I’d Rather Play A Boring RPG

I’d Rather Play A Boring RPG

We play video games for a number of reasons. Sometimes we need to kill time on the train. Sometimes we want to pretend to be other people. Sometimes we crave that emotional gratification that you can only find in interactive entertainment.

And sometimes, we play video games to be bored.

Strange notion, right? “Boring” is an instant turnoff for many gamers, the type of word that, if uttered even once in a focus group, could immediately drive a twitchy publisher to axe an entire game. But without a few moments of boredom — those calm, mindless minutes during which you almost feel like you’re playing in a trance — it’s hard to really care about the environments and mechanics that grip us so tightly.

My favourite part of playing a game is getting lost in its world. And worlds are not constantly exciting. Sometimes they’re tedious. Sometimes they’re boring. To absorb us completely, a world needs peaks to its valleys, low lows to its high highs. Aimlessly wandering among the nooks and crannies of a dungeon or city can be just as valuable as shooting monsters or watching dramatic cut scenes. When you don’t have a boring moment or two, something feels missing.

There’s plenty of tedium in Tales of Graces F, the Namco Bandai-developed Japanese role-playing game that hit US shores last week. You’re granted the freedom to completely explore the cel-shaded cities and dungeons that populate the game’s anime-styled world. Sometimes you have to backtrack, or take a few minutes to wander around a port or village before the game tells you what to do next. Many critics might lambast these moments, hammering them for feeling too obsolete or tedious, but I think that in the proper dosage, they’re crucial components to a game’s success.

On the flip side, look at BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Its maps and levels are packed to the core with non-stop action, to the point where you can only find respite in your personal spaceship, the Normandy. Even there, it’s impossible to get away from the constant deluge of conversations and one-liners requiring your attention.

And when you visit other planets and space stations, all you see is a sliver of what they have to offer. The intricate backgrounds tease gigantic worlds and endless possibilities, but you’re limited to narrow spaces and restrictive areas. Don’t get me wrong, these areas are almost always exciting — shooting your way through Mass Effect‘s abandoned ruins and dark valleys can be heaps of fun — but they don’t feel real. They don’t feel like worlds.

Out of budget restrictions or a deep fear of boredom — probably both — most modern games don’t give you access to sprawling worlds or massive cities. You’re guided along tightly scripted paths and hallways that are almost always packed full of action. There’s no time to wander. No time to contemplate. No time to be bored.

Many old JRPGs know how to do it right. Revered classics like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI all throw you into the deep end of the pool and force you to tread water. They aren’t afraid to make you take long walks around a world map or circle around a town until you figure out what event to trigger next. Their designers didn’t feel the need to trim the fat or cut them down to non-stop excitement. They embrace the boredom.

Maybe that’s why they evoke so many passionate memories. When a game knows how to administer just the right dose of boredom, when it lets you explore its world without worrying how much you’re yawning, it winds up sticking with you. And even though I’ve played them both an equal amount of time over the past month, I certainly remember more about the cities in Graces than the worlds of Mass Effect 3. Boring ain’t all that bad.

This Week In JRPG News

What To Play This Weekend

Something new: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, the strategy role-playing game that takes two methods of combat — grid-based and turn-based — and smashes them together like garlic and mashed potatoes. And it tastes damn good.

Something old: Final Fantasy VI, a masterpiece of a game that isn’t afraid to embrace boredom.

Your Questions Answered

Reader Mark Garcia writes:

I know that you have talked about Suikoden II as being a gem that was probably missed by many people, but well worth a play through if they can get their hands on it. Are there any other JRPGs that you feel did not receive their due when they were first released and are worth a look if people can procure them?

I’ve also cited last year’s The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky as an underappreciated gem.

Another suggestion: Brave Fencer Musashi, an under-appreciated action-RPG for the PlayStation that never quite received the hype it deserved. It’s a really fun game. And it has like hundreds of food puns, so…

Garcia also writes:

Are their JRPGs that have been universally acclaimed by critics that you feel were overrated, or are there some that you think were panned, but that were really worthwhile? (I owned a Dreamcast, and while I enjoyed Skies or Arcadia, which most critics claimed was the pinnacle of RPGs on the Dreamcast, but I actually came away enjoying Grandia II so much more for its story and battle system).

You know, I also didn’t fall in love with Skies of Arcadia, despite its critical acclaim. I’m also not a huge fan of the beloved Kingdom Hearts series. Mostly because it confuses the hell out of me. What about you guys? What critically acclaimed RPGs never hit the right notes for you?

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.


  • Having just beaten Chrono Trigger for god knows how many times now (because I wanted to remind myself how to do good multiple endings), I can honestly say I found most of the combat in ME3 wherein I enter a room, get locked in and have to point and shoot till nothing is moving more boring than the turn based combat in CT, to each their own I guess. Though it certainly can be boring wandering around the world map trying to figure out (or remember) what to do, I think the tradeoff is worth it, as long as it’s done right.

  • I was revisiting ME1 this week after finishing the trilogy. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about it made me play for longer periods of time than I did with ME2 & ME3. I think you may have a answered the question. There feels like a lot more openness (and boredom) in ME1. I gots to check all those planets, I gots to. 🙂
    Also lack of openness is the only minor gripe I had with Deus Ex:HR in comparasion to Deus Ex. I still love HR, but I doubt I’ll end up playing through it any where near as many times as I did with Deus Ex.

  • I think games like Dragon Quest have too much wandering around lost, but some games like Ni no Kuni, Chrono Trigger and FFVIII (and FFXII) have the right balance between aimless wandering and story mission.

    I agree completely, you need contrast in a game.

  • This might be one of my small issues with Skyrim (quite small, I enjoyed Skyrim a lot). I love to just wander and explore, and Skyrim was so packed with content that I could never quite sink into that lovely “explorer alone” vibe I got from Bethesda’s other titles (especially Morrowind).

    Interesting article. I’m going to keep this in mind as I play games in the future.

  • Had my first taste of a translated retro JRPG on PC (after many many borefests on NDS) “Ys” – after what was nearly 15 minutes of clicking past seemingly endless dialogue and minimal animations of people talking to each other and turning i finally got to some gameplay. It was over in 30 seconds for another round of clicking through dialogue for a further 10 minutes, then presented with a small town with not much idea where to go. These games are certainly not for me.

  • This is why Bioware should never have taken away the explorable planets from ME1, or the expanded Citadel space…these things provided so much atmosphere and realism to the universe as well as the ‘boredom’ that you mentioned which adds a bit of pacing to the story.

  • Read an interesting interview with Shane Black (a screenwriter who specialises in popular action movies). One of his key tips for doing a good action movie was pacing – you need to have moments when the characters and the audience can breathe, if it’s all-out action then there are no more highs and lows, it’s all just adrenaline saturation and after a while you just don’t care anymore.

  • This actually nails one of my problems with ME2 and ME3. Neither game had any sense of exploration, and they were poorer experiences for it.

    • Lunar Silver Star Harmony.
      I just started playing it. It’s very ‘boring’ and very cliche’d but I’ve heard that’s only because it started all of these modern RPG cliches.

  • I’m really digging this new column, and you’re totally right about the whole boredom thing. I think the later mass effect games needed something like the Citadel in ME1. I think exploring that is the most memorable part of that game to me.

  • Grandia II was a great game, I also preferred it over Arcadia – though I never finished Arcadia due to technical issues. Grandia II’s battle system was amazingly fun and it had extremely solid characters and an engaging plot. It was also completely linear, even more than FFXIII. Yet it’s the JRPG I’ve finished the most number of times.

    Having just come off ME3 and gone straight into Graces as well, I’m not sure that I’d say that Graces is the better game (it’s certainly not in terms of production value), but I’m enjoying it at least as much. Easily the best english-translated JRPG on the PS3 at the moment, I think.

  • I don’t think it’s about being “boring”, it’s more about pacing your story beats. Over-stimulating the player by throwing beats at them rapidly is just going to confuse them and make them care less about the story. Introducing smaller, slower paced beats between major ones that help build atmosphere and provide exposition about the world are just as valuable as the main story-line itself but never have to be “boring” in order to break up the pace.

  • There’s almost a hypnotic quality to driving the Mako around landscapes in ME1. I know I nodded off a few times – not so much from “boredom” as relaxation. This often made the game more effective – as I was mindlessly rolling over a barren rock, the sudden, crashing roar of a Thresher Maw erupting from underground scared me silly!

    That’s why now, I’m belting through ME3 fast, so that I can take my time with FFXIII-2, and the news about Ultros DLC makes that decision all the sweeter! Combine that with the ME outfits, and you’ve got the Mass Effect game I wanted to have. Plus, now that some old, “boring” Bioware titles are getting the HD treatement for iPad – I finally have a reason for buying an iPad.

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