Think Outside the Treasure Chest
by Zeus | Written: 2000-10-24. Updated: 2008-08-27.
Update (2008-08-27): Since this was written back in 2000, a lot of things have changed. Microsoft released a new Shadowrun game -- or rather, a Shadowrun mod for Counter-Strike. And I'm happy to report that fantasy RPGs no longer dominate the industry. Now, fantasy MMORPGs dominate the industry!
I dig skimpy chainmail babes as much as the next guy, but I'll never understand the video game industry's obsession with fantasy role-playing games. Sure, early RPGs ripped their play mechanics from D&D, which borrowed heavily from Tolkien, who was inspired by mythology -- but that's no reason EVERY FREAKING RPG must contain magic and goblins.
I can't think of a genre as stuck on one setting as RPGs (other than Survival Horror clones inexplicably sticking with horror, heh). Even Warcraft and Starcraft had distinct themes, despite being real-time strategy games from the same company. RPGs draw most gamers in with storyline more than gameplay, so why risk boring your audience with me-too writing?
So listen up, game designers. The following settings are almost completely ignored despite past success. I want you to play the following games, then clone the hell out of them. (Especially since most will never get legitimate sequels).
After the Fall:
CRYSTALIS: This post-apocalyptic classic was butchered when ported to Game Boy Color. Oddly enough, they kept the global thermonuclear war and added puffy cereal box wizards.
An incredibly nifty excuse for horrible mutants to run amok and everyone passes it up. It's always baffled me how in fantasy games, you have these medieval societies that somehow continue to function despite being completely overrun with monsters. If you can't walk three steps without being attacked, how the hell do you maintain farms and trade routes? Why doesn't everyone starve? In post-apocalyptic games, there is no society, that's the whole point! Cover the world in ravenous mutants and make everyone afraid to venture outside for a bite to eat. It makes perfect sense.
I can't remember any post-nuclear RPGs for consoles. PCs have Wasteland and its spiritual successor Fallout, but aside from that, they don't have much to brag about either.
The Matrix proved cyberpunk's inherent coolness could survive the popularization of the internet, so where are my Gibsonian games? PCs have the ancient Neuromancer, which simulated the tedium of hacking (wading through e-mail for passwords, etc.) and featured a PC-speaker soundtrack by Devo!; Ion Storm made Deus Ex, but don't let that scare you off, it's actually quite good; lastly there's AI: Wars, best described as "Neuromancer with a shareware 3d engine."
NEUROMANCER: Are we having fun yet?
If you like your Matrix with a twist of mana, try Shadowrun for Genesis and SNES, two very different and enjoyable games. (The former is an open-world action RPG, the latter has more in common with a point-and-click adventure.) FASA infused cyberpunk with European mythology, resulting in a Seattle where cybernetic trolls could fire shotguns at corporate-owned Bear Shamans. You could even jack your elf into the matrix. Who wouldn't jump at the chance to jack an elf into anything?
SHADOWRUN: Best. Setting. EVER.
Sadly, FASA was assimilated by Microsoft. It's not likely we'll see another Shadowrun game, what with the evil corporations and all.
BUCK ROGERS: COUNTDOWN TO DOOMSDAY
I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads!
There haven't even been many Sci-Fi RPGs for consoles. There's Star Ocean: The Second Story, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (a Genesis "tactics" game way before Final Fantasy Tactics, based on the Gold Box D&D engine) and the soggy feeling that Xenogears owed its entire existence to to Evangelion. Eathbound doesn't count -- too damn weird. There were lots of Sci-Fi RPGs in the old days of computers, but their popularity died with DOS. All I've got to say is, I can't wait for the upcoming single-player Star Wars RPG.
SANITARIUM: Leave me be.
It's Halloween and there aren't enough scary RPGs. I mean, there was the Honeybee Inn sequence in Final Fantasy VII, where the hero got felt up by beefy man-whores, but that's a whole different kinda nightmare fuel. Consoles haven't offered much lately, but there's Persona and Parasite Eve. At least PC users got lucky this year with Diablo II and Vampire: TES.
RPGs are perfect for horror -- you don't need spring-loaded-dogs crashing through glass to frighten me. Sometimes all it takes is good storytelling. In Sanitarium, you come across a floating circus under siege by an escaped freak, the Squidboy. The tiny island offers no safety from the beast's tentacles. After talking to what remained of a diminished family of gypsies (who were stupidly camped out on the EDGE OF THE WATER), the conversation left me creeped and concerned. I wanted to drag their fortune-telling-asses to safety myself.
PlayStation 2 DVDs could hold hours of high quality video. The possibilities are endless! From comedy games like Leisure Suit Larry to hardcore girl on girl... Wait, wasn't supposed to print this one.
Admit it, even after reading all that you still wanna design the next Lord of the Rings. That's fine, but there's nothing wrong with a little originality. Something different than the usual D&D dungeon romp or Final Fantasy romantic-hero-toppling-an-evil-empire. Something like Caravan.
DRAGON QUEST VIII: This is exactly how I imagined Caravan would look. Too bad it played like every fantasy RPG ever made.
I spent several minutes thinking up this excellence in design: You start out as a lowly merchant, with nothing to trade but the filthy shirt off your bug-infested hide. But no one said you had to play fair! Lie, cheat and steal your way to success. Travel around a varied world, questing for treasure and thwarting bandits. Sail to strange lands in search of rare spells. Establish trade routes -- buy low, sell high!
Best of all, the titular feature: you can assemble a huge caravan (think of it as a mobile home/stash box) complete with on-board healers and of course guards to protect the procession. Watch out, sooner or later you'll be famous enough to make the Merchant's Guild heads jealous. And when that happens... TOPPLE THEIR EVIL EMPIRE!
Okay, so it needs a little work.
Bonus: Hypocrite Corner!
Most writers trip over themselves trying to convince you they're right, but I admit I'm only human. (Though advanced blood tests will reveal I'm also a powerful Jedi.) Final Fantasy IX's return to fantasy is every bit as natural as a Star Trek game set in space. And a Lord of the Rings RPG doesn't sound too bad... as long as they don't digitize Elijah Wood's face for the Frodo character model.
Images thanks to the following sites:
- PSO World for the treasure chest image.
- Hardcore Gaming 101 for the Shadowrun image.
- The Angry Pixel for the Sanitarium image.
— Zeus proclaimed himself a master of game design. Corporate headhunters, take note: If you work for Square, Enix, Blizzard or Crave Entertainment (You hired Jay Boor, why not? C'mon! Shadow Madness 2!), get him while he's hot.