“Clementine Will Remember That…” aka Narrative RPGs

grayscale photo of female zombie

Forget everything I’ve been telling you about DnD for the past year–about dice rolls and RNGs. Let all that talk of attack strength and weapons fade from your mind. Release the brain cells that are reserved for sorcery and magic spells….

…Okay, now this is starting to sound like a meditation, so I’ll get to the point.

Last month, we talked about how tabletop games like DnD inspired many video games, including the RPG (role-playing game) genre. It was easy to track how elements transferred over, from HP and stats, to backstories and motivations. We defined RPGs as games that prioritize battling, whether it be via a menu or using real-time attack, and place importance on “leveling up” and gaining new skills.

What if I told you that there is a subgenre of RPGs where none of that matters?

Enter: the narrative RPG.

What is that? You might ask. Aren’t all RPGs narrativeWell, more of less to varying degrees, but Narrative RPGs in particular make storytelling the priority. Lay down your swords, because you won’t be needing them here. These RPGs are all about the story, and let you–the player–be the one to tell it.

One of these most popular franchises is The Walking Dead. TellTale Games, albeit a questionable game company for their unhealthy labor practices, really cemented the genre with this narrative series. Your main interaction in the game isn’t physically fighting off zombies; instead, it’s choosing your words wisely to your fellow humans (NPCs), because they will always come back to bite you (pun intended). Despite their non-playability, their memories of the things you tell these non-playable characters and the actions you take with them play quite the role in the realm of the plot. It’s very much a choose-your-own-adventure game, in the way you won’t know which direction a choice takes you in until it’s too late.

Take a look at this flow chart of the order of events available in the first Walking Dead game. Though some of your choices might seem inconsequential, its development really paved the way for this new world of video game storytelling. You’re not quite the Dungeon Master of the game, because you don’t have omniscient foresight of the plot, but you’re also more powerful than one single party member of a campaign. Your actions are the sole progressor of the story, even if you don’t always know where they’ll next you next.

Other games you might have heard of in this genre have similar linearities, like the Life is Strange series and, the very-fitting-for-Halloween Until Dawn. Each one has their own twist to make it special; Until Dawn utilizes Quick Time Events to test your reflexes, and gives you very little time to make your decisions, while Life is Strange has a “rewind” feature that allows you to see multiple outcomes without committing. It’s the perfect genre for those who are new to video games, who was to see the story unfold without having to “grind” in battle through standard RPG combat. Much like DnD, Narrative RPGs aren’t about how deftly your thumbs can press buttons on a controller, but how quickly you can consider your options and think on your feet. It’s like virtual improv!

Of course, some games toe the line of this subgenre. Series like Dragon Age and Mass Effect combine exciting combat with decision-making. You have dialogue options that will gravely affect the plot, but you can also swing your sword around as much as you want if you’d rather focus on that. For those who want it all, these types of RPGs have the best of both worlds so you never get bored, like a video game buffet. Just like DnD campaigns, these games can go in whatever direction you wish–you just might not know where you’re headed until you’re already there.

Until then, players, let the good dice roll! ⚀⚁⚂