JRPGs were one of my key food groups growing up. As a console lad, RPGs (they hadn’t sprouted the J prefix yet) were my favorite play format, chiefly during the sunlit days of my SEGA Genesis-owning period. The first three Phantasy Stars, Sword of Vermilion, Shining Force, and, later, Lunar: The Silver Star, Vay, and others I can’t remember. Menu-driven, predictable, hours of fun. I knew, vaguely, that the SNES – a console I did not own – was really considered the great haven for RPGs, but I was nonconformist and I liked my Genesis. So I did miss out on Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy, The Secret of Mana, and all the others.
You knew what you were going to get, going into a JRPG. You knew the menus were likely to be roundedly rectangular affairs, with white text on blue backgrounds, that the combat would be turn-based, that the characters would have inexplicably large eyes (I didn’t know anything about anime back then. In fact, it only remotely occurred to me that I was playing localized versions of Japanese games. It did strike me as passing odd that so many heroes of these games were big-haired, big-eyed, and underage, but I didn’t let it get to me). You knew that chances were the world or even the universe was in trouble and it was down to you to save it. And you knew that there would be a logical beginning, middle, and end… what we’d now call a linear progression.
This is relevant because Final Fantasy XIII is coming out today. To say Square Enix’s lavish, five-years-in-the-making abundance has been under scrutiny is sort of like saying that Twitter gets a few hits. Some have hailed FFXIII as something of a JRPG savior. Because let’s face it, JRPGs aren’t doing that well in this generation. The traditions of turn-based combat, menu-driven aesthetics, juvenile big haired heroes, and – dare I say it – linear progression are turning people off. Even in Japan, gamers are finding themselves less enamored of titles from Blue Dragon to Enchanted Arms to Infinite Undiscovery to Magnacarta to The Last Remnant. The JRPG has been a core driver of console gaming for over 20 years, and it has hit the dryest of dry spells.
And what are people saying about FFXIII? That it’s linear. That, in fact, the first twenty-five hours of the game are so linear that it doesn’t even bother to create the illusion of nonlinearity. That through chapter eleven of thirteen, you have no choice in where you go or even who’s with you.
Western RPGs and Eastern RPGs are about as different ducks as you can find. In the west, the games are grittier, often darker, rarely “cartoony,” and almost always nonlinear. Morrowind, Oblivion, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Witcher, Fallout, Two Worlds, Gothic, and so on. “Welcome to the world,” say western RPGs. “Save it if you can. Also: try not to die.” And then you’re kind of on your own.
Eastern RPGs – be they of the K or the J variety – are different. Though they often tell dark stories, they include lighthearted characters and uniquely Japanese humor… humor that sometimes annoys the god-loving fuck out of westerners. They are focused on narrative structure over player freedom. They eschew true nonlinearity in favor of controlled nonlinearity or none at all. In truth WRPGs and JRPGs are so different that I wonder if they can even be grouped into the same play format.
What is an RPG, after all? It’s a roleplaying game. A game in which you assume a role other than yourself. Since essentially every story-driven game does that, RPGs are further narrowed: they tend to be story- and quest-focused, divergent tales hanging off the master narrative arc like whiskers – tangents to be explored that increase the richness of the game universe. Managing character stats and progression is a key element, as is inventory, equipment, and special powers. Play typically takes place in a world with a fiction and backstory that creators went to some effort to craft. They are usually longer than other play formats – anywhere from ten to well over 500 hours.
But there’s nothing in there about being linear. There’s no rule that says a game can’t be an RPG if it isn’t linear.
And, consider: there have always been JRPGs and WRPGs. While console gamers were enjoying their Dragon Quests, Zeldas and the legends thereof, and Final Fantasies, western (and predominantly PC) gamers were into Ultima, The Bard’s Tale, the Gold Box D&D games from Sierra, Wizardry, and what have you. In fact, I’d argue that western and eastern RPG design was even more different back then than it is now. Old western RPGs were loot and progress-based dungeon hacks; old eastern RPGs were elaborate story-driven monuments. Only with the globalization of gaming have the two begun to come together. And of the two key styles of RPG, JRPGs have changed a lot less than their western counterparts.
Some would argue that the very title of “roleplaying” game is inaccurate. It’s certainly not similar to tabletop roleplaying, where occupying your character is the crux of success. How often have you actually thought like your character in a videogame RPG? Industry vet Ernest Adams once said “you are not a character in an RPG, you’re an itinerant secondhand arms dealer.” And it’s so true, when you think about it.
JRPGs have dodged this (usually) by telling the stories of other people. “You” are not in the game, you’re just controlling the actions of fully-developed characters. Some western RPGs do the same thing, but it’s much more common for “you” to be a character that YOU create, a vessel for the world to fill. Even Mass Effect, with the common name for the protagonist, is a you-driven RPG.
This also explains the forced linearity of JRPGs, and brings us back to the key complaint about Final Fantasy XIII: that a huge portion of the game is totally linear. But it’s still scoring really well, so in a way this complaint mirrors what we’re seeing in reviews of Heavy Rain: that the controls aren’t exactly to die for.
“I hate the controls. 98%.”
“Stupid QTEs. 10/10.”
“The controls suck. 5 Stars.”
“Obnoxious control system. Game of the Year.”
Same thing is happening with FFXIII. So there’s a strong indication that the game transcends its linearity. Whether or not this is true, or whether the press is just slavering over the Final Fantasy name, remains to be seen.
Lewis B wrote a great article about freedom in game worlds. While he was focused predominantly on MMOs, a lot of what he felt was missing in terms of player self-direction could easily be ascribed to offline games as well. Of course, no one – including Lewis – would advocate that every game become an open world extravaganza; there’s a place for linearity and freedom. But in RPGs, westerners, at least, tend to like freedom, or at least the implication of it. Dragon Age, after all, isn’t exactly “free” the way Lewis uses the term. You can choose your destinations and you have options as to the manner in which you solve challenges or deal with people. But there is an underlying structure, which allows the creators to tell a coherent story.
Player choice is always a hot-button issue in development. The more license you give a player, the greater the possibility that the player messes up your game: either its story or some other mechanic. The less license you give, the more control you have over the experience, but players might not want that. The concept of “linearity” and player choice are essentially the same thing. In the case of FFXIII, Square decided that it had a specific story to tell, a story it wanted to tell in a specific order, so it made the game linear. But most classic JRPGs of my youth were linear; the only times I wasn’t moving forward in Phantasy Star were those times when I didn’t know what to do next. There was only one way to go, it just looked open.
I’ve tried a few JRPGs recently – Eternal Sonata, Xenosaga, The Last Remnant - none of them held me. I’m not sure if it was the linearity or the repetition – another difference between Western and JRPGs is that combat in the latter tends to be heavily choreographed and requires you to watch the same (often lengthy) animations again and again. Actually, this is something FFXIII is supposed to change, bringing in a new tactical battle system that most reviewers are saying is the high point of the game. And I’ve also tried some western RPGs lately: Dragon Age, Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2. And you know what? I kind of drifted away from those as well. I’m not sure why. The last RPG that really and truly grabbed me by the balls and refused to let go was Morrowind, and that was a long time ago.
Does the fact that I’ve not recently been hooked by any RPG, linear or nonlinear, mean that I’m just losing my taste for the format? Whatever happened to that little boy who played through Phantasy Star 2 without ever referring to the included tip guide? Who tried again and again to reach the town of Hauksness in Dragon Warrior, failing at least 37 times but always trying again because getting to that town would be a great coup for a character of my level and I’d be able to buy kickass weapons and armor? I finally did make it, you know. Does anyone else remember Hauksness? The town’s destroyed. It’s a smoking hole in the ground. All that time I’d been struggling to get there, visions of sugarplums (or vorpal swords) dancing in my head, and once I got in the place was trashed. But I never regretted it because it turned out that those 37 attempts were essentially grinds that got me to the level I ought to have been at to reach Hauksness in the first place. In a way, my Hauksness expedition, mounted long before I was ready to take it on, was a rebellion against the linearity of the JRPG. And the JRPG snapped me right back into place.
Meanwhile there were moments in Fallout 3 where I’d just stare at the wasteland thinking, “Where the heck do I go now? I’ve got, like, fifteen bottle caps and a xylophone. I have no bullets, nothing to shoot them out of even if I did, few hit points, no health packs. They’ve created a world where I can go anywhere, but if I do I’ll die.” Later, when my immediate equipment problems had been solved, I’d sometimes think, “Okay, now what? I have 48 sidequests and six missions associated with the Find Liam Neeson story arc.” It was an embarrassment of riches, and it sort of froze me.
Final Fantasy XIII sits in the passenger seat of my car, waiting for work to end. Doesn’t that mean that life is kind of linear? Wake up, shower, shave, dress, work, leave, home, dinner, sleep, wake up, shower, shave… It’s almost like every day is the same dream. At least in videogames, be they linear or nonlinear, I have the opportunity to live a slightly more interesting life than the one we’ve got here.