Editorial: Ni no Kuni: My First JRPG, My Final JRPG
Do we really know what we want even when we think we do?
03.28.13 - 11:53 AM
The first fifteen hours of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch lifted ten years from my mind and heart. My young adulthood was brimful of traditional Japanese RPGs. Savoring even the rotten ones, I played through one after the other until it seemed I had played them all, and then I would scour the Internet (often this very site) for the most obscure JRPGs or other games I may have somehow overlooked. Even though I had been exposed to video games all my life, these were my formative years as a gamer: evenings after school fighting bloated bombs, casting "Indignation" with a tiny girl's cry, and playing hide and seek in a desert town.
The opening hours of Ni no Kuni, then, came not so much as a bittersweet nostalgic trip, but a revelation that the JRPG was not dead and that the same old tricks, done well enough, could recreate the magic of an earlier age. The sense of exploration, the gorgeous world map, the Wizard's Companion (a greater work of art than the game itself, perhaps), and a sense of secrets yet to be revealed complemented a fun battle system and gracefully revealed gameplay mechanics. Old feelings came to life. There are things only a JRPG can do, and I couldn't wait to pick up the controller again. The only difference between now and then seemed to be that which kept me from the game: now, work; then, school.
Everything else was the same. There was an oasis town in the desert with a fire dungeon nearby. There was a coliseum. There was a casino to soak up my time and virtual money. There was a ghost ship, a final dungeon that's not really a final dungeon, and a snowbound village. Everything was in place, as if it had never left, and wasn't that just what I had been asking for?
Yes, but that's not what I really wanted.
Ni no Kuni isn't really the first JRPG I ever played, but it might as well be. Ni no Kuni drowns in its own self-indulgence and conservatism. In the beginning, my hopes and the pretty visuals intoxicated me, and I was blind to the game's problems, and the problems of all JRPGs that try to resurrect that old feeling. Ni no Kuni is predictable, poorly paced, and relies almost entirely on clichés that stifle the beauty of the setting. There are glimpses of genuine artistry, but the creativity and imagination taken for granted in anything with the Ghibli name is merely superficial here. Cliché builds upon cliché, and the game eventually sends Oliver and party on a three-part fetch quest: the nadir of exhausted game design.
Ni no Kuni isn't the only offender, but merely the most recent and perhaps the most telling. There are others.
As I sample the JRPGs named as the best in recent years, I assemble a list of things I never want to see in a game again. These are the things we've been seeing for ten years now: the elements of nostalgia. You can throw your characters on the back of an immobile god, but if those characters are the same ones we've seen a hundred times (albeit dumbed-down ones) having the same inane conversations, you can't make me care. Xenoblade Chronicles may have increased the scope of JRPG exploration, but the battle system only holds up for about half of the game's length. Poor dialogue and cutscene direction hampers a story already too serious for its own good, and the game's structure becomes designed to extend its length in artificial, torturous ways. Radiant Historia, another recent and lauded JRPG, had a similar effect, although less marked. I quit the Tales series after Vesperia for similar reasons, and Dragon Quest IX was a mediocre disappointment. Final Fantasy XIII has similar issues of story and combat execution.
Many speak of the JRPG evolving: it needing to evolve, it never evolving, or its evolution being embodied in games like Xenoblade Chronicles. The last evolution I saw was within Persona 3, a JRPG with more maturity and ingenuity than any released since. By eschewing the idea of nostalgia and not trying to recreate the illusory magic of the past, Persona 3 created not just something novel, but something better than the rest. We need decent scripts, better stories, and a structure that won't stagnate after ten, twenty, or even thirty hours. We need one that evolves, one that compels. The narrative impetus from point A to point B needs to be more than a villain that must die, three magic stones, or the acquisition of some ancient, fell weapon. Most of all, we need to break the bonds that keep us fettered to the past.
Ni no Kuni may be the final traditional JRPG I ever play.
I've heard people say they just want to play a grand old traditional JRPG like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IX, or Suikoden II. I've echoed this sentiment, but I think it's dishonest. I daresay we're kidding ourselves. No manner of video game magic can hope to match our falsely golden memories, but we can still create new experiences, and that's not only what we need, but it's also what we really want. I thought I wanted Ni no Kuni, but I don't. I want something new; something that hasn't even been thought of yet; something unafraid to rebel against the status quo. This is a humbling realization, but an optimistic one. It can be difficult to know one's self and confront it, but the rewards are priceless.
Some say the JRPG is dead, but this surely isn't true: there are plenty of JRPGs being released in Japan and even in the US. I agree that some old JRPGs have something that new ones don't, and I blame the pressures of increased popularity and greed for the lack of real artistry in some modern games. But I don't really want to travel over the hills of Gaia again. I don't want to capture my first Pikachu, or travel through time with a silent, spiky-haired hero. I thought I missed what the games were like, but I missed who I was when I played them.
I don't think I'm the only one.
Admitting that might mean confronting something quite painful about the nature of life, but if we wake up and open our eyes — start to see clearly for once and live better — we can begin to enjoy what is and not what was.