Whenever a new indie retro RPG comes out, a few reviewers ask if “this was made with RPG Maker“. The latest cases were Anodyne, Cthulcu Saves the World, and To The Moon. Sometimes, the devs don’t care. Other times, they act offended. The same is true of other commentators. The assumption behind this type of commentary is that a game in RPG Maker isn’t a real game. This is specially apparent when one looks at comments from Eric Shumager, creator of Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, who stated that “RPG Maker doesn’t allow for mechanically good games”. In an interview with PCgamer, he stated that:
“A big part of Barkley was gently making fun of the RPG Maker community. At the time there were a lot of games made with RPG Maker that took themselves very seriously. They had this self-important attitude, but at the same time they were made completely out of graphics stolen from famous SNES games like Chrono Trigger. It was a bizarre juxtaposition that we thought was really funny. We did the same thing: our game is clearly not serious, but we’re taking it very seriously.”
If one looks at a recent Escapist poll, it seems like these anti-RPG maker attitudes are rather widespread. In this survey asking if people would pay for a game made in RPG Maker, 32% of those surveyed voted “No. Use a real engine, pleb.” And there is the problem with the assumption that RPG Maker games aren’t real games – it has to do with the engine not being considered a “real” engine.
Now, Mr. Shumaker’s game was ultimately created with Game Maker, but it might as well have been an RPG Maker game. It has all the conventions of a default RPG Maker game, and its battle system is just barebones borrowed straight out of RMK2003.
So, what’s the problem with RPG Maker? I honestly don’t know.
My shared love for digital media (videogames, flash movies, animation, interactive narratives, and so on) and literature (poetry, novels, epics, and so on) led me to become a student of digital humanities. Throughout my studies I have written on the effect of games and gaming on education and language acquisition, the effect of videogames on behavior, and the social implication of videogames. I have also done literary criticism of videogames and other forms of digital narrative. Still, one issue (or non-issue) regarding this field of study has weighted on my mind like no other: the popular notion that videogames are not a legitimate form of art. I recall having read in some Kotaku article that videogames will never be respected as an art form until “legit critics” who write texts of quality about games manage to become organized and establish a school of thought. This, of course, implies that the sub-field of videogame studies does not have any legit critics able to engage in elevated discourse and, essentially, do for videogames what Northrop Frye and Bentley J.R. did for Blake or Noam Chomsky did for theoretical linguistics. Added to this are the widespread notions, fueled by the ignorant commentary of biased news actors and the naïve statement of a small minority of game designers, that videogames are nothing more than toys for children (as Yu Suzuki, creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, has often remarked) that hold no artistic, cultural, or societal value beyond mindless entertainment (as suggested by several Fox, CNN, and NBC news actors). Despite the excellent theory and criticism of scholars like Jesper Juul, Janet Murray, and Ian Bogost and the applied research of academics like James Paul Gee, David Hutchinson, and myself (although I’m more of a junior scholar), to argue that there are videogame critics on par with Harold Bloom or Northrop Frye would be an exaggeration. Certainly, scholars’ contributions to the field of digital humanities and game studies have been priceless, but more established academic fields – like literature – have had centuries to flourish. However, to argue that there are no worthwhile critics is a flat and outright lie. While the field might still be lacking its Howard Bloom, I feel no shame in asserting that the videogames have its fair of Drydens, Lockes, Humes, and Johnsons, and I know that in the next decade the field will see an emergence in critics that will eclipse Bloom and Frye.