Personally, I've grown very tired of this bait-and-switch.
Proper Noun Propagation
Unique terminology can be fairly disorienting to any gamer who isn't well versed in a particular game's world. Being used to more standard words like soldiers, crystals, and emperors, question marks often arise when we see things like l'Cie, fonons, and -lambs-. The intent of this terminology is to engage you in a world or universe that clearly differs from yours. RPGs such as Xenogears and Mass Effect do this well by teasing the real meanings of critical terms like Reapers and -lambs- before the big narrative reveal. Games like Tales of the Abyss and Final Fantasy XIII, however, meander on important terms like Seventh Fonon, Light of the Sacred Flame, The Score, l'Cie, and Fal'cie long before an explanation as to what they mean is actually provided. How do they choose to solve this problem? By asking the player to constantly review the included in-game encyclopedia. How lazy of a scenario writer do you have to be in order to request that your audience do the research themselves? That's not what good writing is about. The gamer is supposed to use dialogue, in-game manuscripts, and assumptive reasoning to understand what is happening. There is no place for an encyclopedia or a poor explanation of proper nouns in a modern RPG.
The "Muwhahaha" Villain
There are villains who have been brainwashed or simply decided to get what they want regardless of the costs. Sometimes, they may actually be fighting for the greater good of all humanity or have just fallen into the role of villain when really they're just different. Hell, they could even just be exceptionally crazy. I have no problem with these kinds of villains as they each have motivations that provide some dimension to their character. The same cannot be said about those who are evil for the sake of being evil. I'm going to go ahead and blame J.R.R. Tolkien for introducing the concept of a "Dark Lord" who wants nothing more than to kill and conquer. He wasn't abused as a child. He didn't lose a loved one. He doesn't seek anything of real value. All he wants is more power to do more evil things. I do say "he" for a reason, as these shallow villains tend to be male. Ganon, Ex-Death, General Baal, the Lich King, and Darth Malak are all solid examples of people who want power for no reason other than the fact that their characters are evil. They don't even want power because they're crazy or spiteful. It's just a cop-out and it leads to poor characterization.
You Can't NOT Use the Hero
Let's posit that you have a team of ten heroes all working towards the same goal while individually sporting different attributes and specialties. Naturally, you want to use different combinations for your party based on your own sensibilities and the enemies you might be facing in the future. There's just one problem: you can only swap out a few of them because the protagonist always has to be in your party. It doesn't matter if this game has an ensemble cast or not, you have one (usually male) character that must always enter battle with you. In what world does this make sense? I understand that the protagonist is going to be the focal point of the story, but why would I bring him if I could choose from ten characters in total and four make more sense in one battle than he does? Why tie the player's hands by forcing this one character into every situation? The whole thing lacks gamer agency and has been done way too much in the RPG genre.
I honestly get why random encounters were so prevalent during the 8- and 16-bit era of console gaming. When you're traversing the world or exploring a dungeon, only so many things can be displayed without cluttering the frame or creating too much work for the hardware. It makes sense that you walk a few feet and are approached out of nowhere by something that would like to hurt you. With all that being said, we don't live in that era anymore. It isn't excusable that modern releases feature these mechanics anymore. We have the technology to display everything on screen. Why regress? Wouldn't Pokémon be better if you could see everything you could catch in the area on-screen? Wouldn't the Kingdom Hearts worlds make more sense if enemies were just dispersed instead of being triggered once you entered a hotspot? Why would the designers of Final Fantasy XIII-2 want to implement random encounters when its predecessor effectively displayed everything on the map? It just doesn't make sense anymore.
That's all I have to say on the clichés that I've grown tired of. If you have any in mind that have been bugging you, please let us know in the comments.