Groundhog Day: Repetition in RPGs

A common criticism of videogames by professional reviews, regardless of the genre, is that they’re “repetitive,” but just what makes games repetitive? This editorial will analyze the various aspects, specifically in role-playing games, which can contribute to repetition.

Players encounter plentiful repetition when booting up a game on whatever console or consoles serve their entertainment needs, what with the introductory screens that they see before diving into the games they desire to play. Repetition also occurs when entering the game itself, what with the company screens that show most every entity behind the game’s development. In many instances, these particular screens are unskippable, and what’s more, certain titles, such as most entries of the diverse Megami Tensei series, force players to endure them over and over not just when they boot up the game, but when they die, as well, which can really add superfluous playing time when they die often, something native to the Megami Tensei lineup.

Pretty much the only game that this writer has played that actually allows players to skip company screens is another Atlus game, Stella Deus: The Gate of Eternity, a feature that other titles in and out of the genre should implement, although games can simply spare players the time and annoyance by allowing players the opportunity to restart the lost battle or promptly reload their last save file should they die in combat. Given their space restrictions, moreover, most titles of the 8-bit era didn’t bombard players with endless corporate logos, so there really is no excuse to force gamers to view them endlessly in their gaming endeavors.

Repetition also occurs within a game’s mechanics regardless of the genre, as well, with titles sporting random encounters, a considerably-dated mechanism in the current generation of games, typically being among the most repetitive, where most battles involve the player crushing the enemy with the same strategy, maybe with slight alterations depending upon the type and/or number of the enemy. Certain titles such as the Megami Tensei titles try to cut down on repetition by having foes defeatable with specific exploitable weaknesses, with scan magic being a godsend in fights against enemies never previously encountered.

Sometimes, however, players may forget the weaknesses of enemies they repeatedly encounter, necessitating the use of scan magic or items again in the process while simultaneously squandering what could be a valuable turn, especially in many Megami Tensei titles. There are some titles, such as more contemporary Megami Tenseis like the third and fourth Persona games, where scanning works permanently against specific enemies, thus cutting down on time and annoyance in repeated battles. In a reasonable attempt to add difficulty to boss fights, however, scan magic might not show all weaknesses, with trial and error being necessary in story battles.

Another attempt by developers to reduce repetition in battle is the complete absence of random encounters, with titles such as EarthBound featuring visible enemies on fields between towns and in dungeons. The natural instinct of visible foes, in such titles, is to charge the player, with certain games such as the Grandia and Lunar franchises having foes charge the player’s party regardless of level, adding needless repetition if the rewards are weak. Certain titles such as EarthBound attempt to rectify this by putting some twists onto non-random fights, such as having enemies run away from the player’s party if their levels are high, and allowing the players to score instant victories against the weaker enemies without an encounter screen, something all developers should strive for.

Since most of a player’s time with an RPG will arguably be in combat, battles can definitely become repetitive, and in these instances it is necessary for developers to make constant battle against the enemy somehow enjoyable, for instance, with character development systems such as Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid or the Mantras in the Digital Devil Saga duology. Random encounters that only provide the reward of experience for the next level, and thus generic “grinding,” can in most instances be the epitome of repetition.

Game mechanics aside, repetition can also occur outside battle with regards to the interface and control aspects. In many instances repeated actions are unavoidable, for instance, with the purchase of valuable curative items or new equipment, although certain titles such as the Star Ocean franchise sometimes spare the need to go into the menus to change gear by sporting “equipment wizards” that automatically outfit characters with new and better equipment whether they buy it or obtain it from treasure chests. An “equip best” option is another alternative for cutting down on outfitting new gear.

Repetition can occur during dungeon exploration, as well, particularly if a player needs to exit prematurely to restock on supplies in town or recover lost health. In these instances, warp magic can work wonders, especially if they can allow a player to exit a dungeon instantly and teleport to a town. However, many titles with warp magic such as most Dragon Quest games only allow for teleportation between towns but not dungeons, and in these cases, the ability to warp between dungeons as well would be a godsend and cut down the superfluous time necessary for players to retrace their steps back to the dungeon. In-dungeon teleportation can also cut down a little on repetition, something present in games such as The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.

Role-playing games with puzzles in their dungeons such as the Wild Arms franchise try to reduce the repetition of exploration with puzzles solvable by tools unique to each character, something that’s definitely welcome in RPGs, although those that can potentially drive the player to use a guide are most definitely not at home. Certain puzzles also require trial and error, although these too can be tedious, but some games such as Tales of Phantasia feature some minigames that are skippable after a number of tries, such as a room where Cless has to press switches simultaneously with Arche, which their allies will do if they fail enough times. In the end, developers should certainly strive to take steps to reduce repetition both in and out of battle.

Although at a less frequent rate, repetition can occur within RPG stories, particularly if their plots involve collecting a certain number of MacGuffins, animate or inanimate, that follow boss battles, for instance, the pendants and then crystals in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, although the collection of each of the latter gives unique insight on that particular title’s backstory. Stories that don’t involve MacGuffins of any kind, for instance the aforementioned Digital Devil Saga duology, typically suffer not from repetition, although there are some repeats of boss fights from the first game in the latter part of its successor that can slightly mar the narrative.

Role-playing game repetition can occur in music, as well, particularly with regards to battle themes, with most titles of the genre sporting only one regular random encounter theme that can undoubtedly become repetitive since most of the player’s time will be in combat. Other titles, such as the Kingdom Hearts pantheon, attempt to mix things up a bit by making battle themes that somewhat sound like sped-up versions of the world themes, and certain franchises such as Grandia feature unique battle themes for instances such as the enemy catching the player off guard. Repetitive battle music actually doesn’t seem to be too much an issue in titles that feature long combat themes such as the Etrian Odyssey titles, the bulk of which players likely won’t hear given the franchise’s fast game mechanics.

Finally, repetition can occur visually, with one point of repetition being the presence of palette-swapped enemies in battle that look exactly like other specific enemies save for a different coat of paint, with one franchise making liberal use of this technique being the Dragon Quest series, although character and monster designer Akira Toriyama sometimes attempts to mix things up with unique foes in each new installment of the Square-Enix series. Somewhat less often are palette-swapped dungeons, which this writer has seen in Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, where two elemental caves look the same save for different colors, and can easily demonstrate lack of creativity. Other titles with typically-long dungeons such as the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon titles attempt to create some variety with some changes in scenery when players reach certain floors, and as with the other aspects, developers should make attempts to prevent visuals from becoming repetitive.

In conclusion, various aspects in role-playing games can sometimes contribute to repetitive experiences such as in a game’s mechanics, its control scheme, sometimes the story, the music, and its visuals. There are definitely things that developers can accomplish to cut down on repetition and make for tighter RPG experiences, although lamentably, repetitive titles still plague the game market, with plenty examples even today of mediocre, redundant shovelware.

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