I recently had the pleasure of playing Freebird Games’ To The Moon for the first time. Yes, I know I’m late to the party, and everything that needs to be said about that game has already been said, but god damn it, there are few games deserving of such high praise, so praise it I shall. To The Moon was one of the most thought provoking video games I’ve ever played- it’s honestly changed my understanding of what “good” game design actually is. There’s little in the way of interaction between the player and the game – no turn based combat, no weapon crafting. And that doesn’t matter. The game relies entirely upon a heartfelt storyline: a moving tale, touching on themes of life, death, and living with your memories. It’s an absolutely breath-taking experience, all wrapped in the skin of an SNES era RPG.

One of the things that makes the success To The Moon so impressive is that it wasn’t the work of a big team of developers. Instead, it was created using possibly the most basic, and limited of game making tool: the much maligned RPG Maker, an engine that has become synonymous with lazy, cash-grab titles, all because it’s been used to churn out so many of the copy and paste JRPG titles that flood the Steam store.

To the moon art

RPG Maker games have earned themselves a bad reputation. Too many use the same unimaginative plotlines, and the same recycled mechanics, and this has led a lot of people to believe that RPG Maker is just a tool for lazy developers to rely on the same old clichés.

But as titles like To the Moon, Eternal Eden, and Millennium: A New Hope have proven, in the hands of developers with talent, drive and a sense of artistic direction, it can be used to create amazing games. RPG Maker MV, the newest title in the series, has just released, and I’d like to take the opportunity to take a look at why we shouldn’t be writing off RPG Maker games just because they were built with this engine.

RPG maker Menu

RPG Maker prides itself on its simplicity – in fact, that’s one of the main points the developers use to sell it. The Steam Store page describes it as “simple enough for a child; powerful enough for a developer.” It offers developers everything they need to make a fully-fledged RPG, regardless of their experience, or programming skill. It’s a simple, elegant tool that allows anyone with a story to tell a way to tell it. Unfortunately, this simplicity is a double-edged sword. Too many developers think they can just chuck together the basic assets of an RPG, and still create a good game.

In a world that already has Dragon Quest, Earthbound, the Final Fantasy series, and countless more classics, why would anybody be interested in playing a cobbled together title that relies entirely upon on the same tired mechanics, and the same story we’ve heard a thousand times before?

The answer is no one, and that’s why in the modern industry, an RPG has to find a way to innovate if it’s going to be a success.

The recently released Undertale is a prime example of this. Undertale mimics the classic turn-based formula, but still finds a range of ways to breathe new life into the genre. We’re all familiar with the tedium of grinding in turn based RPG’s- mashing the same button over and over, to get through the same battle over and over, to earn experience and level up your party members. We’ve accepted this as just an unavoidable trend of the genre, but Undertale takes this accepted trend and throws it out the window, incorporating a unique battle system best described as bullet hell with a heart.

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Of course, Undertale wasn’t created using RPG Maker. RPG Maker is designed to give developers everything they need to create a standard turn-based RPG game that sticks to the norm. You can’t (or it would be very difficult to) make something that bucks so many trends in that engine. That’s not what it’s designed for. Some would call this limited, but, as To The Moon shows, there’s a lot you can do within the confines of the norm, with a little hard work.

In an RPG, the quality that often differentiates the good from the bad is the narrative. Epic stories with fully fleshed out, 3-dimensional characters- these are the RPGs that truly stick with you. When Aerith died in Final Fantasy 7, hearts were broken and tears were shed. It’s one of the most shocking moments in any video game- the moment Sephiroth drives that sword through her, it feels as though the sword has been driven through your heart as well as hers.

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To The Moon is another game that tugs on the heartstrings of the player throughout. There are tons of YouTube videos of people reacting to Laura Shigihara’s “Everything’s Alright”, the beautiful song that plays at the game’s conclusion. There are always floods of tears, but this is one of those rare occasions that I don’t think they’re all hamming it up for views.

To The Moon even finds a way to innovate with the mechanics of RPG titles. The game throws away turn based battles altogether. When you start removing mechanics from games, you often wind up with gameplay that feels as though it’s missing something- usually, that something is the mechanic that was taken away. We see this in the number of “walking simulators”that remove the combat element, only to end up being lifeless and dull without it. The fact that To the Moon still works, even with one of the key elements removed, is a testament to just how strong its story is.

To The Moon- Johnny's room

To judge the quality of RPG Maker itself, based on the number of poor games we see effortlessly churned out, is a disservice to RPG Maker. With enough effort, beautiful things can be created. The best developers using RPG Maker are storytellers, crafting storylines that grab audiences and make them truly feel something. RPG Maker offers these storytellers everything they need to package their story as a fully interactive experience.

The best developers using RPG Maker are storytellers, crafting storylines that grab audiences and make them truly feel something.

Of course, there are always going to be those developers who misuse RPG Maker. But then, any game engine can be abused- the amount of dreck produced using Unity is proof of that. Asset-flipping, the popular term coined by Jim Sterling, is a major problem with Unity- anyone can go on the asset store, buy some pre-made assets, chuck some maps together, and put it on Steam, looking to make a fast buck. Unfortunately, RPG Maker suffers from the same problem.

Making a good RPG is a really big project. Sprites need to be drawn for each character; battle animations need to be created for each attack; music and sound design needs to be produced for each location. And so, many of them just don’t bother- they just use the assets RPG Maker provides.

It’ll be a while before we start seeing the first titles created with the new RPG Maker. I’d say it’s a fairly safe prediction that many will be the same old predictable hack jobs. In a few months time, we’ll probably be seeing a tidal wave of these games, as the developers who bought the new engine begin proudly unveiling the uninspired, glorified Lego sets they call games. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that all RPG Maker games are this way, and that the engine has no hope. But I’d like to take a moment, and appeal to you, the reader, to look past the rubbish, and remember To The Moon, and Eternal Eden, and Millennium: A New Hope.

There are a lot of talented storytellers out there, and I hope more of them follow in the footsteps of Freebird Studios, and use RPG Maker to bring their stories to life in an interactive way. It would make the Steam store a much better place.

About The Author

Contributor

As a composer and video game enthusiast, Philip has spent years searching for a way to combine his passions for both music and gaming. Then, one day, he figured he could just write about them. He loves to over-analyse the way music helps to shape the player's emotional response in a game. He also loves to criticise bad control schemes, because... Well, they just get on his nerves.

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