Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Re-Reddit: The Difference between JRPGs and WRPGs

Geez.  What is it going to take to get me to blog on a more regular basis?  Do I need to come back here everyday?  Well, until I get that worked out, I figured I could try my "Re-reddit" idea.  As stated before, this will be an article based on a comment (read: essay) I posted discussing the differences between Japanese Role Playing Games (JRPGs) and Western Role Playing Games (WRPGs).  This has been a topic of discussion for quite a while, and maybe some of this stuff might be obvious to some of you who play RPGs on a regular basis, but I figured I'd put out my two cents on the subject.

The first question that needs to be addressed is "Why does this matter?"  For the longest time (up through the 90s), these descriptors were adequate to differentiate between two unique video game experiences.  However, as gaming grew and developers from all over the world began inspiring one another, we now have a world where Japanese developers are making WRPGs and Western developers making JRPGs.  This ends up creating confusion, as the style no longer fit the origin, which is what these genre descriptors were based on.  This lead to discussions about potentially redefining what each style meant in terms of gameplay and narrative.

Extra Credits is an amazing series that discusses video games, and they spend three episodes on this topic that are certainly worth watching (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  It's about twenty minutes in total and really digs into how these two different styles of RPGs came to be and why they are different.  However, I want to expand on another point that may help us redefine these genres.

In my opinion, an RPG is a video game where the player is expected to learn and be aware of number systems. All games have them, but not every game expects the player to learn them directly like RPGs do. The thing is, there is a distinct difference how JRPGs and WRPGs expect the player to use their number systems.

In my experience, JRPGs tend to require less effort, as we only need to worry about making the numbers go up. And while seeing them is helpful, it's not necessarily expected for the player to pay a whole of attention to them. Think about the Status screen for the characters in a Final Fantasy game. Sure, you can look at them and maybe try to figure out what they do, but you don't need to and the game doesn't really expect you to look at these screens very often. This lends itself to a more narrative game as you focus more on what the characters are doing in the plot rather than with the mechanics.

However, with WRPGs, there is a greater emphasis on the numbers and allowing the player to understand and manipulate them. With most RPGs, you generally have a choice to increase various skills upon leveling up, and if a weapon is even 1 or 2 points more powerful, you switch to it. This allows for much more customization, lending these mechanics to a more open-world narrative.

That being said, I don't think this is a binary switch, that games are either/or. In fact, I tend to think of this as a sliding scale or a continuum, where various games are at various points based on how much it expects the player to pay attention to the number and progression systems of the RPGs. And do you know what I consider to be in the exact middle? Pokemon.

Think about it. It has a status screen for each pokemon, but you're not necessarily expected to know and understand those values if you're just playing casually, but they're also not difficult to understand, so if you want to dig into them, it's (mostly) all there. You also have quite a bit of control over which moves each Pokemon has and which Pokemon you have in your party, and you can give them items that boost their stats in different ways. It's a game that allows people to play it at whatever depth they want, which is pretty impressive, if you think about it.

I believe that if we are able to recognize what each style brings to the table, then we can focus less on what country they come from and perhaps be more receptive when developers from various countries produce different kinds of RPGs.  I don't know if I can come up with any decent new "nicknames" for these genres, though.  This distinction is pretty specific.  (Low-numbers emphasis RPG?  That will be just confusing as JRPGs tend to have bigger numbers in general.  High-math vs. Low-math RPGs?  Maybe, though it doesn't roll of the tongue well.  I dunno.)

I'm sure there may be those of you who don't want to define RPGs by systems and mechanics, but by actual role-playing.  While I do think you have a valid point, that's a completely different topic that deserves it's own article (and this thing is long enough).  If you want to hear my thoughts on the topic, then post below and let me know.

In the meantime, I will try to come back to this more often (and maybe add more pictures; it really needs them).  I've got all kinds of things I want to talk about, ranging from anime to heavy metal and prog rock.  We'll see if I actually get around to them.