The way we talk about computer roleplaying games is wrong. American and otherwise western games being referred to as japanese role playing games is self-evidently incorrect. If this seems like a purist stance, I will state simply, conversations on roleplaying games is in a state of cognitive dissonance.
How did this happen?
My honest reply, and one that is unsatisfying, is that I don’t know. Videogames that take after Super Mario Bros, or otherwise japanese sidescrollers, aren’t specifically outed and separated into a japanese category, despite being a form of play that is exclusive to japanese videogames. Adventure Island, Sonic the Hedgehog, Kirby, and so on, are clearly influenced by Super Mario Bros. Or, at least, they’re influenced to enough of a degree, a small degree, that ur-jrpg Dragon Quest can be traced to most any given japanese roleplaying game. Different platformers, ones that could even be called strange if based upon some prescriptive standard of genre, such as Commander Keen or Prince of Persia, are not languishing in a western platformer category. A list of genres can be trawled down, from shooters to brawlers to puzzlers, and people are aware of a distinct approach found in Japanese iterations. A known distinction between American games and exports, yet the styles are not segregated because of it.
Japanese consoles for a long time made up the videogame scene’s majority share. Many popular and beloved videogames in America are exports, their influence on the subculture far reaching. Magazines and hobbyists manufactured some of the language we use still to describe their primarily consumer interest in the medium. Genre in videogames was and still is a device to condense, define, and market products that often were not made by Americans, focusing on ludic properties at the expense of all else. I do believe that videogames have a fundamental genre problem that is consistent with ludocentricism, but for the sake of rhetoric I’m going to be treating the roleplaying genre at a nebulous face value.
Roleplaying games have been around slightly longer than videogames, their pen and paper roots reach back to the 1970s. The first computer roleplaying game was a conversion of the well-known pen and paper rpg Dungeons & Dragons, creatively titled dnd, and had a limited release in 1975. In contrast the first, also limited release, Japanese computer rpg The Dragon & Princess was released in 1981. Americans can—as Americans are wont to do—take full credit for the development of roleplaying games.
In neither region did roleplaying games attain mass popularity. Computer games, videogame software not on dedicated hardware, always had higher barriers to entry in both literacy and price, and was an enduring niche compared to the wider audience Nintendo and Atari courted. Still, without a doubt, people did play Ultima and Wizardry; the Japanese localization of Wizardry was especially important, having an enduring legacy, and directly inspiring Japanese developed crpgs like The Black Onyx and Dungeon.
I have played Wizardry, Ultima, and Dragon Quest, and their lineage can be clearly traced to the latter. The conceit and ambition of Dragon Quest was to simplify and streamline the two aforementioned. Wizardry and Ultima are videogames that are compelling, yet intimidating, to a point even terrifying. They lack color, explanation, or direction; they need a player to meditate and fill the space with themselves, to persist and caress very hostile places until they’re solved and assimilated. Dragon Quest, though formally like Ultima, is nothing as esoteric. The game is brightly colored with clear symbols, with expectations plainly stated: defeat enemies to become stronger, speak to others to be guided where to go. Dragon Quest doesn’t want to be solved, it wants to be played. It’s no surprise, especially factoring in wider ownership of Nintendo’s consoles, that Dragon Quest became more popular than any other computer rpg.
Nowdays there is an timidness, even an aversion, to declaring Dark Souls a Japanese roleplaying game. I will say, first of all, that it is absolutely, and even literally, a jprg. Dark Souls interprets western mythologies for its own gains, existing in a fantasy setting that is somewhat familiar to an American, it seems odd to refer to the game as a jrpg. This is absolutely bunk, because Dragon Quest also draws from western roleplaying games and mythologies. These two games may not have similar goals, but they have similar points of inspiration, and are rooted in similar ideals. Despite that, Dark Souls is treated like any other popular (and not japanese) roleplaying game, but Dragon Quest is for some reason canonized as the absolute text and basis for japanese role playing games. A contradiction, leaving jrpgs to be totally subsumed into arbitrary ludic properties that were particular to a certain period of console roleplaying games. The most significant, even defining, property of jrpgs is that they are Japanese exports, and that is being absurdly ignored.
So What is a JRPG?
The rise and fall of the Japanese roleplaying game is really the rise and fall of Final Fantasy, the western idol and standard for what a jrpg is. When I said jrpg became an based on arbitrary ludic properties, well, I think I can pin down elements of Final Fantasy that have led to the current definition. Japanese roleplaying games might as well be considered finalfantasylikes, in an insufferable way like roguelikes, diablolikes, and doomlikes are and once were related to games in their wake. When it is said that jrpgs have particular formal qualities that are essentially Japanese (which few people have the credentials, nevermind an actual cultural ownership, to declare such) those presentational and ludic properties without fail refer to one of the three hallmarks of Final Fantasy, properties present in essentially every entry of the series in varying amounts.
First comes from the original Final Fantasy, a facet of exploratory play that comes out a bit more clearly in Final Fantasy V. Japanese roleplaying game often a have fantastic class mobility, or gameplay diversity, for the sake of turn based combat. Exploration of a world map and landmarks is centered over dramatic tension and character development. I could lazily lump modern Dragon Quest, Bravely Default, and Etrian Odyssey into this kind of jrpg based on these established ludic hallmarks, and I get the feeling that commonality happens. At the same time, if jrpgs are formed of these ludic properties, very many rpgmaker games, made by white men never to be translated to Japanese, become jrpgs. Walthros, I guess, is a jrpg.
Final Fantasy IV, and again, the tenets of this game come out much harder and much more far reaching in the later Final Fantasy VII, pour their focus into being story containers. I’d go as far to argue that they’re forms of interactive fiction, a marriage of rpg instances and visual novel devices. It’s expected that these kinds of jrpgs alternate between long expositional cutscenes and exploration bits. This is considered the jrpg archetype, their drastic difference to western role playing games, and the core of analysis and historical comparisons between jrpgs.
Japanese console rpgs are overwhelmingly in this style, but not exclusively, as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic also operates in this formula. I can’t puncture that with a smarmy ‘I guess it’s a jrpg’—though it would be if jrpg is a ludic construct. Snark aside, a Bioware game is ostensibly a western role playing game. So I ask, what is so fundamentally western about Knights of? Character customization, both appearance and statistically? The ability to influence a branching plot? Those are rhetorical hallmarks of the western roleplaying genre, but are present in various jrpgs. Pokemon X/Y has a character creator that lets a player tweak their physical appearance, Shin Megami Tensei games often offer control over the skills and stat growths of controlled characters, and the SaGa or Metal Max series have incredibly nonlinear story progressions that can result in a myriad of endings. A rebuttal, then, is that Knights of the Old Republic is a western rpg because it contains each of these elements and not just one. This would reinforce ludic definitions, but is really a pointless reach. Knights of is not a jrpg because Bioware is Canadian.
The most crucial element, and one bordering an epiphany, is the visual style of Final Fantasy. This clause can go like, if it looks like a jrpg, it is a jrpg. This is likely the core aspect of defining jrpgs, because many games influenced or inspired by jrpgs show this off in their visual compositions. This is, mainly, how games like Lisa or Undertale are called jrpgs, reflecting familiar visual templates and approaches to interface, while retaining turn based combat.
Since Final Fantasy VIII at least, there’s a clear “of course” clause when determining if a game is a jrpg, to be otherwise called the “anime clause.” There is no doubt that Atelier and Neptunia are jrpgs based on a one-look-wow-its-anime test. This, I suppose, is what is seemingly so alienating about modern Final Fantasy, and why the impact of the series declined in the eyes of long term fans. Based on concept art, it’s not far-fetched to assume Final Fantasy strived for an anime style, but only could as graphical fidelity was able to represent the nuances of it. This happened in Final Fantasy VII or Final Fantasy VIII, depending on how generous you are, and is the aspect treated most pejoratively by even fans of the series.
Still, the anime clause fails. This Girlfriend Rescue game ain’t a jrpg (though some would call it one), like Avatar: The Last Airbender isn’t an anime, and like, god forbid, Megatokyo really, really, is not a manga. Being influenced or inspired by a cultural export does not entitle the work to be treated identically, as if it transcends culture. This tendency may be insidious, there’s a western entitlement in getting to choose definitively how Japanese games are defined, and in the ability to call western works Japanese. I still recognize the continuing occurrence as laziness, a way to group, understand, and market similar videogames, that still hasn’t been examined.
The Death of JRPGs
It’s clear, and I’ll be frank, that Japanese roleplaying games are fine. They don’t have quite the same global market penetration, or that’s what is often said. But then, Bloodborne is one of the most well-known, widely talked about, successively awarded videogame of this current console generation, and I’m sure it sold very well. Pokemon has yearly, or bi-yearly anyway, dominated console software sales globally without fail, hitting Call of Duty numbers, and has yet to show any weakness or slowing down to that effect. Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Birthquest (sorry) as of this writing are some of the most anticipated console videogames of 2016. Dragon Quest, Star Ocean, Final Fantasy, and Shin Megami Tensei are, in videogame consciousness, very old, and are all getting new installments this year. I think the success of Pokemon alone shows that jrpgs are obviously influencing culture on a wide scale, that jrpgs have never totally slowed down, but additionally, there’s an energy and a push in this genre recently that, granted, was on the decline last console generation. It’s important to note that decline applied to the Japanese console sector in general, being in disarray because of an economic recession, challenges globalizing against changing western tastes, the rise of the mobile market, and natural disasters.
However, the total litmus to what the Japanese roleplaying game is to western audiences, the golden calf, the Final Fantasy series, has been in decline for years. I’m not sure why Final Fantasy XIII lacked appeal. Maybe it is the lack of felt exploration, one of the three elements Final Fantasy is appreciated for. Or possibly less explicit reasons, like having a woman protagonist, or being very obviously influenced by fashion of another culture, or the frank simplicity that its story was clumsy. The game was ridiculed, memeified, and did not sell as well as prior entries. And like that, jrpgs were declared dead.
I mean, that’s it really. By not meeting expectations of how a Japanese roleplaying game should succeed, and what a jrpg should be, Final Fantasy showed a weakness with the form, or so it goes. Except, formally, no other game even plays like Final Fantasy XIII. It’s just symbolic, maybe nostalgic, that Square Enix is the torch bearer, because in practice, jrpgs are rarely related to Final Fantasy. There may have been a lull on home consoles, during this genre death, but portables were flooded at the time with more jrpgs than other console generations. Persona picked up tons of new fans through anime adaptions and word of mouth, despite its recent mothership release being on a console with a low install base. Fire Emblem continued steadfastly, and has gained great popularity because of it.
Why are jrpgs so top heavy, why is Final Fantasy a cultural ambassador? Is the sentimental value of Square Enix, of their games, that great? If Mario started to decline, if Platinum games stopped selling at all, would people declare the death of japanese action games? No, of course not. No other set of ludic devices are weighed so heavily. Japanese roleplaying games are not only synonymous with the output of a single company, they also mirror other unfortunate tendencies that occurred because of a fusion of marketing and the influence of two specific subcultures: roleplaying fans and western otakus.
Why I Said “JRPG” and Not “CRPG”
I’m going to spitball rhetoric, I freely admit, I’m going to be making stuff up. Based on current cultural assumptions I have reason to believe that they’re true, but I don’t really know how Japanese roleplaying games were treated in the past. It’s clear that elitism for personal computers as a videogame platform is as old as home consoles. Consoles are not as open, they’re not as cutting edge, they’re not nearly as intellectual as pcs. Classism is rampant in this divide as personal computers have more or less always been more expensive than consoles. Why doesn’t the market cater to the one who can pay for the most and best?
Anyway, roleplaying games, hereto called computer roleplaying games, were capstones for this market, as much as touted adventure games. Dragon Warrior, though its promo art looked like other crpgs, and the script was localized in a way to sound like other crpgs, its essence was much more simple and friendly than any crpg. I can imagine a hardline pc hobbyist turning up their nose at a game so simple and player friendly. No choice the character’s class, no complex lore in the manual, no assortment of hotkeys to remember. Only a very small minority would feel this way, but, people really in the know about rpgs existed, being a scene going on for a whole decade at this point. It is they who would really able to separate a western roleplaying game from a japanese one.
I don’t know if ideas of inferiority really influenced the divide, but they are held now, so it’s safe to assume they existed at some scale even then. The divide at all feels very challenging to uphold, because the difference between Dragon Quest and Ultima is accessibility. This means that the jrpg container, in some way, was spooled out to other easier experiences, even as it carried a literal marking of being japanese.
But, of course, Dragon Quest could only draw on from older roleplaying games, being that Japanese roleplaying games didn’t exist yet. It’s just a matter of fact that the game is more or less a crpg. Right? Except, every “jrpg” post-Dragon Quest was barely removed from it, formally speaking, until the next console generation. The original Final Fantasy has all the more in common with crpgs than it does the unconscious definition of jrpg.
I believe most confidently that vague ludic definitions for roleplaying games are useless, if not unfitting, but let’s say that Japanese roleplaying games no longer had a foot in the crpg influence in the next console generation. They became definitively jrpgs once the genre became more story focused. To that, I counter, narrative building is not an aspect that is self-evidently japanese. Besides operating on a narrative basis that is all too literal—a game only has story when it has writing—it’s just faulty, because there have been story focused crpgs for just as long. As videogames moved away from their arcade roots, many styles of play have aspired to more grandiose and explicit forms of narrative. Even if Japanese roleplaying games were pioneers of this kind of storytelling, no longer is it a wholly unique aspect. I think it’s demonstrably clear that jrpgs no longer have specific, singular aspects, that make the container useful for marketing or interesting as a descriptor, when it’s easier than ever to read about the context, influences, and circumstances of individual videogames.
Japanese Roleplaying Games Are Japanese
I wish I didn’t have to swim in these arguments. I think the persistence of jrpg is similar to anime and manga subcultures. Non-Japanese people spend a lot of their time, and sometimes even base their identity around, consumption of Japanese media. This is not something that’s problematic by virtue, but can easily turn into a fetishization or entitlement of culture that people have no claim over. An othered culture will turn into a meme, an entire history washed out by loaded assumptions based on exaggerated media presentations, a perspective that’s wholly based in unreality.
Anime, manga, and jrpgs are the only containers similar to eachother, because they refer to the nature of these media as exports. There are tropes and devices common to Japanese media, but not exclusive to them. In our current globalisation of art, which I know isn’t perfect, but global nevertheless, Japanese media gets othered more than other cultures. I think that’s a bit weird and maybe even wrong. These communities and fanbases exist, though, they can’t be simply erased. I’ll continue to use anime, and manga, and jrpg, in informal contexts, because people understand what the words refer to, there’s a history of english interpretation related to Japanese exports.
What I will not do is call Undertale or Lisa a Japanese roleplaying game. I will not call any of the rpgs I make jrpgs. This subculture has seemingly forgotten what the “J” in the acronym is actually referring to. To the merit of anime or manga, at least, nobody gets away with applying those words to non-Japanese media. Things can be anime- or manga-influenced for sure, which is an entirely different existence than being Japanese. Please, don’t call American games, developed by white men, Japanese roleplaying games. There are easy alternatives: console style rpg, turn based rpg, even the broad, old, and vague, computer rpg. These alternatives are equally communicative and ludic focused as the jrpg definition currently accepted. It’s time to let the specific idea of a jrpg go.
Why are jrpgs dead? It is because they have been engaged so thoroughly by western expectations, by western interpretations, that the signifier no longer applies to Japanese media. It’s an abstraction referring to a golden age of console roleplaying games and the definition is accepted upon any kind of rpg that resembles those goals. That would even be okay, if these games weren’t called Japanese. Whether it’s a fetishization based on nostalgia, wanting a preservation of games like Final Fantasy so much that resemblance becomes a state of being, or if it’s founded on neglect, that turn based roleplaying games are Japanese roleplaying games because that’s what we’ve always done, I don’t care. Stop doing it.
Our current conception of what makes a “Japanese roleplaying game” is so useless it deserves to die. Japanese roleplaying games are more diverse than Final Fantasy. Under our definitions, Undertale becomes the most popular recent instance of a supposedly Japanese form of videogame. If you’re going to talk about ludic devices, if you want to classify these games by their mechanics and presentations, then do that please, and do that specifically. Being Japanese is not a way a videogame plays. It’s a nationality, it’s a culture, and English speakers have failed to reflect that fundamental fact.