A lost sense of wonder. – Grass Pants Muses on modern RPGs

I’ve been playing RPGs for most of my life and I’ve been playing a lot of RPGs recently, both old and new. Nothing can get its hooks in me like a well-written narrative, developed characters, and a fascinating, wonderful world. As a kid, I would always think about what the next generation of consoles would bring. I looked at the games I loved and imagined how they could one-up themselves next time around. But lately, something’s missing. I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now and I’ve finally figured it out: For the most part, modern RPGs have lost their sense of wonder.

I’m not sure if I’m just getting more selective about what I consider wonder or if it’s the nostalgia of old games blinding me, but… Well, let’s take Skyrim, because everyone knows about it. Skyrim is an absolutely beautiful game. It takes the best of the northern reaches of the real world and combines it with a gritty, dirty fantasy look. But… It’s without that vaguely-defined sense of ‘wonder.’ Don’t get me wrong, Skyrim’s great, but I don’t get anything out of exploring the world outside of ‘Oh, this is kind of pretty or neat.’ Nothing has made me sit and take in my surroundings, completely willing to take time away from reaching the next bit of sidequest plot or semi-random encounter.

Maybe it’s because Skyrim is too real? I mean, look at it. It’s like someone researched tundras and taigas and all that, then put that into a game. Mods aside, there’s not a huge sense of mysticism (fighting doesn’t count) in the world. While beautiful, everything is still reasonably down-to-earth. Or, again, maybe I’m just expecting too much or not experiencing the world in the way the developers wanted people to.

Let’s look at Chrono Trigger, then. Or Final Fantasy VI or Illusion of Gaia or something. They have some of the most well-designed worlds I’ve ever played through. Even to this day, the floating islands of Zeal simply amaze me. It’s infinitely low-tech when compared to stuff like Skyrim and many other modern RPGs. But… it gives me a sort of feeling of awe and wonder that those worlds don’t. And it’s not simply nostalgia, although that could be a big part of it. I mean, the last time I had such a sense of wonder in a modern game was when I started playing World of Warcraft, back at the end of the vanilla game. Out of curiosity, I made a dwarf and went to Ironforge. When I reached the gates, I just sat there for a while, taking it all in.

Is it the sense of scale in the world? I mean, Ironforge is bloody massive and overwhelming and powerful. But that wouldn’t make sense given my other examples. Chrono Trigger’s world, while big, doesn’t loom over you in the way that Ironforge does. Skyrim, however, is all about that sense of scale. The mountains are absolutely massive, there are huge burial chambers and word walls scattered about… Yet it doesn’t hit me the way it should.

I think the biggest reason why it’s like this is, well, I’m expecting more. My inner child still looks at games from back then and thinks ‘Wow, this was 20 years ago. They have to have something amazing now.’ But it seems like a lot isn’t amazing. It’s great, certainly, but it’s not wonderful and exciting like it used to be. Should I, and others who feel similarly, scale back our expectations? Or should developers stop worrying so much about having the absolutely best visuals and voice acting (or even voice acting at all), and step up how they deal with building worlds?

I honestly don’t know. All I know is that I miss that sense of wonder. Anyway, that’s me done for now. I hope I’ve gotten my point across to you fine folks, because ‘wonder’ is a really vague way to put all this. If you like what you’ve seen here, feel free to let other people know and maybe even subscribe, because every reader helps keep this place running. As always, thanks for reading and have a good’un.

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10 Responses to A lost sense of wonder. – Grass Pants Muses on modern RPGs

  1. Yamadipati says:

    Remember that awesome moment, when FF7 was announced and you watched the opening sequence? Or when the train went down from the midgard plates?

    I miss that… and I also miss one thing…

    HATRED…

    Maybe it’s because of poor story line/telling or your attention is grabbed by “fancy graphics” and all that, you don’t look at bosses with the same hatred like you did before. I remember back then bosses and final bosses are so hated that you actually said “f*** yea” with pride and laughter after you beat them.

    Now… it seems like… *pokerfacememe.jpg* ok … he’s dead… and?

  2. >Remember that awesome moment, when FF7 was announced and you watched the opening sequence? Or when the train went down from the midgard plates?

    Actually, not really. I was a Nintendo fanboy during that time. But I get what you mean, yeah. Speaking of Midgard, the fall of that place was /amazing/ (provided I’m remembering it correctly).

    .>Hatred

    … Oh man, I could do a whole post on that. I completely agree with you, too. Like… I /want/ Kefka and Lavos dead. Alduin from Skyrim? Eh… He’s not breaking shit right now, so let’s go help this Nord get his mines back, because Beardy McVikingman seems like a cool guy.

    On a similar note, I miss attachment. I miss caring enough about the characters to see everything through. I hate referencing Chrono Trigger so much, but it’s my only handy example of this.

    I enjoyed the characters so much that I was crushed when it was over. I went out of my way to help them. I grinded until I could curbstomp that skeleton monster thing that ruined Fiona’s forest in 600 A.D.

    Thankfully, games are still pretty good about this (especially those with moral choices), but they still fall kind of short.

    Oh man, I know the topic of my next muse…

  3. Leap250 says:

    RPG’s nowadays is all about eye-candy.

    I guess we’re the same in that regard, about how I’d favor, and most likely will favor, the older, classic, and suffice to say, real RPG’s, than today’s modern stuff. Final Fantasy VI remains to be my favorite FF, just because of the story, and how awesome it felt playing such a game on my game boy.

    As for the sense of wonder, I’d like to believe it’s still there, but getting it across gets tougher and tougher

    • >all about eye-candy

      I think you could extend that to most games, really. I mean, some manage to pull off scenery porn and still be a great game (Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, for instance) in other respects. Others… kinda fall short.

      I’ll admit that I’m just now playing VI. Part of me kind of wishes I played it waybackwhen, but… Part of me is glad I waited until now. Because it’s surprisingly dark and adult-oriented, especially considering this was back when Nintendo was censoring everything.

      Any idea how people could get that sense of wonder across? I’ve been thinking about it myself, but haven’t hit upon anything.

      • Leap250 says:

        Yeah, I hate to say it, but I agree. It’s a sad fate that Square lost their awesome balance of visuals and gameplay

        I’d play it again if I had time, lol. My first run through it was 3 maybe 4 years ago so it was a bit sloppy, but it was still awesome. It has more of a mature tone to it really, when compared to the other FF installments.

        Maybe tone down the production aspect a bit, and focus on the story? Good visuals should just be a bonus really. It’s like, the games are doing the imagining for you, with their vibrant colors and realistic detail.

      • Square was best before the merger. Everything after that’s been so hit/miss…

        And I could see toning down the production, assuming people wouldn’t get pissy and just flat-out not buy it. Seems like more of an indie route or something you’d do with a new IP, rather than an established thing like Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy.

  4. John Sato says:

    I totally agree. I’ve been avoiding modern RPG’s for this very reason (well…this, and the money, and the system requirements, and…). It’s like, when am I ever going to be as immersed as I was when I played the original Fallout? Despite it being a game with truly pretty poor visuals, a clunky interface, and 1001 glitches, I still felt so much of the wonder you’re talking about in the article. I think the main reason (with that game, anyways) was the style. A post apocalyptic world is actually not that interesting in and of itself, but adding in the cool retro-futuristic style made even exploring the world a blast.

    • I’ve honestly never played the original Fallout. I’ll have to get around to that someday.

      Also, it’s a damn shame that nobody seems to be able to recapture that wonder. After thinking about it a bit, I want to partially blame all the huge amounts of coverage everything gets anymore. Nothing’s a surprise with every news website talking about the thing…

      • John Sato says:

        They just released Fallout for free on GOG today. I highly recommend you get it if you’re interested (and have the time to play it and the patience to learn it).

        That’s one reason I don’t look at articles that reveal the secrets and special encounters and stuff in games. If I really, really want to find it, I’ll check out a walkthrough for that one thing and be done with it.

      • Yeah, some buddies of mine told me about it! Just picked it up, definitely gonna give it a shot when I get a breather.

        And… I look at stuff that has minor spoilers. Like, half the times, I forget what was spoiled within about five minutes.

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