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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, November 03, 2006

clichés, RPGs, and design

for anyone who plays (or like me, used to play) console RPGs, there's a really fun list of console RPG clichés, (via Ars Technica’s FF XII review). most of these are taken from Square and Square-Enix games, predominantly the Final Fantasy series (will there even be a final one?). it’s actually pretty amusing, as many of them are verbally described not as clichés but rather as mathematical theorems: the MacGyver Rule (you can use anything and everything as a weapon, including paintbrushes, dictionaries, and umbrellas), Zelda’s Axiom (if anyone tells you about “five magic crystals” you’ll have to track them all down), and Garrett’s Principle (you are somehow able to steal items from people’s houses right under their noses and it’s totally OK). these some pretty amusing observations to anyone who’s played these sorts of games.

however, I think they offer far more than just amusement potential. finding ways to break from these clichés could offer a unique resource for game design ideas. for example, the Law of Cartographical Equivalence states that “The world map always cleanly fits into a rectangular shape with no land masses that cross an edge.” this has always really bugged me. the beginning of Final Fantasy VII takes place entirely within the city of Midgar. during this portion, you don’t get any sort of over-arching map of the city. instead, you get the cognitive map you make for yourself while exploring the city. you get the sense that the world is full of intricate and complex detail. as soon as you leave the city, you get the standard, rectangular shaped world map. once the entire world fits in a neatly defined box, it doesn’t seem nearly as deep or expansive. according to the aforementioned Ars review, one of the changes in FF XII is doing away with the world map, apparently “something longtime FF fans have lamented.” I say, it’s about time, and the reviewer states that “FF XII has a more interesting, open, vibrant, and large world than FF titles with the overworld map.” breaking the cliché leads to new depth in the game.

another interesting one is the Setzer Rule, or Stop Your Life. in FF VI, Setzer is a gambler and ladies’ man who, when he joins up, apparently gives up his wild life of partying and hangs out on the airship when not in your active party. what if we were to violate this cliché, and allow characters to continue their lives outside the party? perhaps that character has adventures of their own that play into different plot paths. perhaps the character discovers a new item or technique that it may have taken hours of play time to come upon otherwise. perhaps the character decides that the player’s quest is for naught, and the player discovers upon his next visit that the character has become a pacifist hermit. allowing characters to develop independent of the player’s interactions could very well be annoying, but by breaking the cliché of party members just hanging out on the airship, we might create the impression of deeper, more complex, more interesting characters that not only have lives independent of the player, but also that the player’s actions or inactions have a real, tangible effect on the world.

this technique of finding and violating clichés could be quite useful in other types of design. for example, some of my research is in developing character-based interactive installations. I’m not sure if I’ve been involved in the research long enough to pick out what the clichés are, but one might be that characters respond visibly and often meaningfully to the actions of participants. what if the characters responded, but in a manner opposite the apparent intention of the participant? would this lead to curiosity, frustration, boredom, or some other reaction? this is somewhat like questioning one’s assumptions, but I think it’s a little different, because assumptions tend to guide work, whereas clichés are properties that the work (completed or in process) exhibits.

obviously, some clichés are in place for a reason. some, such as the Law of Scientific Gratification (whatever device you need is near completion but needs you to fetch some final piece from a monster-infested dungeon), are used as plot devices, if not the best ones. I’m not saying to try and rid ourselves of clichés. just like assumptions, clichés will always be with us. rather, the point is that making a list of clichés and then asking how we can design not to follow those clichés can be a useful resource for reflection upon, and inspiration for, design. indeed, it may be a strategy for reflective design (pdf).


  • The Setzer Rule...so game developer Bethesda is famous for their ridiculously large and open-ended "Elder Scrolls" RPGs. The most recent addition to the franchise was called Oblivion, and Oblivion featured what they called the "Radiant AI" system. Through this system, every single NPC in the game (and there are hundreds, if not thousands), had daily routines and they would even occasionally embarked on interesting adventures, regardless of whether or not you're around to see them. So someone might buy a really nice piece of clothing for themselves and a jealous member of the Thieves guild would break into their house at night and steal it. And depending on how much that character likes you, she might then tell you about her stolen loot the next time you two have a conversation. In practice the system is nowhere near as impressive as you would hope it to be, but sometimes you might catch an NPC doing something ridiculously cool that you wouldn't expect, and it makes for a more compelling game experience. Anyway, just thought I would throw that out there, especially since that type of experience is nowhere near as advanced and pervasive in RPGs as it should be.

    By Anonymous Bryant, at Wednesday, November 08, 2006 8:39:00 PM  

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