Some of you may have read my previous article on why I believe the WRPG genre is beginning to stagnate and why I no longer enjoy playing them. Though I could simply leave my opinion complete and let the discussion rest, I believe that this conversation is important enough to warrant additional conversation and exploration. In presenting my opinion on why Western Style RPGs have began to lose relevancy or substance, I touched upon several important flaws in their design. I believe these problems may be solved by looking towards the East and finding valuable insight in the Japanese RPG method.
Over the years I have been markedly anti-JRPG in my sensibilities. My opinions were developed over a long period of time, but I had concluded that JRPGs had lost their relevancy around the time FFX was released. Coupled with the increasingly more difficult process of localizing dialogue and plots that were becoming more and more convoluted, the gameplay had changed little over the course of over ten years and JRPGs were simply not as exciting as what was being developed in the Western camp.
The obvious problem we all latched onto was that JRPGs had become too linear, too clichéd, and too convoluted. The once enigmatic JRPG characters of the past, those that populated the sixth through ninth Final Fantasies, were gone. Stories had become such a convoluted mess that storyline guide books had to be released alongside the game to flesh out nonsensical plots. Needless and tedious additional features are now implemented as superficial replacements for actual “depth.” JRPGs, for quite some time, seemed fixated on ruining their genre and alienating those who once championed its virtues.
Yet these criticisms cannot be entirely true. To say that Japan hasn’t developed an endearing character since Vivi is both ignorant and untrue. There has been plenty of activity on the other side of the ocean, and though JRPGs aren’t the dominant force they once were, they still manage to keep a persistent and rabid fan base.
So rather than talk about what is bad about JRPGs, I’d like to talk about what they do well and what WRPGs can learn from them.
I’ll concede that Japanese character design is simply not what it used to be and post Kingdom Hearts costuming is eye-gouge-gaudy, but for what Japanese developers do wrong they do a lot right. Firstly, the Japanese aren’t so married to the hero myth that they are able to populate their cast with several main characters of equal importance. The WRPG almost exclusively focuses on the single player character and his relationship with the rest of the cast. Though this style of character building is fine for the WRPG style, it creates shallow, 2D characters that only exist through imaginary backstory and one-off conversations with the player. It often feels like these characters don’t even exist outside the context of the player character.
The Japanese style of characterization focuses more on the “team” and the dynamics between them. Point-of-view often switches from character to character, fleshing out each one as a more developed individual. Though these games suffer from writing and localization problems, the manner in which characters are built is much more convenient and believable than the conversation system that WRPGs have developed. Yes, the game becomes more “cinematic” and less about choice, but there is no denying that Lighting from FFXIII is much better character than Lydia from Skyrim.
The single problem I have with JRPG characters is their reliance on anime stereotypes. Anime in itself is not bad, but the recycling of character personalities is incredibly grating, especially when they were never good to begin with. That being said, there have been many attempts to buck back at these character stylings and classic JRPGs are full of innovative character designs.
No conversation about JRPG characters can be complete without speaking about Chrono Trigger and FFVI. Both of these games had fantastic characters with interesting motives and personalities. Though character stereotypes were touched upon, Chrono Trigger’s cast was leagues more original than many casts that proceeded it, and FFVI’s was even more iconic with 14 playable characters. Though the amount of characters is besides the point, the fact that these particular games had such interesting and varied casts speaks volumes about Japanese design philosophies. Yes, there has been a recent surge in 17 year old super soldiers in JRPGs, but even FFXIII had a cast that was at least interesting in their relationships.
As previously stated, Japanese RPGS can incredibly convoluted. That being said, the way that these stories are delivered is much more streamlined and cohesive than Western counterparts. Open ended games in the western camp are significantly weaker on the story side than their Japanese cousins, both because of their poor characterization and the scattershot nature in which the storylines are presented. Much of the Western method for storytelling seems fluffy and unnecessary. For instance, when Garrus delivers a 10 minute monologue about his past exploits we see and experience little of the tale, and it is simply a minor diversion from the main plot because, ultimately, it will probably have no bearing on his actions or the actions of those around him. It serves no purpose other than heavy exposition.
In JRPGs, the storyline is developed and presented at controlled and reasonable pace. Character backstory is told through flashbacks, character actions, and dialogue between a large portion of the cast- not just the player character. This creates interesting webs of character relationships, as well as delivers storyline in a much more satisfying pace. Secondary characters are given much more weight, are thoroughly fleshed out, and interact more satisfyingly with one another.
Plus, there is a certain novelty to the Japanese “all for one” narrative. In Western RPGS, nearly every single game centers around one “chosen” character, who leads a small group of heroes against a large, unknowable force. In several instances, the game’s worst villain is never actually described or introduced until late in the plot. In Mass Effect, the Reavers were a mostly unseen threat, but were almost always tagged as the game’s main antagonist force.
In JRPGs, the “team” is much more important to the story. Each character holds equal importance to their partners and share the burden of saving the world. They fight and fail together, yet overcome their differences to defeat evil in the end. The narrative’s lack of flexibility is the largest difference between the East and West camp, but this form of storytelling focuses the game’s themes into something legible. The more controlled narrative is simply a much more reliable and, potentially, stronger way to convey a meaningful tale (in the classical sense). Plus, it gives the narrative more freedom to explore abstract concepts and weighty themes- something that WRPGs have a very difficult time manipulating.
This section probably seems obvious, but the strength of the JRPG’s narrative devices are most clearly identified by exploring the impact the game’s message has on a player. In many contemporary WRPGs (yes, I am aware that this has not always been the case) exploration is of high emphasis. This allows for emergent narratives to take place, ones that are developed entirely through the player’s subjective interactions with the world. Though this is an extremely powerful storytelling device, it has been abused to the point where player action has lost weight.
I’m not saying this is a bad way to tell a story – I am simply stating that it is very difficult to derive any real substance from this sort of play. The outlier here would be BioWare’s method of storytelling, which still insists on player action but retains an “openness.” Yet I would be hard pressed to find real, quality messages found within Mass Effect or Dragon Age.
On the contrary, JRPGs have fine tuned their thematic delivery system almost to a fault. There are themes within themes within themes. Characters are thematically inspired, sub plots explore intense personal relationships, and the main storyline almost always resonates with a majority of the cast in some meaningful way. Though WRPGs are not without subtext, they are much lighter than JRPGs.
I know what you’re thinking: “But character specific storylines were thematically driven in many WRPGs.” Was Miranda’s storyline in Mass Effect not meant to explore the bond of sisterhood and the ethics of defying your own family? Each character certainly had some strong subtext within their plot, but the delivery of these storylines was weak and almost entirely based on anecdotal dialogue. The characters within Mass Effect simply do not interact with one another enough to flesh out their personalities. Almost all of the character and storyline progression in WRPGs happen around just the main character, which makes the other characters extremely flat except in the context of a Commander Shepard.
This does tie back into story strength, but it’s an important observation to make because the fixed point of view method of storytelling has not yet reached a point where I would claim that its characters and storylines are stronger or more complex than the linear JRPG method. This was a large reason why I started to dislike WRPGs and continue to do so- they lack depth from a storytelling standpoint.
This is arguably the best thing that Japanese developers do. Many Japanese major developers are more likely to take chances with mechanics and gameplay than those here in the west. Though their results are often of mixed quality, I do not believe that a game like Dark Souls could have been developed by a major studio in the West. I also don’t think that Monster Hunter would have been greenlit here, nor Dragon’s Dogma, nor Disgaea. These games are very much reflections of the culture they were created in, but they are also huge risks from a mechanical standpoint.
Japanese games tend to be very deep mechanically, but players are almost always purposefully crippled or gimped in some manner. American critics seem to be unable to separate the frustration of a JRPG’s cumbersome limitations from its overarching experience, an element that has haunted Monster Hunter since its release in the west. In fact, to some degree, it seems that many western critics and players are just plain uncomfortable playing anything that “feels” different than the Western status quo. This had led to a stagnation of western games and the rise of MMO style combat in WRPGs.
But I digress. I am not here to criticize western combat mechanics. What I’m trying to say is that the Japanese are very interested in controlling the player’s over-arching gameplay experience. Japanese developers will take extreme measures to make certain that players experience the game in the way the development team wants. They do this by including limiting elements, such as night time in Dragon’s Dogma or drinking animations in Monster Hunter. In the end, this helps build a more cohesive and immersive experience.
This might limit the game’s “openness,” but it also helps to create a game that is unique in its experience. Would Dark Souls have been better if it had lesser penalties for death? Would Monster Hunter benefit from monster health bars, instant potions, and lock on? Absolutely not, because these games have evolved very unique, gratifying experiences. Sometimes mechanics can be an obstacle in their own right, and gameplay can actually benefit from awkward design.
Japanese developers are also unafraid to make massive, jarring changes to major franchises. Though FFXIII was mixed in its reception, it is undeniable that nothing like its combat system had ever been seen before. We saw little variation between Mass Effect’s sequels, and some would even say it regressed in some areas. Remember the evolution of the Xeno series since Xenosaga’s first release? The changes to that game’s style and mechanics might have been unnecessary, but the company was willing to take chances in order to make a better product or better their vision.
I’ve already written about both Dark Souls and Monster Hunter’s amazing gameplay, so I won’t continue down this line. But I would like to further emphasize that games like these simply do not exist in the west. I find that very frustrating and nonsensical. The Japanese have developed mini-genres within the RPG framework over the past few years while the western developers have stagnated terribly. There is a reason that JRPGs have such a diehard following: they offer experiences that cannot be found anywhere else. If that’s not a reflection of the Japanese development studios’ relevancy, I don’t know what is.
Japanese RPGs are not down and out. In fact, with time, I imagine we will see many more quality releases from the land of the rising sun. While we seem to be recycling content they are working to compete, and, though they stumble, they are slowly catching up with us. If they stick to their guns we might just see a resurgence in quality Japanese RPG content.