Play/Write: What RPGs Teach Us About Creating an Ensemble

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about…video games.

Yes, video games. Those series of ‘bloops’ and blinking lights that — at least a while ago — society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories forever.

What RPGs Teach Us About Creating an Ensemble

Most kids in my generation grew up watching shows like Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Voltron, and other dynamic action shows featuring an ensemble cast. Which of these personas we adopted on the playground could actually be viewed as a partial reflection of what qualities we valued. Kids who wanted to play as Leonardo tended to want to be leaders, Raphaels were more inclined to just fight, Michelangelos had a penchant for silliness, and Donatellos… were the fourth one.

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

Oh, fourth kid…

Now a group of people coming together to solve a problem is nothing new, narrative, of course; but there seems to be something in particular that is compelling about these particular kinds of shows — especially with the younger crowd.

What’s very interesting about these stories is their inclusiveness. It’s predicated on the notion that neither one individual nor one particular skill set is sufficient to solve the problem. You could be the greatest warrior to have ever lived, but if your mechanic can’t maintain your equipment; then there’s only so much a naked warrior can do against a tank.

This dynamic is captured in a genre of video games known as Role Playing Games (or RPGs). The main characteristic of an RPG (as opposed to generic action) is something known as a ‘Class System’. A class is an over-arching skill set (Knights are good with swords, Rogues are good at sneaking, etc.). The key to success in any good RPG is leveraging the balance of classes to meet any given challenge. If enemies are vulnerable to the elements, you should have a party heavy with mages. If an area is lousy with high-level monsters, it might be best to stock up on rogues and just avoid them.

However, character classes also tend to be complementary. Warriors (or ‘Tanks’) hold the enemy’s attention and absorb damage. Mages tend to stay in the back, providing healing and other forms of support, and rogues stealthily flank around to deliver devastating hits.

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

Of course, this seems rather obvious. Playing to your characters’ strengths is an essential requirement in any game or story. However, RPGs add a new element that might not be so obvious to everyone: “leveling”.

In one of the earliest contemporary RPGs, Final Fantasy, each class has its obvious pros and cons; however, as characters progress; abilities that were initially denied them can be unlocked. Fighters, for example, cannot use magic at all. However, upon being upgraded to Knights, they gain the ability to perform ‘White Spells’ (healing and boost-type magic); thus changing their relation with other White Mages.

This leveling of skills is essential to progress, and is something often glossed over in static narratives. Take the 2012 film, Avengers. For all the to-do of bringing these heroes together in the first cornerstone of the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, not much growth or change is required for the characters. Thor remains brash and petulant; going so far as to attempt to kill Captain America merely for interference…

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

Face facts: he didn’t know Cap’s shield would stop Mjolnir.

…which would seem to utterly contradict the lessons he was supposed to learn in his own eponymous 2011 film.

Now, we can argue that’s exactly what people came to see: their favorite superheroes being superheroes together. While this may be true, it also means that nothing happened that everyone didn’t already expect.

The 1984 film, Red Dawn, has a similar theme of disparate and stoic (albeit unpowered) people attempting to stop an invasion; however we see the cost of the main characters refusing to change (or level-up, as it were). While the ‘Wolverines’ early strikes against the Soviet occupiers are successful, their inability to scale with their opponents’ dedication to resolve the problem results in most of the Wolverines being killed.

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

Guess the Commies just wanted it more.

In RPG terms, this would be the equivalent of attempting to take on ‘level 15’ enemies with ‘level 5’ characters.

So what would be a good example of leveraging ‘leveled’ and ‘classed’ characters against problems in contemporary media? One of my favorites would be the long running sci-fi series Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007).

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

The basic premise of the show is that a secret USAF division known as ‘Stargate Command’ is the front line of a secret war with an oppressive alien race. Their premier team, SG-1, is tasked with exploring the galaxy to gather allies and technology to fight this threat. SG-1’s mutually complementary skill sets are used time and again to save the day, but they are constantly being forced to adapt to new challenges that assail them; challenges that they might not have been initially prepared for.

One of their more interesting feats, for example, are times where they are tasked with defeating ‘replicators’ (a cybernetic mass colony life form, that ‘eats’ technology in order to replicate). Replicators are so technologically adaptable that most advanced weaponry is useless against them. However, more primitive means do tend to have greater effectiveness. As a result, the generally brilliant SG-1 is challenged to come up with the ‘dumbest’ means viable to defeat their enemy.

The variety of challenges the SG team faces are similarly paralleled in RPGs. Lufia: Curse of Sinestrals (Neverland/Square Enix, 2010), takes particular pains to showcase the different abilities of party members throughout multiple segments. As such, not only can the game NOT be completed with a single hero, but requires each hero to be honed to the best they can be (because you never know who you’ll need or when).

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

Yep, even him.

On that note, another well-known RPG, the Mass Effect series (Bioware, 2007-cont.), explores the loss of critical party members. In each game, the player stands to get party members killed permanently; particularly if he rushes his missions and ignores the requests of his teammates.

What’s important here is that, potentially, key components of your combat strategy stand to be lost forever if you don’t focus on building your team; regardless of how “good” you may be personally. In the case of Mass Effect 2 (2010), this can actually render the game impossible to complete (though a player would have to be spectacularly negligent in order for this to happen).

Play/Write, Laser Time, video games, storytelling, RPG, TMNT, Stargate, Lufia, Red Dawn

You have to fail each and every one of them.

This failure to properly maintain one’s ensemble is poignantly realized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), as the eponymous character dies mourned by none except one. Despite Gatsby’s lavish gifts and supposed generosity, he was incredibly superficial in the quality of the company her kept.

So when it’s dangerous to go alone, remember: bring your friends. Who knows? It just might make you a better writer.

Ryan J. Hodge is a science fiction author and is a Games Industry veteran. His latest book, Wounded Worlds: Nihil Novum, is available now for eBook & Paperback.

You can now follow Ryan on Twitter @RJHodgeAuthor

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3 thoughts on “Play/Write: What RPGs Teach Us About Creating an Ensemble

  1. I think this was my favorite one of these articles so far. I recently started working on a short story that has a somewhat large cast, I feel your ideas will really benefit my work.

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