Think about the last game you spent serious time playing. visualise everything. Imagine how it looked, how it sounded, how the controls felt in your hands. Picture the last thing you did.
OK. You probably thought in broad strokes: maybe you remember going on a mission of some sort, like shooting a hive full of aliens or sneaking around an abandoned warehouse, or maybe you imagine hitting the attack button over and over in the steady slow dance of turn-based combat. Maybe you're picturing a lavish cut-scene packed with pseudo-poignancy as your best friend betrays you, or your lover is murdered by terrorists or something.
That's all well and good. Big picture moments are important. But even more important in video games — particularly Japanese role-playing games — are the little things, those tiny details that are oh-so-crucial to making experiences great.
Let's try another experiment. Go pick up an RPG and watch out for the little things. Look at the way your characters' sprites or polygons move as they walk. Listen to the shriek of an enemy as it dies; the sssnick of a sword as you remove it from a scabbard. Examine the size and shape of the letters on your screen. Watch the way everything moves and sounds and flows. Try to pinpoint your favourite details.
Recently I bought the iOS version of Lunar: Silver Star Story, an RPG I've loved since I first ripped open its ridiculous packaging a decade-and-a-half ago. (Things that came in Lunar's box: a big leatherbound instruction manual; a cloth world map; a music CD; a documentary CD; a partial strategy guide; the Complete Works of Abba. I may have made that last one up.)
To illustrate my thoughts on the iOS version of Lunar: Silver Star Story, here's a screenshot. You are probably thinking one of two things:
1. "You should re-charge your battery." 2. "Holy shit, what's with that font?"
That font! If there's one thing that never gets discussed when people bring up RPGs, it's text font. People do not have arguments over the merits of Arial or spend hours grinding for levels in order to revive Courier New. Can you think of a more boring conversation?
This is because we take fonts for granted. When dialogue is rendered crisply and cleanly, we don't even notice it. It's invisible, like good sound design or good voice work or good video game barks. The words just pop into our heads.
But we're reading constantly. Even fully voice-acted RPGs are sprinkled with text-heavy NPC lines and menu prompts. We're always looking at text fonts, which might make them the most important part of a video game that you've never once thought about.
Back to Lunar. That text box is way obtrusive. It feels bigger than it should be, perhaps because the font, which looks to be some version of Helvetica, just doesn't fit. It's big, bold, and ugly. It feels modern, like something you might see on a book cover or an office financial document. Why is it in a traditional, medieval, fantasy RPG?
For comparison's sake, here's a screenshot from Lunar: Silver Star Story: Complete, the PlayStation version of the game.
See how much better that is? It's much easier to read. Significantly more fun to look at. The rough, somewhat bumpy letters almost feel rugged, like they've been through sword-on-sword combat in the wilds of Lunar's big, dragony planet. They fit.
More importantly, this font blends into the game. When I see it, I don't notice it. I don't even realise that it's a font. I just see the words in my head.
Just for fun, here's a screenshot from the original Sega CD version of Lunar.
Uh. Nevermind. Let's move on.
Maybe you don't mind the fonts in Lunar iOS. Maybe you can look past them. That's OK. Some details are more grating to some people; not every part of a game will stand out to your senses. Problem is, when a detail does start to bug you, when something compels you to notice it and over-analyze it and think about it constantly, you won't be able to get it out of your head.
And there are all sorts of other little things hidden within the crevices of RPGs that might not feel important when you're experiencing them. You might not even notice what they are.
Death animations, for example. In many action-role-playing games, you'll slash at an enemy X number of times until he or she or it explodes in a cloud of grey smoke, or disintegrates into a pile of dust, or melts into thin air. It's something you might notice, but never think much about. It's just kind of there, part of the natural rhythm as you hack away at things.
Then the other day I stumbled upon this gameplay video of Across Age, an action-RPG for iOS. Watch it. You'll notice that when enemies die, they literally just vanish, as if their entire existence was just a figment of your imagination. As if the artists were too lazy or time-crunched to draw up proper death animations.
It's jarring, no? RPGs have a certain rhythm, and when something takes us out of that groove, it can be tough to jump back in.
It's these little things that are part of what we mean when we call games "polished". When we talk about big, popular, well-designed experiences, the Marios and Zeldas and Final Fantasys of the world, we're talking about games that do a lot of little things very, very well.
And some of my favourite RPGs are minutia. I love the way characters will step forward when it's their turn during combat in Final Fantasy VI. I love how battle backgrounds will pulse along with the music in Mother 3. I love that the pitch of the babble-language dialogue in Lufia 2 will shift lower or higher depending who's talking.
So next time you're playing an RPG, take a few moments to notice the little things. What you might really notice is that you can't live without them.
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.