Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This installment was contributed by Warren Spector, studio director for Otherside Entertainment's Austin branch, currently at work on System Shock 3.
I don't like JRPGs. I find them basically kind of dull. When I think of them, I think of contrived, non-interactive semi-cinematic story elements intercut with random combat encounters, introduced to relieve the tedium of traversing an otherwise empty, uninteresting landscape. I think of party-building and positioning for maximum efficiency in slow-paced, turn-based combat encounters that feel totally artificial and, for want of a better term, "gamey." I think of weapon and spell creation systems that take forever and require excruciating attention to detail on par with (and about as much fun as) doing your taxes. That's what I think of when I think about JRPGs (which isn't very often).
Clearly, I just don't get 'em.
"I did complete the first Suikoden game... And that experience literally changed my life"
And yet, I want to write about one - one that inspires me to this day, one that informed and continues to inform my own work, different though it may appear.
I'm talking about Konami's Suikoden, directed by Yoshitaka Murayama. Not the entire series - I confess I've never been able to complete the second or subsequent games in the series. But I did complete the first Suikoden game. Oh, did I. And that experience literally changed my life. Ultima IV was probably the game that influenced me the most--there's another whole essay there--but Suikoden may be number two on the list.
How and why, you ask? There are four things, four moments and/or ideas that blew my mind and set Suikoden apart from other JRPGs - other games, really. They are The Dragon Fight, The Little Guy Who Saves You, the Ever-Changing Base and the Father Fight.
The Dragon Fight
First, there was the opening scene where you and your party fight a way too big, way too fierce dragon. It seems like a hopeless fight. And it is. You lose. You barely survive. But you do survive, and it's because the littlest, lamest, most annoying character in your party (who, you're told, is your dearest friend) jumps to the front of the fight and saves you. There was more characterization in that moment - I CARED more about that little guy - than I had ever experienced in a game. An NPC had done something heroic. I loved it.
The Little Guy Who Saves You, or "The Do You Leave Him Behind?" moment
And your little friend wasn't done. A short while later, you're at an inn where the little annoying guy is recuperating from wounds he got in the fight with the dragon. He seems like he's at death's door. Suddenly, a pack of bad guys shows up at the front entrance. What are you going to do? You're badly outmatched and if you stay and fight them, you're sure to lose.
As you contemplate your options - all of them bad - the little annoying guy appears. He's dragged himself off his deathbed and, basically, says, "You go (cough! cough!). You (cough! cough!) have important things to do. I'll hold them off." Whoa! What do you do? Do you stand by his side and fight what's probably a losing battle? Or do you leave him to his fate and run away so you can save the world?
It's an awesome moment, a real dilemma, the kind of choice we are all asked to make in the real world at times, but are almost never asked to make in games. Powerful, powerful stuff. The kind of stuff only a game can do.
The Ever-Changing Base, or Who Did YOU Rescue?
And then there was the base. Ah, the base… Once you've experienced a bit of the world, you get a base - a big, empty pillar of rock. Nothing much going on there. But it doesn't stay that way.
"I've written a customizable base into every design document I've worked on since I played Suikoden, but for some reason, it's always the first thing cut"
See, there are over 100 characters in this world who can be saved or recruited. And when you save them, they show up in your base, giving you the benefit of their knowledge and/or skills. Some of them are generals who command armies, helpful when you go into big army vs. army battles that are a big part of the game. Some of them offer tactical advice that you can take or ignore. Some provide armor and such you can take into small-scale, but still important duels. All of them give you something, and who's there changes the look and feel of your base.
It's your unique base, unlike every other player's base. As I remember it, sometimes the characters don't play nice with each other and refuse to live together. So you can't have them all! And your base becomes an extension of your "self." It's awesome.
I've written a customizable base into every design document I've worked on since I played Suikoden, but for some reason, it's always the first thing cut, the first thing scoped out of existence. It just never seems to fit. But someday. Wait and see. Someday. And now you'll know the idea was stolen right from my memories of Suikoden.
The "Do You Fight Your Father?" moment
Finally, there's a point near the end of the game where you realize that one of the worst bad guys in the game is your father! That revelation was genuinely shocking. But even more shocking was what came next. Your father challenged you to a fight.
And you had to choose whether to fight him or not!
Fight your father to save the world. But he's family. But he's a bad guy. But he's your dad!
That was a put-the-controller-down moment for me. I don't think I had ever been asked to make a choice like that in a game before. Leaving your little annoying buddy behind was easy. Deciding who to recruit? Piece of cake. Do you fight your father?... That was a big emotional deal. Or maybe it just reflects something about my own family. But even if that's "all" it is - a personal dilemma born of my own childhood - well, HOW COOL IS THAT? A game forcing you to think about your real life? Powerful, powerful stuff.
So that's it. Those were the moments and ideas that rocked me pretty hard. Frankly, I have an abysmal memory and I've often wondered if they actually happened or if they're just a result of my fevered imagination and not really part of the game at all. If it's the latter, don't tell me - let me have my little fantasies, my glorious memories of the game I remember playing even if it isn't the one I actually played… If it's the latter, take this little essay as an exercise in flawed imagination and wishful thinking… This is how I remember the game and how I want to remember the game. So don't burst my bubble, all you quibblers out there, okay?
Anyway, here's the kicker: As I remember it, most of the choices you made in Suikoden were fake. You didn't REALLY have a choice - you HAD to leave your little buddy behind and you HAD to fight your father. The game channeled you back to the option it wanted you to pick in the first place. But, conceptually, the idea that a game could give you that kind of soul-searching choice - the kind of choice that says something about the human being playing the game, not the character being played?
That kind of choice is what games can do that no other medium can. I was blown away by that, in Suikoden. And I told myself that that kind of choice, ladled on top of the ethical dilemmas posed by Ultima IV, that was something I wanted to do in my own work. Major life choices ladled on top of ethical dilemmas became kind of a grail for me. And I owe it all to a JRPG, an example of a genre I basically don't like. Go figure.
The only bad thing about Suikoden, for me, is how damn expensive it is to buy a copy these days. You see, I foolishly loaned my copy to someone. Can't remember who. And I never got it back. I like to think my copy's been passed on from one gamer to another, inspiring each of them the way it inspired me. But if you have my old copy of Suikoden, do me a favor and give it back to me, okay? I miss it.
Upcoming Why I Love columns:
- Tuesday, September 26 - Overcooked's Phil Duncan on Storage Inc.
- Tuesday, October 10 - Dizzy creators The Oliver Twins on the BBC Micro
- Tuesday, October 24 - Yooka-Laylee's Gavin Price on Super Mario Kart
- Tuesday, November 7 - Wasteland 3's Brian Fargo on Inside
Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.