Recasting the East Vs West RPG Discussion

A lot of gamer discussion has lately been focused on the failure of the Japanese RPG and the ascent of the Western RPG as the genre of choice for interested console gamers over the last few years. Mostly it focuses on the Japanese taste for linear plot progression, cutesy graphics and incoherent narrative of “JRPGs”vs the more “realistic” graphics and open-ended gameplay of Western RPGS. The criticisms are mostly appropriate, but I think they’re missing a big point, one that I come back to time and again:

When Microsoft launched the Xbox, they permanently shifted the American gaming landscape towards western developers.
Although it ran head to head against the PS2 for most of its lifespan, the Xbox stealthily became a platform for PC game developers to try their hand at converting their PC styled games to consoles. Because they had no leverage (and indeed outright hostility) in Japan, Microsoft sought out and perhaps outright paid off software developers whose product was traditionally on home computers. Because those games were on home computers, they were also able to approach the RPG with a great deal more complexity than a console developer really could. You can even reach back to the early 80’s and watch the lineage of Western RPGs and JRPGs branch out from the same root, as Ultima-styled computer games gave rise to ever more complex and open games while staying true to their board game roots (Bioware, Interplay) and Ultima-styled console games maintained their simple world map and focused more on narrative (Square, Enix). One can argue it is a cultural difference, but it could well have been one of circumstance: Video game consoles had limits on graphics and memory that resulted in games that had to be epic through text and sprites.

Once PC developers really shifted to console development, they found ways of bringing their now complex RPG systems to consoles without completely losing them. Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic even bragged of including dice roles in its play mechanics while presenting an incredibly cinematic experience. So now the western gamer has a choice: Big, graphically advanced cinematic RPG experiences made palatable to them by being on a console or the poorly translated and graphically unimpressive (save the cut-scene of course) JRPG that up until now was their only option.

It’s a shame that Japanese developers seem to consistently misinterpret the advances in Western game development in trying to come up with their own response to the popularity of games made by Western developers. In the case of Final Fantasy 13, they took the linear progression of the Call of Duty games but forgot to provide a sense of openness and spectacle those games also provide. If they are continue providing content to the world at large, and not just the relatively small Japanese market, they are going to have to look a lot more closely and let go of many of the traditions they now hold- traditions that developed out of necessity but are now held to as sound game design despite their obsolescence.

Update: While sleeping on this it occurred to me that Demon’s Souls is a great and successful example of combining the complexity of old school PC RPGs with an interface and gameplay design that fits perfectly on consoles.



From the Archives:
(I started writing this in May of 2009 but never really finished it.  I’m posting it just to get it out of my system)

I’ve been playing Chrono Trigger on my DS of late; RPGs are really suited to the platform as you can take it practically anywhere.  It’s perfect for the bus, couch, bedtime etc., and most of the DS versions make it very simple to quickly save and shut off.

The game has been great so far- there seems to be a joy in the characters that has been lost in the Final Fantasy games.  Dragon Quest had a bit of this too- it just doesn’t take itself so seriously, even though there is a lot on the line.  The picture below says it all to me: A frog, a robot, a cavewoman, a princess, a swordsman, one of the games villains and a mechanic, sitting by a fire in the woods.  The art is so simple but it speaks so much to the care that was taken in the creation:campfire_4The shortcuts the game takes speak of its pedigree as an RPG made relatively late into the 8 and 16-bit generation:  You aren’t subjected too much into how it is that your hero (Chrono) is an expert fighter- you’re given a cursory explanation and sent on our way.  The game is filled with little sidequests and even a rudimentary system of consequences based on the choices you make.  I wonder how many games from 1995 had as many endings as this does?


The game’s art is fine- simple Torayama stuff that only really bugs me during the Dragonball-esque cinematics.  People drool over the music but most of it isn’t nearly as memorable as your typical Final Fantasy theme, or even the glorious Valkyria Chronicles soundtrack.

I won’t get into the fighting mechanics as I know others can (and have) do it better, but it is fun enough that grinding isn’t a chore, and it is a real relief after the archaic system of Dragon Quest IV, which I also recently played.

My biggest beef with this game is also probably a hallmark of JRPGs, and one that people probably laud them for:  At a certain point, the game opens up and you are basically allowed to go and do as you please.  You have a vehicle that takes you anywhere on the various world maps (even across 65 millions years).  The problem is- and I concede that this may be just me and my reluctance to buy a hint book and/or not be smart enough to carry on is that at this point your direction is generally left relatively vague.  You are told you must do something, but not specifically where or how to do it, and from there, you have to determine just how you are to get it done.  I think the problem isn’t that the world becomes “open” so much as it is there is usually a single specific thing that must be done, and you are somehow supposed to intuit what the games creators want you to do, rather than actually figure out a way of accomplishing it through your own means.

I think I’m pretty close to the end, so I’m going to try to see it through, but at this point, I’m ready to sell it off, even though I do want to find out how it all ends.



So it turns out that mostly I just wasn’t paying enough attention.  The world does open up at the end but you’re given the choice of going right to the final boss or running around the world and completing a bunch of sidequests.  The relative openness of an RPG like this speaks to the medium- at the time it was made, text and pixel art were the state of the art and could be used in such a way that a game could be huge without demanding a huge amount of resources.  Contrast that to today’s Final Fantasy XIII- the cost of building a full HD 3d engine, photorealistic CG cutscenes, full voice acting (with a large cast) in Japanese and English (and likely other languages as well) for every line of dialog and games like this quickly become untennable to all but the biggest studios.  In this case Square Enix and the five+ years it has taken to develop FFXIII. And at the end of the day you are probably given less choice in FFXIII than in a game that came out in 1995, just a linear story.

Chrono Trigger plays with time, and as such, you can make a lot of choices that have repercussions in later eras of the game.  The producers obviously worked really hard to lay it all out, and it pays off.  Seemingly insignificant choices made in parts of the game bubble out into the future to surprising effect.  I may not see all 16(!) endings without going to YouTube to watch them, but just knowing they’re there is enough for me to appreciate this game even more.