Skeleton Shortage Disorder: Breaking The RPG Mould

skellingtons

I love role playing games. I love the creativity, the indulgence of fantasy, the painstaking effort that goes into creating a living, breathing world. But in recent months I’ve noticed a dissonance between what I expect from RPGs and what I’m getting.

So I just finished Skyrim. Yeah, I know, real late to this party, you don’t need to remind me. Hell, it was my first Elder Scrolls game, I missed out on Oblivion and Bethesda’s other priors. But after playing it, Skyrim‘s one of my favourite RPGs of all time. I’m not gonna lie, up until now that list was predominantly Final Fantasy-flavoured, with Bethesda’s effort slotting in amongst Mass Effects and Personas and a young and impressionable second half of Kingdom Hearts II.

Damn near everything about the world of Skyrim blew me away; the heavily classical story, the sheer mass of NPCs, the incredible in-game economy, even the graphics (after a visit to Nexus Mods) and wealth of well-produced user-created content (after a visit to another mod site) created a wonderful picture on what’s now a fairly dated canvas of 360-era technology. It even did a better job of NPC diversity than most games; various kinds of humans, a metric fuckton of different types of elves, orcs, the human/velociraptor hybrid Argonians, nimble catpeople Khajiit… it’s not a bad cross section to build a lively game world from.

But even with all this variety in playable characters, it puts in stark contrast just how generic even as broad a roster of options as this truly is. As compellingly fleshed out as each of the racial options in Skyrim are, it all boils down to different shades and shapes of the same two-armed two-legged skeleton. Even NPCs rarely deviated from this formula, save for the odd sentient dog and the plentiful dragon enemies.

It’s not as if this is limited to Skyrim either. Looking across that all-time list I mentioned before, Mass Effect, a game featuring the full gamut of a galaxy full of not-humans, might’ve teased players with the idea of Blasto the tentacly hanar Spectre, and dotted its maps with the enormous elcor NPCs, but boasted a decidedly Roddenberry-esque recruitable roster of conventional four-limbed friendlies. Even Yasumi Matsuno’s worldbuilding masterclass that was Ivalice (FF Tactics, FFXII, Vagrant Story) can be boiled down to humans, dusky amazon bunny-humans, round pig-humans and shifty bearded lizard-humans. Well, that and the moogles. In terms of NPCs it got a little more adventurous, treating some monster races as sentient beings, like the Urutan tribes and more notably the low-tier cactoid and cockatrice mobs.

That’s the sort of inventiveness I really enjoy seeing in RPGs, and would love to see more. It’s not as if I’d flip out over an RPG sticking with the classics (hell, that’s the way Skyrim went, and it worked out okay), but I can’t shake the feeling not enough is being done to explore other options.

The topic came to my attention during a Twitter discussion between DC-based author Allison Pang and Bioware senior writer Patrick Weekes, about how passe the classical races had become, elves and vampires in particular. The pair began to brainstorm peoples that should get more expose in fantasy work; unicorns, gnomes, trolls, and in Weekes’ own words “doubling down on talking magical weaponry. Sexy magic weapons ftw.” Weekes has since taken up David Gaider’s vacated role of head writer for the Dragon Age franchise, so perhaps he’ll get to enact some of his more progressive ideas.

Sexy magic weapons ftw.

A couple of months later, this nagging thread of thought was decidedly tugged on by Crunchyroll debuting a series that’s since developed a cult following; Monster Musume No Iru Ichijou. The title, translating as “everyday life with monster-girls”, sort of spells it out; it’s typical harem anime fare, but fitting the usual anime girl stereotypes to the sort of bestial enemies you’d fight in RPGs. Yes, the series is pretty gratuitous with all the risque elements you expect from a harem anime, but as an RPG fan it’s kind of eye-opening; it shows the potential of all these things we’d normally just see as nameless, animalistic EXP bundles waiting to be put to the sword. It nearly beats you over the head with its message that centaurs, lamias, driders and the like can all be people too.

So I’ve got to ask; why not? Why can’t a genre with as solid a cliche as the token orc bandit camp take that concept a few steps further? Some point to limitations in a game’s wheelhouse, whether it’s to do with only being able to fit so many resources onto a disc, finding the time and money in a development cycle to come up with all-new rigging skeletons and animations, or the technical foibles in animating the slither of a snake tail onto a human torso. But to that I say, isn’t finding solutions to these issues part and parcel of the creative process? Clearly the idea has occurred to some people, if Japan is launching anime franchises on the premise. And it isn’t as if using assets from designated enemies to create an oddball friendly NPC or legitimate ally in combat is revolutionary; two of this year’s biggest titles feature AI-driven dog companions.

Perhaps with the progress of processing power, development tools, and further proliferation of the more zany aspects of RPGs into more mainstream audiences, the sort of expansive world I’m after isn’t as far away as it seems. Perhaps the next big RPG will feature a secluded underground community of arachnes, or a desert trading post in a village of lamias, or a band of stoic centaur lancers charging into battle. Being able to marry together the free-wheeling creativity of a time before 3D rigging limitations with the high production values and visual splendor of the modern RPG is something I’m very excited to see.