Japanese RPG’s made me the gaming nerd I am today. I can remember the exact moment that gaming TRULY hooked me. I went over to my friend Patrick’s house one afternoon. His step brother was visiting from out of town and had brought with him a game called Final Fantasy 2 for the Super Nintendo. Pat and I sat, enthralled, as Palom burned through the ice blocking the entrance to Mt. Ordeals. Then in battle, I soon saw Fire TWO. Never mind that I had no concept of Fire One, Fire two was damn impressive. More than anything though, what struck me about FF4 (Final Fantasy numbering makes no sense, thanks AMERCIA!) was the story. As in, it was telling one. I dove in head first to the world of Cecil, Kain, Golbez, Rydia, and all the rest. Games that tell amazing stories have been my favorite ever since. So why did the JPRG’s of my youth give way to a general feeling of “meh” now? What happened?
The short answer to that is that a combination of things happened. I think it’s a matter of culture differences and technological advances that ended up hurting the entire genre.
The first issue is dialogue. Now I am NOT saying that old school JRPG’s had dialogue that was amazing (“You spoony bard!” not withstanding, that WAS amazing). But on some level I at least identified with what was going on. Cecil was upset and remorseful about being used a puppet to nuke Rydia’s hometown. Strago wanted a better world and life for Realm. Chrono….well he didn’t talk, but yeah. Today’s JPRG heroes also have goals. Yuna and company from FFX wanted to stop sin and save the world. Lightning wanted to help her sister escape the fate of being a L’Cie. All of these are suitable crazy fantasy things to do, but the way it’s presented has definitely changed. To borrow a phrase from my good friend Tophat on playing a JPRG “Expect a lot of speeches about the power of your heart”. The way in which those goals are presented have grown way over the top as time has passed. Consider this clip from FF13, Hope (the kid) confronts Snow (the dude) because he feels Snow let his mother die (which is sort of true and sort of not, long story):
It’s a fine plot point but what stands out to me is this; nobody talks like that. Hope is vaguely referencing an issue that is eating him up inside, Snow is doing the same, but really knows what the other is talking about until the end. It’s melodramatic and over acted, kind of like every Joss Whedon TV show ever (flames in 3…2…1…go). Now I don’t know enough about Japanese culture to point to whether this is just a poor effort in writing dialogue or if that’s the norm in Japan. Perhaps a similar article to this could be written about how the dialogue in Mass Effect seems out of place and strange to a Japanese native. The fact that remains though that for a western audience there is a definite issue.
The issue is compounded by a technology, specifically in this case, voice acting. Using Final Fantasy 4 as an example again, this time showing that those games of yesteryear could also be guilty of weird dialogue.
Tellah: “I shall avenge Anna with Meteor!”
Now this makes perfect sense. He’s avenging his granddaughter by casting the most powerful spell there is in FF4, meteor. However, I’d like you to imagine an old man fully voice acted screaming that with as much emotion as he can possibly muster….weird right? The graphics of modern games add to this. The closer we get to “real” as far as character models and voice work go the stranger this dialogue sounds. The voice in my head while I read dialogue makes it as sensible to me as possible. Hearing somebody else say it, which may not match how I would read it, creates a disconnect.
I am not asking for Japanese games to copy more Western sensibilities. The same voice and charm that captivated me as a youth is still there. But what needs to be done to modernize those things and return to the days where every new Final Fantasy release caused the gaming world to grind to a halt for weeks? The world needs to be bigger while the story needs to be smaller. Think back to Final Fantasy 6, which I think executed this to absolute perfection. The world was massive (especially when you consider there were basically two worlds since everything changed after the apocalypse). It had a ton of characters, all of them with their own story, side quests, and relationships. Smaller does not mean “small”. But all of those characters came together in creative ways for one goal, which was Kefka. A noteworthy and memorable villain against which to build a backdrop is a must. I can’t even tell you the name of the villain in FF13. In FF13-2 (which I’ve started but not finished) the villain is a guy named Caius. I’m sure more will be revealed as I play, but the no information given as the game meanders around different time periods makes him very difficult to care about to root against.
I’ve spent a good amount of time criticizing here, but only out of genuine concern. Even with their weirdness, I still enjoy current JRPG’s. I want to be as taken as young me was with Final Fantasy 4 again. Cohesive stories and relatable characters are what drew me to the genre in the first place and I predict that they will do so again soon. Reading comments and articles about Japanese developers clues me in that they are not blind these problems and are actively looking to solve them. I’m confident they will. I’ll never be eight years old watching FF4 again but these games are not just powered by nostalgia. I’m eagerly awaiting the game that breaks the current streak and blows my mind once again. I say in the next five years it’ll happen.