By comparing the culture within western and eastern RPGS, the author argues that plot in role playing games hinges not on one protagonist, but upon a motley crew of characters.
by Robert Gordon
In the world of role playing games, it’s the ensemble that’s key to plot formation. Though video game characters can be motivated through external events, I tend to understand these events through the characters themselves. In an RPG my ensemble (along with a villain, and enemies, and tertiary characters) is my party. The party frames my interpretation of the world, as they act outside of direct control. My relationships to them drives the action forward, and the challenges I face can only be met by employing their talents. It’s all for one and one for all.
The distinction between J-RPGS (Japanese RPGs, i.e. Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Persona, Fire Emblem) and W-RPGS (Fallout, Mass Effect, Dragon Age) covers many areas, but I believe that in studying the protagonist’s relationship to the party members and the compositions of the parties as a whole, we find the most telling differences. Note this quote from BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk, via Destructoid
“The fall of the JRPG in large part is due to a lack of evolution, a lack of progression,” Zeschuk said. “They kept delivering the same thing over and over. They make the dressing better, they look prettier, but it’s still the same experience.”
The idea that western RPGs have “evolved” while JRPGs have remained stagnant, merely overhauled with expansive production budgets while ignoring fundamental questions of narrative and design, is as true as it is false. Sadly, this argument has become common sentiment among many fan communities.
One thing is clear. The place of RPGs in Japanese society is of massive importance to the culture. Effing massive. People take off work for Dragon Quest releases so frequently that schools and offices have closed in preparation. One can spend thousands of hours grinding out the most obscene awards of their favorite sagas, an effort meaningless to all but the most devoted, and this is done widely, as a matter of course. Our closest parallel would be Call of Duty (note the infinite time-suck that is prestige mode).
And, much like our own tradition of MMSs (modern military shooters), this success has resulted in a certain stagnation. When a game sells over one million copies on day one (as did FFXIV), a demand has been met. A publisher can hardly be blamed for not going too far off the beaten path when it knows it can deliver a gorgeous, immersive, compelling experience by obeying a set of structural cues. Furthermore, when the series is of a beloved 20-year lineage, there is an element of tradition to be upheld. People want a Nuketown map like they want a James Bond villain like they want their warrior-mage-thief. They want to rely on it. It offers a sense of familiarity, of comfort.
This element of tradition, bred by success, has fostered the perception of JRPG “stagnation.” Many mainstream JRPGs have featured comparatively shallow means of party interaction when held against their western cohorts. In the aforementioned FF games, while I can choose my party composition (sometimes choosing not even to include the protagonist), the actual interplay between protagonist and party in gameplay terms is weak. When skills are chosen (rather than just distributed) they are chosen for each character individually, and the element of teamwork exists in maintaining independent characters who complement each other’s strengths. The “class” system is illustrative of this, with each character assigned an individual set of traits that, when taken together with the rest of the characters, ideally produce a balanced whole.
By contrast, look to a western RPG like Knights of the Old Republic II and see that even with units still organized by class, the mechanics of the party are very different. In KOTOR II, allies aren’t just components of a more general unit to be re-arranged inconsequently; the abilities of party members are dependent upon my relationship with them. Through our conversations they can achieve statistical bonuses or even change class (becoming Jedi). In FF companions are not equal but they do exist independently, and it is up to the player to coordinate them through strategy. In the semi-developed WRPG mold, our party members are, before strategy even begins, inextricably linked to the protagonist as well as each other. In Dragon Age the influence system dictates party composition as much as the character’s abilities; I choose my companions based upon how agreeable they find each other’s company.
Yet, to say that a Japanese RPG merely treats its characters as interchangeable parts of a larger “unit” would be false as well. In the recently-released Fire Emblem: Awakening I find some very compelling inter-party mechanics. Characters that fight together form relationships, leading to children, which come back to fight for the player as units via time travel tomfoolery. This mechanic could do a great deal to bring the “party” together as a motivating narrative force, with player-influenced relationships determining secondary characters’ motivations. Unfortunately, these mechanics are compartmentalized and never have a defining impact upon the main story. The children never speak at all unless they, too, are in a relationship. While there are small cut-scenes featuring the related characters, the main plot goes totally undisturbed regardless of the pairings.
A similar criticism could be made of 2008’s Valkyria Chronicles. Squadmates (everyone from a former bar singer to the main protagonist, who cares for a winged pig) in the game come equipped with a wide array of personality traits that influence their abilities, and develop more as they receive training. Though these traits influence the flavor speech of units in battle, the plot revolves around a number of arbitrarily-chosen units whose actions and decisions are static. What could prove to be a dynamic story engine of evolving characters and important relationships is instead sterilized and rendered an attractive add-on.
This is the unfortunate reality; while mechanics have advanced, these games haven’t come into their own as storytelling devices. The stringency of their narrative structure, demanded by market realities, has throttled the development of the JRPG as a storytelling medium. The RPG began as a more niche market in the western world, and so modern installments have innovated by incorporating mechanics from a wide variety of genres, like the influence of third-person shooters on Mass Effect. The western RPG has an enormous market, it’s true, especially for semi-solo affairs like Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, but it doesn’t have the culturally-fostered base of the JRPG.
All of this is not to say that Japanese developers need to take notes on the west. The ending fiasco of Mass Effect 3, regardless of one’s stance on the fan backlash, did prove that much of the “choice” offered in the modern WRPG amounts to very little. Criticisms of “space romance simulators” are not entirely wrong; though the genre has developed nuanced dialogue and extraordinary animation systems, the real differences between player’s personal stories in such titles are often little more than romantic relationships or decisions made which promise long-term effects that usually underwhelm (I swear to god, Rachni Queen). The WRPG is saturated with choice, but much of it is cosmetic or meaningless. Certain series like The Witcher have found ways to incorporate plentiful, meaningful choices, but many mainstream WRPGs feature a wide array with little concrete difference.
Certain particularly innovative JRPGs, like the Persona games, have come a long way in fostering mechanics that bring the player’s relationships with others to the foreground. The Persona series features an array of social sub-plots which (though kept compartmentalized in Persona 3) in Persona 4 can influence daily activities outside of their own sphere. Though the main plot remains static, it would not be such a huge leap for these mechanics to step out of the background and form the basis for the story itself. The dating sim genre (which Persona takes plentiful notes from) is one which contrives its story based entirely upon the player’s relationships. Perhaps that’s because these titles bring important relationships to the forefront, the player is freest here to determine the outcomes.
There is a cultural argument that could be made here that our grand sagas are reflective of personal conceptions of success. In the western world, one’s career and personal relationships are often heavily intertwined, and a career is often meant to be a self-expressive statement. As such, we are presented with a plethora of choices and outcomes, though they often amount to very little in a concrete sense. In another culture, where formality and sacrifice is a greater part of one’s career arc, and where personal relationships are more distinct from professional ones, the means of relationship is made more “personal”, as much protected from the main story as prevented from accessing it. These aren’t absolute dichotomies, but broad trends.
It’s pointless to argue which camp trumps the other; not only are they in certain senses incomparable, but the greatest chance for evolution lies in borrowing from a wide variety of great works. The JRPG as such hasn’t stuck around by accident – it masterfully fosters a sense of progression which allows for deep engagement. And western titles have come into their own by exploring the intricacies of our relationships through innovative mechanics. Ultimately, what I’d like to see is a sense of meaningful engagement with the ensemble within a story that engrosses me totally, and for those two things to be one in the same. After all, if we’re going to have a party then it’s up to developers to make it feel like our party, and it’s up to them as storytellers to have our experiences reflect that.
Robert Gordon is a writer of short fiction, essays and plays. He lives in Brooklyn and enjoys critiquing endless RPGs, endlessly.