Rediscovering JRPGs

How smart games criticism, a need for structure, and zen gardens rekindled my interest in JRPGs.

Pay attention to the video game scene for long enough, and you start to notice cycles. Certain genres, art styles, and mechanics gain popularity, fade away, and then re-emerge. We've all seen examples of this: fighting games, cel shading, experience point systems, etc. More difficult to see are the cycles that happen in our own lives. Everything from personal milestones, to work schedules, and even your day-to-day mindset ebb and flow along with the video game landscape, thereby influencing the kinds of games that grab you.

This subject has been on my mind recently thanks to a renewed interest in a genre I nearly abandoned: the JRPG.

Falling Out of Touch

During the 2000s, I started to look at games more critically, which led to me drifting away from JRPGs. Like many others at the time, I was struggling to articulate the sensation when a game's scripted story seemed to contradict its moment-to-moment gameplay. In 2007, Clint Hocking popularized the term "ludonarrative dissonance," thereby offering me (and an army of other critics) a tool to examine the tension between a game's plot and its mechanics. It was a mixed blessing: my understanding of video game storytelling was better than ever, but some of my favorite JRPGs crumbled under this new kind of scrutiny.

It seems so obvious when I think about it now: Final Fantasy VII's iconic cutscenes and intricate plot told a single story involving characters with very specific character traits. However, when I played the game, the hot-headed Barrett was in perfect control (that is to say, he was in control when I had him in my party, which was rarely). Cloud carried around a huge sword, but I had him spend most of his time casting spells. He and Tifa barely interacted when I was in control, but scripted dialogue sections insisted that their lives were intertwined. Even the game's commercials unwittingly draw attention to this disconnect between the game's cinematic plot and the player's agency:

Notice that Cloud is treated as an independent entity from the player ("If he fails") and that there isn't a scrap of in-game footage to be found. The joke about the reset button is cheeky, but it's also a commentary on how separate the player's role is from the plot. You can try to customize your experience in battle, but ultimately the game is about showing you a single outcome. In retrospect, Final Fantasy VII was only the beginning of a series of games that did little to link spectacular visuals with the systems running beneath them.

At the same time I was realizing all this, I found that many of the technical aspects that drew me to JRPGs had been adopted by other games. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with outfitting your character for specific circumstances or earning a new ability after diligently grinding for levels. But similar dynamics sprouted up in games ranging from the The Sims to Call of Duty, thereby lessening the need to spend the time looking for them in JRPGs.

Time, or lack thereof, was another crucial element leading to my JRPG hiatus. Writing about games is time consuming. There's the subtle pressure to stay current, which means I try to play a variety of games every month. As anyone who has ever edited my stuff can confirm, I also like to take my time when forming opinions and drafting essays. Oftentimes, arithmetic played a significant factor in my decision to skip a game. If you only have 10 hours a week to play a game, is it really worth it to start a 40 hour game? A lazy excuse, I'll admit, but the fact remains that one could play Braid, Bastion, Limbo, all of Thatgamecompany's games, and still have time left over for some Team Fortress 2 in that same time frame.

Getting Back on Track

But, as I said at the beginning of this piece, recent events have lifted me from this nadir of interest. Fittingly, talented game critics are largely responsible. Michael Abbott's "Why We JRPG" is a celebration of the genre's systems. In his essay, he likens playing a JRPG to learning how a car actually works, rather than simply learning to drive. Understanding how equipment choices affect battle, parsing the utility of specific items, and studying how dialogue choices impact your party structure can be more rewarding than experiencing a game that "just works:"

The more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me. ("Why We JRPG", Brainy Gamer, 13 August 2012)

When faced with the slick AI director in Left 4 Dead, the accessible upgrade system in Diablo 3, or the emergent chaos in Far Cry 2, it's easy to start to think about games as black boxes that export outcomes through a quasi-mystical process. The beauty of a good JRPG lies in its ability illustrate the direct consequences of your actions. Ambiguities are exchanged for clear statistics, dexterity traded for tactical thinking. Of course, it helps that Abbott uses Xenoblade: Chronicles as an example when praising the JRPG. As he and a growing number of writers argue, the game's world and the characters in it are an extended metaphor for the central conflict. The once strong division between story and gameplay in JRPGs has become porous.

Refreshed by this new way of looking at things, I fired up one of my all-time favorite JRPGs: Chrono Trigger. I like it for many reasons, but this time I'm paying extra attention to the wonderfully deterministic aspects of the game's mechanics. My options are often simple (Do I equip this weapon? Should I fight or run?) but they all have specific, measurable outcomes that I control. The game's focus on how small actions shape the course of history perfectly complements this theme. Like Crono and his companions, I have a broad view of the world's systems and the outcomes of my actions. Progressing in the game is not about luck or overcoming another player; it's about understanding cause-and-effect.

I tweak and modify my strategy the way someone might tend to a zen garden. Through carefully arranging elements of the game and cultivating certain statistics, I can express myself within the structure of the game's rules. Suddenly, it doesn't matter so much whether the plot conforms to my characters' actions (although it never hurts). The point is that satisfaction can be derived through the manipulation of a host of elements rather than the pursuit of a single outcome. At the end of Chrono Trigger -- or most any JRPG -- I'm left with a stable of characters that have been directly molded by my decisions.

Because of this, JRPGs can retain a sense of narrative freshness even when their stories don't conform to contemporary tastes. Should I so choose, I could start the cycle again and end up with a cast of characters that feels quite different. They are fated to repeat the same lines every time I finish the game, but at least I am able to see how my decisions make their journeys unique.

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