One JRPG Designer Has A Good Explanation For Not Telling You What Items Do

Every JRPG fan's pet peeve is this: You go into a weapon shop and start browsing, only to find a list of names with no other information or context. The only way to know whether those new weapons are better than your current ones is to guess. Here, now, is a compelling explanation for that annoyance.

Phantasy Star 4. Screenshot: Sega

Shmuplations, a website that regularly digs up and posts English versions of old Japanese interviews, recently put up a piece about the role-playing game Phantasy Star 4, an all-time classic. Designer Rieko Kodama, who played a major role in Phantasy Star 4 and many other Sega classics, offered some interesting takes here. One of those takes: Even in 1993, she felt as though RPGs were getting too user-friendly.

After all, don't numbers ruin the illusion?

Here's Kodama, speaking in 1993 (emphasis mine):

The first thing we worked on for PSIV was getting the details of the world and setting solidified. Take a single candle, for instance: we asked ourselves, would that be something you'd find in this world? Is there electricity? Do the windows have curtains, drapes, shades…? Just a lot of little details like that. For the characters, we figured out most of their personalities as we drew them. With each detail and bit of background we added to the characters, the story itself also expanded. The world of Phantasy Star IV came into view for us very incrementally.

During the game, however, those backstory elements aren't made explicit. Much of it is kept secret on purpose, which is an experience we want players to have. The Phantasy Star series takes place on a different world, in a different age, so we want players to be asking "I wonder what that is…?" while they play. When they first see an Android, we want them to ask, "what in the world is this…?!" That's also why we titled this game "Phantasy Star: End of the Millennium" instead of "Phantasy Star IV".

I think recent RPGs have become too user-friendly. For example, if you buy a Battle Axe in a store, the game will plainly tell you that it gives "+20 power". But I don't like everything to be displayed in numbers like that. In order to preserve the integrity and illusion of the world we've so carefully built, I'd rather players just get an impression of the weapon being stronger because it is made of stronger material. We do display hit points, though, somewhat to my chagrin.

Honestly, if I could have my way, I wouldn't use any human language for the monster names, or names of towns and places. I mean, Phantasy Star is the story of a completely different world, right? But of course, for players it won't work to have a game that's nothing but nonsensical, unintelligible words.

I hadn't really thought about it this way - I always assumed that when an RPG store doesn't tell you whether weapons will make your characters better, it's an oversight - so this is a fascinating take. And of course, Phantasy Star 4 remains one of the best role-playing games ever made, one you should still play today.

For the rest of the Phantasy Star 4 interviews, along with a treasure trove of other old conversations with Japanese developers, check out Shmuplations.


    Honestly, if I could have my way, I wouldn't use any human language for the monster names, or names of towns and places. I mean, Phantasy Star is the story of a completely different world, right? But of course, for players it won't work to have a game that's nothing but nonsensical, unintelligible words.

    Make it so that the players get to name the places or creatures. It's be pretty cool to meet a strange group of people and come up with a name to call them and their village, since I'm literally incapable of pronouncing any of it. Same with the monsters in the wild. A giant blob creature? Record it in your journal and call it Globellous.

      But then you couldn't sell spin-off merchandise and toys and guide books...

    One of my favourite RPGs. Had great music, manga style cut scenes, surprise death of a major character well before FFVII...

    In terms of world building and a game specific language, I always liked that they also had interesting names for spells eg. Foi/Wat/Tsu instead of say Fire/Ice/Lightning. This also extended to upgrades, for instance Foi, Gifoi, Nafoi vs Fire 1, 2, 3. Remember that the names of some of the status techniques had no indication what they would do, which encouraged a lot of experimentation during fights which often led to combination attacks occurring.

    I like the way she's thinking, but unfortunately reality the poor sap playing the game wastes a whole heap of money buying equipment that's actually weaker than what they're already wearing. I remember being irritated by the shops not telling you stats in PSIV when I played it recently.

      I like the thinking too but i think this kind of hiding of stats only really adds to a game where it is skill based and not stat based progression. Once you have stat based progression you need to know what you are buying.

    Typical designer pushing the boundaries and incorporating the whimsical at the sake of the practical... and a good thing too. It's the balance in a business between the novel and the practical where true creativity flourishes.

    To do something like that would introduce the other problem with JRPGs though and that is the dissonance between characters who have been living in and understand a world and the player who has just been dumped into the middle of something they don't understand. This is why amnesiacs are common protagonists because it gives a "believable" excuse as to why a person doesn't know the things a person normally would about a world they've been living in for 20 or so years. This then leads to the player being able to learn things at the same pace as the character they control.

    I agree with the "show don't tell" philosophy of design although I don't really agree that you just assume the player knows that steel is stronger than iron. You can work it into the narrative and have one of the characters comment that it looks like it could be a good upgrade. A shopkeeper could also describe curatives and say things like "This will help the hurt but won't fix a major wound." or "If you're on your deathbed this will perk you right up." It's believable because it's what a sales assistant would normally do, explain their products.

    In other words, self-indulgence. A bad thing, at least where game design is concerned. Designing an element to aesthetically please yourself, instead of designing it to be fun, useful and intuitive to the end user.

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