On November 21, 2023, Automation West published an interesting article titled Why has having to repeatedly talk to NPCs and search through drawers and boxes in video games become a chore?. The focus of the piece is a purported change in the tastes of video game players that goes against design concepts in some of the classic Japanese role playing games. The author of the post, Ms. Amber V, translated an X (formerly known as Twitter) post by a Japanese game developer writing a fictional dialogue between a developer and the player-base:
Game creator: They’re going to be so stoked if they find an item in this chest of drawers Me: Wait so from now on I have to check every single chest of drawers...? Game creator: Wouldn't it be fun to have this NPC say something different when talked to for the second time? Me: So now I have to talk to every NPC twice...
According to Ms. Amber V, many Japanese X posters apparently agreed with the sentiment in the developer’s fictional dialogue. Things that a game designer (especially a game designer of yore) may think players will enjoy – such as hidden items or extra dialogues from non-playable characters (“NPC”) – may cause some players to feel like they need to search every nook and cranny or talk to every NPC multiple times in order to not miss anything, even if doing so turns up nothing in the vast majority of cases. The original X poster argued that the current trends against hidden items and multiple NPC dialogues does not reflect poorly on older games, but instead stems from a change in what contemporary video game players value.
I like to think that The New Leaf Journal is solutions oriented, so I will offer my solution: The games world must have clearly intelligible and consistent rules with respect to hidden items and NPC dialogues.
If a game hides items in drawers, shelves, cupboards, crates, and other objects of the like, it must ensure two things to prevent the experience from becoming tedious. I will use drawers for this example.
- The game must make it clear which drawers can be interacted with. While the game does not need to reveal which drawers contain hidden items, it must make it clear which drawers can be engaged and which drawers are part of the background.
- If a game hides items in drawers, it should ensure that a diligent player is sufficiently rewarded for his or her diligence.
Not every game needs to invite the player to search every nook and cranny for hidden items. However, every game that does invite the player to search nooks an crannies must provide a clear definition of what constitutes a searchable nook and/or cranny.
NPC dialogue ambition should be governed by similar rules:
- The game should give the player a clear idea of when, after interacting with an NPC once, the player should expect to see a different dialogue or event if he or she interacts with the same NPC again.
- If a game opts to give NPCs fresh dialogue as a game progresses or the player satisfies certain conditions, it should have a good reason for doing so. In general, this means either making the dialogues interesting or providing some game-play justification for their existence.
Varied NPC dialogue is not a JRPG requirement. For example, I have been playing the mainline Pokémon JRPGs for more than two decades despite the fact that the most exciting NPC dialogue in the series has to do with shorts. On the other hand, one reason I love The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is because of the game’s terrific attention to detail with respect to its NPCs.
In the spirit of the X post, I will highlight one example of a game that applies some of the modern principles suggested by the article: Fire Emblem Engage (see my strategy guide for one level). Fire Emblem Engage is a long strategy role playing game that focuses far more on its game play than its story (it is far less compelling in the story department than its immediate predecessor in the Fire Emblem series, Three Houses). When the player is not leading an army into battle, he or she is wandering around an over-world hub area with NPC party members and hidden items. Engage takes a distinctly modern approach to the hub area:
- Hidden items are always depicted as glowing orbs. There are no hidden items lurking in furniture or the like. Regardless of whether one likes this as an aesthetic matter – the rules for finding hidden items are intelligible and consistent.
- Some characters receive new dialogue lines when the game changes from one chapter to another. Other characters keep the same dialogue lines for multiple chapters. The game indicates which characters have new things to say. While I fault Engage for not having made its characters very interesting, I credit it for making it easy to see which ones have fresh dialogue.
Engage leaves no ambiguity about hidden items or character dialogues. For whatever it is worth, I wish that Engage was more engaging in the story and character departments. But it is nothing if not consistent in how it handles the outside of battle sequences.
I like JRPGs that invite the player to explore the world and get to know the world’s inhabitants. However, while that is my preferred approach in a vacuum, it is not appropriate or necessary for every game. See my similar take on meaningful choices in RPGs and visual novels. But regardless of whether a game developer opts to go all in on exploration or offer a more linear, stream-lined experience without hidden things and elaborate dialogue – I ask that developers ensure that their games have consistent and intelligible rules.