Thursday, June 19, 2008

RPG Clichés: Evil Empires

Final Fantasy VI features the evil Gestahlian Empire.

For anyone who is familiar with the genre, traditional/console RPGs, or role-playing video games are infamous for their trademark gameplay aspects and unspoken “rules” or clichés that many of the games follow. Planned as a recurring column, I hope to provide background information for those unfamiliar with the genre and give some insight and commentary on their role in the RPG genre as a whole. Although I briefly touched upon villains in stock characters, I’m going to go more in-depth into the entire evil force that fuels the plot.

No matter the time period or setting, the evil that is corrupting the world usually ends up being a giant empire. A small band of heroes then leads an uprising to overthrow this evil empire and bring peace to the world once again. It has been so ingrained into the RPG genre, that you usually don’t expect anything else. While you almost always have a charismatic lead villain, s/he usually commands or works for this empire. This isn’t even limited to RPGs, as it is more of an archetypal device. You saw this type of plot very often in 16-bit era gaming, with the SNES and Sega Genesis seeing their fair share in games like Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire, and Suikoden. The evil empire usually went hand-in-hand with the medieval fantasy setting, perhaps gaining inspiration from classic Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and historical conflicts. Although Final Fantasy VII was a big turning point for the genre, even it didn’t shy away from this faction. Sephiroth took center stage, but the evil Shinra Electric Power Company was responsible for killing the planet in attempts to reach the much-desired Promised Land.

Since FFVII, the increased popularity of the genre allowed for a wider variety of plots and villains. The Megami Tensei series has been known for its unique plot and modern-day Japanese setting, with such spin-offs like Persona and Digital Devil Saga making its way stateside. The .hack (pronounced dot hack) series has taken a page from MMO games and included a rich storyline about a fake offline virtual world. However, this recent trend has not necessarily eliminated evil empires altogether. From basic RPGs like Pokémon to complex ones like Xenosaga, many include some stereotypical evil faction attempting to rule the world. While they are starting to go away from the typical fantasy setting, the villains have been largely staying the same. You still fight incompetent soldiers in battle, save cities from being conquered by the empire, and go up against a slew of commanders before taking on the final boss. Like I’ve said before, the tolerance level for many clichés will vary from person-to-person. But this has sadly started becoming more of an expected occurrence rather than something to actively try to change. With story a much more important part of the experience in traditional console RPGs, creating an involving plot and multi-dimensional characters take precedence over something like an archetypal plot device.

The primary complaint with evil empires is their stereotypical nature of the ‘David and Goliath’ good vs. evil story. After seeing countless plots with characters with little motivation and seeing the heroes overcome insurmountable odds, it gets pretty tiresome. Recent titles are providing a new spin on this story idea. Final Fantasy XIII turns things around with the government of utopian city Cocoon and lead character Lightning involved in an ambiguous plot about rebellion and the battle to preserve humanity. Tales spin-off, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World looks to feature a more objective battle between two united worlds with opposing viewpoints and increased tension among the peoples. The current generation of consoles is inspiring developers to take things up a notch and create new ideas instead of depending on old standards. Rather than a black-and-white, good vs. evil storyline, the lines are blurred and morality is more subjective.

Some of the best console RPGs feature a standard RPG plot with a motley group of heroes fighting the large evil empire. SNES title, Final Fantasy VI remains my favorite of the series, and is about a resistance group called the Returners going up against Emperor Gestahl, Kefka, and the Empire. But modern-day RPGs are becoming more mixed, showing off a nice variety of classic RPG stories and remixed plot ideas. While it’s sometimes fun to root for the supposed ‘underdog’, it’s nice to see a little change every now and then.

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