Happy Saturday BaddaBing BaddaBlog readers! This is Game Grind the place where we discuss the various elements and aspects of the increasingly diverse video game industry and the culture surrounding it. Today’s topic stems from a comment a friend of mine, let’s call him Drew, made in regards to my last post, Game Grind: 2016 To Do. He said, “Hey MoFo, there are a lot of Japanese games on that list. Why you playin’ all ‘dat shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit? (roughly paraphrased). He only has experience with Western developed video games so I explained to him why I enjoyed some of those foreign titles and suggested he play a few that I think he would enjoy. During that pleasant exchange I realized that it is pretty weird that we refer to Japanese developed role playing games as “JRPGs” and western developed role playing games as “RPGs”. Today’s post is going to be dedicated to explaining what exactly makes a Japanese Role Playing Game a JRPG.
Most people believe that the difference between an RPG and a JRPG is that JRPGs are just RPGs made in Japan. If you, understandably, believed that you would be….
Games that are considered JRPGs can be developed anywhere in the world and games that are categorized as RPGs can easily come from Japan. Off the top of my head, some RPGs from Japan include the massively popular Bloodborne and Dark Souls games and an example of a JRPG created in the West is the renowned Indie game Undertale. Now that it has been determined that a game’s nation of origin is not a factor in defining either of these genres, the differences between the genres can be examined to uncover what exactly a JRPG is. Here’s what I’ve found in my twenty-ish years with video games.
The primary differences between JRPGs and RPGs are: how they create fulfillment for the player and their narrative focus. In regards to fulfillment, RPGs and JRPGs entertain and entice players in completely different ways. RPGs allow players to take the role of a customized character in a game, usually the hero, and influence and explore the world that they are placed in. Fallout 4 is a perfect example of this. Bethesda’s latest game allows players to create a character modeled after themselves and interact with the world however they feel that they would if they were actually in the game. Alternatively, players can create an entirely unique character and make that character interact with the world however they see fit. RPGs are all about giving a player as much freedom as possible and allowing each player to experience a different story depending on their actions.
JRPGs, on the other hand, do not allow players to insert themselves into a game. Sure JRPGs have, historically, allowed players to name the characters; like in naming the player character in the Pokémon games after yourself (and the rival character “AssHat”), but a JRPGs story largely unfolds regardless of player input and the gameplay largely revolves around getting from one plot point to another. Final Fantasy IV is a solid example of this. In that game you’re a guy doing a thing with a pretty tragic backstory. Once you do that thing you learn a little bit more about the world your in, learn a bit more about the other characters, and then have to go do another thing. This continues and along the way the player gets some literary devices, feel some feelings, decides which players they like and dislike, and maybe tears up a little, until it calumniates in an epic battle against a monster that is trying to take over the planet. The fun people have in playing a JRPG does not stem from the amount of freedom and choice they are given, but rather from experiencing a, hopefully, rich and complex narrative.
Both genres also put very different amounts of importance and focus into a game’s narrative. RPGs, due to their inherent focus on freedom and world building, typically have less developed stories that instead serve mostly to expand the game’s world. Last generation’s, arguably best, RPG Skyrim is a perfect example of this. Nobody played that game because of the main story and it was in no way designed to be played solely for its central narrative. In Skyrim you play as a warrior who is destined to kill a tyrannical dragon god spoken of in ancient lore who is trying to enslave all of humanity. That sounds pretty epic, right!? Well it is, but, if you play Skyrim and focus only on the main quests, you can beat the main story in as little as three to four hours. Skyrim is typical of RPGs in that it has a very short and direct main story, but it places the player in a massive world and frequently presents them with opportunities to explore it and experience different storylines.
JRPGs, on the other hand, have players experience a singular narrative that can last more than forty hours. While JRPGs also have players exploring an expansive and interesting world, all of the games locations are usually explored as the player works their way through the game’s plot. While there are usually side quests in JRPGs that take players to new areas and experiences, they usually do not contribute extensively to the overall experience of the game. I’m going to use 2014’s incredible JRPG Bravely Default s an example for this one. This game follows an almost linier story, for the most part, with the inclusion of a collection of optional bosses that, upon defeat, reward the player with additional character classes. During the game’s second half, these bosses can be fought again in different combinations and circumstances.
While the player does not earn anything besides experience and money for doing this, each of these side quests adds a new depth to each of the enemy characters and expands their character. If a player were to skip these optional fights, they would miss out on some of the game’s charm, but it would not be as much of a detriment to their experience as skipping all side quests in Skyrim would be.
In short, JRPGs focus on story while RPGs focus on emersion. JRPGs allow a player to experience a narrative in the unique and intimate way that only video games are capable of. RPGs attempt to enthrall a player by providing them with a vast world to explore and uniquely interact with. While today both of these genres borrow from each other in numerous regards, it is impossible for these two fundamentally different genre’s to be wholly combined. It is strange, now that I think about it, that so many genres of video games are named after arbitrary details like where they are made or what kind of camera angle they use. I think renaming video game genres so they better reflect the games that comprise them could be an upcoming 4B post. Anyway, there you have it, the distinction between the poorly named genres of role playing games and Japanese role playing games.
That may have gone on a bit longer than I intended, but I think I proved my point fairly well. If you enjoyed this post please give it a like and leave a comment down below. If you would like to stay up to date with 4B, you can do so in the upper right tab via your email. Alternately you can stay informed by following the official BaddaBing BaddaBlog Facebook Page or you can follow me, @LucasDeRuyter, on Twitter. I really do hope you have a great weekend and be sure to come back here on Monday for the next installment of Manga (And Also Anime) Monday.