Editorial: The JRPG Standstill
He who controls the JRPG controls the universe!
04.18.11 - 6:39 PM
Ask any writer, artist, or athlete: the goal is always to make progress; to do better than your last outing. The same should be said about video games, and the majority of the time, it can be. But lately, there is one genre that seems to depend on more of the same instead of stepping outside the box to higher the standard. It's a shame, too, because it is above all my favorite genre. Of course, I am talking about the JRPG. I've always felt deeply connected with my JRPGs – so much that it never even crossed my mind until recently to try a WRPG. Last generation, the PlayStation 2 ruled in every region of the world and most of the development work done in Japan focused solely on Sony's monolith. Because every segment of fan was represented with this single console, development could be focused; we saw few multiplatform RPGs. There's no such juggernaut this generation, not by a long shot. Development costs have risen and platforms have expanded – not only are there three home consoles vying for development dollars, but there are handhelds as well.
In the end, though, the JRPG's lifeblood is its story and writing, and few recent games have strong dialogue. I don't know about you, but I've probably saved the world over 100 times now, and I'd gladly save it again if the narrative and characters were compelling and could make it feel new again for me. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in recent games. There is such a reliance on the same character archetypes – the silent protagonist, the princess, the childhood friend, the scientist, and of course the main character who was just an ordinary man but suddenly grows into a hero.
In the midst of all this, there can really only be seven types of conflicts in writing, which Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch mapped out. The most important of these are: Man versus Man, Man versus Self, Man versus Nature, Man versus Technology, Man versus Society, and Man versus Destiny. At one point or another, all of these basic outlines can be a part of a narrative in some way or another, and the best stories often combine a little bit of everything. It's fine to fall back on any of these conflicts, and we have seen them all embodied in the JRPG standby of saving the world. I think it's safe to say we all have a little bit of a hero lurking inside us, where we want to help out for the greater cause. I don't despise saving the world; I despise stories that don't do anything unique or go against the grain in any way, shape, or form. Cookie-cutter stories just aren't going to win me over, and I always make a note of it when I review these titles.
However, whenever I comment on the story's lack of originality, I'm told that I should "just expect that from a JRPG," and therein lies the problem. If we never expect the genre to give us anything new, developers will continue delivering more of the same. Many RPGs run around the 30+ hour mark, and that's a lot of time to invest in another version of something you've already seen in another game. It is worth noting that Japanese culture is really resistant to change. They put a lot of store in traditions, and that makes it hard to deviate from the whole "if it's not broke, don't fix it." Except that now, it is broken – broken because the repetition of all these characters and stories is starting to weigh down a genre that was once lively, passionate, creative, full of depth and genuine drama.
I think it's safe to say that the current financial state of the video game industry doesn't make any developer or publisher want to take chances. Taking a risk is a big investment, and that's a key aspect in why we're seeing more and more sequels. All consumers can do is speak with is their wallets, which is tough, because we're so JRPG starved that we just want something to fill the void, even if it's a lesser game than what we should expect. However, at the end of the day, we shouldn't be rewarding developers for giving us more of the same and not trying to put a novel spin on it all. Now, I don't want to mislead anyone by saying it's all bad. Games such as Radiant Historia, with its low development costs, have managed to overcome this problem. You're still saving the world, but there's this spin on rewriting history by shifting time. Lately, though, I've been so jaded with it all because the quality stories and characters just aren't there, and I miss the zest that I felt while playing games years ago.
I think Braid creator Jonathan Blow said it best in his interview with Tom Bissel in Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, "One of modern games' most telling weaknesses is its lack of feeling for the dramatic proportion – an importance gigantism. Why does a medium that frequently takes world-saving as its imperative so often leave one unmoved by having done so?" In all of this, I just want to feel something again. It's all about making me want to save the world for that 101st time.