Brace yourselves – this is a long article.
At the early conception stages of Blackwater, I gave a lot of thought to what I liked about many RPG titles and what I didn’t like. So here I’ve written up a short list of the key considerations I had when I was world building and working in some mechanics for Blackwater. Spoiler alert: Final Fantasy XV sucks, and because it sucks so much, I’m going to be referencing it often. Now, I haven’t played any of the DLCs and I beat the game within a couple months of it coming out. I know they’ve since added content and features to the base game, but really the game should have been good upon release (especially after 10 years of development), so I stand by my opinions.
Game writer, George Ziets, said something along the lines of “The world of your game should influence the story, not the other way around.” I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find the exact quote, but it’s good advice. By thinking up your story first and not considering the world in which that story exists, you may find yourself shoehorning in characters, factions, and even events in order to serve the story, but also conflict with the world. When I started working on Blackwater, I of course was thinking about the story at first, but before I got too far down that rabbit hole, I determined what were some of the major forces at play. Things like What drives this world’s economy, What are the dominant religions, What are the class divisions, What is considered normal behaviour within this society vs. outlier behaviour? Stuff like that. By doing that, when you outline your story, it not only gives you some constraints to focus your writing, it also ensures that the directions you take your story won’t go against this world.
Final Fantasy XV sucks in this regard because their stories conflicted with their world. At the beginning of the game, we learn that the evil Niflheim empire pulls the ol’ bait and switch at some peace talks, assassinating the King of Lucis. Thankfully, our main character and son of the king, prince Noctis, is on a road trip with his three buddies, so he’s not killed along with his father. It’s not long before Noctis learns of his father’s death.
Now we’ve got a world where a big political event took place that directly affects the main character. Noctis is upset when he learns about the death of his father, so what does he do? Noctis picks up steaks for the proprietor of the local diner, he snaps some pics of points of interest for the editor of a magazine, and he helps out people whose cars have broken down on the side of the road….Noctis’s father was ASSASSINATED. Shouldn’t he be seeking vengeance or, at least, finding out more about what’s happened? Furthermore, Noctis is a PRINCE, not an auto mechanic.
That’s just a sampling of the many, many stories that conflict with the world of FFXV. You could argue that because it’s an open world game, those side quests may not align with what’s going on in the world, but then I’d point to Witcher 3, where all the side quests either made sense in relation to the story, or in relation to what Geralt did for a living.
The Playable Characters
I like a good one-character RPG, but the best subgenre, to me, is party-based RPGs. Nothing is better than getting a new recruit and learning how their abilities will affect the dynamic of your team and give you that edge in a fight. It’s also exciting to find out the history of this unique character and how they will affect the main story. In Blackwater, I want the player to become excited when a new character joins the party, and I also want that character’s story to resonate with the player. Some stand-out party members include Minsc (Baldur’s Gate), Cyan (Final Fantasy VI – I actually like many FF games!), Aerith (Final Fantasy VII), Morrigan (Dragon Age), and Nick Valentine (Fallout 4). I’m not saying all of these games are good (ahem, Fallout 4), but these characters either had such well thought-out backstories, every interaction the player would have with them was interesting.
Final Fantasy XV did not have interesting characters – not a single one. Noctis and Prompto are really the only characters where we gain some insight. But I found those characters so unpalatable, I didn’t care what their stories were. You could argue that’s just a matter of taste, but Ignis and Gladiolus? Who are they? Ignis is the smart one who’s good with a camp stove and Gladiolus is the strong one, but beyond that we know next to nothing about them. They are paper-thin characters that just follow Noctis around. How are we supposed to care about characters we know nothing about? When Ignis is blinded at the end of the second act, I couldn’t feel for him. To me, Ignis became the smart one who’s good with a camp stove, who also happens to be blind.
In Blackwater, I want the characters to have some depth to them. They lived entire lives before Silas and Maida came on the scene, so that should shine through.
The Battle System
As I’ve said, I’m a big fan of party-based RPGs, and games have come a long way to make party combat dynamic and fluid. Turn-based RPGs are fun – don’t get me wrong – but you rarely feel the intensity of the fight (one notable exception being Darkest Dungeon). That’s the dilemma with party-based RPGs: any combat interface you try to overlay onto the fight interrupts the experience. Baldur’s Gate allowed for dynamic party combat, but if you were faced with a tough fight, you had to pause the game every two seconds. Tower of Time has a slow motion feature, but even that is a distraction. The best game I’ve come across that does a good job with dynamic party combat is the Dragon Age series, although it does often devolve into a hack-and-slash.
So in Blackwater, I wanted an active party combat style that rewarded good tactics and was less about trading blows until the guy with the most HP wins.
Final Fantasy XV actually did pretty well in this respect. Although you really are just controlling one hack-and-slash character, so it’s fairly easy to create a dynamic fight with that setup. Rather than talking about XV here, I thought maybe I’d talk about Final Fantasy XII – a game that did active combat incredibly well.
In XII, you could jump between all 4 party members and set the AI of each character through a mechanic called the Gambit system. So while you actively controlled one character, your other three party members would behave according to the rules you set for them. Although I’ve read that some players complained about the learning curve to mastering the Gambit system, it was a pretty sophisticated mechanic that allowed you to fight with 4 people, while at the same time being able to access their big repertoire of skills.
RPGs are narratively driven games, so there’s no excuse for an RPG to have a bad story. If an RPG has a bad story, or a generic story, it’s lacking one of the biggest hooks that genre offers. Some of my favourite stories include FFVII, Chrono Trigger, Mass Effect 2, Undertale, and Fallout: New Vegas. I would argue that a game like Skyrim has an amazing world, but not much of a story.
When working with the story, I’m always trying to fight against clichés. Clichés happen when you don’t challenge assumptions about the world you’re creating, and go for the easy road instead. You need your main character to be at the centre of the story with a collection of special abilities? Easy, just make them the “chosen one.” Want to fight with melee weapons and magic. Easy, put your characters in a fantasy setting, complete with broadswords and cool spells like “fireball” and “freeze.” It’s easy to fall into clichés because doing something else is difficult. Planescape Torment was difficult – everything about that story and world went against convention. Earthbound was difficult – it takes work to fight against RPG tropes to make a game that bizarre.
Final Fantasy XV sucks when it comes to story – both the main story and side quests. I mentioned how side quests conflicted with the main story, but it’s the main story that’s the true train wreck. Noctis is a prince with super powers – a “chosen one,” if you will. He’s up against the evil Niflheim Empire. A quick look on Thesaurus.com gives me synonyms for empire like multinational, consortium, conglomerate, res publica – all words that are more interesting and less tired than the descriptor Empire. You may not know Ardyn is the game’s antagonist when you first see him, but as soon as the Empire’s chancellor opens his mouth, it’s pretty obvious he’s going to be the final fight. He is all evil, while Noctis and his pals are pure goodness. How original! Once the premise of the game is made apparent in the first few hours of gameplay, you’re really just seeing the game through to its predictable conclusion.
It’s easy to fall into clichés, and I would say the odd one is forgivable, but on Blackwater the difficult goal is to fight against clichés wherever possible. It’s not interesting taking part in a story that’s just been reskinned from somewhere else.