Must I Say Goodbye?: Leaving Behind jRPGs

Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than talking about jRPGs. What exactly does the term mean, and am I okay with that? The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else, perpetuating a style and audience that “others itself” from its sibling genres. What bothers me the most, though, is how relatively unchanged this genre of gaming is from 20 years ago. There have definitely been advances in technology and a greater breadth of writing, but just how much jRPGs currently rely on nostalgia to succeed isn’t a difficult argument to make.

jRPGs are an ode to the fans. They seem determined to recreate that special place for a very particular group of people at a certain time in video game history. Nostalgia doesn’t feel like living, however. It’s that familiar ghost of pleasant feelings without much thinking—nice to reminisce about—but a corpse to drag around if you cling to it. That’s how jRPGs feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because jRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase.

In a sense, jRPGs represent a lot of what’s wrong with video games. Namely, things being there just because. Many of these titles advertise 60+ hours of gameplay, but a lot of that time is spent grinding levels and includes other filler tactics. The numerous cutscenes would be worth it if they were something other than the usual young genki girl flirting with the dismissive and brooding protagonist. Again. jRPGs are actually embarrassing to play now, as evidenced by the many sheepish smiles and explanations that I had to give my friends when they walked in on me playing Tales of Graces f.

Short of destroying genre lines entirely, I think that these games could revitalize a once high demand sector of video games. The later installments of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series—and Altus games overall—have garnered wide attention. Persona 3 and 4 captured my own attention in a way that I’d consider indentured servitude if it meant that Persona 5 would soon be within my grasp. Those games obviously pander to the same crowd by choosing a setting common to a lot of anime (a Japanese high school) but also explore themes and mechanics that we don’t commonly see in jRPGs. All of the main characters are nuanced characters and resist the stereotypical roles that other games would have shoved them into, and the games themselves have a macabre overtone. The Persona series might stick to the usual aesthetics of the jRPG, but the themes have matured with the crowd following the series instead of transporting them to the past. While saving the world is a part of it, Persona 3’s main allure is exploring the strength of interpersonal ties and what it means to live. In its sequel, you’re solving a murder mystery and entertaining LGBT issues with some of your party members. These aren’t topics that you’d find in your favorite SNES RPGs and their predecessors. This doesn’t devalue jRPG classics, but rather implies their time has come and gone.

Ultimately, the context surrounding Final Fantasy XIII-2 describes what feels like the drawn out death of a genre. Artistic risks are treated with extreme disdain and the most blatant fan service is encouraged. Games are just another arrangement of the same mechanics alongside a thin story that barely justifies their presence, and aren’t we past that? Given the hyperactive cycle of the game industry, fans eventually are going to get bored of playing the same ol’ thing, especially when other genres are adapting jRPG elements to fit into their own arsenals. That might describe how I’m feeling about jRPGs now, bored and slightly disgusted. Developers will find themselves scrambling (if they aren’t already) when fans abandon their monopoly on a tradition.

I think that jRPGs can be saved by risky behavior, as I see Persona 3 and 4 as large, smart risks. Dating sim and dungeon crawler? Nothing like what we’ve seen before and each iteration of the series opens up new possibilities for the interaction of these qualities. We hear about how the inclusion of minorities would alienate the player base, but the opposite actually happened with Kanji and Naoto in Persona 4. Instead, there was discussion about figuring out one’s sexuality and how the culture that a person lives in changes their relationship to gender. jRPGs have the maneuverability to pull off some out-there content, which Atlus consistently proves. While other RPGs struggle with immersing the player in a photorealistic fantasy world, jRPGs are inherently equipped to produce highly stylized, pleasantly bizarre head-trips. Unfortunately, looking at the jRPGs that have cropped up over the past few years, I see little evidence of breaking old habits. So I guess it’s goodbye for now.

Mass Appeal vs. Accessibility in Video Games

There is a difference between “mass appeal” and “accessibility,” though some word-slingers and comment fanatics find the terms interchangeable. Who uses them determines a large part of their meaning, as a lot of gaming discussion also determines who belongs to the “in group” and who belongs to the “out group.” Games striving for mass appeal tend to come from a series or lineage of some sort that include conventions that appeal to hardcore gamers but also attempt to broaden their audience by watering down complex features. The phrase is used pejoratively, devaluing other gaming styles while calling out developers with their eye on gaining more customers. Accessibility is a design philosophy that opens up games to more people without changing the experience for the original audience. It also aims to value a plurality of gaming styles instead of “one over all others,” such as higher difficulties being the ultimate vision or true version of a game.

Arguments concerning mass appeal and accessibility frequently occur over RPGs, a genre going through an identity crisis by trying to satisfy the old guard while fighting stagnation by expanding into new territory (the purgatory of the “give us something new but keep everything the same” demand of gamers). A focus on stats or numbers in general is often included in many gamers’ definitions of what an RPG is, but the focus on micromanaging numbers is the only one way to express character progression. It is far more likely that statistical progression is a given and that a game is built around such progression rather than an organic component of what it means to be an RPG.

Assigning numerical values to attributes at character creation, adding points as you level up, the chance that the player can find their character build irreparably flawed well into the game—all of these tie into the feeling that we get playing RPGs, which is centered around character progression. However, these qualities are not necessary for a successful game of this sort. Consider the shift away from traditional character creation in The Elder Scrolls (in which all of the decisions dealing with numbers are translated into different mechanics in the game). Many called foul at this change and journalists still see Bethesda’s games as primed more for mass consumption but very little actually changed.

The focus on player input in the series involves a larger amount of people managing their character’s progression without being inundated with extraneous information. Anyone who has played earlier Elder Scrolls games will find themselves doing the same exact things with a similar amount if not more flexibility in Skyrim. This is because deciding 5-point differences between Charisma and Intelligence is simply one way to influence skills that panders to the tastes to a particular set of people, while it isn’t a loss of experience to simply pick pockets to become better at it and it allows enjoying perks if you want to specialize.

Styles of play remain the same without traditional specializations, with abilities and the game-world funneling players into the usual warrior, rogue, and mage trifecta while allowing for some experimentation if players want the challenge. On the other end of the RPG spectrum, you have games like Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II that maintain a standard set of statistics with little benefit. With numbered requirements for skills and equipment, the player is doing work that the computer could be doing instead and the system offers little in terms of flexibility.

Putting points into attributes doesn’t offer some players much in terms of game interaction, such stats exist only for those who enjoy watching the numerical value of attack values and armor points rise and fall. For RPGs that show some of the strongest concentration on character development through narrative development, the old draping of D&D character sheets are anachronistic. This is only the start of a conversation about some of the Final Fantasy games, which would remain largely unaffected as gaming experiences if you took away the status screens showing the party members described in numbers.

The tension between “hardcore” players and a wider audience echoes the politics of the relationship that developers and gamers have with game design. The diversity of RPG styles doesn’t match the increasing range of identities in the player base, which is important because of how much interaction is necessary for enjoying games. The backlash that social minorities are combating in gaming is similar to the resistance to valuing other experiences besides the simulation or abstraction of technical skills in gaming culture, and the demographics that represent each side aren’t too different. Video games reflect themes and skills found in boys’ styles of play as children, and any introduction of qualities that are different from that (especially if tagged as feminine) are cast out as inferior “casual” games. The movement of making games accessible gives designers the opportunity to boil down what works without the trappings of conventions that exist “just because they’ve always been there” and establish new ways of interacting that would be unavailable in generic RPGs.

Numbers and stats in RPGs don’t have to go away forever but probably deserve to be more niche than they are currently. Taking the lead from Skyrim and Dragon Age II, there are other directions that the core idea of character progression can go that don’t involve a superficial process that blocks enjoyment for the current “out group.” As the genre and all of gaming struggles with its identity and direction, a critical look at how we resort to convention and whose convention is valued will reveal roadblocks once assumed to be essential mainstays of the medium.

An Apology for RPGs

I’ve been rather grouchy with gaming lately. This new console generation hasn’t produced anything to wow me and I butterfly from one Steam sale to the next, forgetting the vast majority of games in my library. Probably because I grew into a gamer through RPGs, specifically J-RPGs, and the climate for said genre is rather… underwhelming. There has been a lot of talk about RPGs lately, particularly tugs about the definition of RPGs and the possible death of the genre. The existential panic that will begin (if not happening already) to clamor is represented by Greg Zeschuk’s (VP of BioWare) comment regarding trying to figure out what RPGs are currently. This is somewhat alarming as BioWare is oft synonymous with RPGs, but their rhetoric surrounding Mass Effect 3 sounds as if they are distancing themselves from their roots. From what I can tell, it sounds like the company feels it is abandoning a rotting ship and embracing a broader appeal.

After Final Fantasy XIII finally had me throw down my controller (read: set down with furious care [those are expensive!]) fed-up with what game designers felt were good RPGs to be charging so much money for, I knew something was wrong. This shouldn’t be happening twenty years after Final Fantasy IV. I broke off my sixteen-year relationship with Square, having pre-ordered every Final Fantasy on faith that they would be amazing. While the latest Final Fantasy was decent, I felt a company who has weighed in so much to this genre shouldn’t be producing decent games, but epic ones. Games touting their mastery of narrative, like Heavy Rain, shouldn’t think gamers are simple enough to fall for multiple endings that aren’t significantly different from one another. I noticed that the same tricks and conventions appeared repeatedly, with innovation ignored for convention humping. There has to be more to RPGs than this; my favorite genre can’t really be dying… right?

So what is an RPG? Are-pee-Jee? Whichever.

Let me start my adventure with a large caveat: I place little value differences in definitions when it comes to concepts and genres. Definitions, to me, are useful purely for communication and not end-all Truth finding. In the end, where we decide to draw the line is completely arbitrary; you might have a convincing argument, but that doesn’t mean much in the face of Truth. I’m not looking for Truth. I seek new ideas, enlightenment, to uncover a path. Just see this as the “Where have you been?” to the “Where are you going?” Pretend I didn’t make that analogy, it’s completely inappropriate.

It would be too easy to sound off everyone else’s opinion on the matter, only to subvert them with a witticism or two afterwards; however people tend to fall into a typical ‘ludology vs narratology’-like arrangement. This frames RPGs either in their mechanic traditions (character progression, turn-based combat, stats) or as stories (complex plot, role-playing, detailed world), both extremes being problematic. These are more conventions of the genre rather than what makes them a unique way of playing a game. As Zeschuk noted, and the Mass Effect series exemplifies, as genres are appropriating more RPG elements, RPGs become flat as they have little more to offer on their own.

Trying to take a holistic approach, I look back to Dungeons & Dragons and subsequent tabletop adventures to be the progenitor of what we consider RPGs. What makes these games both stylistically and formally distinct are their attempt to create a system where players can interact with a narrative. The rules show how players can determine something qualitative via a quantitative method, with primary focus on building a character through statistics and direct, extemporaneous acting within this game-story world. This is where I find that tingle inside me when I go to play an RPG; it has found a way for me to interact with a narrative. When we look to the start of digital RPGs, we see these conventions carry over: manage stats of a character that interacts with unseen formulas, traverse through dungeons, go on loosely related quests. Digital RPGs made it so the player didn’t need a DM nor had to remember formulas, which is definitely convenient and breakthrough use of technology. However, it didn’t add anymore to what RPGs have been doing; in actuality, these games took away methods of interacting with the narrative. So I’m going to say something a little naughty.

RPGs have been dead this entire time.

Digital ones, at least. Tabletop has continued to grow (more people [including myself] should be interested in it!) and shape how players can interact with narratives; some have pitched the idea of a DM, stats, or too many equations over all, which digital RPGs rely on. RPGs on computers haven’t done anything tabletop ones didn’t already cover, which is a huge problem. I take that back, digital RPGs have supplied us with rich visual and sonic worlds. I don’t take back the ‘huge problem’ part though. These qualities are bittersweet for RPGs, as the demand for a better audio/visual experience conflicts with the method digital RPGs enact a narrative. These games have yet to solve the issues of borrowing heavily from novels and movies while addressing the particular needs of narrative in an interactive medium. Computers may have made RPGs more convenient, but they haven’t used their unique qualities to create an experience tabletop cannot. This isn’t to say tabletop is inherently a better medium, or that I want computers to faze them out, but rather to have a genre that does more than substitute a role-playing group. There are a couple of evolutions that make it seem like current digital RPGs do allow you to interact with the narrative; choices in decisions and who your character is. These are but a fraction of the places interactivity and narratives intersect, and are rather topical. Choices often feel insignificant or unharmonious with the story, and characters can either be blank avatars or poorly planned and in need of a restart.

So, what’s the solution? Find out what computers can do players cannot, and work them in as mainstays to the genre. Instead of using their computational power for convenience, use it for the impossible. Create webs of cause and effect a DM wouldn’t be able to keep track of and associate all player actions with something other than statistics. Manifest audio/visual perceptions words are unable to create, and link them to the player’s progression. There is so much more, and this article isn’t about listing them off. Rather, it is a call to start thinking and implementing.

What is and isn’t an RPG is beside the point, it’s how a game appropriates the cultural understanding of what an RPG is. Video games have been using character progression through stats and experience points, a strong sense of story, and tactical strategy to draw what they can from the genre, but the heart isn’t there. What we really have are action games, interactive fiction, and shooters that use the tropes developed from tabletop RPGs. There is very little role-playing to be had; rather, you are given an extremely limited amount of ‘roles’ to ‘choose’ from.

So let’s do something, anything. Experiment and idea-dump. Take a favorite from the genre and make it so it does what RPGs are great at: letting players be a part of narrative impossible in their own realty. Create a world that tells a player “You matter, and I can’t exist without you.” Level 5’s Georama, not enough. BioWare’s dialogue trees and wheels, not enough. Square’s Active Time Battle, not enough. Bethesda’s character creation, not enough. No more multiple endings in a weak attempt to add on reply value. No more illusion of choice.

And no more freakin’ Tolkien and Star Trek!

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