How do you feel about RPG’s protagonists tendency to save the world? I think “small scale” RPG, where most of the action is limited to one region, could be as engaging as running around the whole world. -Seil
Small-scale RPGs aren’t all that uncommon, I think. The mid-range Ultima games (IV-VI) were generally focused on the affairs of a single kingdom. The Fallout series usually looks at an area the size of a medium US state. Persona 4 (unless the secret ending contradicts me) is essentially a morality play set in a Japanese small town. But I could list examples all day- that doesn’t make for a very helpful conversation, now does it?
Unless you’re talking about very short stories, every tale sooner or later has to raise the stakes. The traditional three-act story structure requires that the fundamental conflict change over the course of the second act, so that the climax feels grander and more important (and more satisfying to the audience) than the first act. The Avengers begins with the initial conflict- Loki has stolen the Tesseract and mind controlled a bunch of SHIELD personnel and is enacting some kind of plot- and gradually escalates to the climax- Loki opens a portal to somewhere in space, and an invasion of alien warriors threatens the entire earth. I won’t bore you with an extended lecture on story structure though- other people have done it better and I wasn’t all that great at college-level English anyway.
What RPGs (and, it seems, JRPGs in particular) often due is focus on increasing the scale of the conflict rather than exploring other ways of raising the stakes. In action movies, things often get “personal” at one point- in the Matrix, for example, the scale of the conflict (ie, freeing the human race from the machines’ control) never really changes, but the climax is kicked off when Neo’s mentor, Morpheus, is kidnapped (ie, something specific the hero cares about is threatened, rather than a broader conflict that is difficult for the human mind to properly comprehend). A few games don’t shy away from this. The stakes are raised in Persona 4 when Nanako is put under personal threat.
Another way to raise the stakes in by sheer exhaustion. To get away from the examples from movies and RPGs, in the first silent Hill game the stakes never really change- Harry is looking for his daughter the whole time, and uncovering the mystery doesn’t really change his driving motivation to find her. But by the end of the game, Harry sounds tired and exhausted, having been through hell (thrice!) and (probably) just murdered his only real ally. The stakes are raised not because anything about the conflict changes, but Harry’s got nothing left but a hail mary play, going all in with his remaining energy and sanity to end the conflict before the conflict ends him.
Shit, I’m listing examples again. The reason why I think a lot of games decide to increase the scale of conflicts rather than finding other ways of raising the stakes is because spectacle is easier than good writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with spectacle, but it’s far harder to get an audience to care about the small things. A big final boss fight against a dragon is easier than, say, a race against time to save a little girl being used as a hostage. The dragon doesn’t need to be “sold” very hard to the audience- as long as it looks bigger and more threatening than anything else the player has fought, that makes it a climax. Getting an audience to really care about a character, a group, or a region is much harder.
Now, I hope you all don’t get the impression that I hate spectacle, or I think smaller conflicts are better- just because something is more difficult to do doesn’t make it automatically more enjoyable. It’s just that broadening the scale of conflict to raise the stakes is easy, and, to be honest, we’re all still figuring out how to tell stories through the medium of video games. Nobody’s got the perfect formula quite yet, and once that happens, well, I think all game developers will be forced to raise the stakes- on their own writing and plot development.