We don't always like being nonplussed

Friday, April 27, 2012

5 Aspects of JRPGs that Need Refreshed

I love JRPGs. I still play them. I still enjoy them, most of the time. But as I get old and tired and cranky, I can't help but notice: so do they. And if they were the kind of product that appealed to consecutive generations, it'd be one thing if I grew out of them and somebody else grew into them.

But nobody seems to be growing into them. At least not in the English-speaking world. So if we want that to happen... what should happen next? More to the point, what needs to go away?

1. Nonsense names

Xenosaga. Radiant Historia. Infinite Undiscovery. Kingdom Hearts: 2 Tablespoons of Shortening and a Sackful of Etch-A-Sketches, or however the fuck you're supposed to parse 358/2 Days. You know what anyone can pronounce in English? Fallout. Mass Effect. Dragon Age. Skyrim. "Skyrim" isn't a real word, but it's made entirely of real words, not things that sound mostly like real words.

"Undiscovery," for God's sake. What is that, stealing fossils and reburying them? (...actually, I'd play that game.)

Let's look at Kingdom Hearts, because it's the best example. That is supposedly pronounced "Three-Five-Eight Days Over Two." That is total nonsense. The best I can do for you there is Three Hundred Fifty-Eight Half Days, which should either be "179 Days," or the daring tale of a part-time worker at Disneyland. Likewise "Dissidia Duodecim," which is spelled "Dissidia 012."

It's bullshit. You are multinational corporations who largely hire talented writers to translate your games. Let them make up snappy English names too. Give your games titles people can pronounce and remember, and people might be able to ask for them by name. I guarantee you that somewhere, sometime, some clueless grandmother has asked an underpaid GameStop clerk for "That Quesadilla Dewey Decimal for the Playstation Game Boy." There is practically a 1:1 chance this has occurred. Cut the nonsense words and mathematical equations that need pronunciation guides.

2. Stock Anime character types

One more laconic, hyper-competent swordsman and I will throw up. Also the Brash Young Swordsman, the Martial Artist Who Eats a Lot, the Loud and Overbearing Teenage Girl, the Shy Moe Girl, and any other character type you'd see in a crap anime. Or, more to the point, every crap anime. Try this: black out the character names in their descriptions and show them all, sans illustrations, to someone outside the company. If that person says "Oh, I've seen that show," start over.

3. Stock Anime fanservice

Speaking of overused anime tropes! For God's sake, we know what boobs look like now. The internet is now into its third decade of widespread public availability. I have no problem with them, I rather like them. But if I really like your game it'd be much better for your business if I couldn't only show it to/discuss it with people who've been read in re:Japanese pop culture fanservice.

I'm not so much saying that the boobs should go away or that provocative dress is universally bad, because both of those positions are stupid. But we need real characters who have sex appeal because they are people, and people often have sex appeal. Please stop using the Master Fetish Checklist to create characters. Boobs should not be a defining character trait because they are not even a character trait. Neither are glasses or thigh-high stockings.

Corollary: I don't want to have to cringe every freaking time I see a pre-teen or pre-teen-looking girl in a game. Please. At this point I am pretty much addressing Nippon Ichi directly, so let's roll with that: your games are absolutely amazing to play, and I don't dare show them to people who I'm not already sure will "get" the tropes involved. If you could make a game as deep yet as newcomer-friendly as your games tend to be without the blatant fanservice- especially the lolis -you might be able to escape niche-land and get the magnitude of audience that your gameplay deserves.

Also? I've been marinating in Japanese popular culture for damn near 20 years now, and the panty obsession? Still damn creepy.

4. Stock Anime storytelling

If your plot involves a shadowy paramilitary organization with a pseudo-religious name, junk it. If the linchpin of your plot, whatever or whoever it may be, has a pseudo-religious name, junk it. If the linchpin of your plot is a mysterious alien entity, junk it. If the major parties of your plot can be viewed as representing one feeling or philosophy of life against another, junk it. If your plot involves a high school and/or a bunch of high-school students, or high-school age students of an academy of any kind, take a very close look at it, see if the setting is really necessary for the story you want to tell, and then junk it. If your plot involves any of these plus time travel, junk it, then go back in time and junk it again. If your plot and ending never tell the player what was really going on directly and clearly, with zero ambiguity, junk all of it, resign from your job as scenario writer, and jump out the nearest window.

5. Storytelling by obfuscation

Which brings me to my last point. As the Mass Effect 3 ending proved, this is not a condition unique to JRPGs - none of these are, in fact. They're just most concentrated here. But while everybody likes a good mystery, it does ultimately need to be solved. By the third act/final dungeon/whatever, your characters and players should have a working understanding of your world and the stakes involved in confronting the final boss, both in the personal and global sense. And their reward for coming to this understanding and thwarting this boss should be a complete and satisfying ending that makes sense.

If a character says "I have to go," and then floats away with no explanation, there should be an explanation later. This should never happen in the ending. I'm told this occurs in Eternal Sonata: somebody decides during the ending that they are Poochie and their home planet needs them, and just flies away. No explanation at all.

Come on. Explain all your jargon. Spell out all your characters' backgrounds. Make sure the elaborate time travel plot you should have thrown out during Step 4 all ties together at least as well as Back to the Future 2, which is full of holes but is also too much fast-paced fun to let you stop and think about them. If you do not ultimately allow the player to feel they have solved the mysteries of your setting, the only mystery left is "why the fuck did I play this game?"


  1. I feel much the same. Just add some swearing and commentary about the majesty of FF9 vs. the franchise melanoma that FF8 represents, and we're on the same page.

  2. Actually, I kinda liked FFVIII back when it came out, but mainly on a technical level. In terms of story and characters it's a mess, but I liked the magic system for much the same reason I do like Nippon Ichi games: once you know how it works, you can do all sorts of amazing things. And it largely doesn't parcel those systems out; it tells you what you need to know as you need to know it, but you can do nearly anything from the outset.

    Hmm, maybe this is a post for another Friday...

  3. I love Disgaea xD I have no problem with Nippon Ichi's lolis. Lolis are adorable c: Honestly, Disgaea isn't even that "fanservicey"... I like the cool names of the games; haven't you ever heard "Don't judge a book by it's cover" judge by what the game actually is. I kind of think this is just you dude who thinks all this.. I don't have any problem with excessive use of boobs in gaming; I'm not tired of it in the slightest, I could honestly spend the rest of my life looking at nice boobs. Highschool life in Japanese media is basically akin to guns in Western games. It's EVERYWHERE (though plenty of people have no problem with every big 3D western game having guns). I kind of feel like you judge Japanese values in gaming with Western views. Something we think is horrible or annoying or not good development here, in Japan they think the opposite. It's a whole different culture who views sexuality and good game design in a completely different way from us.

  4. So basically, any game with mystery that's unexplained is horrible? Two words. Majora's Mask. Extremely mysterious and lot is left unexplained, and that game is SOOO much better because of it.

    1. Majora's Mask gets a pass just as Persona, which uses high schools, gets a pass because they are done extraordinarily well. Any of these can be saved if they're done well, but when not done well this is largely a list of things which writers and developers use because it's easier than thinking.

    2. Also- and this kind of thing makes me feel old all the time, so I apologize for saying this in advance -Majora's Mask was thirteen years ago.