Weekly video game column, The Gaming Life.
With the recent release of “Mass Effect,” it seems those weary from the constant hail of bullets and shell casings from the glut of shooters on the market have at last found refuge. Highly rated, highly addictive and a story that is, yes, highly detailed, “Mass Effect” arrived just in time for the holidays. But what is it about the role-playing game genre that makes zero-second attention span Americans willing to pour 40-plus hours into exploring all the corners of an imaginary world?
Before launching into the explanation proper, I will use an old “Fox Trot” comic strip to illustrate the underlying draw that has been pulling teenage boys to video games, comics and epic fantasy for years.
A Sunday strip illustrates several panels that depict the Fox family's nerdy younger son Jason and his friend Marcus in the guise of their favorite superheroes.For example, one panel shows Jason as the Incredible Hulk, smashing some baddie off the page, or Marcus blasting a foe as the Green Lantern.
The comic ends with Jason's older sister Paige interrupting the reading to ask the question, “What is it that you guys see in those things?”
This, I believe, is a succinct explanation of the unique brand of escapism that is present in entertainment such as comics, video games, sci-fi and fantasy movies and books, and anime.Kids don't just enjoy watching Luke Skywalker, they enjoy imagining that they could be Luke Skywalker.
The RPG takes this concept and amplifies it by allowing the player to more fully immerse themselves within the character on screen.
Besides simple escapism, there is a more cunning concept at play.A good RPG operates in much the same way a catchy pop song does; they both contain some sort of hook that is instantly rewarding.
For a song, this is found in the melody or refrain. For an RPG, it is found in the leveling system.
In almost every RPG, your character(s) begins his or her life at the bottom of the ladder, a lowly level 1. From there, progressing in the game will net you experience points for defeating enemies. Gain enough points and your character will “ding” (to use a “Warcraft” euphemism) and advance to level 2.This idea of progressive advancement, gaining power and new abilities gradually, is extremely addictive because the gratification for reaching each new plateau is so rewarding. The thirst to discover what new abilities are waiting to be unlocked also creates a significant pull.
Combine this with the ability to acquire or upgrade your equipment and the trap is complete.
RPGs succeed because they create the sense that there is always one more thing left to accomplish.Even William Shatner and Mr. T have hopped on the RPG bandwagon. As if it could possibly need any more people to play the game, “World of Warcraft” has unleashed an ad campaign that features the two once-actors-now-famous-for-promoting-products describing the experience of creating your own alter ego in Azeroth.
Mr. Shatner, for example, is a Shaman.
But ultimately, what makes or breaks an RPG is the story. Without compelling drama and a memorable cast, even the best RPG will fall flat.This does not mean the story needs be complex and deep, but provide a compelling reason to explore dungeon after dungeon.
For example, the first "Final Fantasy" was content to simply say, “Hey, gather these crystals or whatever or else an evil maniac will destroy the world.”
Of course, it also neglected to tell you much anything else, like does the short sword do more damage than the iron dagger? Oh, it doesn't? Well, then -- I am glad I wasted the gold I got from slaying those goblins to buy it.The learning curve wasn't so much steep as it was non-existent. You could wander from fighting a couple of rapid but manageable wolves to a cadre of vicious ogres without warning.
Fast forward decades later and games like “Mass Effect” have fine-tuned the genre into a perfectly calibrated story-telling machine.
Though an American-made product, the best RPG are still produced in the genres country of origin, Japan.But beware potential RPG fan, if you start importing games from Japan, but ready to engage in the bizarre plots and gameplay that define the experience. Frank Johnson still can't understand why those elves insist on stuffing their Rupees into easily breakable clay jars.