Combat v. Story in RPGs

At the end of most weeks, few things satisfy me more than forgetting the rest of the world for a few hours while I play a video game. Some gamers like to click their troubles away with nearly non-stop combat. Others — myself included — want to unravel a story. A good story makes a video game very similar to a good film or book, with the main difference being that a gamer is able to interact with the story and sometimes influence what happens next.

So what’s most important in a video game: Combat or story? Though I prefer story, even my fingers get twitchy when a cutscene drags on for too long. Some gamers make a habit of clicking through cutscenes. They’re gaming for the combat.

Really, no RPG needs to sacrifice one for the other. Some sandbox-style RPGs sacrifice story in favor of endless hours of dungeon-delving and fighting bosses who re-spawn again and again for no real reason, other than to give combat-lovers a click-happy blood fest. Other games sacrifice combat for yawn-inducing cutscenes. It’s as if the game writers needed a creative outlet and put everything into their video game — totally the wrong medium for long scenes.

So, since both combat and story can become tedious in excess, it seems the secret to an epic, totally memorable game is having a balance of both… and never really separating them.

This is what a game like Final Fantasy XII gets wrong. I adore Final Fantasy XII for the story, badass characters and almost Shakespearean dialogue. The writers pack meaning and variety into every line, which makes every cutscene worth savoring. Even a 4-word line like, “A pleasant lie, that,” is totally chill-inducing.

The problem with Final Fantasy XII is the endless dungeon-crawling. Sure, rogue tomatoes are a laugh that make the combat more interesting, and the enemies and locales are varied and well-visualized. But I’ve heard it said that players felt like they were fighting for the cutscenes, enduring hours of mindless combat for the chance to spend just a few breathless minutes with the characters and story.

In short, the balance between cutscenes and combat in Final Fantasy XII feels off, and most of the combat seems to exist for the sake of having combat (with a few exceptions). To a thoughtful gamer, this type of combat quickly becomes tedious.

So what’s a game that got the balance right? For me, that’s Mass Effect 2. (I haven’t played ME3 yet, so I can’t comment on it!) BioWare games always seem to hit the sweet spot when it comes to balancing story and action. (And it’s not the only company. The Witcher and Uncharted series spring to mind when I think about games with a great balance of action to story.) It helps that during cutscenes, players can still click on dialogue options to advance the plot and develop their characters. Interaction reigns almost all the time.

And ME2 is all about character. The main storyline is well-reasoned, if a bit spindly — ME1’s main story is much richer — but most of the game is spent recruiting and gaining the loyalty of squad members during personal missions. And those parts are awesome.

Every squad member has a different background, so the recruitment and loyalty quests take you to vastly different locales, each with enemies that make sense given the location and personal story. In one mission, you’re fighting mercenaries to track down an assassin; in another, you’re escaping from a space prison; and in another, you’re tracking a distress signal from 8 years ago to find a squad member’s father and the survivors of a crash, only to find yourself fighting some of these same survivors, like something out of Robinson Crusoe.

The combat is varied — and that’s because the characters, their stories and the locations of these missions are all different. You’re not fighting AI enemies that have overrun a ship because, well, it’s more fighting — you’re doing it because the ship belongs to your squad member’s father, and you’re trying to clear her name of a crime so she can continue fighting alongside you. And to make it even more meaningful, she wants to search for her father on the ship, hoping almost beyond hope that he’s still alive in there — even more reason to battle your way through this mission.

Bottom Line: Sure, most video games are all about combat. An RPG without action is, essentially, a movie. That’s why I can’t agree with BioWare writer Jennifer Hepler when she thought about implementing a way to click through combat just like you click through cutscenes — though I can understand her reasoning and feel like doing that myself once in a while. But combat alone is not enough, at least in an RPG. Action is greatly enhanced when the story and characters make the combat relevant and meaningful.

When action and story are seamlessly interwoven, you’ve got an epic game on your hands.

— Ashley

4 thoughts on “Combat v. Story in RPGs”

  1. “it seems the secret to an epic, totally memorable game is having a balance of both… and never really separating them.”

    This hits the nail on the head for me. Mindless combat is the entire reason I have a hard time getting into RPGs.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I can see that with RPGs. They are so story-centered, some of them should really be novels instead. Because it’s not right to just throw in “mindless combat” to turn a story into a fighting-style video game. On the other hand, combat that’s relevant to the story makes an RPG the most compelling type of game for me.

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