From Sea of Stars to Baldur's Gate 3: What makes a good RPG city?
RPGs are known for their numbers. The numbers that increase when you win a battle. The number of dialogue options in a conversation. The number of lev...
RPGs are known for their numbers. The numbers that increase when you win a battle. The number of dialogue options in a conversation. The number of levels you have to reach to challenge a tough boss, or the number of available endings, or the number of abilities you can equip at once. But a part of what makes an RPG successful cannot be quantified. It's something simple yet undefinable. How does it feel to play the game in the time between major events? How does it feel to inhabit the world of the game? Are there characters worth talking to? And is the place they live in interesting?
Sea of Stars is a fantastic RPG. That's what I said in my review here. I also mentioned that one of its only real issues is that its cities are simply not very well-designed.
I grew up with Pokémon. Red, Blue, and Yellow were the first RPGs I ever played, and they set a standard for what this type of game could achieve with its inhabited areas. In those Pokémon games for the Game Boy, you could enter every building (unless there was a story reason for it to be locked) and talk to the people inside. Often, they would only have a sentence or two to say, but that small amount of dialogue helped bring the world to life.
The studio Sabotage has created Sea of Stars in the style of RPGs from the 90s, but only manages to capture this aspect sporadically. Similar to Cyberpunk 2077, there are many doors that are inexplicably locked, especially in Brisk, an early-accessible port town. As a result, the cities that could make the world come alive and feel immersive instead appear somewhat disappointing. Playing Sea of Stars makes me contemplate what exactly makes a good RPG city. Is it solely about being able to interact with everyone? Is there more to it?
It depends on the type of role-playing game we're discussing. In a vast, expansive, 3D open-world game like The Witcher 3, it doesn't seem fair to expect every NPC to have fully voiced dialogues. If an NPC is only there to sing a few lines of "Singing in the Rain" as I pass by in Novigrad, so be it. The background conversation approach used in Final Fantasy VII Remake is a clever way to shape a world without needing to provide a dialogue tree for every NPC. In fact, I would love to see more developers adopt this presentation concept directly.
Others have gone even further. Rockstar Games shouldn't be the benchmark for the industry because it has much more money and time to perfect projects than most other developers (and its pursuit of perfection has historically led to reports of overtime). However, Red Dead Redemption 2 is the rare open-world game where you can talk to every single person in the world. Even in such an expansive city like Saint Denis, everyone can engage in conversation with you. This makes the world feel real, but it's also not achievable for most studios.
Currently, I'm playing Baldur's Gate 3. It's a game, like Red Dead Redemption 2, that would be challenging for most studios to accomplish, with seemingly endless possibilities that extend from the crash site of the Nautiloid, where the game truly begins. Your early adventures can lead you to various settlements. There's the Druid Grove, the infected village, and the Goblin Camp. Each settlement is packed with numerous NPCs, and there are many small interactions that can take place with each of them. A mischievous trader might distract you while another steals and hides your gold. You could attempt to guide an owlbear through an obstacle course to earn its freedom. You could walk into a barn and catch an ogre indulging in merriment with a goblin rogue.
Ultimately, a game can evoke a similar feeling even with a much smaller budget. An old man sitting in his house in Pokémon may do nothing more than utter a single line. However, if that line is memorable, it contributes to painting that piece of the world. Alternatively, developers could place a useful item in the trash can in the corner of the room. Or the character could be running around the house because they're late for work. All these things don't require cutting-edge technology; they just require some thought on how to design the world. No matter where you go, it feels like things are happening, even if they're smaller in scale.
Ultimately, that's all I really want from an RPG city. The "happening" could be Team Rocket using the supermarket in the center of town as their base. Or it could be a druid trapped in the dungeons beneath a goblin camp. When the location and characters come together in the right way, it can give you the feeling of being part of something bigger; as if you're more than just a number in a world where numbers increase.