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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.