Monday, April 9, 2007

General RPGs' Ancient Civilizations

If the number of RPGs you've played is above 3, you know what today's rant is about. You know it because you are intimately familiar with it, having encountered it dozens of times in your game-playing hobby life. It's like the scent of that slightly greasy, questionably employed fellow on the subway who you somehow always get stuck sitting/standing very near during your regular commute to work. You don't know his name, you don't want to know his origins, but you've been shoved up against that filthy, foodstain-spattered jacket of his in a crammed space often enough that you and his body odor have reached an "Old Friend" relationship status. You are familiar not by choice, but rather by forced exposure.

I am speaking, of course, about the Ancient Civilization plot device. You know the one--at some point in any given RPG, your party will invariably wind up exploring some ruin left behind by a long-gone culture which was, bizarrely enough, far more advanced than the current one in at least one, and usually EVERY, way. Now, true, this is an idea commonly used in ALL forms of entertainment, not just RPGs, but it's especially prevalent in them. I'd say it's maybe just a little bit less common in RPGs than Hit Points.

I mean, this theme is EVERYWHERE. If you have to have anything to do with a previous culture in an RPG, you are guaranteed to find out that they were way more advanced than any current country. This isn't just a common cliche, like some of the previous things I've ranted on, such as RPG women's stupid outfits and flying castles and whatnot. It's like a requirement for every RPG's plot to have super-advanced civilizations as its backbone. It doesn't even matter what kind of age the planet/galaxy/whatever the game takes place on/in is going through--you can run into a scattering of immensely powerful artifacts and abilities sealed deep in ancient temples in a fantasy setting, like in Final Fantasy 5, which you'd expect, but hell, you can run into devices left behind by advanced societies with technology far surpassing your own in a super futuristic sci-fi setting, too, such as in Knights of the Old Republic 1. I mean, how much sense, honestly, does it make to have a space-faring race in the Star Wars universe that existed thousands of years before the game's time, which just happens to have had a superior knowledge of both technology and the Force? It's not like technology in the Star Wars universe stands still for millenia. And with Jedi and Sith sporadically running around that whole time, seeking to understand the Force in their own ways, it seems equally silly that some bunch of technology-and-Force-combining aliens who died out hundreds of lifetimes previously would still have had better knowledge than a continuously advancing society thousands of years later.

See, that's what gets me about this cliche. It makes no sense whatsoever. Technology and knowledge do not move BACKWARDS as time passes. What would be known 5000 years ago, be it how to forge some ultimate evil-killing, time-splitting, aura-increasing blade of kickassedness, some special banishing/containing spell that can eliminate the ultimate evil, some special fever-reducing medicine's forumula, or whatever, would almost surely STILL be known, or at the VERY least, rediscovered. At the very most, if the culture had fallen somewhat recently (in RPG terms, this'd be in the last few centuries, rather than the last few millenia), then you could maybe make a case that some of its knowledge could still be lost and not yet rediscovered, since knowledge breakthroughs take time. But trying to tell me that over the course of 2500 years, no magical scholar has yet managed to stumble onto the proper chant for a more powerful attack spell that some idiots living back before the invention of cooked meat managed to master?

If it were just a rare thing, I could let it go. I mean, there're things that ancient cultures on this planet managed to do that are pretty impressive. Last I heard, we'd still have a damn hard time replicating what the Egyptians did with those pyramids, even if we were to employ our incredibly further advanced technology to do so. But every single time? Are we expected to believe in every RPG we play that for the next several centuries after the fall of such and such civilization, everyone in the world was too busy bashing their heads on rocks all day to bother trying in any way to regain the level of knowledge and power that their neighboring such and such society had recently possessed?

And for that matter, there's the matter of why all these clearly far more awesome civilizations disappeared to begin with. You'll only get an explanation of why the esteemed Ugga-Blugh Culture vanished without a trace about a third of the time, at best. The rest of the time, you're just left to imagine what happened to them, and why it is that they had time to build a full half dozen or more temples and towers and such to clumsily safeguard their secrets of destruction before pulling their vanishing act. I mean, since they were busily inventing box-pushing puzzles to hide their favorite weapons and spells and such, they clearly wanted to leave a legacy, implying that they knew they wouldn't be around for much longer. So why the hell not just write down a decent history of themselves and leave it sitting next to whatever apocalypse-causing/preventing crystal they were enshrining that day?

Hell, it's not even like the few times you DO get a reason for why the ancient, sophisticated Mezopotaromaniagyptianese are satisfying. More often than not, they'll have kicked the bucket thanks to the same evil force that you're currently facing off against. Yeah, because it makes a ton of sense for some supposed super civilization to be wiped out by an evil-doer who will by the end of the game be defeated by a group of 3 - 12 moderately stupid teenagers supported by a technologically backwards world that actually considers airships a non-laughable mode of transportation.

Frankly, folks, the whole Ancient Super Civilization plot tool is old. Really, really old. And most often, it's just writers being lazy. How does the villain plan to destroy the world? By using some ancient relic/spell/technology! How will the heroes stop the villain? By using ancient relics/spells/technologies! Where will you spend 1/5 or more of your time in dungeons? In ruins, obtaining ancient relics/spells/technologies! All these essential plot devices are just magically sitting around, waiting to be found and/or stolen, so that writers can show characters and villains and such doing what they want them to be doing, but not have to ever worry about how to get there.

And it's not a problem that's getting any better--hell, it's only seeming to get worse with certain recent games. I mean, much as I love Wild Arms 3, you're crawling around in previous cultures' ruins for something like 80% of your total dungeon experience, without a word breathed once about where the hell these things came from, who built'em, and for what purpose. And then there's Final Fantasy 12--apparently, in some timeline that Square released, FF12 occurs a long time before FFT does, possibly on the same world. Yeah, because it's so believable that people running around in a medieval setting with swords and spears and such were, less than 1300 years prior, waging war in crazy Star Wars-esque flying ships with canons and bombs and such.

Seriously, this nonsense has got to stop. Or at least cut back a little. If the writers for the games we purchase can't honestly think of a better way to advance the plot than by using a quest to obtain some random object of power from some ancient bozos' temple of miraculously preserved traps and robots, then they shouldn't be writing to begin with. Give us some material that makes SENSE.


  1. I'm not saying you're wrong; it is too prevalent, but that could be attributed to mystery we have regarding our own ancient cultures. How long did it take for europe to crawl out of the dark ages? Why didn't the Nazca leave behind instructions on why they drew their lines? I guess someone misplaced the manual for the Antikythera device. Why didn't residents of Puma Punku detail how they cut their stones? The purpose of Stonehenge we can only guess at.

    So, that's why they're there in games, but on to agreeing with you. The developers have already worked out why the ancient race is gone (if they haven't then that's just sloppy of them), so why not share this with us, the dutiful player? My only answer is they want to keep it a mystery for future games. Sometimes if there's no answer, I like to think the ancient civilization is still around, and you've only stumbled upon one of their distant outposts they rarely frequent.

    I have nothing good to say about absolutely advanced technology (beyond our own) that appears in a medieval setting, but there's magic, so really the suspension of disbelief is rather large for me already. My beef is more with the opposite. Why, in a world of laser guns and spaceships are the ultimate weapons a sword and axe? I'm looking at you Phantasy Star.

  2. "The developers have already worked out why the ancient race is gone (if they haven't then that's just sloppy of them)"

    Sir, I think you might be very unpleasantly surprised by just how many developers are actually sloppy in this regard. When a cliche plot point is this overused, you can bet not even half of the writers give a hoot about working out its details.

    Also, the ultimate weapons are swords and axes and the like because guns, like bows and arrows, are inexplicably inferior in 95% of RPGs, even though in real life they are shown to be the far superior weapons. It's stupid.

  3. I suppose I'm giving them too much credit when I see timelines colliding like random asteroids.

  4. I thought Wild Arms 3 explicitly - by the time they actually tell you, anyway - that you're on a planet that's survived an apocalyptic war and brought everything nearly to zero, with the twist that most humans are the direct descendants of this advanced alien civilization. The ruins being much more advanced seems plausible at that point. At least the technology's not totally incomprehensible to the people of WA3.

    "What is this stick that produces fire and thunder!?"
    "It's called a gun, dumbass."

    In regards to FFXII, I might suggest that the Ivalice of XII has energy sources and tech that simply cannot exist by the time of FFT, via the rise and fall of Nethicite. XII is also made to be the ancient mythology of FFT, a la the Zodiac Brave Story, however haphazard that telling ended up being(it being entirely optional). Considering both games are neck deep in wartime politicking, who knows how many world wars have occurred to set civilization back several generations at a time?

    It's a barren explanation, but it's slightly more than nothing. Then again, it could just make things worse: FFT's war tech is downright ancient compared to XII, when war is the defining trait of that world. Not even ELECTRICITY managed to survive? Bah.

  5. About WA3: Still, it doesn't change the fact that it's playing the ancient superiority card pretty straight until that reveal.

  6. I guess these ancient civilisations are nearly a tradition in our media, books and movies alike. Even in real life we have legends regarding ancient expanded civilisation eg. Atlantis. Even Egyptian pyramids, Easter Island statues or Stonehenge is voiled in mysticism. Even historical known places like Roman Empire is by many thought as a place and era more developed than middle ages which came after.

    This level of mysticisms causes the same cliche in RPG time and again, me think.
    The first time however the cliche was used (Im quite
    sure it was Final Fantasy I) with the Flying Fortress was quite okay by me.


    1. Actually, the ancient land of Ys from the game of the same name (internal rhyme mostly accidental) came out a few months before Final Fantasy 1 and had the ancient civilisation thing first. It probably didn't do a great job with it (until the sequel decided to expand that aspect more).

      I think Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky probably influenced this trope a bit since it released before most (all?) RPGs that used this and a lot of them have commonalities (Grandia 1 is probably compared with it the most, but Chrono Trigger's Zeal was probably influenced by it as well; there's a cut track from the game called Singing Mountain that is highly similar to one of Laputa's pieces).

    2. Yeah, fair enough. I did not play Ys so I Probably made this mistake. Is it an enjoyable RPG?

      The fliating land trope i probably around as long as the book Gulivers Travels ( which I strongly advise btw.)