What's Wrong with Japanese RPGs
Most games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, though fun, were often little more than prettied-up arcade games. Short adventures artificially extended by their blistering difficulty levels, ending once the player ran out of lives or turned off the console. That's likely why I and so many of my peers fell in love with RPGs, among the first games to let players save their progress, each day progressing further through an epic quest. I spent countless hours grinding my way through random battles, each new level-up or conquered boss battle triggering what I thought to be the ultimate endorphin release (I'd later discover drugs and masturbation).
The point is that these early Japanese RPGs (or JRPGs) are largely responsible for many of the gaming features we now take for granted: saving your progress, personalizing characters with gear and skills, and legitimately constructed plotlines.
Bad Dudes set a new standard for narrative in video games.
These days, however, just about every game offers RPG elements of some sort, with even first-person shooters now eagerly vomiting out experience points. And though the RPG genre continues ever onward, it seems obvious that the Japanese style of RPG has lost favor with Western gamers, former blockbusters like Final Fantasy struggling to remain relevant in the era of Skyrim.
As sad as this situation may be for former JRPG junkies like myself, the blame seems to rest entirely on the shoulders of Japanese developers, who seem unable to abandon tired genre conventions in order to better connect with a Western audience. I do believe that there's still hope for JRPGs, but the struggling genre can only be supported by crazed fanboys for so long, and it's time for some change. Here's what's I feel is currently wrong with Japanese RPGs, and what can be done to fix it.
In the late 90s, the animated children's program Dragonball Z hit the airwaves, soon tricking a generation of children into believing that anime was cool (Cowboy Bebop being one of the few exceptions). I was among those many unfortunate kids who got hooked on the animes, happily devouring whatever giant robot schlock the land of the rising sun shat out, covering my walls in posters of scantily-clad anime babes to help reduce my chance of having sex with an actual human woman to some immeasurable percentage (the fact that I lost my virginity while a Ranma poster hung on my wall still horrifies me). Most importantly, me and my fellow man-children helped propel event the most lackluster Japanese media straight to profit town, the worst of us even saving up for one of those ridiculous Working Designs special editions.
I actually wore the Growlanser watch around for a day before I realized what a goddamn tool I was.
The point is that the anime craze is over; the number of Western consumers who believe in the deep literary significance of catgirl maids with twin laser swords continues to dwindle. And though there will always be a hardcore fanbase to support niche anime-styled titles like Disgaea, this fanbase simply doesn't have the buying power necessary to encourage pricey JRPG development, which is why many series now see only cheaply-developed portable releases (Fire Emblem, Phantasy Star, Suikoden, Valkyria Chronicles, etc...).
Truth is that there's nothing inherently wrong with anime-styled games, but the bright colors and cheerful casts simply don't align themselves with current Western tastes. Lord of the Rings is largely responsible for popularizing these gritty tales of swords & sorcery: games like Dragon Age & Skyrim, or HBO's Game of Thrones television series (I think it might be based on a book, but as a real American I've never read a book in my life).
What the hell is this crap?
Not to mention that many Western gamers still equate anime-styled art with childish fare like Sailor Moon and Pokemon, so though Namco Bandai's Tales of Xillia is being hailed as one of the best RPGs in recent years, link any red-blooded American gamer to the trailer and the response you're going to get is, "What is this? Rainbow Brite's Magic Adventure? F*** you." And I don't think anyone has ever pulled Eternal Sonata down from my game shelf without shooting me an awkward accusatory glance.
In order for JRPGs to reclaim some ground, they're going to need to take some pages out of Demon's Souls' textbook and bring back the dark dungeon-grinding epics of old. Again, hard fantasy is in vogue, and it really doesn't seem a betrayal of the genre to focus more on the traditional tales of badass knights and scary dragons, putting aside the bright colors and themes of everlasting friendship.
Frankly, a magic little girl whose stuffed animal companion turns into a sword doesn't seem a step in the right direction:
My Little Pony is officially manlier than Final Fantasy XIII-2.
Japan has some sort of fetish for watching shiny-haired teenagers save the world, seemingly unaware that most teenagers are too busy exploring their disgusting hormone-riddled bodies to even get their homework done (and given America's growing obesity rates, I doubt half of these kids could even hold a broadsword for more than a minute before getting exhausted).
Now obviously this isn't a wholly Japanese phenomenon -- plenty of Western media deals with the traditional coming-of-age epic, plucky kids discovering their destiny and setting off on a quest to destroy the ancient evil. The thing is that these stories at least paint the kids as confused adolescents, often in need of an older hand to guide them. Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry Potter had that one gay wizard Dumbledorf or whatever. Yet JRPG casts seem to be comprised entirely of ridiculously overpowered High School freshmen, all of whom make me feel like a complete loser.
As an example, I'm in my mid-20s and can barely work up the courage to sit my fat-ass on an exercise bike at the end of the day. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy X's seventeen-year old sweetheart Yuna not only fights against the forces of evil by summoning up an assortment of magical demons, but is also fully prepared to commit ritualistic suicide in order to quench the bloodthirst of some crazy, time-travelling darkness monster.
And she's a gun-slinging popstar?! What the hell can't she do!?
The problem is that when the game's entire cast tops out at the age of nineteen, I find myself completely unable to relate to these whiny brats and their ridiculous problems. And I can hardly believe that I'm the only one thinking this given that the average age of gamers is now pegged at around 35-years-old. Meanwhile, JRPGs seem entirely marketed towards the Twilight crowd, encouraging the ridiculous "youth = awesome" myth that really doesn't appeal to an audience suffering from male pattern baldness. These games are supposed to be escapist fantasies, not reminders of how much youthful potential we've squandered. The teenage kid at the drive-thru can't even get my burger order right and I'm expected to believe he's more capable of saving the world than me? Time for some age-appropriate heroes, c'mon now.
You can keep the fifteen-year-old jailbait though. Ain't no reason that needs to get cut.
We're okay with this.
This complaint is definitely pointed squarely at Final Fantasy, a series which seems to blow the majority of its budget on ridiculous action cutscenes which are utterly incomprehensible a majority of the time. As an example, Final Fantasy: Crisis Core is hands down one of the worst games I've ever had the misfortune of playing to completion, attempting to hide its tired gameplay and terrible level design behind a wall of beautifully rendered cinemas. Even the game's random battles are constantly interrupted by flashback sequences disguised as special moves, and I can't help but wonder if the time and money they spent animating these needless skits might've been better spent on making the game not suck.
To be fair, there was a time when awesome CG cinemas were an actual selling point for games. Back when Final Fantasy VII was first released, the TV commercial featured little more than snippets of the game's epic cutscenes, selling brand new PlayStation consoles to the thousands of ignorant customers who thought they were shots from the actual game. Thing is, we've now gotten to the point where even in-game graphics look better than FFVIIs cinemas, making cutscenes less of a novelty and more of an annoyance.
In 1997 this blew minds. Nowadays... meh.
Here's the first lesson of Modern Game Design 101: If you're unable to advance your plot without a twenty-minute cutscene, stop making video games. Players expect to be involved with the events of the game, and being unable to interact with story sequences completely breaks any sense of immersion. The worst offenders are less games, and more movies with some gameplay segments in-between (Xenosaga's hour-long cutscenes are a blatant offender). And as hard-working and skilled as these ambitious CG animators may be, I'm of the opinion that every damn one of them is a blight on the gaming industry, actively encouraging this antiquated method of storytelling.
Here, Japan really needs to take a look at immersive Western RPGs games like Skyrim or Fallout. Don't show the player something awesome, let them actually take part in it. Watching my character ride a cyber-motorcycle around a track of ice while firing a machine gun at the bad guy doesn't excite me, it simply makes me wonder how much fun it would be to actually be in control of steering that motorcycle. The player should always be in charge of the action, not a camera, and I'm surprised we've made it to 2012 without that game design tenet being an indisputable fact.
If you want a great example of storytelling done right, just take a look at Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It would've been easy to script a cutscene showing a nuclear attack ravaging downtown Baghdad, but by immersing players in that moment it became a million times more powerful. We didn't need a scripted shot of the character stumbling to his feet, camera swooping overhead to reveal the aftermath, dollying-in the look of stunned silence in the soldier's eyes. We were the character, all those emotions were our own, and Infinity Ward never broke that illusion. I can't think of the last JRPG to offer me a scene even close to this.
Ladies and gentlemen: modern storytelling.
It used to be that RPGs struggled to provide much flavor outside of the short plot summary provided by the instruction booklet. Towns offered little more than an item shop and an inn, along with a single NPC who did little more than randomly declare some poorly translated statement.
Good to know buddy.
Back then, this was all well and good. We saved our game, bought some armor, and got our quest hook from the random old man, not really giving half of two craps about what he planned to do with those magic boots once we found them, or why he was okay with us pilfering his life savings from the treasure chest in the corner.
These days, though, we've been spoiled by Western RPGs offering lush fully-realized villages almost more fun to explore than the dungeons. There, a multitude of colorful characters build upon the game's plot with their own small snippets of unique dialogue, each tavern and guildhall offering various side-quests and story hooks.
The point is that regardless of how well constructed your main plot may be, the universe around it needs to be paid equal (if not more) attention, building a layer of depth that makes the plot that much more interesting and helping this fantasy world come to life. Yes, your many cutscenes have explained to me that the alchemist's guild burnt the homes of the faerie children, awakening the great lord of destruction from his nightmare realm (a great evil which can only be halted by collecting fifteen magic crystals and sacrificing the heart of the robot angel girl from my home village). But how does this affect the average townsfolk of the realm? How does a common blacksmith or fruit salesman cope with the knowledge of the impending apocalypse?
Bioware's Mass Effect offers a great example of how to build a universe, every single aspect of the game's futuristic setting meticulously planned out, even such small details as trade relations between different species. Meanwhile, does anybody know why constant inbreeding results in god-tier chocobos, something that would ensure genetically-crippled offspring in just about any other known species? On that note, what's the last JRPG you played where the universe was explained in full, rather than relying on players to suspend their disbelief at every turn? Too often does it seem like Japanese developers fail to play the part of a competent dungeon master, telling players "Everything in this universe is made up of sound particles," then failing to adequately how in the f*** that could possibly work.
Again, it seems too much attention is being paid to the glorious main storyline and its epic twenty-minute cutscenes, ignoring just how much the game's plot would benefit from a few insightful NPCs, or some side-quests which touch on elements of the game's universe otherwise unexplored. I honestly don't expect George Lucas to touch on how Wookies get it on during the brief hour and a half it takes to sit through Star Wars. But these are games, not movies, and if your forty hours of content fail to flesh out your game's setting in any meaningful way, then it's time to find new writers. My fourteen year old nephew Ben writes better flavor than this, although I'm not allowed to play in his campaign anymore after I rage-quit and broke a window.
C'mon Ben, you know that when a saving throw vs. death lands in the butter dish it's a re-roll. Quit being a dick and bring Kylee Wandswillow back to life .
One of the biggest JRPG controversies in recent memory was Final Fantasy XIII's linearity, with many feeling as though Square Enix had completely botched the level design of their flagship series (Kingdom Hearts 2 pretty much invented the "long hallway towards boss" style of dungeon mapping, but none of you had the sense to complain about that awful game...). Square now seems to have responded by designing each dungeon as a ridiculous clusterf*** of nonsense, but the truth is that there's plenty more problems of linearity that all JRPGs need to address, aspects much more crucial than how many overlapping hallways can be crammed into a dungeon.
Dungeons & Dragons was the first role-playing game, and essentially provided the template for what the genre was originally all about: letting the players build the story, crafting their own unique characters and role-playing them in whatever fashion they chose. The problem was that early computers were obviously unable to offer the constantly diverging plotlines of pen & paper RPGs, leaving us with largely plotless dungeon crawlers like Rogue, and linear plot-driven RPGs like Ultima. It's the Ultima formula that the Japanese chose to perfect, first with Dragon Quest, then Final Fantasy, and the countless clones that would follow, but though this has resulted in games with fantastic plots and interesting characters, its also meant abandoning the pen & paper method of collaborative storytelling, the original purpose of the RPG! Many of these games barely deserve the RPG label, as when your characters' every action within the plot is pre-determined, there's really not any role-playing taking place.
I'm pretty sure that if I were given the option, I would've re-rolled most of these characters.
Now honestly this isn't a call for Japanese RPGs to abandon their conventions and simply ape Skyrim. JRPGs are largely defined by their predetermined casts and epic storylines, and letting me customize every member of my party or abandoning the core narrative would be untrue to the genre. However, JRPGs usually force players down a single track, and more effort needs to be made toward letting players explore the world at their leisure, while customizing the gameplay experience to fit their own play-style. Or, more simply: you gotta let a (role) player (role) play.
(Wow, that was awful.)
Though it's a bit of challenge to tell a story while still allowing the player his freedoms, even a handful of small deviations would be a step in the right direction. The moral dilemmas of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic are an excellent example, players able to embrace either the light or dark side of the force depending on their actions, opening up relationships and different quests accordingly. This doesn't seem like it would be impossible to implement into JRPGs while still maintaining the overall plot arc, heck, even Final Fantasy VII let you influence whether Tifa or Aeris would end up as your date, and that was back in 1997 (or Barrett if your social skills were so limited you couldn't even court a virtual woman). Many JRPGs attempt to add some variation to the storyline, but a single alternate ending simply doesn't qualify as true player interaction, and some serious effort needs to be put into letting the player influence the plot, rather than just guiding their character towards the next scripted sequence.
I guess this is a step in the right direction...
Most obviously however, allowing players to break from the storyline and explore the world their leisure is a goddamned necessity. Many JRPGs now have overworlds which allow for little actual exploration, while Final Fantasy X having removed world maps from the series entirely, furthering the hallway school of game design. Western developers seem to understand how much fun it is to explore a virtual world, and the runaway success of Minecraft proves that even stumbling across a simplistic Lego cave is a goddamn thrill. Letting players take charge of discovering new towns and dungeons creates the sense of adventure RPGs should strive for, something much more fun that simply riding the rails towards the next predetermined area. There's a reason that so many gamers remember the moment they got the airship in Final Fantasy IV, or the Epoch in Chrono Trigger. It was the moment that the game's world finally opened up, and to see JRPGs trying to limit the thrill of exploration seems mind-bogglingly wrong.
Oh hell yeah.
Where are the airships Square-Enix!?
As I'm expecting more than a few fanboys to read only the paragraph headers before moving straight onto flaming me in the comments, know that for all my griping and complaining I am still a huge fan of Japanese RPGs, and I'll probably be one of the first kids in line when Tales of the Abyss 3D drops later this year. However, I do strongly believe that unless the Japanese make a concentrated effort to attract Western gamers, the genre is fated to eventually fade away, the RPG epics I grew up with no longer feasible from a business standpoint. Many developers seem to have already resigned themselves to that fate, companies like Capcom focusing on new Western-friendly IPs like Dead Rising or Lost Planet, the odds of a new Breath of Fire game seeming rather unlikely. But these attempts to entice American consumers are disingenuous, and the resulting games seem awkwardly misguided (Lost Planet 2 sucks, while Square-Enix's Nier tried replacing their transsexual pretty-boy protagonist with a hulking Kratos wannabe). The Japanese don't need to abandon their RPG roots, but they should be paying closer attention to what we like, both from an ascetic (mature protagonists, darker settings) and technical (open world exploration, divergent narrative) standpoint.
Also, does anyone know where I can find some Cloud x Barett slash fiction? Because that above picture got me totally hot.
- Vito Gesualdi
Vito Gesualdi is a Senior Editor for GameZone.com, and our resident funnyman. Follow him on Twitter @VitoGesualdi