It’s one of those laws. If you say anything negative about Final Fantasy, you’re just asking for trouble. To be fair, the complaints I have gotten have generally been civil. I just haven’t had much patience to reply in any helpful manner.
>I see gameplay in an RPG to be a bonus if it is really great gameplay.
If a game is designed well, it is designed well. This genre is developmentally stunted, as a whole. The reason you say this is that you have not seen what greater expressive potential would be possible, were the design philosophy intrinsic to this genre as mature in its development as it could be, at this point in the overall history of game design and in the evolution of game hardware. Pretty much anything is possible now — yet developers have not yet caught up with this potential; increased their ambitions to fit it, and find a new set of limits of expression within the medium; preferring to stay with the same limited design decisions that they have, more or less, been using since the 1980s — decisions which were instituted at the time merely because of the inherent limitations in technology and in design theory at the time.
This is a problem in all genres. It’s just that RPGs are the most prominent example. In a broad sense, they have not grown to fit their bigger shoes. Developers are more or less doing the same dumb things they always have, out of habit — or out of a lack of understanding for what these design concepts originally stood for, or why they were instituted. Or because the audience itself has not matured enough to ask for something more substantial.
You must understand that videogames are not what they could be, artistically. There are few developers at present who are actively trying to explore the expressive power of the medium; the rest are content with absentmindedly churning out reiterations of games which have already been made dozens of times in the past — games which worked, once, in a specific context. They might have even been clever for their time, for the solutions to contemporary hardware and design problems that they happened to find. What so many people fail to understand, however, is that those solutions are relevant within a specific context — timeframe, developer, hardware — alone. The solutions that Shigeru Miyamoto found and applied within Super Mario Bros. were ingenious for that moment, for that game, for that history. They were an evolution of ideas that Miyamoto nurtured through several previous games: Donkey Kong, Donkey Kong Junior, Mario Bros. Although some of the principles that he developed in that game — such as his general concept of level design, whereby the game implicitly teaches you how to play it without ever telling you what to do, as such — will probably always be applicable in one sense or another. Others are inherent to that game, to that one man. They are his ideas. Anyone else who uses them as-such — who just takes them and sticks them into his own project, without understanding why the ideas existed to begin with — is making a big mistake. Those parts of that project will be false, because they do not come from the subject at hand. They do not grow out of what this second person is attempting to accomplish. They are an easy and proven solution, yes — yet within their context. This new person, with this new project, has created a new context. And that new context, especially with knowledge of what has come before, demands a new series of questions and demands a new series of solutions which evolve from the demands at hand.
Here. Take a look at what Toru Iwatani has to say. It’s interesting.
The techniques that Yuji Horii created for Dragon Quest are great for Horii and for Dragon Quest. They are his own ideas, which suit what he is personally trying to accomplish. The gameplay choices he makes are perfect for his games. Outside Horii, the situation is different. The question has to rise: what are we trying to accomplish here, and what is the best way to realize that, given current technology and what we understand so far about the potential of game design? If, in the case of, say, a Final Fantasy game, our goal is to tell a story, then how rich a story can we tell? What kind of a story? What manner of game design would lend itself most well to what we wish to accomplish within that story? Ideally, the game design would be invisible. You would not distinguish between it and the ultimate goal of the project — because the design itself would come from that goal. It would be designed in order to facilitate that goal. The game design itself, the game play itself, would be part of that story, and the story would come from the gameplay.
It’s not like this is hard, today. Take a game like, oh, Metroid Prime. The goal in that game, really, is exploration: communication with the environment. To facilitate this, the game is set in a first-person perspective. That way, you’re left looking at the game world rather than Samus’s ass. The game has a rather profound story to tell, yet to do this it draws from the main goal of the game, and from the established gameplay decisions. It is in the process of playing the game, and of inspecting the environment, learning about the game world, that the story unfolds.
Although story is secondary or tertiary in this particular framework, and it evolves organically out of the more primary elements of design, without interfering with them, you see the structure. There is no reason why it cannot be turned on its head, such that the gameplay, the overall design, evolves from the story. If that is the primary goal. Of course, that means that the game design would depend on just what the story is; what its own focus is; what the writers hope to get across.
If a gameplay decision does not lend itself to the ultimate goal of the project, directly or indirectly, then it probably doesn’t belong there. It’s the whole deal about too many strokes spoiling the painting. Even more so when the strokes are misjudged to begin with. Or when they are put in place just because that’s the way it’s always been done, or that’s what people expect, rather than because that’s what the painting calls for.
As long as developers continue to cram their ideas into existing, prefabricated molds — which describes most of the persistent mechanical facets that people have a tendency to associate with the RPG genre, in favor of the more integral goal of the genre (mainly, showing the personal growth of one or more people through a set of difficult trials, and what effect their actions along the way might or might not have on the world around them — thereby, with luck, expressing something meaningful about the nature of life) — they will be stuck in a creative rut. They will not grow as artists. The genre will not grow. The medium as a whole will fail to mature.
What I was trying to say, in that preview, is that Final Fantasy XII seems like it might be one big step toward pulling the genre as a whole out of its current rut. Toward making people /think/ about what constitutes an RPG — or just a videogame, in general — and what what they’re really trying to accomplish.
The rest was just a bit of passing commentary, to help explain why I said that.