Thoughts on Open-World RPGs and the D&D Lineage

Open-world RPGs have never really been my thing, though it’s less about genre preference and more about circumstances. I was never much of a PC gamer when RPGs like Baldur’s Gate were around, and by the time similar games (such as The Elder Scrolls series) emerged on more powerful console hardware, I didn’t have any of those systems. But from a distance, I find the branching paths of Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs to be such a wonderful story of diverging Dungeons & Dragons lineages—namely how the former has taken more from the customization and self-insertion aspects of tabletop roleplaying in contrast to the latter and how the latter has went on to emphasize the narrative and storytelling components by way of old Western computer RPGs such as Wizardry.

It might be my ignorance and unfamiliarity at work, but I see expansive open-world RPGs as putting less emphasis on defining strong characters through which a story unfolds. More often than not, my impression is that they are about putting the player in the driver’s seat and trying to convey a virtual environment where they can do “whatever they want” within the boundaries of a game’s programming. Even if they have set things to do and accomplish, these games are meant to feel like your story.

That being said, plenty of JRPGs have user insert characters, including Dragon Quest and Pokemon have audience insert protagonists, and the latter even allows for heavier aesthetic customization now. However, I do feel that there is a more defined sense of a default look and feel to these generic JRPG player characters, and the result is that they also end up feeling like someone you’re observing from a distance—like you’re in a dream seeing yourself from a third-person perspective.  For me, personally, I’ve traditionally preferred that direction.

Of course, I’m making certain assumptions and generalizations when I define Western RPGs as more expansive and open-world, as even those words can change meaning and significance depending on what players are used to and how they perceive the importance of those qualities. For example, it’s interesting to me that the prevailing online opinion on Pokemon Black & White has changed so drastically in the ten years since its debut. 

Back when it first launched, the games were criticized as being too easy and hand-holdy—you always knew exactly where to go next. This was a far cry from the original Pokemon Red & Blue generation-1 games, which gave far fewer explanations and kind of left a lot of things ambiguous. But now, Black & White are touted as being one of the gold standards of Pokemon, and its descendants inferior for their perceived lack of strong and focused storytelling. Red & Blue, in turn, are seen as cumbersome relics that don’t do enough to guide players. It comes down to a generational divide, but even within the specific realm of Pokemon—hardly what you’d call a premiere example of open-world gameplay—this debate about the two Dungeons & Dragons lineages takes place.

I feel that the success of expansive open-world RPGs on an individual level comes down to whether or not the inevitably less defined bits of narrative that are a consequence of heavy personal customization and gameplay systems that encourage defining “your” story as opposed to following someone else’s. Both it and the JRPG style are capable of capturing people’s imaginations, but it’s what we want to do with our captive imaginations that highlights our differences.

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