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As told by Carlos Jambrina on 14/10/2019

# premise

Classic RPGs often present a collection of mandatory linear quests, some of them barely related to their core plot, which are meant to portray the feeling of enduring a long journey. This structure, though potentially repetitive and tiresome, helps the player connect with the characters such that story beats, even simple ones, can have a higher emotional impact.

If, however, the player doesn't buy into this structure, the piece doesn't land, or it gets abandoned, even.

The idea here is: if classic RPG content can feel tedious both through its length and when it fights player intent, and it's only important as part of a whole but not in itself; then maybe one could structure a game where only the core story points are carefully scripted and mandatory, and the rest is reduced to barebones open narration left for the player to discover and roleplay.

This piece picks a classic RPG, Tales of Phantasia, and offers an alternative structure that follows this idea, while at the same time (hopefully) conveying the same emotional content as the original game.

This is Not Tales of Phantasia.

(ok basically "what if you made JRPGs more like Breath of the Wild because maybe then I would get into them again")
(assuming stuff would workTM without any setbacks)

# methodology

Initially I listed everything I remembered from the original game, without looking up any references. The idea was that the collection of beats that stuck in my memory for so long were probably the most important aspects in the game, and players should be geared towards experiencing these during the game. Everything else could be presented as optional content surrounding the core plot.

There are bits of the original story one could argue are important enough (such us the whole prologue before the time travel), but I honestly could not remember most of them so I cut them out completely.

Character pronouns are weird because I decided to gender-swap them.

# structure of story content

The original game would trigger dialogue and cutscenes at choke points the player was known to have to go through. However, we've expressed the desire to reduce those to a bare minimum here, which creates the issue of how to communicate the same amount of story content.

We'd need to ensure the dialogue is either agnostic to variables such as number of current party members, length of the journey so far, etc, or that it can programatically adjust to it. We'd also have to figure out the right time to trigger these events, with the downside of possibly misinterpreting player intent (maybe the player wasn't actually heading towards the quest objective when we started playing a related cutscene).

Instead of trying to solve that problem, we could make the AI use an abstracted, emoji-like language that responded to personality and status data.

AI party members would provide abstract responses to stimuli generated by gameplay or story content, which would give players the tools to build a cohesive narrative in their head. Even with simplified reactions, it's very easy to misiterpret player intent and reach broken states ("character A is now always angry at me and I have no idea why"), so it's probably safer to make these reactions immediate and consumable, rather than persistent throughout the game.

Content could then be divided into very few mandatory story beats with authored dialogue or even cutscenes; and recommended or optional content with bits of explicit story elements at their beginning / end (the only choke points we can ensure will exist, though we may find more oportunities to trigger more), along with supplementary, stimuli-triggered, abstracted AI dialogue.

mandatoryrecommendedoptionalif you want, sure
Prologue (present into past)
Meet Mint (clerk)
Meet Arche (mage)
Meet Undine (spirit)
Find Efreet (spirit)
Find Gnome (spirit)
Find every other spirit
Find Origin (spirit)
Explore map, do non-spirit quests
War politics, mana cannon
Assault on Dhaos (adds Klauss and Arche to party if not met)
Heal Mana tree (unicorn)
Find underwater city, travel to present
(find Undine and Efreet if you hadn't)
Find Maxwell (spirit)
Find Pluto (spirit)
Meet Origin
Explore present map, do quests
Assault on Dhaos (reprise)

Since most of the story is crafted through players' gameplay, it'd be not so much consumed as it'd be created. On the one hand this could help alleviate the completionist feeling of "having to consume all content" which some players face, since they'd instead be able to drive their own story. On the other, this very lack of authored pace could drive users away.

# the game

# intro (cinematic)

- 100yo warriors defeat Dhaos, confine it using time-lock spell

# prologue: present (gameplay, linear)

  • player goes hunting with archer AI partner in a confined area

  • earthquake, boars run away, one of them ventures into uncovered mausoleum

  • party splits at mausoleum, player explores

  • cult members appear as enemies, can capture player if defeated

  • either by exploration or defeated, player reaches main chamber and reunites with captured AI partner

  • cult members have been there for weeks now, attempting to stop time-lock spell

  • sorcerer, who had been tracking down cult members and is finally able to enter mausoleum, frees party

  • time-lock spell starts breaking, Dhaos comes out, kills cult members

  • party fights Dhaos, unsuccessfully

  • sorcerer redirects time-lock energy to send party back in time and seek help from warriors who defeated Dhaos

  • player is given the name Klauss to look for (one of these warriors)

  • AI archer and sorcerer are knocked away from time-lock by Dhaos, only player travels back

# start of main game (past): Mountain of Landing

  • player appears on a mountain top, within sight of nearby town, only objective is to find Klauss

  • on the way down the mountain, either towards the town or not, player finds AI clerk (his placement is procedural to ensure player meets him)

  • Clerk was at the magic mountain seeking a way to defeat Dhaos and avenge his family

  • Clerk joins party, provides exact location of Dhaos, plus general idea of where Klauss could be

# Dhaos

  • hides in an island, inside the past-version of the prologue's mausoleum

  • human army at the other shore, thinking how best to attack, near past-version of player's town

  • water traversal is required (paddle boat along the shore, a spirit can be used, maybe underwater cave)

  • spirits are encouraged to defeat Dhaos

# Quests and Progress

  • map is divided into areas, the first x NPCs in each area provide map info

  • quests can be activated regardless of party members / spirit progress

  • add here quests from original game (find Edward, collect spirits, etc)

  • through them the player builds up the feeling of journeying

# Klauss

  • location given when approaching general area, can be found at her cabin

  • found as well inside any of the spirit lairs, attempting to form a pact

  • maybe found outside elf town?

  • Wherever you meet her, she sees player's summoning ring and joins party

  • general area of some spirits is given then

# Arche

  • same general area as Klauss, location is given when visiting main town there

  • joins party after finding and helping him

# Spirits

  • found in (almost?) each area

  • general location of main ones (Gnome, Undine, Efreet) given when meeting Klauss

  • others can be found by exploring areas of map

# Origin (spirit)

  • found inside elf town, Arche (half-elf) is forced to stay outside if present

  • hidden at the end of mysterious woods

  • repairs summoning ring to increase their power (only if enough spirits have been collected?)

# Attack on Dhaos

  • spirits help, alt ways possible

  • even if the player has not met AI party, they show up to offer some help

  • player party turns out to be the 100 yo warriors from opening cinematic

  • after the fight, Dhaos is time-locked and it's time to face it in the present

# Way back

  • Find underwater city in order to travel back to present time

# main game (present): mausoleum

  • reunite with underleveled AI archer

  • fight Dhaos and get close to winning

  • time spell is unstable and party is projected 4 years into the future

# Mountain of Landing (reprise)

  • party lands here (either as friends or recent acquaintances depending on playthrough)

  • current objective is defeat Dhaos, who has broken havoc during these years

# Spirits

  • spirits from the past can be collected here if not picked before

  • additional spirits can be found

# Origin

  • forges eternal weapons

# Cult's hideout

  • trap Dhaos (if no eternal weapons) or defeat it for good

# art style

Several options:

  1. 1:1 scale 3D

    Easier for player to see into the distance, wayfinding is encouraged. Barely no abstractions. AI buddy behavior has been attempted many times in AAA games, and it can easily look bad. Extensive content creation required, very easy to break immersion with imperfections or inconsistencies. Examples: FFXV, Breath of the Wild.

  2. PSX-era abstracted 3D

    Abstracts content, "easier" to develop. Can be combined with style A for specific points of interest, or maybe through explicit player input (would require procedurally-generated detailed view?). Exploration elements need to be clearer in the abstracted world. Dialogue triggering and gameplay elements can cheat.

  3. SNES-era top down map, close-up inside POIs

    Different style of exploration, it's no longer possible to place points of interest in the distance to incite interest. Easier to develop. Once the player understands the language, it's harder to break immersion as long as elements stay consistent with the abstractions they represent.
    Similar to styles A+B, close-up view can be triggered at Points of Interest or through player controls.

  4. Black and white contour rendering

    Can retain wayfinding benefits of style A, while still abstracting content and reducing the asset production efforts. It'd likely require a good amount of investigation and iteration to find the right combination of style vs playability, since visibility and clarity are not immediate with this style. There may not be as much literature available to help solve issues.