It seems a lot of RPGs are trying to avoid the classic low level enemies. I’ve heard even Richard Garriott has a sign in his office that reads, “No rat killing”. Games like Guild Wars 2 try to blow players away with an awe-inspiring giant boss battle in the tutorial. While this approach has advantages, I feel it misses an important point.
RPG mechanics have become synonymous with progression. Your character becomes more powerful over time. If the first enemies your player defeats are awe-inspiring and impressive, you don’t have much room left to grow. When players start by killing rats, you can have them grow to killing bandits, then ogres, then giants, then dragons. If players start by fighting giants, you can’t deliver a sense of increasing scale as effectively.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have an exciting opening. You just need to think outside the box. Skyrim cleverly introduces a dragon right away, but in a way that makes you RUN from the beast. Dragon Age 2, weaves its opening in the context of an exaggerated story which oversells your prowess – dropping you back into the grim, weak reality soon after. Final Fantasy X destroys an entire city with a mega-sized monster that nearly kills you with its DANDRUFF. There are lots of good examples of how you can do this well.
Killing Rats certainly makes no sense in some experiences. Stories that start you out as a heroic figure of legend don’t fit with the concept of ratting out sewers. If players are SUPPOSED to feel like a badass hero at the start of the game, this is an issue. But these games thematically don’t fit the classic RPG sense of progression in the first place. If you start as a hero, where’s the journey to becoming one? Mirroring the mechanical growth with the conceptual story growth is powerful. Your mechanics reinforce your themes.
It may still be entirely correct to avoid rats in your game. There are definitely other ways to communicate a sense of increasing scale to mirror the player’s progression. Shadow of Mordor is a great example, using the sheer number of enemies and the concepts of storming a fortress or killing a warchief with a retinue of bodyguards. But there’s a reason why rats have worked so well for so long. And while Skyrim’s opening involves running from a dragon, once you start killing them in the wild Bethesda’s hands get tied. They want to keep challenging the player, so their random mountain trolls can be much more dangerous than the dragons.
Even the most brilliant designers can only take you so far when there’s nowhere left to go.