RPG Confessions: I Don’t Want to Save the World
A shrewd man once wrote that
JRPGs often feel very magical at the outset. There is mystery involved. And I am but an unknown figure still trying to find my way through it all… Then, once the villainous head honcho has been unmasked and the game becomes a fairly standard good vs. evil epic (as so many JRPGs replicate, relying on the same old clichés), the world fully opening up and everything that once felt new and mysterious becoming overly familiarized if not instinctual, it feels as if the magic has completely worn off.
Actually, that man—who isn’t really all that shrewd—was myself and these words come from the piece that I wrote back in March for our ‘Switch Turns Four’ series, wherein I was discussing my love for Dragon Quest XI, a game which I consider to be perhaps the greatest JRPG ever developed and among my (top four) favorite titles available on the Nintendo Switch.
Here I want to tease out this aspect of video games (and RPGs in particular) a bit further, for in ‘confessing’ that ‘I don’t want to save the world,’ I’m not suggesting that I find glee in watching the planet go to pieces or that I’m rooting for the destruction of civilization; rather, I’m simply saying that I derive a greater sense of enjoyment from games when their stories focus less on some imminent and grandiose confrontation between a ragtag party of soon-to-be world-saving celebrities and a nihilistic sociopath hellbent on turning all to ash and dust.
For our ‘Exhibit A,’ let’s briefly look at the excellent JRPG, Tales of Vesperia: Definitive Edition, which launched on the Switch back in early 2018. The story begins with a humble swordsman named Yuri Lowell who sets out to rectify his neighborhood’s water supply problem. His misadventures land him in a castle prison and during his escape he meets a noblewoman named Estelle. The two team up to locate the figure responsible for the water shortages plaguing Yuri’s fellow townsfolk as well as an Imperial Knight named Flynn, regarding whom Estelle enlists Yuri to help track down. Along with Yuri’s dog, Repede, the three set out on an uncomplicated journey to find these different persons and the answers to their respective problems which they believe them to possess.
Of course, the game’s 60-hour storyline becomes much more convoluted along the way, with various party members being recruited, antagonists from a sprawling Empire entering into the fray, and a voyage that eventually involves preventing a cataclysmic menace from wreaking havoc upon the world.
It’s not my aim to criticize Tales of Vesperia’s story. As far as JRPGs go, it’s a worthy narrative that compliments a game which is, on the whole and in all respects, very well-designed. The purpose here is for me to merely highlight the fact that once the game became so much larger-than-life in the demands that it placed upon the characters and the modus operandi of their adventure, I grew less and less interested. It is as if the relatability that I felt towards the respective personalities became diminished as the overall storyline expanded in its significance and scope, in my eyes almost stretching itself thin as it attempted to justify the game’s length and weave together increasingly complex subplots.
The same (if not more) can be said of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, another game that I absolutely loved and would wholeheartedly recommend. I found the simplicity of its early stages far preferable to the elaborate and impenetrable nonsense that took over its story once the epic became about stopping villains from laying waste to human existence. When I was but a treasure hunter named Rex fulfilling the meagre task that I was hired to accomplish, or even just traversing the beautiful terrains of the Titans to help my new friend Pyra return to her homeland, I felt myself to be an inconspicuous traveler on a road that had as much to do with self-discovery as it did with reaching the journey’s end.
But, as is so often the case with video games (and again, RPGs), once the focus shifted to the introduction of an endless multiplication of characters, whether good or evil, or, as it typically goes with saving the world, twists and turns in the story that meant little to me beyond signaling a long grind to reach a fairly predictable resolution, I couldn’t help but find myself feeling more and more detached from it all, increasingly filled with apathy where previously there was excitement and wonder. Broadly speaking, it is as if the slow and careful unveiling of central characters, locales, or the connections shared between them (and how these reveals are initially presented), so integral to a game’s early sections, take a back seat as their prefatory purpose draws to a close and the story kicks into the next gear, changing attention towards what will become the game’s primary obstacle to be overcome, i.e. rescuing the globe from catastrophe.
I guess I just can’t relate to that as much. It loses lustre for me. I can identify with wanting to best my rival, or to work towards a lofty goal like becoming the world champion of some given competition—which is why I’d even go so far as to say that I prefer an unpretentious, even child-like story, such as the one Pokemon tells, over something as ridiculous and difficult to follow as the plot in a game like Final Fantasy VIII (though, after twenty-five years and something like 36 games spread across ‘eight generations,’ I can’t say that the story in Pokemon is really doing anything for me anymore). Sure, I suppose you are technically preventing ‘Team Rocket’ from overtaking the world with Pokemon, but that’s also one of the first aspects of the series’ so-called ‘plot’ that I could happily do without.
My disinclination at saving the world is also why I adored the much maligned storyline of Octopath Traveler, or rather its eight disjointed adventures. Setting aside the very fair criticisms aimed at how the game presents its disparate journeys or the sometimes horrendous pacing issues that result (or its clumsy handling of its characters’ interactions with one another), I relished the naivety of each tale. Whether it was seeking revenge for Primrose Azelhart against the miscreants who murdered her father; wandering the land as the altruistic apothecary Alfyn Greengrass, aspiring to fulfil the vision of the man who saved his life in youth; or searching for H’annit’s adoptive parent and mentor, Z’aanta, his disappearance a year earlier the result of pursuing the fearsome demon, Redeye, in all of Octopath Traveler’s straightforward tales, I felt as though I was just a regular person, no different than any NPC that I had encountered, albeit that I was a sojourner on a mission.
In short, I could identify with these characters because I could connect with their unassuming stories. There was no saving of the world to be had here (okay, in Octopath, there is a post-game ‘true final boss’ that does entail liberating humanity from the threat of destruction, but it’s more or less an afterthought). Instead, it was all about the personal growth of each character as they confronted their pasts, their insecurities, their fears, the stuff that we all go through in our own, real lives (which is not to suggest that fantastical elements don’t play a huge role in exploring these themes, but that’s besides the point).
There was a sense of innocence that was never lost, which all too frequently occurs for me when a game transitions from its humble beginnings to a quest to save all of humanity.
CrossCode is another masterpiece that avoids reliance upon cliché baddies seeking to overthrow the order of the world ‘just because.’ It doesn’t invoke some extravagant metaphor to represent the havoc that humankind is inflicting upon the environment, such as an evil oppressor sapping the world of its life force, only to have its malignant plans obstructed by a small group of well-intentioned heroes who have stumbled upon some secret weapon of their own (come on, I’m sure we can all think of multiple games that this description elicits). In that game, you’re merely a girl trying to recover her memories and figure out her place in its Westworld-style game simulation, while simultaneously trying to evade notice from the virtual world’s omnipresent managers, Instatainment Ltd.. That’s a gross oversimplification, sure, but the point is that Lea is not some lofty heroine seeking to change the fate of all existence, but rather only the fate of her existence. And for that the game resonated with me all the more.
I could go on and on about a variety games that have you rescuing the future of the species, or those that merely culminate in your winning of a golf tournament. In truth, almost all of my favorite games involve some form of world-saving, whether from the threat of The Witcher III’s ‘White Frost,’ The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s ‘Alduin,’ Final Fantasy IX’s ‘Necron,’ or The Legend of Zelda’s ‘Ganon,’ and I don’t mean to imply that any of these games are worse off for it. I’m sure I will be required to save the world a gazillion more times in the future.
And, no doubt, I’ll have a blast meeting the challenge.
But mostly, the pleasure will not be found in the salvation of the planet by my shabby little band of globetrotters and revolutionaries; it will be in the journey leading up to that point, the quiet countryside villages that I discover, the seemingly inconsequential sidequests that reveal some character’s hidden past or dirty secret; it will be the delight in exploring every corner of a metropolis like Midgar, and feeling how each citizen goes about their insignificant, forgettable lives, rather than the prescribed drudgery of saving the earth from Meteor. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll do it from a sense of duty but… it still doesn’t change the fact:
I don’t want to save the world.