The Japanese RPG is now being derided not only as an exercise in guiding a party of overwrought adolescents around a clichéd science-fantasy world, but also as a sham RPG “more akin to an adventure game.”
An editorial published on a western gaming site and quickly finding its way back to the Japanese Internet dissects the term “RPG,” finding that the Japanese version is now something quite different:
The purest of RPGs in computer gaming are titles such as Elite. You can role play as a trader, a pirate, a bounty hunter, a bastard, or whatever.
With the absence of a structured story or any real exposition, the player is invited to use their imagination and the game environment to make up and enact the player-directed narrative and continue it with their in-game decisions, which is continually reinforced and progressed by the game outputs. The player creates a part of the fiction themselves within the playground of the game world.
In the same vein, MMORPGS follow this concept. They grant a great deal of liberty to the player and allow them a lot of freedom over the control, appearance, actions and fiction of their avatar.
I think that most Western RPGs are correctly classified so, too. Planescape, Fable, Fallout and Mass Effect all adapt significantly to the inputs the player makes and subsequently create a tailored experience for each player based upon the actions they take.
There are some games that appear to offer everything that an RPG requires, such as Red Dead Redemption. You are granted relative freedom and can make John Marston be a hunter, a merchant, an asshole or a saint.
But ultimately, if you want to progress through the game and access new areas, you must engage in the main missions. Although there is a degree of superficial choice (and thusly “role play”) in these, you cannot really change anything of significance.
Players will interpret their characters differently from one another; much like readers will use their imagination to perceive a protagonist in a book, for example.
However, my version of John Marston, a shrewd, unforgiving and untrusting former outlaw is all well and good whilst I’m controlling things, but when the story, mission and cut scenes conspire to make John do things I would never want to do (be foolish enough to trust character X, when for me, John would never have fallen for such an overt trap), it ruins the whole point of the role-playing dynamic.
Therefore, Red Dead Redemption is definitely not a RPG; it’s something else.
Similarly, what many consider to be true RPG titles, like Final Fantasy, Skies of Arcadia and Dragon Quest do not adhere to this notion of what constitutes an RPG. Somehow over the past few decades, the term RPG is strongly associated with features such as turn-based combat, fantasy settings, inventory screens, upgrade trees, fighting parties and enemy stats.
Oddly, very few of these types of RPG (most commonly labeled as a JRPG) actually include the key role-playing features.
Cut scenes occur with no player input. Players have relatively little control over dialogue trees.The player merely exists to advance the inevitable progression of the character, and consequently each player will come away with a very similar experience. The game is therefore didactic in its presentation of the controllable character.
The Persona series is one of the few that bucks the trend, allowing the player to choose how they interact with characters, making those relationships an important part of the gameplay and story.
So basically JRPGs have been mislabeled and are, in essence, no different to the majority of action/adventure games in terms of form. It’s only the presentation that differs. Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto and BioShock all present a number of role-playing features, from choice-making and freedom to combat upgrades and visual customisation, yet all three are lacking in true role play.
There is no overall, coherent scope to unite these features together to allow the player to impose their own mind upon the character, to mold it into something personal to the player. Of course I’m not saying this is a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, and the cut scenes, stories and characters would not be as fantastic as they are without the careful dilution of the RPG elements.
Nevertheless, JRPGs follow this formula precisely. Although they offer role-playing opportunities on some levels, ultimately the story and form is too narrow and scripted for the games to be considered RPGs at all. Who better to summarize the argument than Daniel Erickson of the RPG experts, BioWare:
“You can put a ‘J’ in front of it, but it’s not an RPG. You don’t make any choices, you don’t create a character, you don’t live your character. I don’t know what those are – adventure games maybe? – but they’re not RPGs.”
Bioware have been amongst the most dismissive but a number of western developers now seem to think similarly, and even some Japanese are adopting the view – in this view, the increasingly unfashionable JRPG is nothing more than a rather hackneyed stat-based dungeon crawler.