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Characters Should Build Worlds, Not Lore

I’ve been playing Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door again recently and I’ve been really invested in its personality and charm. This is actually one of my favorite RPGs ever, despite it being starkly different from most games in the genre. It got me thinking about why it is that this game stands out to me in a genre that’s been defined by the high fantasy and science fiction tropes populated by series staples like Final Fantasy, Phantasy Star, and The Elder Scrolls. What is it that Thousand Year Door does so fundamentally differently that it, in my opinion, holds its own and in some ways surpasses titles that have shaped and laid the groundwork for the entire genre?

Let’s first address the more obvious differences. RPGs typically take themselves very seriously and aim to engross you in a fantasy or sci-fi based world. Thousand Year Door on the other hand does not take itself seriously at all and takes place in a more kid friendly world. That’s not to say that most RPGs can’t appeal to kids; it’s just that Thousand Year Door seems to be actively trying to appeal to a younger crowd, specifically with its more modern slang in the dialogue, cartoonish art style, and lack of adult subject matter. So there are some obvious differences at face value, but there’s one difference that I think makes all the difference.

Most RPGs try to enrich their world with lore. Past events, past conflicts, traditions, customs, religions, cultures, language; these are all used as a means to communicate to you what life is like in this strange yet interesting world. However, when it comes to individuals, the denizens who inhabit these places, they typically only focus on the characters in the story. And there’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s actually quite understandable. It’s not really worth it to develop characters whose purpose is just to populate. To give the city or village or world as a whole a certain identity.

Thousand Year Door, however, doesn’t do this. It keeps its lore to a minimum and instead builds its world through character development. Instead of having the NPCs in this game tell you ancient prophecies or some unique tradition of theirs, a majority of them just talk to you about themselves or their situation in some way. Every NPC has a personality and dialect (and sometimes unique names) in their dialogue that tells you who they are. As you connect with the NPCs in each new area, you realize that you are actually learning about the world not through stories and traditions passed down and put in place by people long gone but through the people who live in it now.

I know one off lines from NPCs in an RPG isn’t anything new but the ones in this game are deliberately meant to be memorable and endearing. One of my favorite things to do in Thousand Year Door is to walk around a new area and ask one of your partners Goombella about each NPC walking around. She’ll typically describe them so I know more about them, but then she editorializes about the person which also gets me to know more about her.

I should mention that there is nothing forcing you to talk to everyone. You can just walk by and just talk to the people who are important to move the story forward. However, after talking to just a few NPCs, I personally did want to talk to everyone. This is thanks to the excellent and charming writing that makes this game genuinely funny and compelling. Much like how in most RPGs the lore compels you to move forward so you can learn more about the plot, the dialogue in Thousand Year Door makes characters interesting to listen to and compels you to meet more people.

Maybe it’s because I really enjoy more character driven fiction, but I really appreciate the sense of immersion coming from non-story crucial NPCs rather than lore. I wish there were more RPGs that did this. In fact, I’m sure there are other RPGs that do this so why don’t you let me know other examples of RPGs that build their worlds through non-story crucial NPCs in the comments below. In my opinion, Thousand Year Door does this better than any other, but maybe there’s an RPG I haven’t played that you could recommend. Peace and Love, Gamers and Players! Colorwind out.

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