Final Fantasy XII and the Future of Educational Role Playing Games

Now that we’ve finished our vacation effort to watch all of LOST seasons 1, 2, and 3, Eva and I are enjoying actually playing Final Fantasy XII [Wikipedia]. I loved LOST (much more than I expected), but it feels good to move on to something interactive.

Meanwhile, I’ve been finally making my way through Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals.

We are enjoying the game, but it occurs to me that current role playing games (of the console and computer game variety) have something important backwards. The most interesting parts of the story are predetermined and are communicated through (admittedly beautiful but) non-interactive cut scenes, while the player controls only relatively mundane tasks such as finding items (or locations) or fighting monsters. The player can’t decide what to say or not say to other characters and cannot affect the story in any important way (in general).

I fully realize the pragmatic reasons behind this, but I think what I am after (personally, and as an educator) is a bit more like the tabletop role playing games I played in the past… an experience where the players (and perhaps a gamemaster – or teacher) create the story as they play. Salen and Zimmerman wrote that “in D&D and other tabletop role-playing games, the game is a system for generating narrative play” (p. 406). I’m interested in a video game that facilitates something similar… actually, rather than a game, it would be a game system that players (and gamemasters) could use to create their own stories, not unlike GURPS or RIFTS or any of the dozens of other systems we spun stories with growing up, including several we created.

Why use a computer for this? Because tabletop games also had something backwards… the parts of the game that described the fastest most intense action were the most painfully slow to play – anything that required rolls of the dice to determine results, including combat. (Some systems, such as West End Games’ old Star Wars game streamlined the rules to alleviate this to some degree.)

So how do we marry the swift and interactive storytelling of a human game master and the swift and interactive rule resolution systems of video games? What would this look like? Would it just be a software package to supplement a traditional tabletop game? I hope not. I’d like to think we can somehow make use of the beautiful 3D environments that are possible today. Would it be something like the Dungeon Siege Tool Kit or the Aurora Neverwinter Toolset? These are probably the closest thing I’ve seen to what I am talking about, but they strike me as too technical or time consuming for most storytellers. I feel the same way about Second Life, though that might be another related possibility.

What am I after here? Can anyone else shine any light on this subject?

Anyone working on it?

Incidentally, as I’ve spent the last two weeks reading game design books, and as I’ve gotten excited about the possibility of spending time designing games in the future… I’ve been surprised to discover I already was a game designer years ago… when I created the worlds, characters, stories, and game systems (including a good deal of simulation) for the role-playing sessions I used to lead. I sense some convergence in disparate parts of my life ahead.