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We’ve all heard the talk: Japanese RPGs are dying, being replaced with the philosophies of the superior Western RPG. Either that, or JRPGs are evolving to become more like WRPGs. They’re grittier, more straightforward, and essentially devoid of all things that make a JRPG “Japanese”. Casts of characters filled with strange creatures, insane female ninja with massive breasts, and naive teenage boys are quickly being replaced with hard-ass males and females.

Amidst these changes and claims certain developers have levied, such as Hideo Kojima’s suggestion that Japanese games simply can’t compete worldwide anymore, it certainly might seem that the WRPG will win out over the JRPG.

But I’m not ready to declare a victor quite yet. There’s plenty that Western games in general can learn from the JRPG.

I can sum up my love of JRPGs in one word: whimsy. It’s a quality that I have long feared was dying in videogames, though I don’t think the threat is all that dire quite yet. However, the whimsical feel of many Japanese games, including the Final Fantasy series, seems to be progressively disappearing, and the charm of these games is suffering.

What do I mean by whimsy? Well, it’s actually hard to define, as it factors in a large variety of qualities that combine to give a game that special charm that is so often defined as “Japanese”. For one, I think it’s an ability to revel in the inconsequential, to find charm in the dire, and to be unafraid of the bizarre.

For instance, I’ve always found the Tales series to capture whimsy quite well without going overboard. Tales of Vesperia was an interesting study in JRPG design, as it achieved that whimsical tone while having a rather staid, and consequently unconventional, JRPG hero. Whimsy often came in the periphery, either from minor characters, or from the journey itself, such as the constant run-ins with a duo of stooge-like soldiers. As a result, while the plot’s ultimate direction was approached with the appropriate gravity, it didn’t lose the sense that, yes, this is a world in which charm can still exist.

In how many Western games, especially RPGs, can we say that charm really exists? Mass Effect 2 was a superb game in my eyes, though no one will remember it for its charm, despite the whimsical-as-hell Gilbert and Sullivan rendition. This moment was one that actually felt like something that you might find in a JRPG; a character breaking into song in the middle of a suicide mission simply doesn’t feel Western.

That’s the essential problem for me. WRPGs, from Mass Effect to The Elder Scrolls, have a comfort zone that avoids the fantastic, seeming to strive for realism while forgetting that there’s nothing inherently unrealistic about finding lighthearted fun in a weighty situation. While certain moments may pop up here and there (there are certainly some absurd moments in Oblivion), the tone of a WRPG rarely experiences the paradigm shift that the JRPG is able to.

Perhaps it’s fear of turning off the mass audience that developers are so keen to appeal to now, or perhaps it’s a matter of different tastes striving to capture different tones. But if you ask me, games always need a bit of whimsy, and there’s no better place to infuse it than the RPG, no matter its country of origin. But when an epic adventure fails to feel fun, charming, or whimsical, it ceases to be an adventure anymore; it’s simply a chore.

So, for you, what can the West learn from the JRPG? Which design philosophy are you more inclined to agree with? Or do you find the distinction largely meaningless? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below or in your very own Gamer Limit blog.

  1. Absolutely. It seems sometimes the WRPG derives itself from classical fantasy and science fiction works, often producing stunning and very immersive worlds … that tend to have very little pure fun in them. There’s something to be said for the outright wonky in games, something that doesn’t seem to exist in print media and thus isn’t making its way to the Western developers.

    That’s not to say that Western developers don’t know anything about introducing whimsy, as you put it, into their games, it’s just that it tends to be inconsequential and easily missed. So what ever happened to playing games for fun? Maybe that’s what the JRPG hasn’t forgotten.

    If I had to make a preference, I’d honestly say I’m a bigger fan of the JRPG design philosophy, at least in video gaming. IMHO, the WRPG is best as a tabletop game.

    • I think you hit it exactly: those silly, random, fun moments are seemingly pushed to the periphery in a lot of Western games, and they become so minor that they can’t actually affect the game in any compelling way. I’m all for a game having a strong consistent tone (though there’s also something to be said for having major tonal shifts, if it works in the narrative), but I just wish I could see more narrative experimentation in Western games, and whimsy is most definitely one way to pull that off.

      Of course, I don’t want to suggest that a lot of the recent JRPG narratives have been particularly compelling, because they haven’t, but White Knight Chronicles gives a taste of a JRPG story with absolutely no wonder or whimsy, and, god, it is not pretty.

  2. The vast majority of my favorite gaming experiences of the past decade haven’t been afraid to shy away from seriousness. Katamari Damacy, Persona, Final Fantasy IX, Super Mario Galaxy, Metal Gear Solid 4, Super Smash Brothers, Animal Crossing, Portal, and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, just to name a few. It’s alarming that of that list, only Portal was developed by a Western team.

    You’ve touched on something here that I consider to be a problem with Western development at large. There’s a pervailing sense that if a narrative breaks from seriousness, it becomes un-adult. It’s not something to be enjoyed by the “serious” gamer. The “hardcore” gamer. Hell, just look at the Gears of War franchise. The story of Gears is laughable, mainly because Epic Games refuses to let it off of the “we r srs bsns” chain. Can you imagine how great it would be if they allowed Marcus Fenix and his rag tag band of beefy heroes to ludicrousness of their testosterone fueled power? I’d love to be able to throw enemies through walls and explode them with the power of my fist ala “Fist of the North Star”.

    On the flipside of the coin we have the recently released Super Mario Galaxy 2. While it’s not a JRPG, it’s a shining example of why allowing creativity and absurdity to flow through the core of a game can lead to an incredibly satisfying experience. While not a story based game, it’s an example of how Japanese game design and its willingness to be absurd can lead to an engaging product.

    Stagnation in Western narrative and setting is my biggest pet peeve this generation, and unless developers are willing to embrace other schools of thought, I don’t see things getting brighter any time soon.

    Great article!

  3. avatar supremeostrich

    “the paradigm shift that the JRPG is able to”

    I see what you did there

  4. Story for me. JRPGs, for the most part, generally have a good enough story that keep me moving forward. WRPGs keep me moving forward with polished gameplay.

    I’m also not a big fan with how watered down WRPGs are getting in order to become more accessible. FF13 did that though. Despite an industry wide shift in accessibility, I think of RPGs, most JRPGs will still remain a bit more “hardcore” (albeit tedious).

  5. avatar alikatto

    different people hav different tastes.try satisfying all of them not by making one game but making different games.dont eliminate a genre in pursue of another.like i m a big fan of japanesse rpg n samurai games,ninja etc.n this generation havent given us much of them unfortunately.i hope developers realise what their fans r missing!

  6. avatar alikatto

    we have seen many wrpg this generation at their best already like mass effect,oblivion n fallout 3 but not one great classic jrpg.i had hopes from ff13 but for me it was a disaapoinment.i still play ff9 n enjoy it.

  7. avatar Dalaule

    It seems this whimsy thing was alot more common before, in the 90′s. Monkey Island, the Indiana Jones games, Day of the Tentacle… I think Baldur’s Gate had a fair few as well, mostly in the form of characters and party banter, and Fallout 1 and 2 was ripe with them (Bloody Mess!).

    I’d like to point out Tim Schafer as a westen game developer who puts whimsy in his games, even today. His recent Psychonauts and Brütal Legend, while not bestsellers, are full of whimsy and comedic scenes that exist for the pure enjoyment of the gamer, and is also why his name on a product is a stamp of quality for me, at least in one sense.

  8. avatar mfmaxpower

    My guess would be that the “whimsy” of JRPGs does not have large appeal outside of Asian audiences. I’m all for comedy and charm, but the problem is that more often than not, JRPGs come off as silly and immature. As its audience has grown-up, so too have Western video games. Japanese games, however, are a few steps behind.

  9. I don’t think it’s just JRPGs that are becoming progressively redundant. Japanese Animes are following the same pattern.

    • avatar Raso

      Yes but so are western dramas and action shows. When out side looking in you see the similarities more than what makes them stand out. That’s why when some one who’s never seen anime before sees 2 bad anime in a row they start to think all anime is bad and that it’s the norm, but after watching 3 bad sitcoms or medical dramas they just assume that they’re bad TV shows and don’t label all medical dramas as being bad.

      Look at most western adult cartoons. I remember when I was in 3rd grade all of that kinda stuff was considered immature. Suddenly on shows like Drawn Together and Ugly Americans not only is it mature, but it’s pure genius! What did I miss?

      Well basically, for an adult to enjoy a cartoon it needs to be nonstop poop jokes, sex and a nearly abusive assault of other mainstream idealism.

      There are lots of Anime geared towards adults, and yes, they can at times have very suggestive moments, but they don’t use non stop poop jokes and sex to sell their products, they have deep complex stories and dare to ask questions no one dares to ask. They dare to go where other’s refuse to go they dare to let you escape reality, rather than rubbing all over your face. They dare to experiment where western games insist on releasing to you the same crap in different boxes year after year.

      Aside from their more lighthearted feeling and whimsical atmosphere, many JRPGs and anime tend to convey a message or two or try to make a statement, they want you to think and get emotionally attached to their characters. Wester games just want you to blow $hit up.

      Your average western gamers don’t want to think, just vegg and pwn people. They get testy if their stories start making them ask questions that are deep or critical. They hate it when the characters show disdain for war and violence and want to try to be friends. They hate kids with spiky yellow hair.

      At times I have to wonder if it’s the type of games that this dislike or if they just hate games that ask you to invest emotions and thought into them.

    • I frankly wouldn’t know much of western dramas. I dislike television. I used to enjoy family guy but recently it’s charm has dried out due to it’s recycled jokes and humor geared towards idiots. Can’t blame Seth McFarlane though, he tried conveying insight on atheism which only succeeded in angering the many idiots who are too well programed to even consider considering the idea that their god just might be imaginary, but that’s far from the point. I am an anime fan, not as much as most but enough to at least know that the term “Anime” is far too vague to be used as a category.

      The congruent pattern I’ve seen between JRPGs and Animes is that most new JRPG/Anime derive far too much from previous titles. They present you with a main character that’s either a bad ass or a wimp turned bad ass. After about five to ten Animes/JRPGs it may become incredibly difficult to care the least bit about any characters that have to save anything less than the whole world. Once you experience all of the best JRPGs/Animes everything else just seems like a joke. I’m not trying to insult JRPGs/Animes, it’s just that the lack of originality and quality in most JRPGs/Animes pains me.

      Western popular culture is simply a cesspool of distractions for those who enjoy living in ignorance.

    • avatar Raso

      I like that…..

      “Western popular culture is simply a cesspool of distractions for those who enjoy living in ignorance.”

      It’s so true. It’s nothing but mindless droll, health heartedly written by the lowest bidder to keep and quiet and complacent.

    • Thank you. I surprised myself coming up with that statement, so much so it’s my facebook status now lol

  10. avatar Olly

    What I find that is missing from most WRPGs that JRPGs generally have loads of, specifically older JRPGs, is a sense of morality that you can take away from the games. The characters generally have such intricately designed personalities that we find ourselves able to relate to them in some way or another. They aren’t simply “the good guy” out to defeat “the bad guy”. They have personal delimas that do not always lead them in the right direction, just like we run into on a daily basis in our own lives. I think we tend to pick up on bits of their morals and apply them to our own lives. It’s what makes them memorable.

    One trend through JRPGs that helps push morally questionable situations that we watch in these games are topics that are in some ways considered taboo and/or force the player to actually have think and contemplate ideas that they may rather remain ignorant on. I know this idea has been pointed out in previous posts. I believe game designers are pushing in the direction that WRPGs have been going for quite some time simply because the masses prefer to swim in the aforementioned cesspool. Ultimately everything comes down to the bottom dollar. RPGs as a whole are becoming shorter (in game time) because people want a quick distraction. They’re becoming more shallow because people don’t want to think they only want a distraction. And they’re becoming much more fast paced so that people don’t get bored quickly with their distraction.

    Games are not a drug. I for one don’t want a quick fix with my games. I like RPGs, not because of any type of game play, but because of the depth of the story and characters. WRPGs seem to be geared up like a 50 dollar advertisement. Get their attention and get them hooked. By the time they get bored we’ll have another hook. JRPGs generally tend to be focused on the content of the game and the experience the player will have playing the game. I for one will wait a few more years for good quality games I thoroughly enjoy rather than just another quick fix to maintain my “gaming high.”

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