Going Round and Round the World (and Round and Round Again)   Leave a comment

Welcome back to Gratuitous JRPG.  On our last (very late) post, we covered the varied plot types of RPGs and how to factor the genre’s elements into the writing.   In addition, I did an overview of the first third or so of the game in progress.  But as observed then, there were a few snags in the plot development due to an undefined world.  Building a world, and conversely an extremely rough world map, are the subjects on which this week’s post will focus.

Every game needs a world.  After all, it’s where the game takes place.  A character is essentially unable to go from A through B to C if anywhere on or between that set of points is undefined, and it’s even worse if it’s given minimal definition.  Players are not going to want to wander through a featureless expanse that bears very few features save the ones that the player absolutely must interact with, after all.  At the same time, however, these world features are not going to be appreciated if the player happens to throw them out haphazardly with all of the tact, care, and attention to detail of a nine-year-old on a sugar high.  So there will have to be some semblance of rhyme and reason to this.  But the real question lies–where to start?

World creation in a JRPG can be said to have three elements to it overall: flavor, pathing, and gating.  Flavor will be the first part of this covered, and this goes back into the plot writing.  Flavor itself can be said to have two parts for this purpose–the past and the present.  Both are important for establishing a world, but at the same time it must be stressed that it takes a lot less than one would imagine to give a sufficient idea for a world.  One does not need to define every single position in the presidential cabinet if, for example, none of the people in them are even appearing in a game.  But what is meant by past and present in regards to setting?

When I say the past, I mean the world’s history as is relevant to the game’s story and current world.  This does not mean, again, that a comprehensive history of the world must be drafted, edited, rewritten, and finally be put into canon after a review by several certified experts on fantasy worlds that are similar to the one you are creating for your game.  This is one of the shortcuts: you don’t need to cover every little detail.  Just the ones that inform the present-day setting and the plot.  As for the scale of this writing, it can vary depending on the subject of the written history.  An example using the current in-development game would be as follows:

  • Roughly 150 years ago, the Isuria Empire attempted a global takeover in a crusade on behalf of their leader, who was believed to be of divine heritage.  This was ultimately stopped by a group of five heroes each wielding a relic of immense power who stormed the capital and killed the “Holy Empress”.  This, combined with the resultant fighting outside wiped out a majority of Isuria’s population, and the empire, now without a symbol, leader, or much of a populace remaining, simply could not hold the ground it could.  Its territory contracted massively.
  • After the war, the five weapons were given to five dragons–“those who could live to remember the past when man couldn’t”–to be sealed away as best decided by them.  Their locations continue to be largely hidden to this day.
  • While normally the coalition of nations would have attempted to take over the lands given and press the offensive to take over Isuria, they were hurting from the world-wide conflict as well.  Aivarel–directly on the landmass with Isuria and the first nation targeted by its crusade–was no longer a nation as stood; they had been crushed in the war.  Zeisrell, Vaskel, and Leissia were left standing, but between the fact that they were a continent away and reeling from the war themselves kept them from setting up long-term occupation.
  • Over the years, things changed.  Aivarel was nonexistent, though any who went there in the following years seemed to never return.  The kingdom of Vaskel entered a decline, with each successive ruler even more depraved, deranged, and terrible than the last.  Leissia fared even worse, suffering a widescale social breakdown.  Zeisrell established its knighthood not long after the war, and started its traditions from there–and happened to be the only nation of the three on the eastern continent to enjoy a degree of prosperity, but even it is far from perfect…

And there we have a very basic cover of the five nations that show up in the game.  There are two other regions that aren’t defined there, but this is the past.  The history.  Those two “undefined” regions aren’t known in-game for what they were as much as what they are.  And that brings us to the present.  If the past is the world’s “backstory”, the present is simply the current state of things.  Once more, this need not be exhaustive, simply relevant.  For an example below:

  • Two major continents currently exist on this world–the western and eastern continents.  The western continent has what remains of Isuria and Aivarel, but is now largely empty.  Isuria, to the north, has lost a large number of its cities and remains largely isolated, while Aivarel’s land in the south has largely become overgrown–and if the statements that people who enter never come back are to be believed, potentially quite dangerous.
  • Meanwhile on the eastern continent, there is Zeisrell to the southeast–currently the most prosperous nation in the world, if only on the basis that they’re the only nation prospering–though there is some resentment among members of the knighthood about current political affairs.  Vaskel to the east has gone to hell by comparison–its most recent kings have been more of a threat to their own kingdom than any possible outside threat, and the people of the country suffer for it.  Leissia, on the southwest and west ends of the continent, has had its own problems–the country has turned isolationist and unfriendly after its republic collapsed, got overthrown, and was replaced by an autocratic ruler–who still only has loose control over the country. (okay, not sure on this one, revise in the future).  The north and northeast have largely been an uninhabitable tundra–though that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
  • Lastly, there is a small island chain in between the two. continents.  Most of these islands are largely empty or have a cave or two, but one in particular has a set of ruins that nobody seems to have been able to get into.

This is a decent layout of the world setup.  So for the story so far (last post), it has largely covered portions of Zeisrell and Leissia.  I want the rest of the world to be explored at some point in this game, so i will have to keep this in mind for the rest of the plot.  In the meantime, however, this brings me to the next aspect of world creation–pathing.  Pathing, in this case, is simply determining how the player explores the world.  Every game has a way to get from beginning to end, after all, and just like plot structures, there are a few variants.  (Edit: WordPress is being fussy about images again.  Click to get the full picture.)

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Our intrepid hero wishes he could simply cross that body of water straight away–his destination is right there.

The first variant is the open-world setup, where free roaming is king.  You may be given instructions by the plot to go to one place, but you can just as easily ignore the plot and go do your own thing, like running around and fighting monsters, visiting way out of the way towns, or simply getting up to that obnoxious mountain peak that taunts you.  This does happen to have its downsides, however.  Since gating is more difficult the less linear a game gets, and this is about as far from linear as most can and will go, such a task will be amazingly hard to manage gracefully, to say the least.  Furthermore, this requires a lot of effort to make sure there’s things worth exploring for–an open world format is a waste if there’s little to actually see and do in said world, after all.  This format is most often seen with WRPGs (every Elder Scrolls game is like this) and persistent-world MMORPGs for…fairly obvious reasons.

The next variant, going from most to least open, is a branching setup.  This kind of pathing is largely ubiquitous to Metroidvania games and the Legend of Zelda series, but a number of RPGs do it too.  The basic conceit is this–you typically start with a single pathway while the others are gated off.  Eventually, you accomplish something that unlocks some of the gates–be it finding a new item or completing part of the plot.  This leads to other pathways, some of which have gated pathways in turn on them, and one or more of them having a way to open some other gates.  Rinse and repeat until you reach the end.  This has its benefits, in fact, insofar that it rewards backtracking once you have some gates open, but proper implementation of gating is a must for this to work well.  If not, you will simply have a consequence of either sequence breaking (improper gating, to be covered later in the post), getting lost (usually occurs when there isn’t enough information about where the next plot-relevant branch is), or a failure in design intent (not enough gates).  The first Dragon Quest is actually an example of this, as is the fourth Epic Battle Fantasy game.  Crystalis is a case of a game with arguably not enough branches, on the other hand.

The third variant of pathing is the linear setup.  Players are most familiar with this, and while the name implies it’s the most linear, it actually happens to be middle-of-the-road as far as linearity goes.  While there may be a divergence or two along the line, the majority of the game takes place along a, however curved, linear path.  Gates block progress until opened, upon which progress along the line once again resumes.  Oversights in gating, however, will lead to some notable sequence breaking and the linearity will elicit complaints from some JRPG players.  Furthermore, bad implementation of the linearity and failing to hide it will make the game feel mistakable for the next two formats.  Final Fantasy games frequently love this sort of pathing, to note, and one of the most famous FFs of all time, FF7, is notable for this.

The next type of pathing, I would call the fragmented setup.  In this, the world map stops existing, and areas are frequently accessed from a representative map or a simple list.  This is the point where gating largely stops being relevant, as the main way by which to gate the player in this format is simply to not let them have access to the areas the designer does not want them to have access to at this point of time, by making the area not show up on the map or list.  Out of games, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest was the first notable JRPG to do this, though FF10, the Digital Devil Saga games, and Epic Battle Fantasy 3 have also done this notably, though Strategy RPGs that allow battle replays (Disgaea) also use this format.

Lastly is the sequential format.  This is as linear as one can get for pathing, as it takes the fragmented setup one step further.  No sidepaths, no world map, and no backtracking, instead progressing through areas as if stages from a platformer game.  This may allow for a degree of fine-tuning, but it is a very divisive route to take for a more standard RPG based on how Final Fantasy 13 was received.  It did, after all, gain the derogatory nickname “Final Fight 13” for a reason, after all.  Other than that, this is a more accepted format for Strategy RPGs such as Fire Emblem and Super Robot Wars

Lastly today, we will cover gating.  I’ve mentioned it several times before in this post, and it sounds self-explanatory, but it has some nuances that may be passed over.  Gating, to put simply, is keeping the player from going where they shouldn’t until they’ve completed a required achievement in the game, such as acquiring an item, defeating a boss, or advancing the plot in some manner.  This may be more familiar to some pen and paper gamers as “Railroading”.  Now, to people who like their sandbox tabletop gaming, keep in mind that railroading is not bad.  Sequence breaking–getting to places you’re not supposed to–can hurt your game just as bad as badly-done gating can.  And of course, the forms of gating are about as varied as the forms of pathing, as follows.

train

There’s no getting off of this train once it’s started.  Be prepared for a ride on the rails.

Gating by difficulty, frequently known as using a “Beef Gate” in tropespeak, is the least recognizable as a proper gate, and it’s the most reviled for a very good reason.  The concept is simple–you’re not actually cut off in the world by anything other than much harder encounters that you have to be numerically powerful enough to beat.  This requires equipment boosts or the most hated thing: experience grinding.  This is most evident in the game that this form of gating is the most egregious in: Dragon Quest 1.  For the first 90 or so minutes of the game if you grind, you will be staying on one continent, not daring at all to cross any of those dreaded bridges.  And then at the beginning of the lategame, you will hit a wall where you can’t mitigate enemies through purchasable equipment anymore.  To properly execute this, you will need to get an extremely fine-tuned experience curve, and test it thoroughly.  But in general, this was abandoned by game design for a reason.

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Our intrepid takes one look across the river, and finds himself glad he’s not over there with his clothes and bamboo stick.

The next form of gating is gating by tools.  This form is most frequently seen in metroidvanias and their ilk, once more, but it sometimes shows up in RPGs.  Most typically, this an item or ability that has a secondary function of some sort–Crystalis is possibly the earliest RPG example of this by comparison, as illustrated with its swords’ level 2 abilities: the Swords of Wind and Fire can break rock and ice walls respectively, and the Sword of Water can create ice bridges over  shallow water.  The Float, Barrier, Paralysis, and Telepathy spells become this as well, though possibly sometimes not enough.  In essence, acquiring these tools allows you to open new pathways elsewhere.  Other games that facilitate this include Lufia 2 and the Wild ARMs series.

Somewhat related to this is gating by puzzle.  Frequently in dungeons, this form of gating is based explicitly on the player’s ability to complete one or more puzzles.  These puzzles may range from sliding block puzzles (a rather infamous configuration now frequently lampooned) to acquiring or piecing together a code, to a myriad of things.  Sometimes this involves tool use for a combination of this and tool-based gating.  While every dungeon has a few puzzles, Wild ARMs and Lufia 2 are probably the most famous for this form as well.

The most common form of gating, is gating by event.  That is to say, one or more areas are blocked off until a plot switch is triggered by completing more of the story.  The most famous examples of these are the Broken Bridge and the Bouncer.  The Broken Bridge is where there’s a terrain feature that can’t be fixed until you advance the plot enough (which often does not have to do at all with directly fixing the bridge), and the Bouncer involves one or more NPCs who stand in one place and block your progress until a future event.  In reality, this is almost universal to JRPGs, and will frequently occur in practically every RPG that is pathed less strictly than sequential (Fragmented-path games use area availability as a form of event-gating) and more than open-world.  In short, if you’re making a JRPG, you will almost invariably use this method at one point or another.

The last form of gating, made popular by the first Final Fantasy, is gating by transportation.  Similar to gating by tools, this is changed by receiving an item in question.  As opposed to that, however, the item is specifically a vehicle.  This form of gating was largely started in JRPGs by Final Fantasy (Ship, Canoe, Airship) and Dragon Quest 3 (a giant bird), but has become notably influential with how many games eventually get sea or air transportation.  Of course, placement of areas on the world to prevent this transportation from allowing sequence-breaking is vital to making this form of gating work.

As can be seen, creating a world in which a JRPG takes place is a more complicated matter than most.  Between breathing life into the world with history and present conditions, setting out a path for the player to take, and blocking off paths that you do not intend the player to go down until later, any game creator will have no small amount of work on their hands.  And with that, I feel this concludes this week’s post of Gratuitous JRPG,  Hopefully back on its weekly update schedule.

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Posted June 23, 2013 by EpicAlphonse in Uncategorized

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