What my fantasy games are really missing is people!
If there’s a threat to the world these days, we band together out of a common interest to save it. The loss of a country, a city, or even a seaside village is a tragedy on an unfathomable scale. How do you deal with the potential loss of all those lives?
When I play a video game, my attention often turns to those games that allow me to save kingdoms, or perhaps entire fantasy worlds. Look at a classic like Chrono Trigger, where the fate of mankind and history lie in the balance. Consider any Zelda game, where Hyrule faces destruction (or at least horrific subjugation) by an evil wizard or monster of lore. The stakes are very high, only… it doesn’t feel like it. There are a number of reasons for that, but the biggest problem is that these games don’t do a good job of presenting a world that feels credible.
It’s true that a fantasy world doesn’t have to be strictly believable. Look at The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which opens in a world inhabited by people who live in the clouds. That by itself is enough to make me say "Okay, so this could never really happen." But developers still have the chance to catch me up in the magic of it all. Lately, it doesn't even feel like they're trying.
One cluster of islands exists at the center of the magical realm where Skyward Sword begins its tale. There’s a boarding school high on the hill, with knights that patrol the school grounds and a chef in the kitchen who cooks for the boys who attend that school. They all have their own rooms—all eight or so of them—and there are three or four instructors. Down the hill from the school, there are several houses and a few children who run around in the streets, plus there’s a large tent that serves as a marketplace where people can buy improved shields, potions and bags to carry all their bombs.
The obvious question is: who the hell is buying all that stuff? If you cut out the few merchants, the four or five families and their kids, the boys that are attending school… what’s left? What in the world supports this economy? There are no fields full of workers who pay tribute to the ruling class. The outlying islands are scattered so far apart that they might as well not even exist, yet apparently there are patrons. We’re supposed to take for granted that they exist.
Naturally, the rebuttal that someone might raise to my points is the sentence my mom would utter whenever I got disgusted at a boss battle or grew angry when I lost a race in Mario Kart: “It’s just a game, Jason.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way, not now. There was a time when a game like Final Fantasy VI—one of my very favorite games of all time, mind you—could get away with throwing a few villagers into a town and calling it good. You could take to 10 or 12 people and it felt like you were wandering through a bustling city. Now… not so much.
At the end of an article on the gamedesignforum.com site, the author includes as trivia a surprising statistic about Final Fantasy VI: there are more than 120 non-playable characters from 56 different sprites. Think about that, and think about the time you spent traversing that fantastic world and its various locations. Those characters were the reason it felt like you were saving an entire world.
In the old days, there were good reasons that you never saw any other characters. Early console hardware could only handle so many characters. Lines of dialog took up precious space. Those were times when translations from Japanese to English had to be shortened because NES cartridges would run out of space.
We no longer live in that era, yet game design is still stuck there. Even the most recent Final Fantasy games depict a small band of heroes wandering through a world that doesn’t feel credible. The typical RPG has a number of villages populated by merchants and three or four orphan kids and some adults, and then you leave on your way to the next village. Those characters serve a purpose (as outlined in the article I linked), but that’s it. No one seems to see the value in painting a world that feels as if its population can properly sustain itself. Even a relatively ambitious game like Fable II, which features several distinct town environments, quickly betrays its limited scale when you reach the end of the game and you own most of the buildings.
Yet there are games that get these things right. Look at Assassin’s Creed. The very first one in the series featured several cities. Players complained that the game was repetitive—and rightly so—but take another look. Notice how the cities feel almost as if someone could actually live in them. The streets are bustling with people, not just a lone hobo on a corner. There are merchant stalls, and men stand on street corners shouting at the passing traffic while guards patrol. Cathedrals tower over the lower buildings. High guard towers stand on the edge of the city, overlooking walls and the fertile plains beyond the urban centers.
Assassin’s Creed is not perfect, but it got that one thing right. More games need to show similar ambition. Technology has pushed us past a time where it makes sense for a sprawling city capital to have an apparent population of 20 characters. I’m not suggesting that every character have something to say, but it feels like we’re wandering through some new sort of uncanny valley. Developers, don’t spend all of your time reproducing an absurdly complex economical system unless it makes sense for your game. But unless the world that I’m trying to save is supposed to resemble a medieval apocalypse, make me feel like I’m saving more than a handful of people. Raise the stakes.
There are all sorts of benefits if developers can only take that next step. A lot of it goes toward immersion. I’ll ramble forever if I go into all the benefits, though, and a lot of it feels like it should be self-evident.
As we head into another generation of consoles, one that will have more processing power and memory at its disposal than ever before, I’d like to see developers use that new power to a more productive end. You’ve shown me beautiful worlds dozens of times. Now convince me that more than 50 people live there!