There´s an obvious trend visible in current JRPGs, or Japanese adventure-games in general. That trend is something that´s been part of western gaming-design for probably all of its existence´s time. It is the option of letting the player customize his in-game characters – creating true avatars.
All the typical, big Japanese adventure-games, most of them RPGs, used to feature a preset cast of characters, each of them with his or her set-in-stone background story and individual behavior. Just think of games like Final Fantasy 7, Skies of Arcadia or Dragon Quest 8, to name some of the most popular ones. Each of these games puts you in the shoes of an already-developed character. You simply navigate that character through the course of his adventure, his story. As fun as many of these RPGs were, in terms of immersion, they all more or less failed. Immersion being the part where you, the player, are accounted for as a vital part of the game´s progression. If truly mean-minded, you could say, this kind of games is hardly better than watching a movie – only shaken up by filler-ish combat-systems.
That is where some Japan-developed games grew to stray away from. One of these games would be Monster Hunter. Of course, Monster Hunter has been around for many years now, but that just makes it a pioneer of what I´m writing about. In MH, you don´t navigate some preset character through a given story. Instead, you create your characters appearance, you choose your weapon, each of which heavily changes the gameplay, and finally, you choose what to do next. And how you do this “next“. MH brings truly individual adventures to the player by giving so many options that are up to the player to decide. Of course, MH is, at least in its best form, a multiplayer-focused experience. It dismisses any story and has you fighting monsters. That is all. While it is fun for hundreds of hours, it is kind of an easy-route to go. The hard-route would be to implement this kind of customization into singleplayer-games.
The game that made me write this article was Dragon Quest 9 for Nintendo DS, which has been released in the US just now and will be out in Europe by July 23rd. What´s so special about this ninth entry of the most popular, traditional RPG-series in Japan is its cast. Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Quest 8, every member of your party, including the “hero”, is created from scratch by the player. Gender, appearance, everything. Eye shape, eye color, hair style and color, and so on. Later on, you can put on clothes part by part, being separated into various categories, to give each and every character a truly unique look. Of course, I haven´t played the game yet, but from what I heard, the way you obtain new items is very similar to typical loot-games like Diablo 2 for PC. So that´s definitely a big step for such a traditional series, from Japan nonetheless. And here is where I´d like to take customization one step further.
The biggest flaw of Dragon Quest 9 is, at least that is what appears to be, the lack of personality within your customized party. None of these self-created characters will have a dramatic, heart-wrenching story. They won´t talk with each other, each one showing a different attitude. None of that. Your party is faceless. They´re a tool for combat, giving you what it takes to beat all the enemies to get through the game, but that´s it. And this is where I wondered: Why not put that up for customization, too? “That” being: Character traits and story-bits (the Jurassic Park-theme is playing as I write this, you should do so, too). Of course, I realize that this would take a lot more effort to put into reality, but it´d be worth it. And it could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. Varying attitudes shouldn´t be much of a problem. If you look at one of the most popular western RPGs of the year, Mass Effect 2, you´ll find out that depending on which character you have in your party, you´ll be able to listen to different conversations. Character A tells Character B something different than he would tell Character C. That is nothing to costly, it´s doable right now. And ME2 features expensive HD-3D-visuals and voice acting. A game like Dragon Quest 9 would be a lot cheaper to create in that way. That´s that for character traits. Simply let me choose from traits such as “innocent”, “loud mouth”, “secretive” or “nice guy” and we´re set. If you have four party-members and, say, ten different traits, you can calculate how many different combinations that would make. But it´s doable. As for customizing parts of the story, that´d be more complicated. Surely, the more elaborate a developer wanted his game´s story-telling to be, the more complicated, the more of an issue that would become. But again, it´s something that could be as basic or complex as the respective developer wanted it to be. For a minimum, there could be four stories to choose from, making it, if we stay with a four member-party, one story for each of your party-members. So none of these fours stories would go to waste. The only thing that´d have to be watched out for is that the attitude of a character, choosen by the player, is presented in a fitting way. But depending on the scenario, that´d be minor changes. That´s the minimum. Yet, it´d be already really awesome. Now make it five, six or more stories to choose from, or even different pieces of story that you could freely combine to create a truly unique background story for each of your party members, and it´d be even more fun. And a truly customized adventure.
In the end, this would be the next step of customization in video games, and the next step towards the hypothetical procedural story-telling – automatically individually generated stories that don´t suck. However, it´s a long, long way until something like that is technically possible. Until then we have to take the costly, time-consuming path and create all possible choices beforehand. But even so, it´s effort and work that´d be an enormous plus for the world of video games. Gamers want to experience individual adventures, they want to immerse themselves within believable worlds. And that´s why this is so important: Customization brings individual adventures to life.