Video games celebrate the state of the present. They’re always centered on the immediate action the player can take: where and how he moves and what result this brings. Games do not cue us to their pasts easily or frequently. Maybe the blank space will tell the player where he’s already moved in a Pac-Man maze or maybe finding a broken crate where a health pack should be reminds him that he’s already been past this area in Tomb Raider, but there is very little sense of an archived human history in these spaces. If nothing else, the past is hard if not impossible to access, seeing as the state of play resides in conflict with the immutable record.
Some games do indeed play with time, like Metal Gear Solid 3‘s unconventional game overs when you create a time paradox or many of Braid‘s platforming mechanics. But for the most part, video games are experienced in the present tense. Yet, I would argue, there are some games that strongly privilege the future state over the player’s current action, and these are usually the games that we find most difficult to talk about in conventional ludological terms.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Japanese role-playing genre.
These days we largely criticize the JRPG for being overly linear to the point of non-interactivity. For every Etrian Odyssey there seems to be two or three Final Fantasy or Kingdom Hearts titles that exist only in their cutscenes, favoring cinematic close-ups and convoluted character development over player agency and that seem to make ludic progression as arbitrary an obstacle course of menus and resource management as possible. Looked at from a conventional design standpoint, these games seem absolutely backwards by modern standards, possibly even “anti-player” in their approach. So why is it they still attract consumers, some of whom consider the JRPG their main or only genre?
It’d be quick and easy to just dismiss these players as underexposed casuals, but if that were so, why do they so frequently identify as part of the gaming subculture and move progressively from title to title, rather than sticking with what they know a la Bejeweled fanatics? Arguably, there is a transferable skill developed during the play of a JRPG comparable to that built up by first-person shooter fans. Instead of a mechanical skill, however, it’s a time-sense skill.
A simpler way of looking at it would be to suggest that JRPGs teach their players to accept delayed gratification on a consistent basis. While many games in other genres are modeled on some practice of breadcrumbing the player in the direction of a goal, those breadcrumbs are usually themselves treated as mini-rewards. A snippet of dialogue between characters, for example, or a discovered document. A game like Final Fantasy XIII, on the other hand, is pure sweat and hard labor during the play sections, often in the repetitious battles that bracket cutscenes. All that arduous focus on the task at hand is rarely the goal or even pleasurable in the moment, but bearable only because of the knowledge that once it ends, the player will be rewarded with more story.
This is what I mean by a game existing in the future. It is certainly played in the present tense, but the gameplay itself is heavily biased in the direction of what will or could happen—that is, the near future. Even the cutscenes, as they’re playing, involve a tension oriented toward future possibilities. They end on ambiguity or sometimes deliberate cliffhangers that propel the player through the next arduous and thankless batch of play in anticipation of the next bit of story, which should urge him toward the next scene, and so on and so forth until the credits roll.
The most ironic part is, if one looks to Deleuze, we begin to see something like in game cinematics as resembling film as a recorded past. There is something objective and archival about cutscenes, which makes it no large surprise that a lot of modern JRPGs take on a “database” quality, allowing players to revisit past cutscenes from some sort of menu. The Valkyria Chronicles games take this to a diagetic extreme by presenting all events as being recorded in a book accessed by the player. But one can only revisit these cinematics, not the major battles which unlocked them. Those can only be played once.
This dual time sense, of orienting the player toward the future in order to engage what is ultimately a prescribed and unalterable past, is part of what distinguishes JRPG play from other genres in the long term. This isn’t to say that most story-oriented games don’t do this to some degree, but Japanese role-playing console games unquestionably do it the most consistently—to the extent that there’s a sharp division between the ambient, highly plastic time in which ergodic play occurs and when it segues into an archival, cinematic mode.
Without assigning any evaluative statements to the genre, positive or negative, we can still look to JRPGs as expressing a time emphasis that is different than that of rival genres. While many games place some degree of emphasis on an inferred future, only JRPGs seem to go as far as to subordinate the present tense in order to favor it.
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