Let's wax poetic for a few sentences and talk about the good ol' days. Growing up I was intoxicated by JRPG's like Final Fantasy 7, Breath of Fire 4, and Chrono Trigger. I loved their focus on story and the depth of customization with items and equipment, at the time there was nothing like them. I used to describe RPG's as interactive novels to people because of the amount of text you got to read. They also grabbed my heart with there musical scores. The lack of character voices meant that the games music had to be in control of building emotions and characterization. Never has a character or scene's composition been so important to communicating a message to the player as in these early text-driven RPG's.
It's almost as if there has been a wiretap in my head since I was a little boy and a glowering husk of a man has sat and noted every degree of warmth and satisfaction that these games have given me. He then sent this information to his secret society of joy-haters and slowly but steadily infiltrated the gaming industry to strip apart all of these elements from JRPG's. Or maybe some nonsense about new technology and widening audiences bare some blame, but how fun is that to imagine?
Several things in my mind are killing JRPG's right now to the point of making them unplayable, some are my fault, some are technologies fault, and some are developer's fault. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.
Let's start with me: That damn twig of a 23 year old who sits and writes blogs complaining about people who work real jobs for a living not having the decency to put their full heart and soul into every drop of media they make that I consume from the cracked and itchy vinyl turn-chair I consider my throne. I, in all my importance, don't have the time I once did to level grind and wait patiently for the next plot point to saunter by. I require constant entertainment on several planes, I have become an FPS-man, after all. Life lasts an average of 8.3 seconds, blood is more abundant than water. If I manage to offer my talents to a game for the expressed purpose of grinding out experience points I expect a reward in the form of something I can use to beat someone over the head with. Notice I said "someone." Now that MMO's and online multiplayer gives us the option to headshot our friends and nemeses rather than the cardboard cutouts that are computer controlled players, it's hard to choose the latter.
Next let's yell at technology, trust me, it's fun.
Voice acting. Yes, it has come a long way and isn't always the convulsive mess that was Final Fantasy 10 and when done well it can add a lot to a game and its narrative. Let's think specifically about its effect on JRPG's. First, it removed mountains of text. This may have been great news for people afraid of "book-learnin'" but it created a situation in which instead of using our own imaginations to identify a voice for the text on screen, we have one forced down our throat. This means if the voice acting is not done perfectly it is done worse than if the game was text only. Anything less is a mistake we wouldn't have made in our heads. To make matters much worse it removed a large part of the function music served in these games. The more games started to use voice acting, the more music became a background service, like elevator music. Yes, in certain moments the score still has reason to rise to the occasion, but it is no longer given the duty to provide emotion for the dry text. This was a duty it filled amazingly well, so well I have to wonder if we really made storytelling "progress" in games since it has become more atmospheric and less catchy.
Finally the developers. Originally, a big selling point to JRPG's was the large immersive world's they offered full of side quests, minigames, and candy. Since then, sandbox games have come along and shat on them, offering the same benefits in a more interactive form. Western RPG's seem to have used the sandbox as the new setting for the genre. JRPG's have avoided it, going it seems more linear then before. If you can't beat them, run like hell I suppose. To be more linear in favor of better storytelling would be the correct answer but story's are unbelievably shitty. We're talking super generic and archetyped characters, meant to appeal to the masses, but actually connecting with no one. You sacrificed one positive in order to sacrifice another, it's like developer's wanted to pay someone to mug them. I'm probably lacking in specific examples on this one but just think of Final Fantasy 12 or 13 for a controlled amount, say 4 seconds, then I think we can finish up.
JRPG's used to be based around great storytelling. The recent lack of that I cannot attribute to anything other than an outbreak of disinterest and retardation in game writers (let's be honest it's the only way.) To make matters worse technology bullied the impressionable genre into using harder means to tell stories and to become more linear or fully sandboxed. Then I grew up, not into a more patient and composed individual, but into some sort of egotistical entertainment critic who can't wait six seconds for a microwaved hot dog without loudly "hmph-ing" and tapping his foot, who'd rather shoot his friend in the head while sitting alone at home than high-fiving him together at a Box Social or whatever it is you kids do these days.
Are JRPG's dead? Dying? Or is that putrid smell not a terminal cancer, but rather the fact that it simply hasn't had a decent wash in many a fortnight.
This blog is also appearing at Digital Hippos. Check it out if you're interested in indie games, music, and film.
Don't do it Jimmy! If you buy that game the industry will crumble!
Ok, so Iím sure this topic has been done from more angles than Jenna Jameson by now (take that Tito!), but my unwillingness to see any real issue for debate has forced me to weigh in my miserly two cents.
What's the frickin' problem!?
A used game is often within $5 of the price of a new one, in which case everyone buys new (unless your name is Scrooge McDuck). When the prices find themselves further apart, say as much as $10 to $20, then most people go used, because that's what the game is worth. Let's think about why a used game might get to be so inexpensive. If Joe and his mother are clamoring to find a copy of Madden 11, I guarantee you the used price is $54.99, a measly five bucks difference, hardly worth the chance it could've been owned by Frankie, the five year old with cerebral palsy. However, if the new Army Men game drops for N64 and all the kids "just gotta have it," they'll find out quickly it is a pile of stinky nut-poo. Soon every kid in the country is trying to get rid of this thing like smallpox and GameStop has 3,000,000 copies of a game worthy of an ET landfill. They rightly charge $1.99 for the garbage while good old 3DO is still trying to charge $49.99 a pop.
No one prefers a used game to a new one. All developers need to do is keep half an eye on sales and a little thing called supply and demand in order to keep their sales decent and used sales from getting out of hand. Of course, the other solution is not to make games that suck so bad that you want to trade them back in. Buying used takes money away from developers because they overcharge for their games, not initially, but later in the product's life cycle. GameStop is just running a better business right now with better prices. They're going Walmart on all their asses, and the proof is that now Target and Best Buy are joining in the fray because there is money to be made. Developers can eat into this market by moving the price of the new game, similar to how GameStop changes and drops used prices, to stay competitive.
To say that used games are stealing from developers is beyond insane. It's simply the developers trying to ask for more than what their products are worth.
Two of the games I've recently played have committed a similar cardinal sin of storytelling; they got scared of the dark. They work their way through intense and highly complex tales of murder and mass destruction only to wince and falter in the end. Sometimes I wonder if designers get too close with their heroes to the point that they can't give them the ending they deserve in favor of a "happy" ending that robs everyone of an awesome story.
Case #1 Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core
So I'm that guy that says Final Fantasy VII is the greatest game ever and has little daydreams about spiking my hair like Cloud, stealing a gianormous sword, and running around fighting random battles with furry creatures in the forest. I had big hopes for Crisis Core and a lot of them came through. The story acts as a prequel to FFVII and focuses on Zack Fair, the mysterious character that Cloud mistakenly took for himself throughout the game. The trouble is that in FFVII Zack dies in a flashback and the entire story of Crisis Core is just going to show us how the whole dirty mess went down.
Ah! So we must be dealing with quite a tragedy then, right? Poor Zack never knew what hit him? Was about to retire and head out to pasture? Quite the opposite, cause Square went soft on us. See, our buddy Zack wants to be a hero. Don't ask what that means exactly, or what kind of hero, cause he's not concerned with that at all, but what he does know is that he wants to do something vague and awesome in his life. Why? Cause he has to die, stupid! Even Zack seems to know it, he spends the entire game showing how ready for it he is until by the end, when the big moment comes, he's happy!
Don't worry, he likes it!
Everything Crisis Core did that tied into Final Fantasy 7 was brilliant, but every ounce of Zack's character was trying to convince you that it's ok that he's gonna die. It basically robs the story of its weight and drama. He's ok with it, so why should we care? No writing teacher on the planet would allow a student to write a story with a protagonist who's goal in life is to be a "hero," they'd slap you in the face and say be more specific. But what else can you do if you have to make the poor corpse smile in the end...
Case #2 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
MGS4 was a great game. Even the story, which I've had trouble following throughout the series, was top-notch and played out like a movie, all the way until the end.
You can do it Snake!
Solid Snake came out of the womb with the laser sight from his USP burning into some poor bastard's forehead. He Chuck Norris-style roundhouse kicked his teacher in third grade. The series reminds us constantly of how badass the man is, as well as how out of place he'd be in a world without fighting. It's all he knows, all he's good at. Konami even thought up the perfect ending; Snake has to kill himself because he's a biological time-bomb. Can you imagine how amazing this would've been? A hugely popular hero of folklore who's forced to suck the barrel of a pistol in the end. They had the gun in Snake's mouth and Lord knows he had the nuts to pull the trigger, it was Konami that didn't. Instead, we have to see Snake settle down and try to live a peaceful life with the all of 6-months he has left (they never fixed his genetic age problem). Our honorable hero gets to die in a nursing home without the control of his bowels, I don't even see how this is a happy ending. But hey, there's always the chance for a sequel, right?
I enjoyed both these games, but something choked in the story department when it mattered most. Come on guys, if you're gonna make a character we all know and love, at least have the balls to pull the trigger when necessary. Take a cue from Mr. T:
Hey! My name is Mike and my internet alias is mjw282 and I am a brand spankiní new blogger here at Destructoid. This is my obligatory introductory note and in an effort to make it seem more interesting for the both of us Iíd like all of you to go ahead and imagine that I am talking through a large stereo system, not three feet from your head, with the volume knob turned up to 11.
Picture my voice cracking as the speakers wilt and jump at the sound of my nasal, yet charming voice. Imagine I am invading your brain with an army of subsonic minions that shake your skull and whisper sweet nothings into your disgusting diet-coke shriveled brains, by which I mean no offense, I mean, as far as brains go, yours is really rather dashing, but itís a saggy, Michael Cain kind of dashing, you know, the type that you donít mind looking at, but if it were ever to wink at you in that special sort of way youíd vomit and take a bath with a wire brush. That last sentence kind of went weird on me, but itís a good time to show you what kind of writer I am, I had a fight with my Backspace key and it lost, and as punishment it will no longer be used in this hemisphere (that would be the Western, aka, Best Hemisphere) which means I will run on often. I believe this is a bonus as I and my exceedingly loud voice wonít be all patched and pretty, but raw and unadulterated, giving you the best look inside my own ugly, shriveled head. Deal? If not, my condolences to the many untold families of brain cells lost during the reading of this opening paragraph.
I am 23 years old. *Excessive feedback
Sorry about that. I work the Home Depot and mix paint, and before you ask, keys are made on aisle 12 and no, I don't know what the hell a Butt Splice is. I like to play videogames and write, and well, hopefully one day write in the videogame industry. I bet that came outta left field! I am hoping to use this blog as a means and motivation to think critically about the videogame industry and specifically videogame story writing. If I can entertain you at all along the way it will be my pleasure and we'll call it even, if not I'm sorry, like really sorry, that I wasted your time, but hey, you read it, so you're partially to blame.