Building a better role-playing game story

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

Building a better roleplaying game story

Getting story right in role-playing games is crucial. Even if narrative is not your primary motivator, it's a key element to the RPG genre. But not all role-playing games have discovered the right formula.

Its been my experience that there's no set checklist to ensure a successful story, but I've found that there are key components that can appeal to players with a narrative focus.

I'd love to say "follow these pieces of advice and make a great RPG story!" but stories are never quite that simple. Still, I do think that these are good general guidelines for why some RPG stories are forgettable, while others are shine through.

Building a better roleplaying game story

Balance the Antagonists: Getting a villain wrong is one of the most common mistakes of most video games, especially role-playing games. I like to divide villains into two categories: unrelenting forces, or relatable antagonists. Most game villains fall into the former category, representing forces or concepts like revenge, ambition, or corruption. They're simply evil, a characterization of obvious superficiality. This works for many games, but lacks the depth of a comprehensible antagonist, like Ultima 6's gargoyles, who act as invaders because their own land is being destroyed.

Many of the best game stories, however, utilize both kinds of villains, where a powerful evil force triggers political chaos and ethically complicated situations. One of the best older examples of this is Suikoden 2, in which a Game Of Thrones-level sadistic villain, Prince Luca Blight, starts a war which causes a sympathetic character to join him. More recently, BioWare has demonstrated the strength of this model in the Mass Effect games, and especially in Dragon Age: Origins, where a the Darkspawn filled the role of the mindless evil, while Teryn Loghain proved all too human an antagonist.

Dangerous actions need real consequences: Another issue with so many games having simple forces of evil as antagonists is that the stories end up lacking stakes. If evil threatens the entire world, failure results in catastrophic loss universe-wide. But consequences need to be personal. Death, of course, is the most obvious consequence. It's the surprise killing of a party member that gave Final Fantasy 7 one of the industry's most memorable stories. It doesn't have to be embedded in the narrative, either-games like Fire Emblem or XCOM include it as permanent death for characters defeated on the field. Nor does it have to be death. Fallout: New Vegas' cancellation of a bunch of major quests if you progress too far down one faction's path wasn't perfectly implemented, but conceptually it's fantastic.

Building a better roleplaying game story

Demonstrate the story via gameplay: Planescape: Torment successfully ties mechanical character development to narrative character development. You play an amnesiac immortal, the Nameless One, on a journey of self-rediscovery.

You make your character stronger, as in most RPGs, by gaining levels, increasing statistics, and finding new items. But in Planescape, those elements trigger new revelations about who you or your companions are. A special item may trigger a memory in the main character, or an increase in Wisdom/Intelligence/Charisma could open new dialogue options with a party member who knew a previous incarnation of the Nameless One. This kind of integration is tremendously powerful for storytelling.

Don't tell a story that's not there: Spending time on a well-formed story is great, but wasting time on a bad story is the worst. Consider The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim, a game where the embedded narrative has almost nothing to recommend it own its own – but at least it's monumentally easy to ignore, especially after you acquire Shouts from fallen dragons.

Alternately, one of the core issues with Japanese RPGs, particularly on home consoles, is that they spend huge chunks of time on their plots before giving players reason to be involved in those plots. I don't know how many times the characters of Final Fantasy 13 said the word "Fal'Cie" in the first three hours I played, but they never actually gave me reason to care what a Fal'Cie was.

Building a better roleplaying game story

Companion interaction is key: One of my favorite things available in interactive media is exploring the banter between party members. I remember playing Phantasy Star 4, where a press of a button would launch a brief discussion between characters related to your current progress. It was there to make sure you never forgot what quest you were on, sure, but it also added depth to the characters – I always chose it.

Party member banter has grown increasingly prevalent in role-playing games, and I almost always think it's great. I was delighted to see it almost immediately when I started playing The Last Story, and the elevator conversations in the first Mass Effect are one of the best parts of that game.

Show changes over time: The way the shooter Spec Ops: The Line shows progress through the game is something that many RPGs could learn from. The main characters' models become more beat up, faces covered in burns and scars. Meanwhile, their snippets of speech in combat, as well as the enemies', become increasingly unhinged and desperate. On the other hand, there are role-playing games where you can become the most powerful hero in the history of the land, but every conversation is exactly the same as it was when you could be taken down by a rat or two. Many games use paper doll effects in terms of equipment to show progress – and that's great – but as with the character banter, the more the better if it adds to the development and attachment of characters.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.