What is a JRPG? A Response to Naoki Yoshida
For each and every one of us, the term JRPG conjures a specific image. Maybe it’s the coziness of Christmas Day, when you first popped your copy of Final Fantasy VII into your Playstation and marveled at the colorful graphics. For others, it might be their first Pokemon title on their handheld of choice, the Switch being one of those. Others still might pluck a more obscure title from the vast library of Japanese-developed titles, and all the positive or negative emotions associated with it. If you no longer consider yourself a video game enthusiast, it might mean something completely different to you than an individual actively playing contemporary games. No matter your age, demographic, or preferences within the confines of game consumption, the term has weight.
Is this a bad thing?
In a recent interview with Skill-Up during previews of Final Fantasy XVI, producer Naoki Yoshida remarked on the disparity that existed- and continues to exist- between Western media perception of the term JRPG and the intentions and perceptions of native Japanese developers and enthusiasts:
“…There was a time when the term first appeared 15 years ago, and for us as developers the first time we heard it, it was like a discriminatory term. As though we were being made fun of for creating these games,” Yoshida stated. “It wasn’t a compliment to a lot of developers in Japan. We understand that recently, JRPG has better connotations and it’s being used as a positive but we still remember the time when it was used as a negative.”
It is easy to dismiss these claims as a fan of the genre, even more so when you have been invested in their history prior to the era Yoshia mentions: “I remember seeing something 15 years ago which was basically a definition of what a JRPG was versus a Western RPG… [compartmentalizing] what we were creating into a JRPG box.” It’s harder to argue the monumental impact that games like Final Fantasy VII and Pokemon had on the Western perception of these kinds of games, which Yoshida then lists in a hypothetical conversation with a fan: “…it’s turn based, that it’s anime like, these teenagers saving the world, ‘very JRPG.’” Indeed, these labels could be applied to either franchise, which occupy two of the three pillars of what many consider to be the “holy trifecta” of JRPGs. The third is, of course… well, I can’t really answer that, because the modern enthusiast might argue anything from Dragon Quest, to From Software’s Soulsborne titles, to the very-wrong inclusion of The Legend of Zelda (it’s a running joke, go with it).
Yoshida’s comments might generate some outrage or hurt among enthusiasts, but it’s hard to argue their validity. During the transition from the sixth generation of console hardware to the seventh (PS2/xBox/GCN to PS3/360/Wii, respectively), the idea that JRPGs were something of a one-trick pony was a major talking point in games journalism, which may have stemmed from the idea that Japanese developers leaned heavily on traditions of established game mechanics while exploring the expanse visual and breadth options presented by new hardware. Final Fantasy stumbled into high definition with controversial choices in its twelfth and thirteenth installments, while other more niche subseries doubled down on their formulae in order to explore new ideas comfortably. However, it’s easy to forget the games not-necessarily lost to time, but rather lost to obscurity: titles like Fragile Dreams, Folklore, and Avalon Code, among others. Even games like Resonance of Fate, The Last Story, and Eternal Sonata, as lovingly made and unique as they might be, are lost in the discussion of what plagued JRPGs of this era.
Still, as a developer in his fifties, it’s surprising to hear Yoshida speak of this period in particular. Surely he would think fondly of the JRPG explosion of the fifth generation of consoles, which was hugely impacted by Final Fantasy VII’s success, but offered a wild freedom of new ideas that birthed highly experimental efforts like Xenogears and Vagrant Story? Or what about SquareSoft’s near monolithic presence on the Super Nintendo, and all the refinements made to the design of JRPGs during that era? On the other hand, many of these games were built upon a very specific kind of JRPG design, one that stood in relative contrast to that being explored in Western RPGs of those respective eras.
It’s easy to see where Yoshida’s ire stems from, especially since Final Fantasy XVI’s controversial dedication to a darker, medieval setting and refined action combat stand in stark contrast to the “hallmarks” of JRPG design- or at least, the traditions of previous Final Fantasy titles. Yoshida asserts “that when we create games, we don’t go into them thinking we are creating JRPGs, we are just creating RPGs.”
Which is all well and good, especially if, as Square Enix executives have stated, your goal is to sell to a global market, rather than just your Japanese audience. While these comments seem to have sparked some valid debate and discussion, you can’t reverse the course of history or the public perception of what a JRPG is with a single interview. You can see where Yoshida’s definition of the generic JRPG is problematic, however: “teens saving the world using turn-based combat, presented in an anime aesthetic” is reductive, but at the same time, all-encompassing. Let’s consider why these elements are so prevalent:
Teens Saving the World
Who has time? Who has money? Certainly, not adults, but that’s because they spend the former in order to generate the latter, which they then spend on their children. This is why the video game market is so heavily geared towards them, and why many of these narratives utilize their demographic and interests. Children have a less-nuanced understanding of objectives, motivations, and morality, which is why this narrative premise can be appealing. To develop a more mature role-playing scenario risks alienating that audience, who are the more-reliable source of income than adults. Let’s not ignore the notion that an audience inundated to these kinds of narratives will find them familiar, comfortable, and perhaps even nostalgic as they age.
However, labeling this narrative structure as generic of JRPGs is somewhat unfair. Young Adult Fiction has seen an explosion in similar narratives for the same reasons: they know their audience. Ultimately, if you’re aiming to create something that has more of an artistic bent, you might want to experiment with narrative structure, but it behooves us to cite examples of JRPGs that both accomplish this and are successful from a financial standpoint. Go on, I’ll wait.
Using Turn-Based Combat
If it ain’t broke, why fix it? You can find the combat algorithms for games like Final Fantasy VI or Pokemon via a quick search on the internet, and not without good reason: they factor in all the elements of a role-playing stat spread and offer reliable outcomes for the developer hoping to properly pace their game- or maybe “improve” the pacing by offering skill-checks that can be circumvented through careful play or grinding. Turn-based gameplay offers an inherent sense of ebb and flow to combat, as well: you know the player will take damage because there’s only so much damage they can dish out in a single turn. Unless you’re playing Bravely Default, and ruining all sense of balance with your turn-based-economy. Sorry, I couldn’t help but toss that in there.
But to say that turn-based combat is an inherently JRPG-oriented concept is absurd. I mean, look, chances are you’ve played a turn-based game called Monopoly at some point during your life. Dungeons and Dragons itself operates on turns, and action combat- which requires careful consideration of hit- and hurt-boxes, more complex animation for the various interactions that can occur within a game. If you’re looking to sell a product, you need to use what works, and turn-based gameplay is so reliable that even Western developers have implemented it.
Anime is popular. I don’t know how else to tell you this. It’s such a popular medium that new shows are introduced on a seasonal basis, and reuse many generic narrative devices and visual stylings because they’re easy to churn out. If you have been impacted by the proliferation and prominence of Japanese media in Western culture, congratulations, you are a human being living on the planet Earth in the twenty-first century. You are part of an artistic movement that will affect other humans for years to come, and though you might scoff at its particular eccentricities at the present, there is a dedicated group of people who understand and appreciate its value that will perpetuate these notions for years to come.
If a Japanese developer is looking for an artist, they’re going to engage a Japanese artist. This decision is often made from an ease of business and communication perspective. Even so, as graphics have become more refined, the spectrum of how Japanese aesthetics are represented in games media has diversified. Final Fantasy itself has long aimed to push the boundaries of realism with graphics, and while the inclusion of vibrant neon hair tends to get in the way at times, they’ve been largely successful at doing just that. But using less-detailed character designs and aesthetics because of budgetary constraints is hardly a bad thing, despite what some avid fans of realism in games might argue. It implies a degree of artistry, or at least, an attempt.
It’s strange that Yoshida should speak so passionately and passively about this negative label of JRPGs from an era fifteen-years’ past, but it does speak to the impact that it had on him. Simply put, as video games have developed as a medium, so too has games journalism, and an immature medium often spawns immature, uninformed perspectives on how to approach and discuss certain works- especially when they are aimed at an immature, uninformed audience. This is not a critique of those that enjoy JRPGs, it is an acknowledgment that their target audience is not yet mature. At the same time, games are created largely for the purposes of entertainment. Products that are thrilling, visually appealing, and are accessible due to the simplicity of their mechanics are going to be easier to sell to audiences. For developers to aim for accomplishing these qualities is not inherently negative… from a business perspective.
For every example of a generic JRPG that possesses all of these qualities, there are likely just as many that break from these norms. Similarly, there are countless JRPGs that possess one or two of these qualities, yet offer variations on the third aspect. The truth is, a JRPG is an RPG developed in Japan- that’s the literal definition, which means any variation that exists underneath that is just as valid as a JRPG. While I do agree and believe that there are some Western developers that prioritize different elements of role-play in their game design, I don’t think that invalidates JRPGs as legitimate RPGs. Their degrees of customization and player expression are inherently different, but they all rely on a progression of character, a deliberate choice to operate within a role in order to move a narrative forward. While that definition does open up a great number of uncertainties regarding what is and isn’t an RPG, it also further proves the inherent immaturity of the medium and its discourse. If role-playing is being a part of a story, should all games with stories be considered role-playing?
Ultimately, a hyper-fixation on this definition avoids the purpose of Yoshida’s overall argument: Final Fantasy XVI is an RPG, and one headed by a development studio based primarily in Japan with Japanese leadership- that alone is what makes a game a JRPG. It does not have turn-based combat, it isn’t about teenagers saving the world, and it possesses aesthetic design that is a marked departure from anime style. Dark Souls is also a JRPG that fits all of these labels- so is Dragon’s Dogma. Redemption Reapers, a recently-released strategy title, has turn-based combat, but it doesn’t have an anime aesthetic. Hey, SteamWorld Quest has turn-based battles, but it isn’t developed by a Japanese team of developers. These are all RPGs or could easily fit the bill as a JRPG, because they all fall under this extremely broad and vague set of qualities:
Choice-oriented gameplay and progression for player-operated characters both in and outside of combat, and a focus on narrative as a player incentive for progression.
That’s why using JRPG as a negative term is such an incredibly petty thing to do- the staples of this genre have trickled down into so many large-scale releases, it feels absurd to critique them only when they fit the bill of a JRPG. This is also why we cover such a wide range of content on this site. That’s why we’re SwitchRPG rather than SwitchWRPG or SwitchJRPG. We love these kinds of games, and all of the delightful variations that exist in-between. So, let’s try to have a mature conversation about them, and not worry about whether they’re from Japan, or Sweden, or Brazil, or America. Let’s not use this label as a qualification, but as an accurate and broadly-spanning label that celebrates the outliers as much as it acknowledges the games that safely occupy the space.