Why Is A Modern Setting So Rare In RPGs?

In some ways, Dragon Age: Inquisition is almost “easy.” Come up with a good story, have good mechanics, then throw in dragons, elves and magic swords. That’s a basic recipe for RPG success right there. A lot less common—but still out there—is the science fiction RPG. These days people usually think Mass Effect or Fallout, but Japan’s done a lot of stuff too, like the epic Xenosaga trilogy, or the ongoing Star Ocean series.

Fallout
Fallout

But there’s one particular setting that does monstrously well in most other genres that gets very little representation in the role-playing game genre, and that’s games with a contemporary setting. Obviously the FPS is in LOVE with the modern day, as shown by the COD franchise, and action games like Grand Theft Auto? Nothing needs to be said. Even horror games use the modern day as the go to setting for their scares, and Telltale rules the roost for adventure games with The Walking Dead.

But RPGs? It almost feels like the game publishers had a Star Chamber meeting where they all agreed that RPG fans want to feel like they’re in another world, and that world should have no resemblance to the one outside our window. This has been a pretty consistent theme—or lack thereof—on the part of publishers with only Japanese developer Atlus consistently taking a chance on throwing players into a contemporary Japanese high school setting of the Persona series. On this side of the Pacific, Obsidian Entertainment in the west gave us Alpha Protocol, which was a very different take on a modern setting, a spy story. Of the two, the Persona series fared better both critically and commercially, though that might be due, in part, to the fact that even a modern setting like a urban or rural Japan feels otherworldly to people in the West that don’t know about Golden Week or Ennichi festivals with games like goldfish scooping and stalls that sell takoyaki.

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It’s a very bizarre state of affairs when you look at other genres in film, literature and comics. While it’s true that there should be a division of fantasy and/or science fiction, genres within games tend to refer to a mechanical or design principle. Therefore a role-playing game, simply because players are taking on another role, shouldn’t somehow be less tolerant of the more familiar, everyday setting of the contemporary world. Even table-top RPGs have games with modern settings such as the Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game of the 80s, or World of Darkness and its Vampire/Werewolf incarnations which are still played today.

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There’s nothing wrong or dull with the modern world as a setting. There’s an enormous possibility for different roles for people to play. Call of Duty has shown the appeal of a modern soldier. Grand Theft Auto has shown the appeal of being a criminal. Even Persona has shown that there’s a fine adventure to be had for even a humble teenage high school student. Wish fulfilment doesn’t have to necessarily whisk people away to completely foreign, alien experiences and worlds. Sure, there’s a lot of fun to be had hanging with elves or flirting with hot blue alien girls, but being a spy, supernatural operative, or even just a teenager with super powers has an appeal all of its own.

It’s good that RPGS give us a chance to explore different worlds, but that doesn’t mean we can’t experience a different side to the world we live in.