This is weird. I feel like I'm violating some unspoken taboo here, so seldom do we see anyone--in the community, in the media, in the industry--talk about western RPGs and their Japanese cousins in the same breath. Anyway, I'm excited for Deadfire, and I'd like to discuss some very special JRPGs that I think could provide interesting and valuable examples for the overall design of Obsidian's impending epic. I hope you'll indulge me on this journey.
First, a quick refresher on Deadfire's premise:
In Deadfire, we'll be captaining a ship and exploring the Deadfire archipelago. There will be an active world map (similar to that of Fallout 1/2, or more recently Wasteland 2) for us to explore, discovering and visiting the islands we find in whichever order we want. Presumably this will allow for some nonlinear storytelling, as the narrative beats we encounter will depend on the order we visit each island. To use Lord of the Rings as an example, something like saving Theoden from Saruman's curse might be accomplished *before* meeting Elrond in Rivendell. That kind of thing.
So, on to the JRPGs.
Dragon Quest VII follows a similar premise--the story begins with you discovering a sailing ship and exploring a world that consists of many islands of varying sizes that have been isolated from one another for centuries. The over-arching story is pretty simple: long ago, the Almighty fought a pitched battle with the Demon King and was defeated. Your task is to travel to each island and save them from the Demon King's minions (there's also a big time travel element, where you go between past and future states of the world, but it's not relevant here) and eventually find and defeat the Demon King himself. But that's just at the macro level--each individual island has its own story that is very self-contained. These stories are never about the demon king, but rather the specific demons plaguing each islands, and the often tragic fates of the people living there. This makes the game feel more like a collection of loosely-related short stories than a novel. Each island offers a new, self-contained story with a new cast of characters. When you land on an island, you get a *new* story, and when you leave the island, that story is *resolved.*
And this is an approach I hope Deadfire takes as well. I'm not saying we should *never* end up having quests that send us from island to island, but rather that I hope those quests are not the norm. Baldur's Gate II took a similar approach, making each region feel like a self-contained D&D module.
Romancing SaGa is the other game I want to look at. To date, it remains the *best* example I have ever seen of non-linear storytelling (multiple protagonists, multiple story routes for each protagonist, and a persistent world where big events will happen even if the player isn't there to affect them). There's a whole heckuva lot I could say about it, but for now I'd like to focus on just one aspect: location. in Romancing Saga, there is a "world story" that plays out--various events happen in each of the major cities and nations at various times. If the player is present--at the right place, at the right time--he or she can participate. For example, City A could be attacked by pirates. If the player arrives in time, he or she could fight off the pirate attack, save the city, and be rewarded by the king; but if the player arrives too late, he or she could arrive to find the king missing and the city destroyed by fire.
No, I'm not suggesting Deadfire try to make a persistent world narrative to the same degree--that's be waaaaaay too much work--but wouldn't it be interesting if the player's starting position were--at least to a degree--randomized? So that, for example, the first two or three islands the player discovers once he or she starts exploring the world aren't always the same two or three islands?
Like, there could be a starting island to serve as the tutorial area to introduce to players to the setting, and have the initial narrative beats (where you acquire your own ship) and then once you leave, you could encounter a "storm" that deposits you to a random or semi-random part of the world-map (depending on how combat leveling/scaling works, I suppose). This starting island doesn't even have to be in the Deadfire--it could be a port city in the Dyrwood, as you make your hasty escape.
Alright, one last game I want to point at: Total War Shogun 2. Also known as the last great Total War game (sigh). Don't worry, I'm almost done here. Specifically, I want to point out Shogun 2's world map:
That's the "fog of war." Rather than a simple black background indicating the "unexplored" regions of the map, they have a hand-drawn map. It's a really cool effect, no?
And I'd love to see Deadfire go in a similar direction. Medieval and Renaissance maps are, well, really cool looking. Especially sea maps! It would be really cool to see something similar in Deadfire--an imaginative, hand-drawn map of the "world" that fades away to the "real" world map as you explore it.
And, well, yeah. That's it. Those are three games I hope Obsidian takes some inspiration from. What about you? Have any games (aside from other, similar CRPGs) that you think could be valuable to look at going into a game like Deadfire?
Before I leave, though, have some awesome old sea maps: