In the past decade, there’s been an increase in RPGMaker games focused on story and character interaction, often sidelining the RPG aspects or removing them entirely. One of the best examples of this is Freebird Games’s To The Moon, a sci-fi drama about altering the memory of a dying man. To The Moon is focused on its characters, story, and futuristic setting. However, its gameplay is simplistic, involving navigating the protagonist scientist characters through memory landscapes and solving simple puzzles. The rise of itch.io also helped encourage the rise of non-standard RPGMaker games, since the site allows for easier hosting of indie titles without having to traverse the Steam approval process. Plus, fan translations of Japanese RPGMaker games are surprisingly plentiful, thanks to contributors like vgperson, who also worked on many official paid Steam releases.
Using RPGMaker for narrative-driven adventure games rather than sword-and-sorcery RPGs is nothing new. Indie Japanese horror games made using RPGMaker are practically a genre on their own, popularized by fan translators and Let’s Plays. Fun fact: while Yume Nikki is probably best known for popularizing Japanese RPGMaker horror games amongst an English-speaking audience, many aspects of its stylistic blend of surrealistic horror can be traced back to the 1998 game Palette, which later received a PS1 re-release.
Today, I wanted to spotlight a few notable creators who have worked with RPGMaker to make a variety of games: Miwashiba, Deep-Sea Prisoner, and Temmie. Not everything these devs have made are necessarily masterpieces, but they show off the surprisingly diverse versatility of RPGMaker and their own unique stories and art stylings.
Miwashiba is a Japanese game developer who has created a variety of narrative-driven games. Notably, Miwashiba’s games tend to run the gamut of genres: the LiEat trilogy have RPG elements (i.e., battle encounters and leveling characters up) and a gothic setting involving humanoid dragons, AliceMare is a more straightforward psychological adventure game themed after fairy tales, and 1bitHeart is a visual novel logic game with stylish sci-fi aesthetics. And yes, you heard me correctly, Miwashiba made a visual novel in RPGMaker and is currently working on another.
Admittedly, I was pretty lukewarm when I played the LiEat trilogy some years back; it’s a pretty game and Miwashiba put a lot of effort into the art assets, like the character portraits and overall color palette. However, the game feels like it’s cramming too much into a trilogy of games wherein each individual game can be completed in less than an hour. There’s a lot of weird lore and way too many characters, which bogs down the overall experience. I had similar issues with AliceMare, which takes place in the same universe as LiEat. AliceMare is an interesting game with a unique setup, but espouses its ideas in a constrained form, which lessens the impact of its overall themes.
That’s not to say I dislike all of Miwashiba’s games. I was pleasantly surprised with 1bitHeart, which moves out of the gothic fantasy setting to a flavor of sci-fi adjacent to The World Ends With You. The crux of the game’s story involves befriending people in town and solving the issues of a mysterious group of hackers causing trouble. The game has Ace Attorney-esque decisions and arguments sections when you must pull information out of witnesses or interrogate suspects. On top of that, when a chapter’s story sequences are concluded, you can engage in “free time” events where you can befriend NPC’s. The friendship stuff in 1bitHeart is probably the best part of the game and works in favor with the game’s huge cast. There are 50 NPC’s to befriend in all, most of whom don’t have any direct engagement with the game’s main plot. They also run the variety of eccentric personalities, from a muscle-obsessed mad scientist to a bawdily dressed idol with stomach issues. 1bitHeart is one of the most creative executions of an RPGMaker game I’ve seen and pushes what the engine can be used to create.
Deep-Sea Prisoner (aka Mogeko, Okegom, and Funamusea) is another prolific Japanese developer of RPGMaker adventure games. Now, I want to get two things out of the way: 1) Deep-Sea Prisoner (who from here on out will be shortened to DSP) still utilizes RPG mechanics in her games, and 2) her games contain dark themes. Of note, her first game, Mogeko Castle, is closer to an outright horror game, while I would describe DSP’s other games as fantasy that dips into darker elements. I also want to add a content warning for DSP’s games, as they contain gore, body horror, and, in one game, implied sexual assault. Notably DSP has a LOT of extra media for the extended universes of her games. DSP has made flash animations, extra comics (including a published manga adaptation of her own game), and a bunch of assorted tchotchkes.
The first of DSP’s games I actually played (and also my personal favorite) is The Gray Garden. Taking place in a universe where angels and demons coexist peacefully. However, demonic forces from another world threaten the balance, especially after the world’s equivalent of God abruptly disappears. Much of the game’s story focuses on the mishaps of a ditzy demon girl named Yosafire and her group of friends, as they weather the scary changes of their world. The Gray Garden introduced me to a lot of DSP’s signature style choices: her colorful, angular art style, her charming character designs, and her penchant for mixing lighthearted story aspects with surprisingly brutal moments. Much of the darker elements of the story tend to come from the bad endings, but they can definitely catch an unassuming player off-guard.
The other DSP game I’ve played is Wadanohara and the Great Blue Sea, which seems to be DSP’s best-known game. The game concerns the misadventures of a young sea witch, the titular Wadanohara, and her familiars, as they contend with dark forces that threaten the safety of the undersea residents. Personally, I’m not as fond of Wadanohara as I am of The Gray Garden for a variety of reasons. Like Miwashiba’s games, Wadanohara has a bloated cast, which I feel detracts from the overall experience, whereas The Gray Garden doesn’t have as much of an issue. I can only guess that DSP was a little too excited to design a bunch of characters based on sea creatures. Second, Wadanohara has a rather infamous bad ending (remember my warning for implied sexual assault? Yeah…) that is required viewing to reach the good ending. It’s a touch too edgy for a game that has some otherwise fascinating pseudo-horror elements that show up later in the story. Despite my grievances with Wadanohara, I still think it’s a solid story-and-character-focused adventure game.
Temmie Chang is probably best known for her artistic contributions to Undertale (hOI!!!!) but in recent years she has tried her hand at narrative RPGMaker games. So far, she’s created a duology of games in an on-going series based on her Dwellers of the Mountain’s Forest short animation. The first in the series is Escaped Chasm, which Temmie notes in the post-game bonuses was mostly a practice attempt for her to adjust to using RPGMaker. Escaped Chasm is a very short game about an isolated girl waiting for her parents to return home after an extended absence. Despite being a ‘practice’ game, the art design of Escaped Chasm absolutely shines. The game uses a deliberately limited monochrome blue palette and includes CG’s for certain story events. Temmie also included short animations to spice up the overall art direction. While the story is rather simplistic, it ties subtlety into Dweller’s Empty Path.
Dweller’s Empty Path is much more strongly realized as a game, and Temmie’s hard work on the game really shows. DEP revolves around a beast-like woman named Yoki, who’s having some trouble sleeping thanks to the local handsome demon man giving her nightmares. To purposely tire herself out, Yoki embarks on several small adventures around the forest town and local kingdom, including delivering mail, trying on dresses at the kingdom’s tailors, and accidentally walking in on a fantasy RPG in-progress with her witch roommate. Beneath the light-hearted adventures, more serious things are implied to be afoot, such as the true motivations of the aforementioned handsome demon man and the whereabouts of Yoki’s former caretaker. DEP has a monochrome green art style, mimicking GB graphics, and while the game doesn’t have Escaped Chasm’s short animations, Temmie compensated with extra CG’s to punch up many of the story and dialogue sequences. DEP’s soundtrack is also impressive and catchy, thanks to work from Toby Fox and Japanese producer Camelia. Temmie mentions in the post-game’s bonus room that she plans to continue the story of DEP in a series of comics or another game in the future.
In general, RPGMaker provides a palette for creativity, often beyond stereotypical high fantasy RPGs. The engine itself doesn’t even have to be used for RPGs and developers can create anything from simplistic adventure games to visual novels. On top of that, it’s easier than ever to publish these games online and reach a wide audience. I’m eager to see what devs continue to create with RPGMaker in the coming decade.