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djnealb avatar 7:58 AM on 08.12.2011  (server time)
East Vs. West: Who Am I Playing?

I play different games for different reasons, similar to how I like to watch different movies based on my different moods. When I play an action game like Uncharted or Devil May Cry, its usually because I'm in the mood to relieve some stress by causing explosions and killing anything that moves. When I play a platformer like Mario or Ratchet and Clank, its for the environments and silly characters. And when I play a role-playing-game, I go in for the story, just like I would if I were going to see a drama. This is why Eastern RPGs will always be my preference over Western ones.

To me, the main appeal of Japanese RPGs lies in a single word that has, over the last several years, gained a rather negative connotation: linearity. I certainly understand how non-linearity has it's appeal. You get dropped into a virtual sandbox and can do just about whatever the hell you want. That's the great appeal to games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls (which I also enjoy). However, in a genre that is supposed to be rather story heavy, I feel that non-linearity is more of a hindrance than a boon. The question is: Why?

Let me go back to my movie analogy for a moment. When you go to see a drama, why are you there? I like to go see dramatic films for the engaging and emotional plots and (here's my key point) the excellent character development. It is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible in most cases, to do that in a Western RPG. Look at a game like Oblivion. Sure, it has a good story, but can you really relate or empathize with any of the characters. More importantly, can you do that with your character. In non-linear, Western RPGs, like Oblivion or Fallout, I would posit that, no, you can't because your character is you. When playing Oblivion, I play as myself (I even get to choose what I look like). I make decisions that I would personally make in whatever situation that it throws me. Even if I try to adopt a persona, like an evil badass or selfless saint in Fallout 3, I'm still playing as myself, just a slightly altered version of myself. Therefore, there is no character, only me.

That's what makes Japanese RPGs more emotional and engaging. When I play a JRPG, I don't play the game and make the decisions that I, myself, would make. I play as the character. How would Squall or Tidus respond to this situation? How will it affect the other characters? One of the most linear RPGs of the current generation was the rather maligned Final Fantasy XIII. Despite it's faults it still has a story that is easy to follow and characters with varying personalities that get fleshed out throughout the course of that story. A much better example would be Valkyria Chronicles. Throughout the campaign, you are playing through a book of historical battles that took place during the fictional world's equivalent to World War 2. The game is so linear that, during your first play-through, you are completely unable to go back to prior levels to attempt better scores or times. I think that was a brilliant decision on Sega's part, forcing the player to go through the story first. This allows the player to see the story and character development completely uninterrupted by sidequests or repeating missions.

I know that there are Western RPGs that probably have much better plot and character development just as there are Japanese RPGs with the opposite. However, when you're playing the next Mass Effect or Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls or White Knight Chronicles (sorry, it took me a bit to think of another JRPG that wasn't SquareEnix), ask yourself a question. Who am I playing as? The character? Or myself?

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