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fulldamage avatar 11:15 PM on 04.15.2012  (server time)
JRPGs, if you please, or if you don't please.

Would it be weird if I said I donít go to games sites for gaming news coverage? Or does that just make me dumb? Basically, Iím trying to explain to you before I mention them, that I donít often visit Kotaku other than to read Kirk Hamiltonís game music articles and the occasional Ashcraft ďLife in JapanĒ piece.

That was such a terrible explanation. Seriously, so bad! I'm sorry for wasting your time, everyone!

Okay, thing is, somebody sent me the link to this one about JRPGs. And I found myself realizing I had a lot to say about them, because I wrote down what was intended to be just a brief little comment on my G+, but ended up going on for just forever. I get like that about JRPGs.

So, this is the article, for reference.

In a nutshell, itís a defense against a criticism that JRPGs are ďdead,Ē that theyíre all too repetitive or stagnant or whatever people say about games that donít get as much media attention.

The first thing that sprang to mind for me was, "repetitive" isn't itself a flaw if the core gameplay is fun. All kinds of fun stuff is repetitive. Swinging on a swingset is repetitive. Dancing is repetitive. Television is repetitive. Checkers is repetitive. Peggle is repetitive. Triple Town and Tetris are repetitive. Shooters are repetitive. But they're also addictive. When people say that a formula of gameplay is repetitive as a criticism, what are actually perceiving is the game's failure to keep them locked in a satisfactory engagement loop.

Sometimes repetition is awesome.

If the story payoffs are not getting the player emotionally invested, or the combat systems lack tactical nuance and opportunities for decision making, or the leveling system does not continuously feed the character fun new things to learn, or the game's camerawork, effects, and presentation fail to evolve in eye-catching ways over the course of the game, or - well, any number of potential problems! - then the gameplay is perceived as repetitive rather than addictive, because the player feels that they are receiving less and less reward while growing more and more adept. But these are design problems - not problems with the genre as a whole!

As a form, it has a lot of limits. The D&D roots are clear, jutting out from the surface of the genre at odd joints. It's mostly about using numbers to make bigger numbers, dressed up with swords and spells. There's not much more to it. But limits can be enabling; Final Fantasy IV and VI, along with Chrono Trigger, are examples of some of the magic that happened when Square developers mastered the available tech and then pushed its' limits - dueling airships, playing through opera sequences, multiple character POVs, stories spanning lifetimes, branching storylines, time travel, and so much more.

It seems intrinsically Japanese to me, this honing and polishing of a small and brilliant form of gamespace, re-iterating and recycling to seek perfection within well-defined limits. Contrast it with the West - sprawling, open-ended game vistas - stay in one form of gameplay just long enough to plant your flag, consider it conquered, and move on to new pastures and new ideas quickly, or consider yourself "stagnant."

If JRPGs have an primary weakness, to me, it is in the narrative - and a lot of people play these for the story! But to me, there's a point at which I just cannot take the constant retelling of the journey to adulthood - the immature young hero learning to be mature through strife and sacrifice, learning about love, learning about defeat, learning about firsts. It is actually perfect for the model of linear leveling progression that RPGs in general have at their heart - start weak, strive, get strong, overcome. As gamers themselves age, it becomes harder for them to identify with these themes. The adult world contains more nuance. What a lot of gamers reaching their 20s and 30s aren't realizing that it's not the games that are "stagnant," it's they who are growing up and seeking deeper understanding.

But the form is capable of that. Costume Quest and Penny Arcade Adventures are fully approachable, witty, and charming games built on those exact mechanics, but telling their own unique little stories. Parasite Eve takes you through a fight against your own mitochondria, who have shaped the human being since the dawn of time. SMT: Nocturne asks you to adopt an ethos - that of the solitary Ascetic, or the arbiter of Law, or the Chaotic force of growth and change - and to harness the demons and thoughtforms that align with your ethos, to prove out that thesis in demonic combat. The linked article contains many similar examples.

Also, this.

Geez, my examples are really dated, actually. Iím not even that expert on all of whatís out there. But 1) That still supports my point - even decades-old JRPGs showed some fairly astonishing and innovative concepts. And 2) Thatís actually why Iím going to quit yammering on like that guy on the night bus who insists on involving strangers in his largely monologic ongoing conversation about how heís constantly receiving mental messages via satellite from Mars telling him not to bite strangers, and ask people to educate me instead.

What is the real hotness in JRPGs? For all my defense of them, itís been a long time since I found one that I really enjoyed. I think itís fair to say Iím over the usual pastoral-green-adventure-land, kids-with-swords-fighting-dragons, good-triumphs-over-evil nonsense. Iím curious about whatís on the fringes of the genre now - the stranger, the more bizarre, the more unusual for a game, the better. I tend to prefer stuff I can find on PS3 or PC, and tend to prefer turn-based or ATB to ĎAction RPGs,í but I still want to know about JRPGs that really made you stop and think or impressed you, no matter what platform theyíre on. Anybody want to school me?

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