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Vol. 2, Issue 5 
December 8, 1999 
 

Now compare BG to the recent Final Fantasy games. These also take place on top of static backgrounds, yet take advantage of this fact by rendering them from all sorts of interesting angles as adventure games do. FF's environments are also largely non-interactive, with the occasional button to play with or computer console to operate. Neither BG nor FF have much of what I'd call a world simulation at all. Zelda and Ultima IX, on the other hand, are worlds largely filled with items which operate under learnable and relatively consistent rules, rather than being mere immovable window dressing. A burning torch in Zelda can be used to ignite a stick, which can then light other torches. In Ultima, the douse spell can put out fires, clearing a path through dangerous areas. Rocks can be picked up and hurled at enemies in Zelda, or piled into stacks to help reach high ledges in Ultima.

Creating an interactive world is just one way to go about making an RPG, but I happen to think it is the most important direction for RPGs to go in, and despite the many problems with U9, I really feel it signifies the future of the genre. Origin may be abandoning single player games altogether, and based on their results with Ultima IX, that's probably a very good idea. However, better developers will continue to make single player-focused RPGs, and for these developers, Ultima IX is the most important recent RPG to study, for reasons I'll explore now.

There are certainly other good games from the last year which are related to the RPG genre. One of these is System Shock 2, but as a first person, combat-focused game, I would argue that Shock really represents a sophisticated kind of shooter rather than an RPG. Likewise, the Final Fantasy series are coming to increasingly favor their story development and cut scenes over their basic RPG elements. With each new release, Square seems to be giving the player less ability to customize their characters, which I feel is a very important element in anything RPG-like. Finally, Baldur's Gate, for all the hype, turns out to be less flexible than the great party-based RPGs of the past, saddled with non player-created party members and an annoying combat engine that manages to be neither a good real time system nor a good phased system.

None of these games really represent anything new for RPGs. The Final Fantasy series has been going for years, just adding better presentation and depth to the basic formula of highly plotted adventure/RPG, and Baldur's Gate is basically a throwback to what RPGs were like in the early 90s. What is the basic concept of an RPG on the computer, anyway? To me, they are all about continually exploring new and amazing places while increasing your characters' ability to survive the ever-increasing hardships they will face. Computer RPGs need to have character growth in terms of the basic game system, and they definitely need to have combat that manages to stay interesting throughout the game, and in my opinion they need to have plot. I think if you take away either the game system character growth or the combat but keep the plot, you have an adventure game, and if you take away the plot but keep the other elements, you have a strategy game. There's nothing wrong with either of these kinds of games, but they aren't RPGs.

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