This discussion of simple stories and bland stories in an RPG contains light spoilers for Bravely Default II.
Video games don’t require a complex story to be fun. In fact, a lot of games don’t require a story at all, like Tetris. Even role-playing games, which are all about going on adventures in often exotic settings, don’t require a complex story to be enjoyable. Satisfying storytelling is ultimately all about the execution, and a simple story told well may be preferable to a complex story that requires a wiki to fully grasp. (I am so sorry for that indirect diss, Xenosaga. I still love you.) However, with that in mind, it is important to distinguish that telling a simple story is not an excuse to tell a bland story in an RPG.
Consider the recently released Bravely Default II from Square Enix. There are those who shrug aside criticisms of its plot, saying that it’s supposed to be a simple story and just a new riff on the “four crystals” stories we have been seeing since the original Final Fantasy. And none of that is inaccurate, but also — none of that excuses that the story is pretty bland.
Simple stories, bland stories, and Bravely Default II
Myriad books have been written about what constitutes good storytelling, but for the sake of brevity, let’s massively simplify and pick out just a few essentials. A compelling story, whether simple or complex, will have the following elements: palpable stakes, character development, and theme.
RPGs have always excelled at setting stakes because most RPGs will result in the destruction of the world or the universe if you fail to stop the Four Fiends / Lavos / the Reapers etc. RPGs are often inherently about antagonistic relationships between groups — rebel forces against empires, humans against demigods — which lends itself to a variety of creative stakes on both intimate and world scales. Ideally, those two scales will intertwine, as seen in Lunar: The Silver Star when the hero must confront his childhood sweetheart who has been brainwashed into a catastrophic threat.
Bravely Default II has relatively clear stakes: You need to retrieve the four elemental crystals to preserve balance in the world, as well as obtain the power to stop the Holograd Empire from conquering the continent. By the time the game begins, Holograd has in fact already destroyed Princess Gloria’s kingdom, which is responsible for maintaining the crystals, establishing that this is a legitimate threat. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s a perfectly serviceable setup for a simple RPG story.
However, most of the RPGs with bland stories fail when it comes to character development and, often by association, theme. A story is infinitely more interesting when characters change and grow, surprising themselves and us with what they can become. And that growth doesn’t need to be extraordinarily deep; it just needs to be enough to maintain player investment.
Most NES RPGs had minimal or nonexistent character development, due to technical constraints or simply due to the fact that many of their protagonists are blank-slate avatars for the player. The 16-bit era changed this, with Final Fantasy IV (released as Final Fantasy II in North America) on SNES feeling like a revelation: Protagonist Cecil starts the game by leading an attack that kills exclusively innocent people, and it almost immediately establishes that one of the game’s themes is about the desire for redemption. And as the game progresses, several of the heroes undergo at least some important development, even if there’s never great depth to any of it.
Final Fantasy IV, like Bravely Default II, is a “collect the crystals” story, and FFIV main planner Takashi Tokita himself has described the game as having a “simple story.” Yet Bravely Default II isn’t anywhere near as daring or memorable with its “simple story” as that nearly 30-year-old RPG, because its characters are largely static.
It’s forgivable in the case of protagonist Seth, who again serves the role of player avatar. (At least he speaks, unlike most Persona protagonists.) But when it comes to comrades Gloria, Elvis, and Adelle, the lack of change is more frustrating.
Gloria’s entire personality comes from being a princess of a doomed land. Elvis is a mischievous scholar who likes to drink. And Adelle seems to be a generic kindhearted rogue, albeit hiding one of the only real plot twists in the whole game. All of these are actually fine setups for characters, even if distressed maidens and lovable rogues are well-tread territory, but then little is done to bend or expand upon any of it.
Most of these characters, at one point or another, confront some element of their past in the story, but it doesn’t result in palpable change. Elvis gets angry when someone manipulates his friends, for example, but once the right bad guys are beat up and order has been restored, he doesn’t feel like he’s grown. Rather, it just feels like “another job well done!” for our heroes. In general, throughout the game the protagonists only achieve extremely vague development like learning to “embrace life” and to trust each other. Vague, unsatisfying platitudes seem to be all that Bravely Default II can muster on a thematic level as well.
Granted, that is a slight simplification of the narrative. The Bravely Default series in general has an undercurrent of characters striving to become more than what they are, as the Asterisks literally transform characters into different, more powerful versions of themselves. The pursuit of power to effect change — and the subsequent corruption that comes from that power — is a central motif among the villains of Bravely Default II, but again, all of the villains are so static that it becomes difficult for them to garner interest. They are bland characters, often more so than the protagonists.
However, it’s important to note that just because a story is bland doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed. I’m not here to tell anyone that they can’t or shouldn’t enjoy Bravely Default II or any number of other RPGs with storytelling failings, like I Am Setsuna. I’m also not here to gatekeep and say people should only enjoy 30-year-old RPGs. After all, at the very least, children and/or newcomers to the RPG genre are bound to find something novel and enjoyable in such games.
I’m only saying that we should not forgive a simple story for being bland just because it is simple. An RPG with a simple story can become a classic, like Final Fantasy IV, Lunar: The Silver Star, or Dragon Quest V. If anything, the games with simple stories — where there are not literally thousands of years of backstory or complex cycles of reincarnation for the main characters — should be the ones that are even easier to enjoy. So let’s not lower our storytelling standards for Square Enix or any other RPG developer. Let’s encourage them to keep swinging for the fences in stories big and small.