Saturday, August 8, 2015

General RPGs' Underused Settings and Styles

There’s a lot of diversity in RPGs’ settings and cultural backdrops, and I appreciate that. If I want to have science fiction, there are great options, like Mass Effect or Anachronox. If I want to have cyberpunk, there are great options, like Shadowrun or Dex. If I want to have 20th century world history, there are great options, like some of the Shadow Hearts games. If I want something modern and uncomfortably close to reality, there are great options, like Deus Ex 1. If I want horror, there are great options, like Parasite Eve 1. If I want something that explores Christianity, there are great options, like many Shin Megami Tensei titles. If I want a crapload of alchemy, there’s the Atelier games. If I want western fantasy, there’s Crimson Shroud and the Dungeons and Dragons titles. If I want post apocalyptic, there’s Fallout. Dark gothic European, Castlevania. Oriental martial arts, Jade Empire. High School, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona. Steampunk, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magicks Obscura. Sci-fi mixed with fantasy, Star Ocean or Phantasy Star. Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile. Exploration of Hinduism and Buddhism, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga. And so on; you get the idea more than well enough, I’m sure.

Nonetheless, there are a few styles and cultural backdrops that are rarely or never explored in RPGs, at least that I have seen (and I flatter myself to think that I’m pretty well-versed in the genre), ones which could really make for some awesome Role Playing Games if someone were to make the attempt to do so.

...Someone competent, I mean. If you work at SquareEnix, or had anything to do with the development of Lunar: Dragon Song, please just stop reading this rant right now. I don’t want you people getting ideas.

So, in no particular order, here are some ideas for backdrops, overall game themes, and cultural settings that I’d like to see in more RPGs.

Arabian Mythology: Damn, game developers of the world, when are you guys gonna get on this? Old Arabian fantasy is creative, fascinating, and really kind of unique. I know a couple of RPGs have taken a stab at it, but they’re both extremely old games. Defenders of Oasis is dull and unimaginative, using the Arabian style as a backdrop for a story that really could have been told exactly the same way in any other setting; nothing actually connects it to Arabian mythos beyond the genie character. Meanwhile, I love The Magic Scheherazade, it’s inventive and interesting, as I’ve mentioned before, but the game still came out back in the days of the NES. Even if it was an impressive feat of RPG creativity and storytelling for its day, that still means it doesn’t have nearly the kind of depth and emotional and philosophical quality as can be expected from today. The RPG genre, on both sides of the ocean, has drawn decades’ worth of great ideas, stories, and characters from traditional western fantasy and mythology. I don’t think that western fantasy is tapped out by any means, but just imagine all the awesome directions RPGs could go in if a ton of game developers began to use Arabian mythos as their starting point. There’s so much that can be done with this!

Islam in Shin Megami Tensei: Kind of jumping off of the same region of the world as the last idea, here. I know I’m being specific here, but having seen what a kickass job the SMT series has done with representing, analyzing, and exploring the religions of Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism, not to mention other forms of faith such as the Tarot and luck,* I’d really love to see that same brilliance and attention brought to another of the world’s major religions. And of those major religions, I’d most like to see Islam covered, because it has a hell of a lot of fascinating material, tradition, and ideas to cover, and, well, because a lot of the real world, at the moment, could really use an intelligent and objective perspective on the much-maligned faith. I’m generally happy for all the SMT I can get, but still, this is a subject to which I hope the series turns its unique brilliance soon.

Native American Culture: Really, I just want to see something, anything, basing itself off of the cultures of Native Americans. Their various societies and belief systems are fascinating, and essentially ignored by all forms of art and media, or at the most, just seen in relation to other cultures (mostly imperialistic white culture). It’s not that there’s nothing that relates to Native Americans in RPGs...the Shadowrun series actually makes Native Americans a big part of its lore, and some of its games reflect that to an extent, and sometimes you’ll come across a tribal culture in an RPG that give the distinct impression of being an analogue for Native Americans, like the tribes in Suikoden 3. And of course, the Fallout series, particularly Fallout 2 and New Vegas, have a lot of interesting material on the matter. Hell, you could probably argue that some elf cultures in RPGs are metaphors for Native Americans, albeit clumsy ones. And there’s always the actual inclusion of Native Americans in Shadow Hearts 3...but we shall not speak of that, for that game is terrible and should ever be shunned. Nonetheless, there’s never been an RPG, to my knowledge at least, that really just bases itself around Native American ideas, history, and culture, and as with Arabian mythology, I think there’s a lot of potential there to explore.

Which leads us to the next one:

The Wild West: Aw, man, wild west-styled stuff can make for such kickass entertainment! Desert-y environments, small and tough frontier towns, horses and six shooters, bar brawls, outlaws, sheriffs, that fascinating mix of early industrialist society both fleeing from itself and yet also fighting to bring its progress further forward, the equally fascinating war within the genre of glorification of individualism and freedom against community versus adherence to the law, manly mustaches and cool cowboy gear, an obsession with pillaging gold and hiding it which is similar to the pirate genre but at the same time way better, thrilling train heists, the continued thoroughly immoral expansion into Native American lands and treatment of their society and population as subhuman savages who make better pets than people...

...Okay, so...maybe that last tendency of the genre is not so good. Deeply disturbing, actually.

Still, so long as it manages to not promote racism and carefree cultural genocide, the American Frontier setting has a ton of really cool, fun stuff to offer that RPGs just don’t take advantage of. Oh, sure, there are bits and pieces of it here and there--aspects of it can be found in Fallout: New Vegas, and there’s a cowboy scenario in Live-A-Live that’s fun, but a real, sincere effort to use this interesting and exciting genre in RPGs is hard to find. Wild Arms 3 is pretty much the only RPG out there that does it (even though the entire Wild Arms series erroneously claims to be Old West-styled), and WA3 was one of the greatest RPGs ever created. And it’s not even like this genre is that hard to make work with other, more RPG-friendly ones. Wild Arms 3 may have committed to the setting in a way that all its predecessors and successors utterly failed at, but it nonetheless managed very competently to maintain a strong amount of the fantasy-sci-fi mix of the rest of the Wild Arms games, too, and as classics like Trigun and Firefly show, sci-fi can actually be combined with the Wild West really, really effectively. Here’s hoping the future holds more committed, great Wild West RPGs like Wild Arms 3 in the future.

Edit...From the FUTURE: The future does, indeed, hold West of Loathing, which is a terrifically fun humor RPG making use of Wild West aesthetics. But I'm still keeping this setting here in this rant, because we still desperately need more, and if WoL is anything to go by, they can, indeed, be pretty awesome.

Indian Culture: If it’s Shin Megami Tensei examining its social-religious aspects, great. If it’s a game just generally basing itself on the geography and society of India, great. Past India as a backdrop, present India as a backdrop, future India as a backdrop, all great. A fantasy land strongly based on Indian mythology, also great. I don’t care about how the game wants to go about it. I just want something that gives me an interesting glimpse of Indian culture that treats it with a shred of dignity. Because right now, all I’ve got to work with are ridiculous, insulting stereotypes on TV and in the movies. Although the USA entertainment industry is (for once) not entirely at fault for far as I’ve seen and am told, the Indian movie industry isn’t exactly breaking its back to defy stereotypes. Well, I don’t care what side of the ocean it comes from--I just want to see something using Indian people and concepts that doesn’t treat the culture as a fucking punchline, or a mandate for a dance montage.

Film Noir: Well come on. Film noir is just plain always awesome. Hard-boiled detectives, glamorous and dangerous scenarios and people, twisted schemes by crooked fiends, the dark streets, that singularly cool internal monologue that all the best protagonists keep going the whole time...gotta love it. Yeah, you might think that this genre would lend itself more naturally to different kinds of games, like an investigation game or even a first person venture, and you’re probably right. But there’s no reason why you can’t combine those things with an RPG and get a good result. Many RPGs, like Mass Effect and Fallout, have successfully combined shooters with RPG elements, and I don’t see why you couldn’t also have a hybrid between your typical detective game and an RPG. You could do it like Sakura Wars 5 combines a dating sim and an RPG together--SW5’s RPG elements (the stats of characters during its battles) come from how well you do with the dating game portion. You could have the investigative segments inform the RPG elements in a similar fashion, where the better job you do sleuthing and following leads, the better your stats will be when a couple hitmen jump you in the alley, or something. With a strong enough set of writers behind it, it could be a primarily story-driven game with only a few fights interspersed here and there, like Embric of Wulfhammer’s Castle, or, again, Sakura Wars 5, so you could make investigative elements the main attraction but still draw on the RPG element. I dunno. All I know is that I love a good film noir story, and with RPGs’ strong penchant for focus on storytelling elements, it seems to me that a skilled developer could make a hell of a film noir RPG.

Real World, Modern Age: We don’t really get many RPGs that are supposed to be set in our own reality. It’s not that they don’t exist, of course, but they’re still few and far between, and even the ones that do set themselves in our world or close to it tend to set themselves apart by clearly being parallel but significantly different realities (the Fallout and Sakura Wars series), or ridiculously far in the future (the Mass Effect and Star Ocean series), to the point that they still come off to a large degree as being another world (Star Ocean doesn’t help this by constantly setting itself up on numerous alien planets that just happen to be another backwater standard magical RPG dump).

Still, there are RPGs that take place a little closer to home, and they’re often very good. Shadow Hearts 1 and 2 take place all over Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century, Deus Ex 1 takes place on a global scale in a near (and getting scarily nearer all the time) future, and a significant number of Shin Megami Tensei titles take place in the real world from the early 20th century on to the present and near future. All of the games I just listed are worthwhile RPGs, ranging from good to downright incredible, and some of them (Deus Ex 1 in particular) have a greater ability to comment on and provide cautionary tales for our lives, because they directly borrow from the reality that we live in. I just feel like we could use more games that do so. There’s all kinds of social and political issues in our world that the public needs exposure to, and while I’m all about documentaries and books and movies and whatnot, I’d like to see my favorite game genre step up and join the fray of telling tales of the real world with the purpose of making it and us the better for them.

Man, I can’t wait to play Unraveled: Tale of the Shipbreaker's Daughter.

2016 UPDATE: Moon Hunters is a decent RPG with a definite thematic backdrop of Native American culture. It's good, but very short and it doesn't really have the same sort of dedicated plot that one typically expects from an RPG, so I'm still hoping for more games that make use of this setting, style, and culture.

* Christianity: SMT1 + 2, Devil Survivor 1, and, well, just most of the series, really.
Hinduism and Buddhism: SMT Digital Devil Saga 1 + 2
Luck: SMT Devil Summoner Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon
Tarot: SMT Persona 3 and 4
Basic Foundations of Religions’ Behavior: SMT3


  1. You might enjoy Koudelka for the PS1 if you're looking for an RPG set in the real world, athough it's in the past like the Shadow Hearts series (I think it's actually connected, but not certain if that's canon since the SH series switched developers between the first and second).

    It might also be worth checking the Ace Attorney (a game where you examine crime scenes and cross examine witnesses at a court to defend a client) series and Ghost Trick (another mystery game) since they both contain (vague) elements of film noir and are set in the real world. They aren't RPGs, but I figured you'd still enjoy these games since you complain about battle systems being boring. Neither is a very long adventure compared to most RPGs.

    The variety Indian media is really narrow. Almost everything seems to be either a romantic comedy film or a soap opera, neither of which portray India's culture as being very respectable

    1. At least some aspects of Koudelka are canon to Shadow Hearts, probably the whole thing, as Yuri and company actually meet its protagonist during the first SH game. If I recall correctly, one of the party, Haley, is her son. Sooner or later I'll have to check that one out.

      I don't play many non-RPGs that don't start with the words "Super" and "Smash," but I'll keep those ones in mind.

      And yeah, India media just doesn't paint a very strong picture of the culture. Quite annoying; even American media paints a better and fuller picture of its culture of origin, and Palutena knows that's saying something.