On JRPG’s and their appeal as games to play and to design

Published September 30, 2013

Introduction

Periodically, I feel compelled to play a Japanese RPG.

And it has to be a JRPG – a platformer or puzzle game or first-person shooter just won’t cut it. For a long time I have felt this, and it is this compulsion which has driven my choices for a career. I love playing JRPG’s, and I want to make JRPG’s.

But I find myself stuck when somebody asks me why I love JRPG’s. I have always simply felt this way. It is a gut thing that I am enthralled when playing a BREATH OF FIRE or FINAL FANTASY, and the hours go by unwatched.

So, I spent some time thinking about what I actually like in JRPG’s.

The World Journey

When you start a JRPG, you usually embark on a world journey. Over the course of the game, you will have the opportunity to explore every continent, visit each town, delve into every dungeon, and sometimes even travel into outer space. The variety of locations typically aims to create a world of many peoples, cultures, environments and situations, through which the protagonists grow and develop as you lead them through this world. FINAL FANTASY X is a particularly strong example of this, as the characters are supporting the summoner Yuna on her pilgrimage from the southernmost temple to the northernmost temple of the world of Spira.

Protagonist Development

As the protagonists travel the world, they experience things which can change them. In particular, the development of the main player character is often the focus of the game. For example, in ILLUSION OF GAIA, young Will discovers he has some strange abilities, he learns of the fate of his father, he falls in love, he sees visions of humanity’s future (our present), and he comes to understand why he would fight to save humanity. I find that, generally, JRPG’s are very concerned with character development in connection with the game story, which is largely afforded by the pre-designed characters – a characteristic of Japanese RPG’s which often sets them apart from Western RPG’s.

Pre-designed vs Roll-your-own Characters

This is a distinction which, for me, makes typical Western RPG’s less interesting than the typical Japanese variety. In most WRPG’s such as BALDUR’S GATE and FABLE, you create your own protagonist’s appearance and abilities – you mold them into your avatar in the game world. I understand the appeal of that feature, but I find that the cost of such a feature is a disconnect between your character and their place in the game world. Any old character can be the protagonist in those games, no matter how little thought has been put into their design by the player molding them.

In contrast, protagonists in JRPG’s have been expressly designed for that world and its story, and the story of the game is crafted to involve and affect the characters. FINAL FANTASY TACTICS, for example, has several pre-designed characters as story-important characters, and then an unlimited supply of non-story-important characters purely for use in battles. When these non-story-important characters make appearances in story segments in the game, there is often an odd disconnect – you get the sense that they’re stock characters, there to move the story along. Only pre-designed characters are able to be designed from the ground up to be an integral part of the story and world.

Visual Aesthetics

Another difference between Japanese RPG’s and Western RPG’s is that JRPG’s often explore different aesthetics, while WRPG’s (and Western video games in general) strive for photorealism. Photorealism in games is not particularly interesting to me. I would much rather see new things, see new imaginings of places, see different kinds of faces. BREATH OF FIRE IV has a certain something about its in-game textures which, together with the hand-animated sprites for characters, gives the game a uniqueness. This isn’t to say that Western games refrain from going in different aesthetic directions, but the mainstream, AAA games are usually pushing for photorealism, while it isn’t to the same extent for AAA Japanese games. I like that each world has its own look and feel.

BREATH OF FIRE IV

BREATH OF FIRE IV

Character and Party Control

JRPG’s tend to have a cast of playable characters, and you control a party of them at any given time. This is in contrast to games where you only ever control a single character, the protagonist. Typically, single-character games have a greater degree of freedom for that one character you control: you can do more different kinds of actions, and you are in more direct control of these actions and their executions, as in platformers and first-person shooters. In contrast, in games where you control a party of characters, the control system is often simplified – you move them from there to here, you tell them to attack – and then they perform the actions. I do enjoy the finer control of my character in single-character games, but I have a preference for the high-level control that is in other kinds of games, namely JRPG’s.

Player vs Character Skill

These different levels of control mean that the kind of skills required on your part are different. In games where you have fine control of one character, for example SUPER MARIO 64, you have to be quick in interpreting and then responding to changes in the game, you have to have good spatial skills in order to land where you have quickly decided where you should land, you have to set up and control offensive or defensive moves, you have to consider an incoming enemy and, if they have a pattern which you have understood, whether they are going to attack you soon, how to respond to that attack, otherwise how to attack them or avoid them… It’s a lot! And the totality of the game outcome is dependent on your skill, immediately, in that moment. This kind of game requires that the player have a lot of physical skills and speed.

On the other hand, JRPG’s require less physical skill on the player’s part, as the characters themselves have skills and worry about their execution, while the player only activates them via the high-level control scheme mentioned above. I like this abstraction, that the characters are able to perform all these things on their own, and my task is to direct them when and where to use their skills.

Pacing of Action

Many JRPG’s also have turn-based battles, which means that the player is not stressed for time and can consider more carefully their choices – there is no penalty for being slow. This makes them much less twitch- or reflex-based games, which is something I may or may not be in the mood for when I sit down to play. Of course, action JRPG’s such as KINGDOM HEARTS and the TALES games are very intense, and those battle systems are features of those games. It’s simply a matter of what kind of game a given player wants to experience, and I often go for turn-based JRPG’s because they are games which are less intense in action.

Emotional Outcome of Playing

While the games I enjoy are usually lighter in action, they tend to be more emotionally intense. This is often due to the story and what happens to characters I have come to care about through the game. I think that JRPG’s, by being less physically intense, enable longer game length and consequently longer story length. In turn, a longer story length affords more emotional investment in the story and its progression. And at the end of the day, when I finish a JRPG, I feel a deeper, longer-lasting feeling of satisfaction and happiness.

In conclusion

And there you have it. Many reasons that I play and enjoy JRPG’s – and they could be yours too. There simply is nothing quite like beginning, playing through, and finishing a JRPG, and it’s an experience I highly, highly recommend.

Now my hope is that it is also a wonderful experience to design a JRPG (which it was with my FUGITIVE BRAND game) and then also to carry it through to full development. These games have given me so much, and I wish to create more experiences like these for others to enjoy. I want to make games that make players feel happiness, sadness, regret, loss, joy, love, creation – significant emotions, both positive and negative. Whether I’ll be able to do it or not, that’s another question, but for me the way to that would be through the fantastic genre that is the JRPG.

Appendix

So you want to try a JRPG? Here are some places to start.

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2 thoughts on “On JRPG’s and their appeal as games to play and to design

  1. I agree on many parts in here, but:

    “Emotional Outcome of Playing”
    “While the games I enjoy are usually lighter in action, they tend to be more emotionally intense. This is often due to the story and what happens to characters I have come to care about through the game. ”

    – Ni no Kuni, Kingdom Hearts and many other games, Even some none JRPG’s I have played have been very emotionally intense. Shadow of the Colossus would be one of the none JRPG. It depends on the story and not if it is a JRPG or not 🙂

    Check out these 3 6-7 min videos and you get a better understanding on that:



    • Super interesting videos, I hadn’t seen them before and they clarified a lot of things for me.

      Nice idea of separating the two kinds of RPG’s into two distinct genres, it does make sense looking back on their histories. And I agree about the directions that games have taken in relation to RPG’s recently: we see “role-playing elements” (levels, skills trees, equipment etc) in all sorts of other games nowadays. In the meantime, a lot of JRPG’s have indeed stuck to their traditional mechanics.

      With NI NO KUNI and KINGDOM HEARTS you mean that those games have intense action, as well as intense story? And non RPG’s as well can have that. Hmmm yes definitely it depends on the story. In my experience I have found emotionally intense stories to be in JRPG’s though (action or turn-based). But I’ve also noticed that in my life, I haven’t played through that many non-Japanese games. I’ve found experiences I enjoy in JRPG’s, and playing through part of many other games haven’t quite catered to the kinds of emotions I’ve come to enjoy and expect from games.

      The videos also talk about WRPG’s as enabling the player to fulfill some fantasy (power fantasy?). Sometimes that’s fun, but generally it isn’t what I find interesting in a game. I feel like WRPG’s try to make the player feel like an über-powerful badass, but I think that gets very boring very fast. In JRPG’s you’re also seeking and building power, but to a means – saving the world, usually – instead of just for feeling “powerful”.

      I wonder if it’s possible to make a game with the best of both genres – player freedom in what they can do in the game, while also maintaining a narrative direction from beginning to end. They seem like polar opposites.

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