You Can Keep Your Big Open Worlds -- I Want A JRPG

While in Seattle a few weeks ago for PAX Prime, I went out to dinner with a few game designers and Kotaku colleagues. Somewhere between the sirloin and the bananas flambée, conversation turned to Skyrim.

We sat there for a while, telling stories about the cool things we'd found in Bethesda's popular role-playing game. We talked about funny glitches, about hidden items, about getting lost in the hills and caves that make up Skyrim's gigantic world. Each of us had experienced things the others hadn't. It was illuminating.

I can't imagine doing that same thing with a Japanese role-playing game. Can you picture the stories? "So then I made my way out of Midgar and hunted down Sephiroth to the Promised Land." "Me too." "Same."

When game designers talk about games like Skyrim, they like to talk a lot about something called "emergent narrative". In human language, that refers to the story that comes out of your actions within a game. Say you stab the Jarl of Morthal, kill all the guards, run outside, summon your horse, and immediately get killed by a dragon. That's a story. Not a particularly emotional story, but an emergent one, the type you might tell your friends about.

But the problem with this emergent approach is that it limits what a story-teller can do. Bethesda's scribes could have taken months to write and develop the most interesting character in the world, a flawed hero with a tragic past and an even worse future. They could have written arcs and climaxes and torturous obstacles for that hero, taking her along some sort of crazy journey that changed the way she looked at life. And you might have never met her. You might have killed her. You might have put a bucket on her head and immediately lost all ability to take her seriously.

Say you stab the Jarl of Morthal, kill all the guards, run outside, summon your horse, and immediately get killed by a dragon. That's a story

Don't get me wrong: there are some great moments in Skyrim. Great dinner-table stories. You'll find interesting books and get betrayed by nasty elves and stumble upon lighthouses haunted by demon centipedes. But the writers were limited by the player's freedom. You can walk away in the middle of a story, go find something else to do or someplace else to go. It's simple to screw with pacing and kill any chance Skyrim might have at achieving emotional resonance. Just go do some quests out of order, or make a mess of someone's kitchen while they're telling you about their dead son.

Even Skyrim's main plotline — a weighty affair that involves saving the planet from dragons — is relatively thin, and hard to care about, mostly because the nature of the game makes it tough to empathise with the characters that inhabit Skyrim's world. You don't meet many people with strong desires and goals; most of your time is spent solo, exploring and fighting through the wilderness. That's not a bad thing, but it makes stories less powerful.

The Japanese approach, as we've seen in RPGs like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger and just about every other game not named Dragon's Dogma, is strikingly different. They don't want you to miss anything. They want to take you on a meticulously-scripted adventure with very little wiggle room. You might not walk away with stories to tell your buddies, but if a JRPG does its job, you'll walk away feeling some sort of powerful connection to the characters. You'll feel their pride as they grow, feel their sorrow as they watch friends and loved ones pass away. You'll connect.

(This is assuming that everything else is also executed well, of course. If the dialogue is awful, or a character's voice acting hurts your ears, or the music doesn't fit, the story might have different issues achieving emotional resonance.)

And when JRPG developers have tried experimenting with narrative, the results have not been great. Final Fantasy VI, for example. For the first half of the game, you're basically on a train. You follow one linear path, characters leave and join your party during scripted moments, and the story takes turns and twists when you don't expect them. It's great.

Later, when everything blows up and you enter the second of FFVI's two acts, you're granted free rein to explore. You can enter the final dungeon and finish the game whenever you'd like, but first, you can go embark upon sidequests, re-recruit old party members, and just generally have your way with the world. To many people, this is when the story falls apart: instead of engaging you in the quest to stop the psychopathic clown Kefka, FFVI then becomes a hodgepodge of different plots and ideas, all fighting for your attention among a desolate landscape of ash and lava. Gone is the ebbing and flowing of a structured story. In its place is an open, disconnected world that feels even more disconnected because you can do things out of order.

When you find an old party member, for example, the game won't recognise who else is in your party. There are no tearful reunions or meaningful connections. Just generic lines of dialogue. It's a bummer.

Now if you don't mind me way over-simplifying things, let's say there are two main approaches to RPG storytelling. Let's call them "linear" and "non-linear". Linear games turn story into a reward for playing; non-linear games create story as a result of playing. Both approaches are valid, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses.

Your particular preference might vary. It depends why you play games. And as much as I loved Skyrim, as much as I love sitting around the dinner table and sharing travel stories with friends, I prefer linear stories because they're personal. Emotional. It's those little things: the moment my stomach lurches as an ally betrays me; trying to hold back tears as my hero has to kill his best friend. Maybe that's why I spend my spare time playing JRPGs. Other genres can't compare.

Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG.

Image: Above Skyrim concept art via Ray Lederer


Comments

    I'm glad you compared Skyrim to FFVI, comparing to FFXIII would have invalidated your whole argument.

      Are you suggesting FFXIII was a a game?

    I gotta say I agree, but I think these days it's the mechanics of JRPGs that are turning most people away; the way that any of the carefully scripted narrative feels like a separate part from the actual gameplay.

    That said I find it incredibly easy to become immersed in games (movies/books/whatever) and take every event for granted and never notice when things are wrong. Makes it pretty easy for me to sit patiently and get into the story of free-willed games like Skyrim.

      It's not just story-telling mechanics that are turning people like me away. When I was a kid, the game that clocked up the most hours was the 'best.' It was a sad side effect of having plenty of time and no money, so Final Fantasy games with 100+ hours were awesome.

      Now I'm an adult, I have money but no time and I'd rather short, intense games that engage me fully for 10 hours. So now I have no patience for the JRPG-style grindfest of random encounters, deliberately unintuitive menus and overwrought cutscenes. Boredom is a teenager's luxury.

        Well I was criticising the differences between WRPGs and JRPGs, your point is valid but it is a concern for all games and how long a game lasts can vary wildly between player.

      There's a lot of things keeping me out of the JRPG genre and most of them are mechanical. So many of the staples and the very core concepts are just anti-fun to me now. I don't mind taking a night to read a page of the story, but now I'm not a teenager with a constant stream of free time I tend to notice that it's 90% padding.
      What I really want is a 80-hour story driven experience like I once got from JRPGs. I want something like a modern Secret of Mana or Mega Man Legends where I'm getting this long story, but without the joyless grind combat/action (even the non-trash fights in JRPGs feel, at least to me, like padding to be ground through).
      I know a lot of people will hate me for saying this, but give me something like Final Fantasy VIII with a combat/encounter system like Zelda and a party/command system like Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic. In a lot of ways Metal Gear Solid is what I wanted JRPGs to become. Epic stories with engaging mechanics.

      I dunno. For me the JRPG lost it's way when it devoted all it's developmental resources to FMVs. Don't get me wrong, the detail that went into them to make them look breathtaking was a huge draw, but they sort of left the gameplay in the NES/SNES era until about halfway through the PS2 era. At which point it got into this weird sort of point where everything was either too far away from what a JRPG was 'meant to be' or too close which meant it sucked. They stopped moving forward and ended up so far behind that they can only move forward with a leap that most of the hardcore fans are going to resent.
      It's probably why Mass Effect struck such a cord with me. It's basically your JRPG experience with modern gameplay.

        I clearly didn't write my post very well since people reply by adding to my point exactly what my point was. What I was talking about is the mechanical. The fact that the gameplay activities in the game feel dissociated with the epic story being told.

          I was agreeing with you (although from a slightly different angle). Dissociated is a good way to put it because even the JRPGs I've played with more action orientated engines still have a way of disconnecting the story from the game.
          In something like Mass Effect or Skyrim you can fight bats in a cave and it still feels like a part of the story. The guy talking to goons at the space bar is now in a cave fighting space bats. JRPGs seem to miss that. The guy fighting monsters doesn't feel like the guy talking to people in town.
          Maybe it's the way JRPGs tend to push the story on the player in a more cinematic sense causing some people to see it as a story being told during the non-combat and a game being played during the action. By giving me more control during the non-combat sequences, even if it's just pointless dialogue choices, the idea of control during combat doesn't seem so out of place and the lines between story and game are blurred.

    Can't say I agree at all but this is all personal preference but I prefer sandbox elements where I create my own story and have ultimate freedom.

    Linear stories all the way, and it's exactly why I haven't invested much in many of the open world RPGs.

    If you're a massive weeaboo like Jason Schreier.... sure. Otherwise, there are linear RPGs all over the place, Japan doesn't have a monopoly on the concept.

    I'd have to say even more so than the story telling in JRPG's is the combat system, im a sucker for inventive, crazy, fun combat systems.

    Schreier's RE column always seems to come off sounding like he's deliberately trying to segregate JRPGs into their own special category. I realise that it's a column devoted to JRPGs, but the things he writes always seem to feel like he's deliberately ignoring the fact that there are a lot of Western RPGs that provide exactly the same experiences he praises JRPGs for. I'm a huge JRPG fan myself, but I'm not above acknowledging that not every Western RPG is an open world experience and things like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are like a lot of the linear JRPGs that have multiple endings (or, one that varies depending on what you do such as any Suikoden game).

    Having read this article, I suddenly feel an urge to shoot the Jarl of Morthal. On a more serious note, I enjoy both open-world and linear RPGs. The are fairly distinct, I wouldn't really compare them tbh.

    Edit: Actually, I think I slightly prefer linear RPGs.

    Last edited 14/10/12 9:44 pm

    The difference between the two genres is cultural, too.

    Japanese games are designed to make you fit in with them. They force you to learn an often unique set of mechanics in order to advance in the game. They often have seemingly obtuse limits and restrictions such as not being able to jump over a 2 foot high barrier, a slow or unwieldy character, or a deliberately difficult combat system. Often they are specifically designed to frustrate the player. There is no room for choice or non-linearity because Japanese culture is a lot more conformist.

    Western games are designed to be as easy to use as possible, for the widest audience possible. For a lot of games, that means having an experience tailored to your playstyle. For other games (such as COD) that means making the game as accessible as possible. The designers research what large numbers of people enjoy, and then implement that into the game.

    I always felt that Japanese games were kind of like the Developer trying to beat the player, rather than strictly creating a fun and enjoyable experience. They don't seem to be able to ask themselves "Is this fun? Why/why not?"

    It's so strange that you want video games, a completely unique medium to use the same narrative tropes as film and novels. the beauty of video games are harnessing game play mixed with world design. J-rpg's are completely counter intuitive to this.

    If you want a good story, go read a book or watch a film. If you want an immerse experience that is unique to video games and where the landscape tells the story, try fallout 3. Video games are meant to be played, not watched in a cut scene. IF those are the moment that are stirring you up, then you are referring to the filmic portion.

    It's a distinction that's important. Skyrim doesn't do a job job of telling it's story, that's why it's ineffective. Fallout 3 on the other hand is a powerful work of fiction and world building.

      +1.

      If you want a meticulously crafted, linear story with no wriggle room, what you really want is a static narrative. Books and films are better at being books and films than games will ever be.

        But thats the point...

        Some people look/take immersion a different way. Reading a book and film is great. Playing an active part on how that story progresses (even if its limited to the path given) makes the experience even better for some people. For JRPG fans "playing" that decision making part of the story *is* the immersion for them.

        A world doesn't need to be emergent/worldbuilding/etc or let me craft my own stories w/ my own characters in a great expansive world. It just needs to let me be a "part" of how these group of folks "save the world" and get to know them all better.

        Your assumption that "it's all just for the cut scenes" means that your looking at this from a different perspective from the people who do "enjoy" these "scripted" games. Just because your version of "immersion" is different from my "immersion" does not necessarily make either one superior or inferior. We're all still playing "games". It's just people derive a differen form of enjoyment from the different styles.

    I grew up with swg and vice city and for me there is apart of me that wants a good story but then the other part longs for making it my story I love to customize and grow my character into what I imagine they'd be but still follow a good story.. borderlands 2 does this really well its a single story with not to many side quests and right away your pulled in by the fact there's some douche trying to off you because your in the way of his twisted ideas of what being a hero is. And along the way you can decide how your char looks and fights and grow them in your image. And well all this is going on they never let you for a moment forget why you want to finish the main storyline. Now I'm not saying bl2 is the best RPG ever I am saying they do a great job of giving you an objective in which you strongly want to follow almost to the point of obsession well at the same time giving you the freedoms to do it your own way. I just see it as the first game in along time I wanted to play till the end because I know in the end it would be so satisfying.

    There's room enough in the gaming world for both styles of game.

    Although my favourite JRPGs are the ones with lots of open-ended exploration and side quests, and my favourite WRPGs are the ones which are a little bit more linear and emphasise story. But what really matters most is that it's a well-crafted game.

    One word for you: Morrowind.

    Maybe its just me, but putting buckets on people's heads and collecting all the world's cabbages to store in your house just wasn't how I approached Skyrim.

    Its all in your gaming style I think, since I got that "emotional resonance" you're talking about. And personally, the game was enhanced because of that sense of free-will.

    If you're gonna chop someone's head off just for kicks of course you're not going to be immersed in her story line. That's not Bethesda's problem.

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