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Thread: RPGs and Effective Storytelling - Editorial

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    RPGamer Staff RPGamer Staff InstaTrent's Avatar
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    RPGs and Effective Storytelling - Editorial

    Many of us play role-playing games for their stories, but not all narratives are created equal. With increasingly complex settings and plots, are RPGs being hampered by information overload?

    EDITORIAL
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    Final Fanatic Sandy's Avatar
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    As a reader of fantasy and sci-fi literature, I'm not fazed by strange or ubiguous terminology at all, and I believe that at least in FF XIII's case that people blamed the alien terms for not understanding the convoluted plot. Let's face it; if the l'cie had been called "Chosen Ones" instead, and the fal'cie "God Machines" or something, the plot would have still been convoluted and non-sensical.

    I heavily agree that dumping all exposition into glossaries or in-game guidebooks really hurts the immersion to the fantasy world. You learn all these things about the characters you meet and the places you visit, but you never really see them acted out in front of you.

    I remember back when all sorts of info was released on FF XII (12) on the official websites and magazines about the characters and the world - how little of it all was actually mentioned in the game. Like the fact that Ashe used to have thirteen (or so) brothers, that Fran is an avid technician, that there are two tribes of Viera and four types of Bangaa, that moogles have their own city... If these would have come up one way or another during the gameplay, the world would have felt much more immersive and cohesive, instead of being just interconnected zones.

    Then came FF XIII, which was an even worse example of the same phenomenon. "Tell and don't show" just doesn't cut it out in the videogame format...

  3. #3
    To that effect, my problem with Final Fantasy XIII's story does not lie with setting, mythology, characters, themes, or dialogue. The game's unintuitive narrative delivery and the abuse of unique terminology, two elements which many modern RPGs contend with, ultimately hamper the experience.

    This line is close to my opinion on FFXIII, all i had to do is change a few words.

    My problem with Final Fantasy XIII's story has everything to do with setting, mythology, characters, themes, or dialogue The game's unintuitive narrative delivery and the abuse of unique terminology, two elements which many modern RPGs contend with also hamper the experience.

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    A Familiar Teacher Administrator Strawberry Eggs's Avatar
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    I can't say any of the RPGs I've played have introduced terminology in an inorganic way. I do understand why it would be an hinderance, though. It's clumsy storytelling, especially in a visual media like video games.
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    I quite liked this article - a good read and a good quick overview covering much of the rather complex problem at hand.

    While I didn't dislike FF13 myself, I will agree that it had multiple problems. But as Sandy points out, I'm not so sure it's because of the terminology, although I recall first hearing Sazh tell Lightning she was crazy for wanting to go to The Sancturary, and at this moment, I became rather upset because new entire story chunks were being dropped in without any explanation for anything that came beforehand. The main problem I feel was more about the fact that there were numerous ambiguous relationships taking place, micro and marco, that were not explained at all. At the 5 hour mark, for example, we know this -

    The people hate the L'Cie, for some reason. The people also hate the Army, but it turns out the Army also hates the L'Cie (at the time it seems like the L'Cie are a third party that one should team up with). Lightning hates Snow but not exactly sure why. And the heroes (and thus, the people) hate the Fal'Cie, but it turns out so does the Army. (On that note - did anyone else think that the main characters attacked the Fal'Cie because it was something sent in/deployed by the Army?) And Lightning, whom is fighting against the Army, has no interest in helping the many people whom are, also, fighting the Army. And one question I had at the time...is there more than one kind of Fal'Cie? Are they living beings or machines, or something in between?

    Without reading the Datalog, (I don't believe this contains any spoilers) you wouldn't realize that the opening of the narrative is the breakout of violence between the Army and people being sent on The Purge, due to the fact that they might be contaminated. It was displayed more like some kind of open war or revolution, so I started wondering whom the people were ultimately fighting. Like, some evil Emperor? No, they're just resisting being forcefully taken to a place called 'Pulse' which they fear. A lot of this stems from the fact that the narrative starts off somewhere in the middle, skipping the entire first act sans flashbacks, so all established plot threads and relationships are given meaning after several hours. It's possible this could've worked if FF13 was a movie, but since we had to wait hours between all meaningful bits of clarification-based exposition (the first Flashback comes about 4 hours in, I believe), it can take you days or weeks, depending on how much time you get to devote to videogames, to finally start to understand the massive picture that's been shown to you in massive doses. There are so many plot threads unexplained that it's easy to have forgotten a plot thread altogether by the time the explanation is presented, because the plot threads are many.
    Last edited by Noj Airk; 07-23-2013 at 10:46 AM.

  6. #6
    I personally found the FF13 and Tales of the Abyss terminology extremely off putting. I'm quite familiar with reading fantasy/sci-fi and seeing strange terminology, but I'd prefer an explanation immediately after the terminology is first introduced, instead of dragging it out through the game. Or better yet, if you can't make them something quickly relatable like "Reapers" then don't bother using them at all. Otherwise it's meaningless fluff.

    As for the in game encyclopedia, I'm not against them, but they shouldn't be necessary to understand the game. I always mean to go back and read them at the end of games, but never do.

    You can have complex stories like say the Song of Ice and Fire, and the Wheel of Time, that is a lot more accessible to people if you explain made up crap, and have a quickly accessed and well written explanation in the back available at any moment.

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    is not declawed RPGamer Staff Ocelot's Avatar
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    One of the major challenges in speculative fiction writing of all kinds is creating fantasy terminology that feels natural to the world but is explained well to the reader at the same time. In other words, you don't want your characters sounding like encyclopedias, but you want your readers to easily grasp what your made-up words mean.

    A lot of game writers have trouble with this task. Many of them solve the problem by having a "stranger" character to whom everything needs to be explained. That's generally considered a bit lazy/clumsy in literature (though some authors are very good at making it feel more natural), but I'll take it in video games over various cludgy alternatives I've seen. I suspect part of the problem is in editing. How many game companies have access to the kinds of experienced and highly skilled editors that book publishing companies do? How many even think to look for that kind of editor?

    Now consider how much fun it must be to have a game featuring fantasy terminology that is poorly-used in the original Japanese, and attempt to translate that game into English. I do not envy those translators/localizers.

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    The problem with stories is one person's good story is another person's "WORST. STORY. EVER!", so I don't think about it.

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    Really good stuff trent

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    A Witness to Destruction Moderator DarkRPGMaster's Avatar
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    I do have to point out one thing about this. The Light of the Sacred Flame was explained pretty much at the beginning of Tales of the Abyss not only by the beginning cutscene, but also by Ion when you first meet him. As for the Seventh Fonon, I believe that too was explained early, albeit not heavily in depth.
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  11. #11
    Quote Originally Posted by DarkRPGMaster View Post
    I do have to point out one thing about this. The Light of the Sacred Flame was explained pretty much at the beginning of Tales of the Abyss not only by the beginning cutscene, but also by Ion when you first meet him. As for the Seventh Fonon, I believe that too was explained early, albeit not heavily in depth.
    They also explained in Star Wars Episode 1 that the Force was caused by midichlorians in your blood. Doesn't mean it was a good explanation.

    I don't even remember the "Light of the Sacred Flame" in ToA. Did I completely miss that or something?

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    A Witness to Destruction Moderator DarkRPGMaster's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by smacd View Post
    They also explained in Star Wars Episode 1 that the Force was caused by midichlorians in your blood. Doesn't mean it was a good explanation.

    I don't even remember the "Light of the Sacred Flame" in ToA. Did I completely miss that or something?
    Possibly, it was really early on in the game, and never mentioned again.
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  13. #13
    Overly complex stories tend to pile on seemingly profound information with no depth or connectivity. What is left is a pretty shell that is hollow at the core, which usually results in loose ends and players asking "but what about..." at the end.

    I have no problem with unique terminology or even some auxiliary reading, but why not make it more about the characters you're playing instead of some past event that has no significant ties to current or future developments?

    A well-developed intricate plot is a great thing, but it takes something special to pull it off. Sometimes it's better to execute the perfect forward dive than belly flop the triple lindy.

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    Member Cidolfas's Avatar
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    Using terminology without explanation is not in itself bad - in fact, it adds a bit of mystery and challenge to a story. But it takes real skill to do it right. You can't have more than one or two of these words out there at once; adding more while you haven't yet explained the originals is an indication that you so enjoyed your world building that you paid no attention to how to show that world to your readers/viewers.

    The best authors know how to tease the explanations out naturally through conversations. Yes, people who live in a world where fonons are everywhere are unlikely to suddenly have to explain them to someone - but through conversation, we can gather details about fonons based on how they're used and for what.

    An example of really terrible communication in this regard is Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey. Really interesting world, but he never bothered explaining anything until halfway through the book, at which point the reader is barely keeping their head above water.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Ocelot View Post
    A lot of game writers have trouble with this task. Many of them solve the problem by having a "stranger" character to whom everything needs to be explained. That's generally considered a bit lazy/clumsy in literature (though some authors are very good at making it feel more natural), but I'll take it in video games over various cludgy alternatives I've seen.
    Quote Originally Posted by Cidolfas View Post
    The best authors know how to tease the explanations out naturally through conversations. Yes, people who live in a world where fonons are everywhere are unlikely to suddenly have to explain them to someone - but through conversation, we can gather details about fonons based on how they're used and for what.
    See that's the thing. Tales of the Abyss even had one of these "stranger" characters in the main character, whom everything had to be explained to for at least the first half of the game. But I didn't feel that the explanations were particularly good. I think I understood it, but not until well into the game.

    Personally, I dislike "teasing it out". If you drop in technobabble or made up objects or strange nouns, I'd rather have the explanation immediately and bluntly. If not in the dialog, it should be in an in-game encyclopedia that gives "perfect information" (not one of those BS ones that only shows you what the character thinks they 'know' at that arbitrary point in the game)

  16. #16
    Member Cidolfas's Avatar
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    To each their own. I'm actually a fan of it if it's done well; it keeps my attention and has me trying to figure out the world like a jigsaw puzzle.

  17. #17
    Having unique terminology works better when other in-game characters are as confused or "in the dark" as the player or when the terminology can be readily translated into a familiar concept.

    As you mentioned, this was never an issue in Mass Effect or Xenogears. It was okay in ME that you didn't know what "Reapers" were because no one else in the game knew what it was either. And "biotics" might as well be "magicks". "Lambs" in Xenogears could easily be understood to be (or similar to) the have-nots; again, a comfortable and familiar concept. Many games have different terminology for things like potions, antidotes, types of magic, etc., but once you understand what it is, what it's named ceases to be as important or off-putting.

    A healing potion by any other apple gel would still medi-gel as well.

    Something like that.

    FFXIII was a new low, though. Not only does everyone else in-game already know the difference between the l'Cie and the fal'Cie and the the Army and the Pulse, but the concepts described also aren't immediately apparent to the player and aren't explained for long stretches at a time. Are l'Cie the "Rebels" to the fal'Cie "Empire"? Is the Army the "Empire"? I had no idea. Frankly, I still don't have a very good grasp of what went on and having very different concepts with very similar sounding names didn't help at all. It may not have been the worst storytelling I've ever experienced in an RPG but... well, nevermind. It actually might be.
    Last edited by Abearinabarrel; 07-25-2013 at 03:43 PM.

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