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Wandering Towards Interactive Narrative

Japanese RPGs and I have a strange history. For a long time they were the only thing that I played. While I had an NES and played most of the classics, Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon, etc., video games weren’t really a consuming passion until I got a Super NES and in one summer finished Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and The Secret of Mana. From that point on up until my last couple of years of college I played basically any JRPG I could get my hands on.

Things are very different now. At this point I don’t know if someone could pay me to play through the newest Square-Enix release. I recently started playing through the wonderful fan translation of Mother 3, and while I can appreciate the quirkiness and care with which the game was put together, I find it hard to bear the the long non-interactive sequences and archaic feeling of the battle system (even with a bit of rhythm-action thrown in).

At the heart of the problem is that I feel like while I was growing up, JRPGs decided not to grow up with me. I don’t mean that I wish they were addressing ‘serious topics’ or had characters ‘I can relate to’. The problem with JRPGs is not that their stories haven’t matured (no video game really lives up to that standard); it’s that at the end of the day the game design was, and remains, lazy.

Here’s a few rules-of-thumb for JRPGs that I learned as a young man and have served me well ever since:

    1. When in battle, have all your characters concentrate on one enemy with their strongest attacks.
    2. If a character is hurt have the character that is doing the least amount of damage heal them.
    3. If you lose even while doing the above two things, then you’re going to need to spend some time grinding.

While this is an over-generalization, it describes pretty well my memories of the JRPGs I played growing up.

The ludologist Espen Aarseth has suggested that what makes games unique is that they demand ‘non-trivial’ effort in order to be experienced. This is different from books, which simply require eye movement and flipping pages, or film, which only asks the audience to stay awake (and quiet).

At this point JRPGs feel about as close as you can get to flipping pages while still having enough interactivity to be called a game.

Still, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and memories of my investment in the stories of the classic JRPGs, no matter how maudlin they seem now, have always stuck with me. Even as I’ve become a much more of a formalist when it comes to game design I’ve never lost interest in the narrative potential of games. A potential that I first started believing in while navigating emotive little sprites around pixellated dungeons. In other words, my standards have gotten higher, but my ideals have stayed relatively the same.

It’s ironic then that the game that’s come closest to my ideals is a translated port of a decade old, 16-bit, Japanese Roguelike called  Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer.

I’ve spent more time in the past several months playing, thinking, and talking about Shiren the Wanderer than I have about any other game, and at this point I’m convinced that it’s one of the best examples of truly interactive narrative I’ve ever encountered.

ROUND AND ROUND

The story of Shiren the Wanderer is pretty simple. You play Shiren, who is a ‘Wanderer’, a person who roams the land without a home and typically without companions, in search of things like buried treasure and forgotten cities. On this adventure you are trying to climb Tabletop Mountain, home of the fabled Golden Condor. You start your journey in the tiny town of Canyon Hamlet with nothing more than a donated riceball to keep you from starving.

That’s about it.

Shiren’s background and the game’s exposition are kept mercifully simple, which is typical of most Roguelikes. This style of RPG is known to be particularly difficult and spare. Dying at any point in the game and you’ll find yourself restarting back on the first floor of the dungeon (in Shiren’s case the first town), with all your possessions gone and your character set back to level 1. The goal in Roguelikes is not just to progress through content and see new things, but to master the underlying system.

That system is a little more involved than in most traditional JRPGs. Roguelikes eschew the almost colonial style battles of heroes on one side and enemies on the other. Instead, the turn-based fighting takes place on the field, with both the players and the NPCs and enemies each getting one move per turn. Add to this that most monsters have unique abilities and behaviors and that Shiren can carry a variety of items that have different effects on the world and you have an RPG where each floor of a dungeon is a little strategy game unto itself.

Where Shiren the Wanderer builds on the regular formulae of Roguelikes is with its world. While the player’s character follows the normal rules of the genre, starting from square one with every failure, Shiren’s  world does not. Instead, aspects about the different villages that Shiren visits will stay persistent and indeed progress with each run.

In one village a master potter angrily experiments, trying to create a truly revolutionary ‘jar’ (an important kind of item in the game). Each run where the player visits the village the potter will get a little closer to his goal. One village has a couple who has lost their daughter. Even before talking to her parents the player can randomly encounter the young girl in a dungeon and escort her safely home. The grateful family will then open a warehouse in their village (a place where items can be stored between runs).

What’s interesting about this approach is that it turns the traditional model of progression found in JRPGs completely on its head. Instead of the player growing more powerful and the world staying relatively static, in Shiren the player is always basically in the same place while the world around them grows and changes.

GAME OF THE YEARS

I have to confess that the first time I played Shiren the Wanderer I didn’t like it.

Having never played a Roguelike before, I wasn’t prepared for the level of randomness that is a vital part of the experience, and more often than not I felt cheated when I would fail. When I did fail it bothered me that I woke up back at the first village, with basically everything set back to square one. Without retaining the weapons and items I had found or the levels I had earned, I had no sense of progress. I missed the opiate of constantly accumulating experience points and I wasn’t used to getting punished by my JRPGs.

There’s a good chance I would have given up if everyone that I knew, people whose taste in games I truly respected, weren’t all devoted Shiren.

One afternoon I did a little field research, trying to figure out what I was missing. I had a friend of mine who had been playing the game for a while sit down and start an adventure while I watched over her shoulder. As she fought through the massive dungeon that Shiren takes place in, she explained what she was thinking moment-to-moment.

It was only after this that I really appreciated the genius of Shiren. The reason it took away your trinkets and levels every time you failed was because the goal wasn’t to hoard virtual goods or hurdle virtual barriers, but to simply get better at the game. There wasn’t some secret item that was going to make the game easier, the secret was to learn the behaviors of enemies and the different strategies available to you in the mix of equipment you gathered on your trip. Maybe you gave up experience points but what replaced them was actual experience.

My friend ended up getting much farther than I had not because she had discovered some way to grind levels or because she got lucky and found a great sword. She was better at the game than I was because she knew more about it, and had learned how to approach and survive the different situations the game threw at her.

From then on I didn’t just play Shiren, I studied it. I learned what monsters tended to appear on what floors and the best way to defeat them. I learned how best to baby-sit my AI companions so that they could take hits and deal damage while I remained at a safe distance. I figured out how best to prepare early on for the hardships of the journey I hadn’t figured out how to avoid.

Now, after having sunk nearly fifty hours into Shiren I’ve only become more amazed at the depth and multi-faceted nature of the game. Completing the main quest opens additional dungeons, each with their own twist on the core ruleset. Each requiring the player to approach the game in a new way.

Shiren the Wanderer is one of those rare video games that has enough to it that exploring all its possibilities would keep a person occupied not just for a few months, but maybe a few years.

THE NEVER ENDING STORY

I grew up playing games that told me stories. That had characters that shot through plot arcs and developed in ways that I had no real control over. The only thing I really had control over was the pace at which these things happened. My only job was to turn the page.

Most modern, narrative-based video games are a lot like musicals. Just like a musical switches between talking and singing, walking and dancing (often without even a nod to its inherent strangeness), games parcel out their story and their play in very discrete chunks. Defeat a wave of enemies, get a cut-scene about the kingdom you’ve saved; find a buried treasure, get dialogue sequence about its mystical importance.

Shiren the Wanderer is a little closer to opera, the lines of game and story run parallel. Its story affects not just ‘why’ you’re playing the game, but ‘how’. Shiren has its share of cut-scenes and dialogue sequences, some of them superfluous. More often than not however, a villager will have valuable bit of information about an enemy’s habits, and encouraging an insecure blacksmith’s apprentice will lead to earning a super powerful sword.

These little bits of dialogue and in-game sequences aren’t the real story of Shiren, of course. Finally reaching the Golden Condor gives a true sense of apprehension and accomplishment because you got there on your wits and luck alone. In large part the most interesting thing about your journey, the thing that other people will want to hear about, is not that you completed it, but way in which you completed it.

What Shiren proves beyond a shadow of the doubt is that at the end of the day the most interesting story in a game should be your own. Why care about the reaction of Nico Bellic to the violence of his world when there are much more interesting questions about your own reaction to the virtual violence with which you’re complicit? Why should it matter if your avatar and his girlfriend aren’t getting along if you couldn’t figure out how to get a key out of a pit even if they were?

It’s not that I think games can’t tell stories that could rival novels or film in their pathos, humor, or poignancy. There are plenty of musicals that can be very moving without explaining why the characters keep breaking out into song and dance.

The problem is that those wouldn’t be the stories that games tell best, and they wouldn’t be truly interactive narratives. If that’s really what we want, and it would be something genuinely new and exciting, then we should be prepared for it to develop in even in the most obscure and unexpected places, or for it to have already happened and simply gone unrecognized.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is a real interactive narrative. To experience its story takes more than flipping pages. To appreciate its story takes work, because the story it tells is your own, and it’s only ever as good as you are.

*

Author’s Note: Though I’ve already said my piece on it, I should mention I think Valve’s “Left 4 Dead” is also a huge step forward for narrative in games, bringing us one step closer to ‘interactive drama’ than anything since “Facade”. For a great description of “L4D’s” importance check out Dan Kline’s write up here.

14 Comments

  1. Teo wrote:

    Where I agree that I can’t stand playing JRPG’s, my gripe is a simple one. To many androgynous characters. When Japan remembers that men have a penis and don’t look like Charlize Theron I’ll consider giving them another shot.

    I also recently played (for the first time) FFVI and I’m playing Chrono Trigger DS and they both stand the test of time. I’m a tad biased on Chrono Trigger since it’s one of my top 5.

    I did purchase Blue Dragon but called it quits after disc 1.

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 1:51 pm | Permalink
  2. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmm, the androgyny doesn’t bother me much.

    Frankly, I have same criticisms about western RPGs. They’re certainly less linear than JRPGs but typically not any more dynamic.

    Tuesday, January 6, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Frank wrote:

    This is a great piece, Charles. I couldn’t agree with you more. Well played.

    Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 5:20 am | Permalink
  4. Nash wrote:

    Great post, Charles!!

    I do want to quickly defend one small aspect of Mother 3…it is SO self-referential that it seems to be poking fun of the very RPG conventions that have gotten old.

    For example, there’s an NPC that stands outside Lucas’ house for almost the entire game. His dialog says something to the effect of, “Wow, Lucas, you’re out there on all sorts of adventures getting stronger, and I’m just standing here in the same spot!”

    The game is riddled with things like this, and it’s making me really want to go back and replay Earthbound, as I’m sure a lot of the humor went over my head when I was 11.

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 6:38 am | Permalink
  5. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Yeah, that’s the big reason why I’m torn about Mother 3. It’s so obvious the intelligence and care that was put into almost every aspect of the game, and yet the archaic system isn’t funny after the first couple of fights.

    I think the problem is really one of nostalgia. I can go back and FFVI or Chrono Trigger and get the same thrill that I had when I first played them. Since I never really played much of Earthbound I don’t have any sentimental attachment to its sequel, no matter how clever it might be.

    Saturday, January 31, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink
  6. Nash wrote:

    Yeah totally. In fact, for me it’s ONLY working on that humor level, not as a game at all.

    Teo, you just played FFVI for the first time, and you said it holds up? What’s your experience with it? I can’t separate myself from the intense, warm fuzzy nostalgia. On what level is it working for you? It’s still essentially turning the page…

    If FFVI and CT truly stand the test of time, what is it about those games that’s different than the rest of the pack? They’re as classic JRPG as JRPGs come. Is it just a matter of quality?

    Sunday, February 1, 2009 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  7. Lucas wrote:

    These are some interesting observations here, Charles. I do like how the story you’ve made for yourself, your history of play is what you feel is most valuable. This is what I’ve felt with games like Civilization and X-COM: in the end, my experience of the game is centered on what I’ve done and how I did it. I’m responsible for how it turns out.

    As you say, you reached the Condor “on your wits and luck alone,” but you still progressed through the series of dungeons set up by the designers. Could you separate the feeling of achievement at having beaten the game from that of having an effect on the story and world? Was your satisfaction from learning and overcoming the obstacles, or was it from having an effect on the world and in choosing how and when to do things?

    I’m reminded of my first play-through of Deus Ex in which I first killed Anna Navarre early on in the game. While the way I did it wasn’t too interesting (desperate spamming with grenades), the game kept reminding me of it. I felt as if I had done something irrevocable, something that changed the world I was playing in.

    To the side of that is Tetris: a game whose mechanics I’ve worked for years to master. I enjoy playing Tetris a lot, at being good at it, but that feeling has nothing to do with having an effect on the game world.

    In any case, I’m now convinced I should try Shiren. Though I have my doubts about it, I’m willing to give it a try. You, Zach Reese, and Iroquois Pliskin seem to have had good experiences with it, and I want to see how it is for myself.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Tuesday, May 26, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hey Lucas, thanks for dropping by!

    While Shiren holds your hand a lot more than most roguelikes, it’s still fundamentally different from other JRPGs in that its dungeons are, for the most part, randomly generated. So the obstacles I overcame in beating the game were generated by an algorithm that was created by a designer, but the obstacles themselves were not designed, per se.

    This is a very different situation from a game like Deus Ex, which is a fairly linear game that simply has multiple, designed paths the player can follow.

    As for changing the world, I can say with a good bit certainty that if those changes had been purely cosmetic then I would not have cared about them at all. If rescuing the little girl and bringing her to her parents had not opened up a new storehouse, then I would have simply ignored that quest on subsequent playthroughs.

    That’s the interesting thing about having a game that requires you to play it multiple times; it becomes clear very quickly what is actually worth your time and what isn’t.

    Wednesday, May 27, 2009 at 7:30 pm | Permalink
  9. Sean wrote:

    I was struck reading this post as i’ve had a very similar experience, with a different game from the same era actually. The random dungeon in Lufia 2 always struck me as a sort of dull side-quest when originally playing the game, but upon revisiting it later on(again after having lost interest in jrpgs) i found it to be a pretty interesting game in its own right. As i remember it, the dungeon is 99 levels long, and nearly impossible to beat from start to finish on the first playthough, but as you progress you can find special items and weapons that can be brought with you on subsequent playthroughs, although you must leave the dungeon to keep them, and each playthrough restarts your characters at level 1(of the dungeon and experience-wise.)
    I was always surprised that this advancement feature didn’t show up in more of the proper rouge-likes(in fact i’ve never found one that does)

    Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 5:51 am | Permalink
  10. Matthew Weise wrote:

    Charles, where do you draw the line between “archaic” game design and legitimate genre convention? You speak as if all games are obviously on some sort of death march to the holodeck, which is what makes it possible to view certain game conventions as evolutionarily “less advanced” than others.

    I can sympathize with wanting different things out of games than we currently get, but by imagining gaming progress in such a linear fashion you close yourself off (it seems to me) from recognizing any aesthetic of narrative game design that is not your own.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hi Matt, thanks for dropping by.

    The game design conventions I’m specifically criticizing as ‘archaic’ are in fact old. However, the conventions of roguelikes, which I’m praising in the rest of the piece are also old. This is why I said that the conventions of JRPGs ‘feels’ archaic, because I’ve been playing them for years and they haven’t changed that much. Roguelikes, though they are just as old as JRPGs, are new to me and so it seems fresher. I didn’t mean to suggest that there’s some linear progression.

    I actually think I’m arguing against the holodeck. What I’m saying is that games can be more than fiction or storytelling. Games are actually wonderful little engines that drive actual human drama. The idea of the holodeck bores me because it promises that one day it’ll be really fun to pretend to be a detective, or spy, or a marine, because everything will be so realistic.

    What I’m saying is that games are best when they’re not about pretending.

    Wednesday, September 16, 2009 at 11:48 pm | Permalink
  12. Matthew Weise wrote:

    From my point of view JRPGs are not “pretending” to be anything other than JRPGs, and JRPGs are not ideologically bound up in the same formalist/essentialist push towards simulation than many Western games are. The fact that you or I might *want* them to be and find it disappointing when they are not is, I think, totally valid. But I wouldn’t characterize this tension of one between “false” and “real” interactive narrative. I’d call it a tension between two different aesthetic agendas of game design.

    Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  13. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hmm, I think we’re still missing each other.

    I agree that JRPGs aren’t pretending to be anything, but they are *about* pretending. They’re full of little fictional people doing things that don’t actually matter. That’s okay, because that’s what narrative is and we all like stories.

    However, the narrative in games is not what’s primarily interesting to me. Instead it is the *real* accomplishments and defeats that happen to a player. It is the *actual* interpersonal drama that goes on between people on the same team.

    It’s not that JRPGs can’t have these qualities as well, it’s just that for the most part they aren’t as vivid or interesting because they’ve been watered down to make way for the story.

    I don’t believe that there’s *real* interactive drama and *false* interactive drama. I believe that stories are at their most basic about pretending. Games can be about pretending but they don’t have to be. They can be about *genuine* accomplishments and defeats and about *authentic* betrayals and rivalries and sacrifices.

    Friday, September 18, 2009 at 3:12 pm | Permalink
  14. Matthew Weise wrote:

    I don’t think we are missing each other that much. I see that you are saying games can be about “real” defeats, “real” alliances, etc. because those things are part of play. But whether or not this is preferable to or indeed the same thing as “narrative” I think is open to debate.

    In particular I think Jesper Juul’s ideas about reality and abstraction paint a more complicated picture of how fiction, narrative, and gameplay function together. I’m also not sure Michael Mateas would agree that play between two team players is the only kind that would produce “genuine” accomplishment, defeats, etc.

    I completely share your frustration with JRPGs, by the way. This is why games like Steambot Chronicles and Majora’s Mask fascinate me, much in the same way Shiren the Wanderer fascinates you. I just ordered Shiren based on your recommendation, so it will be interesting to see how it strikes me.

    Monday, September 21, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

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