Insanity Sells: The J-RPG


Plot Wholes #2


As I sit in the local Oriental eatery, wolfing down chicken ramen and immersing myself in printed web-manga, I think about what the Japanese have done for gaming culture. The video game explosion has never been demonstrated quite the way it has in Japan, and the sheer amount of games they release each week is testament to it being one of the staples of their entire economy. However, there is one genre of video games that has been dominated by the Land of the Rising Sun for decades — the role-playing game.

The narratives have always been absurd, melodramatic, and sometimes downright hilarious in their complete disregard for plot threading, sensible juxtapositions, and even common sense, but time and time again we find ourselves drawn back into the world of big swords and even bigger hair. This is where it all started for me. I was eleven years old, and I had stayed up hours after everyone else at a sleep-over, playing my first RPG with wide eyes, completely oblivious to both the time and the outside world. The second the host woke up I bought the game off of him, and it became one of my favorite titles for life. The game I’m referring to is none other than the title that put 3D role-playing games on the map: Final Fantasy VII.

The interesting thing about Final Fantasy VII (or FFVII for short) is that in the space of three discs, it manages to create a universe so vast and endlessly reproductive that people are never going to run out of content for it. To date, there have been at least five spin-off titles and a film based in that world. The fan base exceeds anything most video game fans are used to, and this is for one reason: it’s the first Final Fantasy title that was, for the most part, pretty straightforward in its storyline. There was Midgar, the main city, and all the rest of the encompassing geography was laid out in a simple, minimalistic fashion that allowed the narrative to take us on a slow journey through each of them, minimizing the amount of back-tracking needed, and therefore risking the player’s disinterest in continuing the tale, which has always been why the franchise is such a roaring success.

The characters were fantastically written; Cloud, the protagonist, is probably one of, if not the most well-known Japanese RPG character in existence. His huge Buster Sword and gelled-into-harder-than-granite spikes hair have become something of a cosplay staple. His personality is the basis for the entire storyline, and if you’ve not played this game (be ashamed), I’m not going to ruin it for you, but the mercenary-for-hire isn’t quite who he seems. This mystery is alluded to enough times before the eventual revelation that it really does excite the player to know about his dark, amnesia-ridden past.

Of course, it could be argued that we’re tired of amnesia-suffering characters, and it seems like a sly excuse for writing a protagonist’s backstory as the game progresses. This is true of many titles, but Cloud’s memory is triggered through his discovery of different areas; not the newest approach, but sooner or later you’ll realise every single thing you can learn about the title’s world and narrative can be derived from exploration. The game never guides you; JRPGs never do. But they make you curious enough about the next part of the story that you just can’t help but explore in the hope of finding more skeletons in higher-level closets.

All games need some kind of obstacle, and all protagonists need some way to counter, avoid, or overcome them. With JRPGs, it’s the turn-based battle system, and anyone who’s played them knows that the main issue with these combat sequences is the sudden absence of any emotion, story, or logical reaction to the combat by the character. Take Barret for example; a leader of a rebel organisation in FFVII, he comes equipped with a mini-gun instead of a hand, and a fiery temper to go with it. I don’t see him posing to music at the end of a fight, (not to mention the same music, every time) I see him firing off one last volley of bullets into the corpse of the enemy, and then storming onwards, furious, motivated by the seemingly permanent loss of his infant daughter.


Sephiroth - FFVII

 FFVII was also responsible for the scariest man in video games: Sephiroth.

The one thing you’ll have to take in your stride with JRPG titles is that the story is sometimes going to kick you in the shins and run away laughing. Lost Odyssey, a more Western-aimed RPG, but written developed and produced in Japan, is a brilliant example. Over four discs, you’ll encounter more plot holes, unnecessary dialogue, and odd character reactions than in any other title in this genre. I began to play through it again the other night, after having lost a saved file most of the way through, and I decided against doing so after an hour of cutscenes.

Kain, our protagonist, is immortal. Even when you let him die in battle, he gets back up again, until the other enemy dies. Now, if this was me, would I really try to get my memory back (seeing a pattern here?) by slowly talking to shop owners I can’t have known, while feeding seeds to rabbits in plant pots? No. I’d be wading through soldiers with a sword the size of a circus tent-pole, and demanding to know everything through interrogation. The gameplay and exploration of JRPGs is solid, but are they obstacles to the plot making sense? I’d argue so.

This being said, all JRPGs have redeemed themselves when it comes to the narrative climax; all the meandering and complex plotlines are revealed, loose ends are tied up, and nothing is left unsaid. Almost every JRPG in existence is a complete, organic whole, and we who play the game benefit from this. The climax of FFVII is something to be amazed by; I first viewed it while playing with a DDR dance mat as the Playstation controller was broken. This should give you an idea of how much you would want to see the end, not just because of the story, but because of the effort from you, the player, to finish the game — play the mini-games, win the battles, use the items, explore the map, talk to everyone, collect everything, upgrade everyone, reach level 100 with all characters, learn all the skills, get all the materia…

Well, that makes it pretty clear how immersive this genre tends to be. As we move away from true, pure JRPG content towards games like The Last Remnant and Star Ocean, we look to the Final Fantasy franchise as the last of a dying breed: the game that can make you laugh at anime-inspired physical comedy, frown at complex puzzles, scream at unbeatable level-500 bosses in controller-snapping frustration, and as hundreds, if not thousands, of Aerith RIP fan sites can testify — to cry.

I salute you, Japan, for creating a genre of videogame entertainment that allows me to summon the Knights of the Round Table and have every single one of them attack a small cactus with legs. May your ramen always be fresh, and your DS production line never-ending.


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Author: Christos Reid View all posts by

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