Why we do not Hire Novelists to Write JRPG Plots   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  Last week, we went over the importance of the conceptual phase to a good game, and what to and not to do insofar as brainstorming your JRPG.  And to kick off the concepting phase, I will go over the matter of writing for such a game–which at this point consists of high-level plot and character concepting.  And to kick this off, I’ll be discussing the matter of how writing in RPGs works, since it is most definitely something not covered in any high school english class.

Put simply, writing for a RPG is completely different from writing for a novel, a play, a movie, or even other genres of game.  It’s a new paradigm, and one that I feel hasn’t been too well-explored in comparison.  Particularly in the realm of JRPGs, genre conceits require the writing to conform to these conceits.  These will typically include focus on a single primary viewpoint character, or set of characters, for a majority of the story, exploration sequences that will call upon player resolution for conflicts (navigation, puzzles, and especially battles; plot bosses in particular amount to climactic conflicts), optional player interactions (NPCs, optional areas), and the important element known as plot and gameplay integration, among other elements.  All in all, a different beast from conventional writing, and one not taught in schools, at that.

So where would one manage to find a reference for writing for a JRPG?  The answer lies in the other interactive medium where a small group of defined individuals goes around the world, exploring, fighting, and solving problems: tabletop RPGs.  In particular, on the GMing side.

the_gm_has_had_it-4b8034dcb2b1aa5900e4e0890180a08b

When the guy hasn’t snapped to the point of making their players play ordinary rabbits, anyway.

In fact, this goes back to the original Final Fantasy, which was essentially nothing more than a full-length D&D campaign on the NES.  All of the elements were there from D&D (the way spells were handled was an abstraction on spells/day, for example, the class system was there, the varied monsters largely could be identified if you cross-referenced them with a Monster Manual), and in essence, the game was D&D with the serial numbers filed off.  And as far as writing goes, it’s still the general model for how to write a JRPG.  In its purer forms, this will continue to remain the case.  The only things that have largely gotten added in the process have been character interaction and cutscenes.

So what of this plot and gameplay integration?  Truth be told, this is a finicky subject to work with, and a difficult matter for games to some degree.  This is different from maintaining suspension of disbelief (“don’t have the dude oneshot the other dude in a cutscene when it’d take five hits at minimum to manage that in the following battle”)–integrating plot and gameplay can come in a wide variety of manners, at that, and I will cover this in-depth at a later point, but suffice it to say for now that a good way of achieving this is keeping the plot elements in line with the gameplay elements, or representing gameplay elements within plot.

But speaking of plot, we are back to the process of designing our own JRPG.  Plots can be tricky, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard to be original, or trying to hard to avoid what you feel is cliche.  It’s important to remember that a good story is not good because of its base structure, but because of its execution.  The truth is that every story can have its details stripped away and be boiled down to general components.  In fact, it would be best to start with those general components in a sense–starting at the simple level and working down to the details is the best way to begin on RPG plot creation.  Hope you remembered that notebook, everyone, since it’s time to break it out if you’re creating a game alongside me here.The ideal way of making a RPG plot would be to start from a skeleton, and then flesh it out–and with that you can draw a line from the top of the page to the bottom, to start.  And if you don’t know where to start, put two entries, one at the beginning and one at the end.  Label these exactly that–“Beginning” and “End”, since those are what this, your, and every story that exists will have: a beginning and an end.  It’s an oft-overlooked, but important fact for this, not to be taken for granted.  Once you’re there, feel free to work at high-level concepting of your game’s story.  You don’t have to consider any setting details now on here, nor do you have to think about anything that chronologically happened before the beginning of the game’s story.  These are irrelevant.  Your story starts with where the game starts, and thus prologues can be exempt from this chart entirely.  As can epilogues (barring something like Lunar:Eternal Blue’s where it’s less of an epilogue and more of a denouement of sorts; a final act).

You will probably note that you will come up with characters in the process of making your plot.  This is inevitable in storytelling–a plot and its main characters are always interconnected.  If they aren’t, they’re not the main characters, because the focus of the story is not on them.  You do not need to consider too many details about the characters outside of their relation to the very basic plot at this point in time, but simply acknowledging that they are characters and what characters they are in the story will suffice.

And here I finally start showing off my game’s creation.  For the sake of expediency, I decide to try and start with something very simple, not caring too much about how cliche it may appear at the time being–especially since I care more about finishing the game than impressing a group of literature professors, critics, or couch-critics who bash every JRPG for simply being a JRPG.  As such, the story starts with a knight in the employ of a kingdom going on a quest to slay a dragon in order to try and win over a princess.  Expanding this, I decide to throw in a twist–an outside third party interrupts the fight, nearly killing both the knight and the dragon as they take something that the dragon had in their possession and leave.  Following this, to save them both, the knight and the dragon are only saved by someone binding their lives together via magic, and now if one dies, the other dies.  And thus the two now have to go and find some artifact to undo the enchantment so they can go their separate ways.  In the process, the kingdom the knight served and an empire elsewhere are both attempting to obtain the artifact to their own ends, thus creating the conflict that the two have to get to this artifact before anyone else.

This is a serviceable plot, if bare-bones so far, and it leaves room for detail to be added.  There’s protagonists, antagonists, and several conflicts to be had.  To sum it up in bullet points below:

  • Knight goes on quest to slay dragon, to win the favor of a princess
  • Knight fights dragon
  • Third party interrupts fight, nearly kills knight and dragon, steals item from dragon’s hoard.
  • Knight and dragon have to be saved by someone joining their existences via magic, making it so if one dies, the other dies.
  • The two have to find an artifact to undo this so they can go their separate ways.
  • The knight’s kingdom wants this artifact for their own purposes.
  • There is an empire out there that is also in search of this artifact, again for their own purposes.
  • The two must get this artifact before the others do.

This is by no means a complete plot, and were I to try and make a game from a plot in this state, its plot would be unsalvagable, no matter how much attention I give the gameplay or characters.  But this is easily a starting point for the plot, a jump-off point from which I can do more.  Chances are, any plot you start will go through this state first, no matter how creative the initial points may be–you simply will not have enough detail.  Do not worry, this is simply the first stage of design.  In this, try to look for chances to add characters, since RPGs do tend to have far more notable characters than other games, more often than not.  In the process of creating my plot, there are several people who I can easily pin down as potential or likely characters, listed below:

  • The knight
  • The dragon
  • The princess (I refuse to have a princess who exists only as a reward.  She will be more important, I’m deciding now)
  • One or more people in the third party who disrupts the fight
  • More people in the knight’s kingdom
  • People from the empire

And this is a workable start!  More characters can indeed be added, and indeed must be added, since I can only see two characters who are most definitely PCs at this point (the knight and the dragon).  Your initial list of characters may start to look this way as well; very bare in regards to likely PCs–player characters.  And this is okay, since this lack will be filled in once you start to work on characters in more detail.  However, since the discussion is quickly going the way of characters, I feel it would be ideal to cut off here, and leave the very complex subject of characters to my post next week.  And with this, this is Epic Alphonse, signing off for now and asking you to keep an eye on this next week.  Feel free to work alongside in the process of making your own game, if you so desire.

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Posted May 6, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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