Exploring the Balance of Story and Mechanics in RPGs
Every once in a while, I’ll play a game that makes me think about what it is I value in the art form. I’ve played a couple of different games this year that have put what’s important to me into clearer view. One is Octopath Traveler, a turn-based RPG that takes much of its inspiration from the 16-bit era but does it with some modern AAA polish. The other is Zwei: The Arges Adventure, a 2001 action RPG that I wrote about extensively for #JRPGJuly. Because these two games are so diametrically opposed, I think they make a useful Rorschach test to suss out which individual parts of RPGs I engage with the most.
While there are many different components that go into a successful RPG — music, graphics, art style, voice acting, etc. — the areas of greatest importance, and that have the biggest divergence between players, are the story and characters versus gameplay mechanics. I started thinking about this after reading a tweet from Jeremy Parish talking about Octopath: “…when it comes to RPGs, I’m a systems guy; if a story turns out to be more than an excuse to tinker with the mechanics, that’s just gravy.” The whole time I was playing Octopath, that tweet was stuck in my head and it got me to thinking about where I fell on the story/mechanics spectrum.
My review-in-progress (it’s a lengthy game!) of Octopath Traveler is up at @Polygon. I love it so far. Please note that when it comes to RPGs, I’m a systems guy; if a story turns out to be more than an excuse to tinker with mechanics, that’s just gravy. https://t.co/44qH0RYPpH
— Jeremy perished. (@gamespite) July 12, 2018
I should say that for most people, I imagine the balance between these two things is probably closer to an algebraic formula than a simple spectrum. I don’t think there are many people playing RPGs solely for the mechanics and probably even fewer who are interested only in the story — if for no other reason that there are plenty of easier ways to consume good narratives such as books, movies, television, or even visual novels. Even the players that skew to one end or the other can be won over by an outstanding performance. A story person might be won over by some incredibly gripping, or maybe just exploitatively addictive, mechanics. Likewise, a mechanics-driven individual could be drawn in by the Casablanca of RPGs even if it has mediocre combat.
Playing Octopath with this in mind, thinking about what was driving my enjoyment, has made me realize that I’m personally skewed even more towards story and characters than I previously thought. I like almost all of Octopath‘s constituent parts: the great art style, well executed retro graphics, and amazing soundtrack. The battle system is really good as well with an impressive depth of strategy that’s often missing from turn-based RPGs which all too often rely on cycles of attack-attack-heal. Unfortunately, the story just wasn’t able to grab me. It’s not a matter of quality. I think it’s reasonably well written and some of the characters were interesting, but I feel like the pacing of the story was off.
Hours could go by between the different beats of characters’ stories. The game is broken up into chapters and the enemies are scaled with the idea that players will play through most, if not all, of the eight character stories of each chapter before moving on to the character stories in the next chapter. The problem is this leaves huge periods of time between each segment of the individual character stories. It probably would have been fine if I was younger and churning through a game quickly, but playing at my normal pace I found that I was forgetting what happened in a character’s story by the time I got to the next chapter.
I think the smaller stakes of the stories in Ocotpath may have also contributed to me not being enthralled with the narrative. Not every game needs to have world-defining stakes. In fact, I love the Atelier games because they generally aren’t about saving the world, but instead are more personal stories. There is a part of me that loves the setup of some of the Octopath stories, like Cyrus the Scholar whose motivation is essentially to find an unreturned library book. However, you combine those sorts of low stakes with odd pacing and it just didn’t work for me.
Based upon talking with people who like Octopath, what carries those people along is the combat. The thing is, I really liked the combat in this game. Random encounters were interesting and boss battles were epic and fun. Figuring out the strategy of when to try to break an enemy so you can prevent big attacks and do massive damage was something I really enjoyed. Nevertheless, I faded on Octopath before I hit the thirty-hour mark and haven’t gone back. Even having fun with the battle system couldn’t carry me through those stretches without connecting stories.
Contrast that with Zwei: The Arges Adventure – and since I’ve already waxed poetic about it, I’ll try to keep my thoughts brief – which has a host of issues, some born of age, some by design. The dungeons are bland, item management is a pain, and the random nature of level progression is incredibly frustrating. You look at these individual parts and the game looks subpar, especially compared to modern releases. Heck, I wouldn’t recommend this game to someone looking for a Falcom action title at its finest; it doesn’t come close to matching any recent Ys game in terms of gameplay. Despite all the flaws, I was constantly chomping at the bit to play more. The characters were hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed the story. So comparing the two, almost all of the quantifiable parts are better in Octopath. It certainly has better combat and there isn’t terrible inventory management but the story carried me along in Zwei in a way that Octopath just couldn’t.
Thinking more about it, I’m beginning to think I’m really skewed towards narrative and willing to tolerate mediocre mechanics to consume it compared to the opposite. Full Metal Panic! Fight! Who Dares Wins wasn’t a great game, but I enjoyed the story and that carried me past some truly bland and disappointing gameplay. I really enjoyed Final Fantasy XV, but that was completely a result of the story. I just loved hanging out with those guys on their road trip, even though I didn’t click with the gameplay at all and I quickly turned the difficulty down to easy and avoided unnecessary combat. If Octopath’s combat couldn’t carry me past the lulls, what game could?
Well, despite generally favoring story over mechanics, there is a subgenre that upturns the balance for me: strategy RPGs. I can get into strategy RPGs even if the story is bad to nonexistent. The XCOM reboots have a pretty threadbare narrative — “aliens are invading and you need to defeat them” sums it up — but the combat is so great that I was willing to suffer through one of the buggiest PlayStation 3 ports to play it. Into the Breach falls into this camp as well with some limited flavor text to serve as the story, but it is an incredibly fun and addictive game to play.
Unlike Mr. Parish, I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum; I’m a person that’s mostly here for the story and if there are some interesting mechanics to play around with that’s a great bonus. Obviously, that isn’t a hard and fast rule because there are plenty of strategy RPGs with mediocre stories that I enjoy. So I’m kind of curious, where do our readers fall on the spectrum? Are you attracted by a great story or are mechanics the only thing that you care about? Is there a subgenre of RPGs where that rule doesn’t apply? Let me know in the comments.