Finite Fantasy: The Problem with JRPGs

Not long ago there wasn't a need to distinguish between western and Japanese RPGs. But the more that JRPG developers get stuck in their glory days, the more the genre suffers.

When I was growing up, there was no need for the “J” in JRPG. There were RPGs from Japan, many of which featured similar conventions and drew from many of the same tropes, but only recently has the JRPG become a genre of its own. And for Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and their imitators -- for that is what one means by JRPG -- the new classification has done a lot of harm. I remember seeing the Squaresoft logo on the corner of a game in a store and knowing with certainty that that game was worth a shot.

I was considerably shocked the year that I bought my Xbox 360 and realized that that rule no longer applied. In fact, anymore, when a game pays homage to the glory days of Japanese RPGs, it is nearly guaranteed to be obtuse, frustrating, and awkward in every way. While there are many reasons for the fall of the JRPG, the main one is that they’re still designed for consoles over 10 years old.

Antiquated design is most apparent in the way in which encounters are fought. Ten years ago, random encounters were excusable because the hardware lacked the capacity to set up enemies at regular intervals. Even when enemies were visible, engaging them frequently prompted a swirling blur across the screen that would position the combatants neatly opposite one another. It isn’t believable, just as turn-based combat isn’t believable, but those older consoles were incapable of rendering believable combat sequences anyway, so it was no loss for a blurred screen to teleport characters into tidy formations in which characters took turns exchanging blows.

Fighting in turns (supposedly) adds an element of strategy that hacking and slashing lacks, and it’s also the only way that the player can have full control of an entire team rather than one character with a group of NPC allies. The lack of believability -- that until recently was unachievable otherwise -- is compensated for by the added strategy of encounters.

Encounters play out as strategic exchanges in which speed and strength are indicated by numeric values. Most information, like position and maneuvering, isn’t necessary. The player controls only the necessary elements of the battle and so receives only the necessary sensory feedback.

We don’t see characters dodge and strike because these aren’t bits of crucial information. The damage numbers rely on what the player needs to know, and the physical strike is implied. The player’s imagination makes up for what the hardware can’t handle. Think of a Dungeons & Dragons encounter: a character is not literally a piece on a flat board -- that’s just the representation of them that the player can use to keep track of relevant information as events play out in the players’ imaginations.

This works for RPGs that are ten and twenty years old. A swirling blur after talking with Garland indicates that the player is in a battle. Presumably, the players are still in the same place, and the fight is probably an epic display of combat mastery. However, because the NES can only handle so much information, only the critical information is conveyed: the monk lands a hit, the thief is KO’d, the white mage brings him back. But games on modern consoles are capable of presenting fast, complex and slick battles.

In the opening cutscene of Lost Odyssey, the hero Kiam flips, ducks, and slices his way through a dozen stormtroopers without waiting for his turn. Players know that he can fight in a fast, frantic battle because they’ve seen him do it, so it’s jarring and nonsensical to have him ripped off his path by a coloured blur and line up politely against a group of monsters. The Xbox 360 can handle Kiam running and jumping and fighting in real-time, so expecting players to do otherwise makes no sense.

Likewise, the gap between imagination and interaction has had an enormous impact on aesthetics; an impact that developers have ignored to their own peril. The overworld maps of old hinted at whole complete locations with complete histories, filled with people all affected by the growing trouble spreading everywhere. Even if players only see small districts of a few small towns, there’s a sense of a world. Pixels may have been simple and prerendered, backgrounds may have been static, but there was a personality to them. The dwarf city under the ocean in Final Fantasy IV was structured and populated uniquely just as the opera house was in Final Fantasy VI.

In other words, there was room in older games for several, varied locations with distinctive characteristics. Arbitrarily coating a continent in mist or raising an amusement park over a desert prison is creatively plausible in a world that graphically doesn’t resemble our own. The closer that the world on screen resembles the real world, the more implausible flights of fancy become.

Graphically, Final Fantasy XIII is stunning, but it’s also the most boring world in the whole series. Cocoon and Pulse look so much like the real world that there is nothing fantastic to look at. When the fantastical elements of the world finally do break out, they’re placed in a world so similar to the real world that real world logistical problems break the majesty of it (how can anyone build a highway over a bottomless pit, anyway?).

Finally, the narrative tropes of JRPGs are notoriously well documented. The hero will be a brooding swordsman or a crafty optimist with a lecherous streak, the leading lady will be a rebel-princess or a sombre maiden-figure overburdened with responsibility. There will be a teenage girl with a nauseatingly sunny disposition, a world-weary cynic, a roguish outlaw with a heart of gold, a cartoonish humanoid with only a loose attachment to reality. Everyone knows these clichés. The problem isn’t that they are clichés -- clichés can work often more effectively than forced ingenuity -- but they’re better suited to a bygone age.

Bartz and Cecil can leap up and down or wave their arms to convey emotion because they’re clusters of pixels without faces. A long, expository block of text is forgivable when characters don’t have faces to express their feelings. The typical JRPG is a grandiose plot that begins in medias res. It swells until the villain becomes larger than life and pulls the whole world into his threat range. It requires tons of background information that is better conveyed through a tightly written paragraph than through the words of a voice actor that has to force personality and emotion into an exposition dump. The cutscene, while at first a blessing for the JRPG, has become an obnoxious crutch. The more processing power that consoles gain, the more games wrestle control away from the player, turning good concepts into poorly voiced animations with overworked premises.

There wasn’t always a need to distinguish between Japanese and western RPGs. They each had their conventions, and there are plenty of rightful classics of both origins. But JRPGs have fallen out of favor because they’re too caught up in their glory days. They still have plenty to offer, but they can’t deliver it using techniques suited for the 16-bit era. Every year since its release, I’ve played through Final Fantasy VII, and every year I find something spectacular about it that I’d never noticed before. But what makes each individual title in the Final Fantasy series so profound is that it stands alone as an exemplary work of a time and culture. Each time that developers refuse to move the series forward it cheapens their whole tradition.

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