Think about the last game you spent serious time playing. Visualize everything. Imagine how it looked, how it sounded, how the controls felt in your hands. Picture the last thing you did.
Okay. You probably thought in broad strokes: maybe you remember going on a mission of some sort, like shooting a hive full of aliens or sneaking around an abandoned warehouse, or maybe you imagine hitting the attack button over and over in the steady slow dance of turn-based combat. Maybe you're picturing a lavish cut-scene packed with pseudo-poignancy as your best friend betrays you, or your lover is murdered by terrorists or something.
That's all well and good. Big picture moments are important. But even more important in video games—particularly Japanese role-playing games—are the little things, those tiny details that are oh-so-crucial to making experiences great.
Let's try another experiment. Go pick up an RPG and watch out for the little things. Look at the way your characters' sprites or polygons move as they walk. Listen to the shriek of an enemy as it dies; the sssnick of a sword as you remove it from a scabbard. Examine the size and shape of the letters on your screen. Watch the way everything moves and sounds and flows. Try to pinpoint your favorite details.
Recently I bought the iOS version of Lunar: Silver Star Story, an RPG I've loved since I first ripped open its ridiculous packaging a decade-and-a-half ago. (Things that came in Lunar's box: a big leatherbound instruction manual; a cloth world map; a music CD; a documentary CD; a partial strategy guide; the Complete Works of Abba. I may have made that last one up.)
To illustrate my thoughts on the iOS version of Lunar: Silver Star Story, here's a screenshot:
You are probably thinking one of two things:
1. "You should re-charge your battery."
2. "Holy shit, what's with that font?"
That font! If there's one thing that never gets discussed when people bring up RPGs, it's text font. People do not have arguments over the merits of Arial or spend hours grinding for levels in order to revive Courier New. Can you think of a more boring conversation?
This is because we take fonts for granted. When dialogue is rendered crisply and cleanly, we don't even notice it. It's invisible, like good sound design or good voice work or good video game barks. The words just pop into our heads.