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Why I Hate Fantasy RPGs

Being a professional designer of fantasy role-playing games (RPGs, as they’re called by people like me), I play them a lot. It’s a great way to find good ideas to steal. Plus, I can write them off.

During my recent intense bout of this market research (heh!), I finally came to terms with the fact that, after 23 years of playing them, I hate fantasy RPGs. I hate them, and I hate myself for making them.

I will now describe the two worst things about these games. It will be a two-part column, since that is the only way that the space will be big enough to contain my hate.

The first horrible thing. Fantasy role-playing games are unique among computer games in one thing: they are fundamentally about starting out weak and learning to be strong. And that learning process generally involves a lot of tedium.

Consider other sorts of games. In Doom or Quake, you start out weak. How do you get strong? You pick up a big gun, and suddenly, you’re hardcore. Sure. In Madden, you start out a good football team, and you play some football for an hour, and then you get on with your life. When you play Tetris, you don’t have to rotate the L-shaped pieces for three hours before you’re good enough to handle the straight ones.

But the fundamental, unifying quality of pretty much all fantasy RPGs is that you start out as a puny loser, barely able to flush a toilet with both hands, and then you train and practice and work until you are a certifiable badass. And how does the game simulate this learning process? By reaching out and grabbing a gigantic, triple helping of your time.

In a shooter, you start out as a hero, and you do hero things, so you can have a shooter that lasts 10 hours. In a fantasy RPG, you also have to spend all the time learning to be a hero. An RPG that lasted 10 hours wouldn’t make sense.

I just played Final Fantasy XII, for the PlayStation 2 - an entirely worthy role-playing game. And, by turning the combat speed to maximum and skipping all optional quests, I managed to win it in only 47 hours. There was one quest in it that finally broke my spirit.

You have to find this secret door into this castle. Fair enough. And you find out how from this guy in the sewers who sounds like Apu from the Simpsons, but a grumpy old man.

He knows how to open the hidden door into the castle. But does he give you a key? Or just, Heaven forbid, open it for you? No. He says, “To get into the castle, you must first get a darkened sunstone. Then you need to fill it with sun energy. By wandering the lands to the south, and searching for the four shadestones. Then you fill the crystal with sun energy. Then you...”

SHUT UP! I don’t want to spend hours wandering and killing wolves and looking for the shadestones, whatever those are, to open a door. It doesn’t make any sense! Just open the door for me, you creepy old Apu-sounding FREAK!

Finding the shadestones and charging the sunstone took 90 minutes. I could have watched a good movie in that time. It was a completely nonsensical activity, but I fully understand the point of it. It was to get me to spend time wandering around and killing the same wolf 500 times so I could get experience and get stronger.

In any other sort of game, I could start out playing someone competent and immediately do stuff. In role-playing games, I have to prove that I deserve to be competent by enduring tedium. Then it lets me do the heroic stuff. And multiplayer games are like that times 10. Anyone who ever spent an hour in World of Warcraft killing 50 goblin chiropractors to collect 10 chiropractor shins knows what I am talking about.

And the games I write are no better. They do exactly the same thing. Sure, it might be cool to make a game where your character starts out a level 50 badass and then just trashes bozos. But it just wouldn’t sell as well. The addictive, statistic-increasing, time-eating quality isn’t the problem with these games. It’s the point.

I’m tired of starting a new game and being a loser. I’m tired of running the same errands to prove myself. The next time I enter my fantasy world, I want it to not assume that I’m a jackass.

So now, thinking about playing an RPG just makes me tired. I may play one again someday. All I need is a huge surplus of time oppressing me that I need to kill with extreme prejudice. And, until that happens, unless a game can be finished in under 10 to 12 hours, I’m not interested.

Next, I’ll talk about the thing that every RPG has and everyone hates. (Hint: trash.)


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