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Article - 'Originality & Cliché' by Guest

An item about Game Design posted on Sep 9, 2004

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Tell me if you wrote this. ;)

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Since the world first set eyes upon Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, Wizardry or Adventure, the form of the RPG has grown and evolved into something more than a mere game. With the advent of games such as Lunar and Chrono Trigger, role-playing games became a form of creative expression—a medium that could evoke emotion. With this movement from entertainment to experience, many stories have been told, involving many characters and worlds. And as each story is told, the audience draws more parallels between ideas represented therein.
As a writer, I have often been confronted with the phrase “Show, don't tell.” This is the idea that when writing a story, whether intended for literary publication or development as a film or video game, the author must let the audience experience the story, not hand the meaning and import to them on a platter. Telling a man he ran over your dog does not evoke the same response as showing up on his doorstep with the corpse in your arms, tears spilling from your eyes. Hence, the role-playing game is the penultimate form of “Show, don't tell.” By putting this story into game form, the game designer allows his audience to experience what the characters are going through.
When Sephiroth kills Aeris in Final Fantasy IIV, you truly feel the loss. You know Aeris. You've spent time learning about her and her past, you've struggled alongside her. I know I personally cried when Aeris died. It is said that upon the event of an unexpected death a person experiences several specific stages. The first is denial, followed by anger, then bargaining with God, depression, and finally, acceptance. At the completion of the video when Sephiroth destroys this fragile flower, I told myself she must live again. Cloud would do everything possible to bring her back. Aeris could not just die. After more play, I suspected I might be wrong. Anger—how could Square do this?! Then bargaining. I searched the internet, desperately seeking information on how to get Aeris back. There must be a sub-quest I'm missing. And then depression. I set the game aside without completing it. After time passed I was able to go back and finish, accepting that her death could not be changed. These stages were developed by psychologists studying the effects of actual death. Yet the makers of Final Fantasy VII were able to evoke this response from me with nonexistent characters. I have felt similar strengths of emotion from Final Fantasy VI (my personal favorite), Chrono Cross, Lunar, and many other RPGs.
As a gamer, I of course dreamed of designing video games. As an avid programmer and writer, I found myself attempting such feats of creativity. It was so that I found my way to the amateur game making community. I have played a number of very good independently created games and read many tutorials and articles, seeking the advice of those more experienced than I. Many address the idea of cliché, yet I see more and more articles doing so without truly broaching the subject.
Cliché is a theme, a characterization, a situation that sustains much use. Something that has become overly familiar or commonplace. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Somehow the connotation of the word cliché has become blatantly negative. But think of the protagonists of the Dragon Quest series, Breath of Fire series, or the later games in the Final Fantasy series. The main character of each game is very similar. Only a change of facade is attempted. In Final Fantasy we see a young man who feels separated from society, a pariah seeking redemption or acceptance. In Dragon Quest our main character is everyman, an ordinary boy thrust into extraordinary situations. Ryu, of Breath of Fire fame, is a boy on the verge of manhood, coming up against the trials that not only threaten the world, but also his soul. These descriptions all meet the definition of cliché and yet we still find newness in each revival.
Examine these role-playing games, and one would find cliché heaped atop cliché. The classic archetypal characters are reused again and again. Do not believe that this means you must shy away from using them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Upon my research bookshelf sits the book 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Schmidt. I highly recommend this work for any itinerant writer or game designer. It provides in-depth descriptions of archetypes derived from classic mythology and the monomyth of Joseph Campbell. By utilizing such framework, you allow your characters to become a reflection of mankind, and thereby a person your audience will recognize. Don't we all know someone like Wakka of Final Fantasy X? Like Kid of Chrono Cross? Can't we all laugh at Kyle's debauched humor in Lunar? And see the parallels between Kefka, the deviously insane villain of Final Fantasy VI and Pokey, the mischievous-turned-malicious villain of Earthbound? In this frame of reference does cliché not become less taboo?
The key is not to turn away from the cliché—it is to embrace it. To see the quality of human experience that is shown through the symbolic representation of themes and motifs we have sought throughout history. As a writer, you must take your vision of Truth and pass it to your audience in a format they can both enjoy and understand. To do so, you may translate your ideas into more cogent forms by placing them in familiar context.
The plot line of the evil empire out to rule the world, how many times has it been used? Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Suikoden, Xenogears, Lufia... need I go on? Yet these stories merely reflect our own human experience—U.S.S.R./Communism, Hitler/Nazism, Mussolini/Fascism, Holy Roman Empire/Religious Persecution. Too many times has Man gathered under a tenet and taken up arms against his fellow Man. The trick is to take the form and adapt it to your use. Find a belief that men of your world would kill for, would die for. No villain truly believes himself evil. The best villain is he whose reasoning makes perfect sense to himself. Or hers to herself. For therein lies the tragedy.
When it all comes down to it, what matters isn't the setting or the plot or even the characters. It's the parallels you've drawn from history and psychology and spirituality. A little thing called human endeavor. Stir the audience's emotions with a gripping tale based on the clichés of love and hate, good and evil, despair and grace. Use those tools lent to you by those who have gone before to build a masterpiece.