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Role-Playing Games Have Been My Life Before I Even Knew What They Were

How I discovered the joys of a sometimes confusing, often trope-ridden genre.

by Ian Dransfield
May 12 2015, 2:10pm

'Final Fantasy VII,' obviously.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

The life of a nerd is thrilling, from the early years of thinking it matters that people mock you for being weird, through to later on when you realize literally none of that matters and you were a moron for caring what those dickheads thought. Also: The older you get, the more you get to enthuse about role-playing games.

But my journey to RPG nirvana was a bit all over the place. I didn't play Dungeons & Dragons, I tried Space Hulk once and got pissed off with the rules, and I would never give any Japanese games the time of day on my Amiga. It's a genre that could easily have passed me by—I could be like so many VICE readers out there, unable to accept that, actually, Final Fantasy XII is a really good game.

But something happened. I had an epiphany. Well, a slow epiphany, which sort of defeats the entire meaning of "epiphany," but I've used the word so now I'm sticking with it.

In the beginning I had no idea what I was even doing, never mind that these things had an entire genre behind them. I picked up Megatraveller 1 on the Amiga because I liked the look of it. Sci-fi! Stuff like that! Umm, mega! But I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I went back to Speedball 2.

Amiga Power, the greatest gaming publication of all time, went mad for Hired Guns, so my brother and I couldn't wait to get our fat, jam-smeared hands on it. But we were idiots. We didn't know what the hell it was about, or why you could only move a grid-based square at a time, or what the difference was between your characters, or why it was just Dungeon Master (which I also didn't get) but with more science fiction.

I even tried that game I can't remember the name of where, I kid thee not, if you didn't wipe your ass after going for a shit you died. Seriously, it's almost like the RPG genre didn't even want me. Me! Ian! A nerd!

'Hired Guns'

But much as the nasty genre attempted to keep me at arm's length, and much as my time with the SNES was colored mainly by Super Mario Kart and Mortal Kombat II, I made the leap in 1997. Thanks to a preview in CVG—a massive, gushing article full of the sort of praise that would make all 25 people who still think Gamergate is a thing set off their loudest collusion klaxon—I put £42 in an envelope and waited for some un-remembered import company to send me a copy of Final Fantasy VII.

And waited quite a while, because it seems the postal worker had nabbed the two quid from the envelope but left the 40 notes. A phone call and a check written by mummy later and I had it in my hands. The quest to get it playing in color was a whole other thing—something you post-non-NTSC-capable-TV generation kids will never understand. But the game! Man, the game.

I had no fucking clue. No fucking clue. What were all these numbers? Why did I have to drink shit to not die? Why couldn't I bash the buttons to hit them repeatedly? Why were they all talking such utter gibberish? What the fuck was Cait Sith? Why had I named the main character "Smoothy?" (Clue: Because I was a nerd who thought he knew how to be cool.)

But something about it stuck with me. More epic than anything else I'd played, with moments that I actually gave a shit about. Much as I loved ISS and WWF: The Arcade Game, they didn't make me feel an emotion like that bit with Red XIII's dad did. It had taken 14 years of me being alive, but the genre that I really should have been into all along had bitten, hard. (On topic, check out VICE's two-part guide to the greatest moments of the Final Fantasy series.)

Related: The Mystical Universe of Magic: The Gathering:

So the snowballing period followed—Vandal Hearts with its ludicrous gushing of blood and Fisher Price My First Strategic RPG difficulty; Vagrant Story with its intro that I must have watched 20 times in a row; Suikoden with its "I didn't get into this as much as my mate who got all 108 stars did;" the other Final Fantasies with me actually knowing what in the name of Ultimecia was going on; a loaned copy of Fallout from a friend and the realization that there was a good Mad Max game out there; walking into my housemate's room back at uni and seeing him hopping up a mountain in Morrowind and realizing that yes, I had chosen the right genre (but said housemate was still a prick).

There was the belated appreciation—the Chrono Trigger session that lasted until I got to the last boss and couldn't win, so I never went back to it again. The difficulty spike in Final Fantasy III that just made me completely stop playing it. Other games got played, sure, but this was now the genre—I wanted to get lost in some badly translated bullshit trope-ridden world for 100 hours at a time, critics be damned.

It even matured with me, at least to some extent—as I became a fully-fledged manchild I was introduced to Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Fallout 3, and Oblivion, all from just two studios. Life was good, even if life involved sitting inside for most of it while living a life of someone else on a screen in a virtual world that wasn't real and no I didn't have a girlfriend.

The 'Mass Effect' trilogy was one of the most critically acclaimed RPG series of the previous hardware generation.

But even though it seemed so perfect, the dark times soon enough came. Final Fantasy XIII with that fucking Leona Lewis song that I will hear on a loop when I end up in hell. Dragon Age II with whatever its developers had been smoking to make them so lazy as to cut-and-paste three dungeons and fob the results off as an entire game. Two fucking Worlds.

I honestly thought that was it. My period of playing and enjoying RPGs was over; I would return to just playing FIFA and be done with it, never again sinking 100 hours into something or caring about the fretting shrieks of an adolescent girl (who also has The Magic That Can Save the World, or something) while a pervy old man and a talking salamander make awful jokes in the background. The RPG was dead.

But with death comes rebirth—you know, as per the old saying that I just made up—and other people were given chances to make games, and other series I didn't pay attention to previously came to the fore. I was wrong about not sinking 100 hours into something ever again, because Persona 4 Golden made me do that (and get obsessed with its soundtrack), while Dragon Age: Inquisition was so absolutely not shit it almost made me forget about Mass Effect 3's original ending. Final Fantasy XV looks like it might not be shit, too, and Square Enix finally fixed Final Fantasy XIV. We're back into a golden age, sort of. Maybe. Hopefully. Otherwise I'll spend the rest of my gaming life (i.e. "all of my life") playing shitty, tired RPGs.

Extreme 'Football Manager.'

But the greatest—the absolute best—RPG I've ever played is one I got into when I didn't understand what the hell they were. Some think me counting this as an RPG shows I still don't know what they are, but to them I say: Show me how Football Manager isn't the greatest RPG ever made. I even made a stupid video about it, which you can watch above. If you like.

Nothing has ever grasped me so firmly by the imagination gland, making me stay up 'til way past my bedtime just because I had to see if that Brazilian kid would learn English by the end of the year, or if I could let my aging midfielder leave in the summer only to immediately re-sign him on 35 percent of his original wages, or until I was so furious with a sequence of results from my finely crafted team that I threw my laptop at the wall and broke it.

All those things—and a lot more—have happened during my life with RPGs. I might not have understood that I was actually playing one back in the day, but it seems the love has always been there. It's not all shit haircuts, rampant melodrama and Yewtree-alerting female characters—role-playing games are fucking brilliant.

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Final Fantasy
Retro Gaming
Adventure Games
Role-playing games
Football Manager
Mass Effect
Ian Dransfield
Hired Guns