Today Anthony Burch highlighted an indie game, The Linear RPG to illustrate, basically speaking, why the JRPG subgenre totally sucks.
I found the argument profoundly similar to the one voiced in an issue of The Escapist, entitled "The Battleship Final Fantasy, written by Ray Huling. Many of my points are actually drawn from my reaction to that article, though I will attempt to distill them further here, the better to apply them to JRPGs in general, and to addressing several specific comments made by Anthony in his article and in the comment thread below it. Please read this at your own discretion.
I argue that JRPGs have a specific appeal, and that The Linear RPG represents a gross misinterpretation of such. JRPGs may be flawed, in need of diversity in both formula and substance, but they deserve to exist, and shouldn't be treated as obsolete antiques, long passed by. Peoples' love of JRPGs is not misplaced and born of a weird, inane refusal to acknowledge fact. JRPGs have a place in this world.
I agree with some of the points raised, particularly with regard to the potential stagnation of the formula and the growing need for diversity at the fundamental level. Some of my examples are in fact JRPGs that buck the trend. My own perspective is also limited. Being a PS3 owner, I have not been able to play many recently released JRPGs. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise?
Anthony's assertions, and the satirical commentary of The Linear RPG, serve to show how utterly intolerable JRPGs are. JRPGs use the temptation of leveling up to force players to endure terrible storytelling and bad, mindless grinding gameplay. Why ("in God's name why?") do JRPGs even exist in this age of evolved storytelling?
JRPGs want you to watch cutscenes. Yes, I went there. Gameplay is is largely disconnected from the story. Perhaps the best (worst?) example of this would be Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht. Players watched cutscenes that extended to and past the half-hour mark. Interviews with Monolith Soft staff openly stated that this separation was part of their intention, that the system to be mastered be distinct from the story to be told.
To Anthony, this is a big negative. Gameplay should be fully integrated with storytelling. I agree, but only in part. Some games need it, others do well enough without this level of integration. I believe there is ample room for both philosophies, especially considering the appeal of JRPGs. Those interviews with Monolith Soft are the key, for the core appeal of the JRPG is twofold: to master a system (gameplay), and to experience a story (cutscene). One plays the game, then views a cutscene, then plays the game again.
As we constantly discuss whenever we get into the state of game reviews, the game experience and the final value judgment ultimately falls to the player to decide. In my estimation and experience, this separation of "gameplay" from "story" is not necessarily a bad point or a sign of terrible design. This separation is even more widespread in tactical RPGs, like Final Fantasy Tactics.
Gameplay and story, as connected to the core appeal (mastering a system and watching a cutscene), complement each other. A well-produced, involving cutscene is a reward for mastering a system, and often requires that the player do so on some level to obtain that reward. Ideally, that mastery is enjoyable in and of itself, solidifying the appeal, paying off in enjoyment.
Come to think of it, isn't that how all games work out? In a perfect world, everything would mesh well and provide in beautiful harmony, but more often than not we pick something we like about a game and then roll with it, eventually deciding if that's worth it. Anthony and Girlflash clearly believe that it is not, but that judgment, as stated, falls to the individual player.
But I digress, let's keep going with JRPGs. JRPGs tend to demand success on both fronts to be considered good. This kind of goal tends to lead to more failures than successes, but that might be said of any game. There are a enough of bad action games, bad shooters, and bad western RPGs (WRPGs) to prove that.
Complex mechanics may be just as good as a twisted story. I had great fun constructing elaborate gambits to "program" my party's maneuvers in Final Fantasy XII. And when it got down to showing me well-produced cutscenes, written in florid English, that narrated events that determined the fate of two kingdoms, I chuckled and thought to myself, "Yeah, you dickheads, if it wasn't for my gambits you wouldn't be there." I may have been no more than a choreographer in this game, but I'll be damned if I didn't do it well.
All those complex gambits would have been for naught, it's argued, since I could have simply ground away, able to surmount the challenge by virtue of levels and persistence, thus abusing the mechanics and breaking them. That may be true, but I didn't do that. I constructed complicated gambits. I didn't need to grind. I mastered the system.
I could have done the same in, say, Bioshock (most people seem to insist that it's an RPG, though I think it's a shooter). I could have simply run the entire game with the wrench, smacking everything until I died, jumping out the Vita-Chamber, alive and well, and doing the same, but I didn't. I carefully arranged my Plasmids and enhanced my weapons, and settled for stunning everything with Electro-Bolt or Winter Blast, then running up and beating them with my wrench or shooting them in the head. System mastery.
Do JRPGs have no intrinsic appeal, based on their basic components, as is argued in The Linear RPG? Why bother to master a complex system when the reward is a bad cutscene? As I mentioned above, sometimes mastering a complex system is its own reward. Anthony admitted himself that leveling up was kind of fun, and that he played for longer than it took for the point to be made. Isn't the appeal of getting more of a good thing intrinsic?
Many - perhaps most - JRPGs have poorly written (or at least poorly edited) stories. So do many action games, FPS games, and flight sims. The stories may not matter as much in the latter, but the excitement of playing makes up for that. If mastering the system isn't enough to make up for the bad story, it's a bad game, period. For that matter, few game stories rise beyond the level of a licensed D&D novel. They can take up a lot of time to tell you these simple stories, compared to Firefly or The Wire, but neither of those TV shows have a systems I can master.
I think the complexity lies in that JRPGs take so long to make their appeal apparent. Some hate that JRPGs take a while to make their appeal apparent, in part because of that separation between gameplay and story. It took Anthony roughly three hours to gain full control of the game's systems in Persona 4. The preamble kept him from beginning to master the system.
But there it comes down to preference. Personally, I found those three hours refreshing. It introduced me to the characters, started to get me interested in what was happening around me, and motivated me to get started mastering the system (boy, I say that a lot). Suikoden V has the longest prologue period in gaming, with roughly TEN hours before you get to recruiting party members. But those ten hours built up a complex story that showed me the political cracks and fractures that threatened to split my kingdom apart, and motivated me to get to sealing those fissures, even if I did dislike random battles. That long setup paid off big-time, when the plot started snowballing into a grand series of maneuvers punctuated by epic field battles and one-on-one duels, never letting up the pace and surprising at every turn.
Even the appeal of a system becomes subject to preference and tolerance. Once he did learn the ins and outs of Persona 4's system, Anthony found he could get by recycling the same strategies to beat the same enemies. He believed that there was not enough enemy variation to keep him on his toes.
Not so, I thought. Even palette-swapped enemies in differing dungeons required altered strategies to beat. A Lying Basalt (I'm making up names here) on the first level of the Castle dungeon could be beaten by casting Zio to knock it down (bypassing its stronger resistances) and triggering an all-out attack. But the palette-swapped Autonomic Basalt on the seventh level of the Steamy Bathhouse would have to be beaten in a different manner, since it was easily knocked down, but took practically no damage from the all-out attack, forcing me to use area-effect spells to knock them down and then attacking them manually with physical skills to keep them from using their powerful counterattacks.
What happened if several Autonomic Basalts appeared mixed with Avenger Knights, who repelled everything that the Basalts were weak to? This was more than enough to keep my interest, especially considering that constantly using spells to attack weaknesses used up SP, which I might need for a future battle. Should I waste 10 SP in to use Maragi against a group of fire-weak enemies, or conserve it by simply attacking them, knowing that I risked my health?
I've just wasted 1500 words and a dozen paragraphs to tell you this: The Linear RPG is a misinterpretation. It forgets that there's a system that can be mastered, an essential part of making JRPGs work. The system can be subverted and abused, but that can happen to any game. A JRPG that fails not just a bad JRPG, it's a bad game. We can't blame a genre or its conventions for poor execution of such. There is no such thing as a design convention that is bad, but there are many instances where design conventions are misused, incompetently applied, or left aside. That can happen in any genre. We might need something new, but we needn't get rid of the old.