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.
While I give the impression that I prefer RPGs with strong stories, and I lean slightly that way, I feel that one aspect being strong can make up the deficit of the other. A great story, or even just a cast of characters I love can make up for weak gameplay and fanitastic combat and other enjoyable gameplay mechanics can make up for a poor story. Just recently, I played through Shin Megami Tensei IV and found the story lacking and oddly-paced, but enjoying the battle system and fusing demons, which got me through to both the Nihilist and Law endings. I don’t really look forward to playing it again for Chaos and Neutral (I probably won’t and will go right to SMTIV: Apocalypse), but it got me through the first time.
I can’t really think of any recent examples of the other problem, great, story but weak combat/gameplay, come to think of it.
I think gameplay is always king. It’s far easier for good systems to carry a game with a bad story than the other way around. Let’s face it, in the not enormously long history of video games, the inclusion of a decent story is a moderately recent development. However, any RPG with a good story does definitely linger more fondly in the memory.
I’d always assumed I was more of a story guy, but I am thoroughly enjoying Octopath Traveler and, unusually, find the story is pretty much getting in the way when I just want to get on with battling, levelling up and finding loot.
I think I definitely lean towards the story more so than the mechanics in most cases. I’m not sure where I fall in the majority/minority opinion on this, but I did not like Final Fantasy XIII as a whole. The story was confusing (have to read a 3 hour primer before you even start the game with a bunch of terms thrown at you that you have no idea what they’re talking about) and the characters just weren’t very compelling. I thought its main redeeming quality was the battle system, which to some people (including myself) may be somewhat surprising considering how aggravating some fights were. (Barthandalus)
On the other hand, I felt like Xenoblade Chronicles was a once in a decade type game. It wasn’t as graphically impressive as Final Fantasy XIII, but it had a great story, great characters, great music (FFXIII had a good soundtrack too) and just felt like it was the complete package. It’s hard for me to say that a game has left as lasting as an impression as it has in recent memory.
I personally haven’t played Octopath Traveller, but I have played the Bravely games, which it’s supposed to be similar to, and I enjoyed those. I have listened to its awesome soundtrack, and I don’t doubt other reviews I’ve seen that have lauded its praises. I’ve just come to the crossroads in my gaming life where I don’t want to buy a console for two or three games anymore. I do so much on PC anymore that it just makes sense for me to keep upgrading it. It’s encouraging when developers like Square Enix are releasing more games (FFXV, DQ11) on PC, so I will support them when possible so they’ll continue to support the platform.
For games in general, good gameplay is more crucial than good story. Some games can have no story and get by just fine on great gameplay. However, with RPGs that balance tends to shift a bit for a few reasons.
1. Most RPGs have considerable story sequences. No story at all is better than a bad story. If you have to sit through cinematic and narrative sequence they should be entertaining or they will reduce enjoyment even of games with good gameplay. In fact, few things are more annoying than the modern trend of having substantial story sequences at the beginning of games like platformers when nobody is here for that. You know the story is phoned in, so don’t waste my time. Just write a blurb about the premise in an instruction manual like in ye olden days and let me get right to stomping on baddies.
2. This is not universally true, but RPGs tend to be longer and the gameplay can be repetitive. This is not the same thing as saying the gameplay is bad. I know games with highly addictive gameplay that would be served poorly if the repetition of the gameplay weren’t broken up by story sequences. A good example is the Persona series. I love the gameplay, but part of what makes the series so great is the balance it strikes between combat and story.
In general, for any game of the length of a standard RPG, I think a decent story is not only nice, but crucial. You need something to break up the standard gameplay to keep it fresh. It’s one of the reasons I love Persona but often cannot get through other SMT games with similar gameplay. Unrelenting combat just becomes a chore after awhile even when the basic system is great. That’s not even to say SMT games have bad story per se, they just don’t have enough of it. A judicious doling out of story, and story-based non combat gameplay (i.e. talking to people in towns, social links in Persona, etc.) are pretty important to my overall enjoyment of an RPG to the point of likely not being able to finish it without that aspect.
That said, not being able to finish without a decent story is “likely.” Not being able to finish without decent gameplay is “definite.” So gameplay might beat it out still marginally, but an RPG without a good story could never be among my favorites.
Back in the 90s, I remember a topic that was submitted here, on RPGamer : why do we play RPGs. There’s someone who answered : It’s because of the ‘feel’ it procures. It’s the perfect escape. It stuck with me.
Sure, it can actually apply to any type of game, but since I was mostly playing RPGs back then, I bought it. The debate was about graphics, musics, etc. But your topic here, Gameplay mecanics vs story, is right on the money for the genre.
To answer the question, I think I’d go with the gameplay as well, even though I’d argue the story and characters are so important too. You said it all though : other platforms are available for that. Books, television series, movies etc. But it’s the mecanic that will not only keep me playing, but also encourage me to play the game in the first place.
I’m also a huge fan of XCom. Love what Firaxis did with the remakes. The mechanic is what’s keeping me playing.
On the other hand, if we focus on RPGs, take the Tales series for example. I played Tales of Destiny and beat it. (Back then, when I played a game, I always finished it. Those were the days 🙂 Loved the story, the characters (still remember Mary), but if you ask me to play again, no way. I remember the tedious level desings… Later, I beat Tales of Eternia. The story wasn’t better, but the gameplay didn’t change much either. When a whole lot of those came to the US, I said to myself : “I’m finished with the Tales games. Been there.” Until a friend of mine begged me to play Abyss, which I did and completed. Still a ‘meh’ for me. Story was nice, few very good characters, but the gameplay… I had to work when playing this. I didn’t have fun.
But one day, Tales of Berseria came out. I want to play because I see reviews that speak of a story that feels different from other Tales. I’m interrested in the dark approach.
I ended up watching a youtube video with all cutscenes. I know I shouldn’t have, but I am just too lazy to play a Tales game now.
It ended up to be the best story of them all. I enjoyed the Berseria story so much I would have loved to watch it as an anime instead.
But there it is. In video games, RPG included, gameplay should be first priority to get you playing it in the first place. Still, I sympathize with the fact that a good story and interesting characters, I’d add a good plot, can keep me playing even though I’m tired of the gameplay. But the most important part for me, no mater the factors : how do I ‘feel’ playing this, right now.
Wow. I love the comments. For me, gameplay is king. If the story is good I feel lucky because a lot of games don’t nail both.
I used to be paralyzed with indecision by difficulty selection in RPGs, but no longer. Unless it’s a series I know and trust very well (like Dragon Quest 11 with the option for stronger monsters), games with adjustible difficulty are getting played on easy. An easy turn-based RPG means I have to grind less, and an easy action RPG means I have to suffer less.
I lean more toward the story in RPGs, but that in turn means the gameplay has to be interesting enough to carry me to the next story beat, or else I’ll put the game down and not get back to it.
I always choose normal, because I’m afraid easy is going to be keep “press the confirm button to win” easy, which is incredibly boring. If I knew ahead of time that normal had some frustrating difficulty I would choose easy. Most RPGs aren’t that hard on normal anyway, but then I like a little (not a ton, but a little) grinding. Fortunately, most games seem to allow changing difficulty midgame, which I think should be a requirement.