When it comes to gaming, RPGs represent the pinnacle of storytelling with games like Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, Mass Effect, Skyrim, and Earthbound. While many games from many different genres do indeed have compelling stories, storytelling, more than any other facet, is what RPGs are known for.
But despite this, RPGs always seem to tell the same basic narrative: a group of heroes comes together to “save the world” from a powerful villain. Sure, sometimes it’s a fantasy setting and sometimes it’s a sci-fi one, but the basic story is almost always the same. Why?
What seems most likely is that this story framework allows for a fighting system, be that a shooting system like Mass Effect or a turn-based system like in most JRPGs.
But why must RPGs be centered around fighting? Is it not possible to have fun in an RPG without the mass murder of woodland creatures?
Why not have an RPG based around two people falling in love over the course of their lives? Or why not have an RPG about a group of friends traversing a planet to escape it, as the world itself dies around them.
Put another way, do RPGs need a fighting system to be RPGs? The answer is simply “no.” And as if to prove this, RPGs are slowly but surely breaking out of this narrow combat-necessary mindset.
For years dedicated gamers playing RPGs have taken up the challenge to play them without fighting—though this proves quite difficult. In World of Warcraft more than one character has reached the level cap without ever killing a single creature while in Skyrim, one pacifist player has even reached level 35.
And both of these are examples of games where killing is intended.
Another recent RPG, Deus Ex: Human Revolution even includes a trophy/achievement as reward for players who don’t kill anyone in their playthrough of this action RPG—despite the standard save-the-“X” story format.
Currently, Japan-only RPG Fantasy Life allows players to level up through non-violent professions like tailoring or fishing at the same rate as fighting monsters in the field—giving the player full choice is which way of growing stronger they prefer.
Perhaps the best example of what RPGs could become without the crutch of combat-based gaming is 2011’s To the Moon. There are no fights in the epically moving and thought-provoking adventure RPG. At one point, To the Moon even satirizes the idea that RPGs must have battles. In a scene where a squirrel is encountered, the player character readies to attack it in standard JRPG turn-based fashion—only to be admonished by the other characters for preparing to hurt a defenseless animal.
Recently, the teaser image for the second game in this series satirized this point by portraying the characters from To the Moon fighting a horde of zombies on the moon—something completely antithetical to the emotional narrative.
Is combat fun in RPGs? Sure, it can be—especially if the system is engrossing and doesn’t end up feeling like busy work. But we’ve reached the point where the need to include combat in RPGs is stunting the growth of the genre and holding it back from the wonders the genre is capable of producing. There is far more out there than just heroic narratives centered around combat for us to experience.
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