[10 April 2012]
Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than talking about jRPGs. What exactly does the term mean, and am I okay with that? The idea of Japanese RPGs vs. Western RPGs seems like a false dichotomy. Rather, it’s just jRPGs vs. everything else, perpetuating a style and audience that “others itself” from its sibling genres. What bothers me the most, though, is how relatively unchanged this genre of gaming is from 20 years ago. There have definitely been advances in technology and a greater breadth of writing, but just how much jRPGs currently rely on nostalgia to succeed isn’t a difficult argument to make.
jRPGs are an ode to the fans. They seem determined to recreate that special place for a very particular group of people at a certain time in video game history. Nostalgia doesn’t feel like living, however. It’s that familiar ghost of pleasant feelings without much thinking—nice to reminisce about—but a corpse to drag around if you cling to it. That’s how jRPGs feel to me now, a weight that I constantly rationalize carrying. I just feel too old for them now, grown past the usual tropes and mechanics. This is because jRPGs only earn such a title and standing by including a large amount of conventions from a niche of games, and if you mess with that formula too much, a game drops outside of the tastes of the fanbase.
In a sense, jRPGs represent a lot of what’s wrong with video games. Namely, things being there just because. Many of these titles advertise 60+ hours of gameplay, but a lot of that time is spent grinding levels and includes other filler tactics. The numerous cutscenes would be worth it if they were something other than the usual young genki girl flirting with the dismissive and brooding protagonist. Again. jRPGs are actually embarrassing to play now, as evidenced by the many sheepish smiles and explanations that I had to give my friends when they walked in on me playing Tales of Graces f.
Short of destroying genre lines entirely, I think that these games could revitalize a once high demand sector of video games. The later installments of the Shin Megami Tensei: Persona series—and Altus games overall—have garnered wide attention. Persona 3 and 4 captured my own attention in a way that I’d consider indentured servitude if it meant that Persona 5 would soon be within my grasp. Those games obviously pander to the same crowd by choosing a setting common to a lot of anime (a Japanese high school) but also explore themes and mechanics that we don’t commonly see in jRPGs. All of the main characters are nuanced characters and resist the stereotypical roles that other games would have shoved them into, and the games themselves have a macabre overtone. The Persona series might stick to the usual aesthetics of the jRPG, but the themes have matured with the crowd following the series instead of transporting them to the past. While saving the world is a part of it, Persona 3’s main allure is exploring the strength of interpersonal ties and what it means to live. In its sequel, you’re solving a murder mystery and entertaining LGBT issues with some of your party members. These aren’t topics that you’d find in your favorite SNES RPGs and their predecessors. This doesn’t devalue jRPG classics, but rather implies their time has come and gone.
Ultimately, the context surrounding Final Fantasy XIII-2 describes what feels like the drawn out death of a genre. Artistic risks are treated with extreme disdain and the most blatant fan service is encouraged. Games are just another arrangement of the same mechanics alongside a thin story that barely justifies their presence, and aren’t we past that? Given the hyperactive cycle of the game industry, fans eventually are going to get bored of playing the same ol’ thing, especially when other genres are adapting jRPG elements to fit into their own arsenals. That might describe how I’m feeling about jRPGs now, bored and slightly disgusted. Developers will find themselves scrambling (if they aren’t already) when fans abandon their monopoly on a tradition.
I think that jRPGs can be saved by risky behavior, as I see Persona 3 and 4 as large, smart risks. Dating sim and dungeon crawler? Nothing like what we’ve seen before and each iteration of the series opens up new possibilities for the interaction of these qualities. We hear about how the inclusion of minorities would alienate the player base, but the opposite actually happened with Kanji and Naoto in Persona 4. Instead, there was discussion about figuring out one’s sexuality and how the culture that a person lives in changes their relationship to gender. jRPGs have the maneuverability to pull off some out-there content, which Atlus consistently proves. While other RPGs struggle with immersing the player in a photorealistic fantasy world, jRPGs are inherently equipped to produce highly stylized, pleasantly bizarre head-trips. Unfortunately, looking at the jRPGs that have cropped up over the past few years, I see little evidence of breaking old habits. So I guess it’s goodbye for now.