Defining the JRPG: A History

Participate in enthusiast discussions long enough and you’ll encounter the idea of Japanese role playing games (JRPGs) not really being games. Because JRPGs are understood as being full of cutscenes (cutscenes being non-interactive and thus antithetical to a true game), and because what little gameplay they do have is a repetitive set of instructions the player is expected to mindlessly follow, they don’t deserve to be called games. Such reasoning often carries a distinct pro-Western bias (it unconditionally values Western games above Japanese ones, and it can only understand the latter as what the former isn’t ), so it’s not surprising that game critics and developers alike have begun to reject gameplay-centric models of understanding video games. Rather than justify JRPGs by fitting the genre into a “games as simulation” model, or accept the arguments against it by fitting it into the “games as narrative vehicle” model, it would be better to directly confront the line of reasoning that has placed JRPGs between these two poles in the first place. In other words, we articulate the ludic identity and history of Japanese role-playing games.

It’s a difficult task to undertake, because of popular misconceptions about the origins of the genre, and a paucity of information to correct those misconceptions. One of these misconceptions is that The Black Onyx introduced RPGs to a Japan that had previously known nothing about them. According to British game journalist Simon Parkin, both the press and the game-buying public at the time of the game’s release were at least unaware of the genre’s existence. The Black Onyx was the game that put RPGs on the map.

Yet one might also say that that this story’s acceptance has as much (if not more) to do with the frequency of its discussion as it does the historical reality it purports to describe. Even supposing The Black Onyx was the game that made the public aware of what RPGs were, looking at the output of small Japanese developers from before the game’s release shows us the basic concepts that would form the genre had a noticeable presence well before The Black Onyx’s’ conception. Two years prior, Koei released role-playing precursors like The Dragon and the Princess and Seduction of the Condominium Wife. They would follow up on these concepts the next year with games like Khufu-Ou no Himitsu and Ken to Mahou. This was also the same year that ASCII Corporation released Bokosuka Wars, another contribution to the era of proto-Japanese RPGs. Putting aside these early games and looking at more influential titles, Dragon Quest creators Koichi Nakamura and Yuji Horii cite not The Black Onyx as their source of inspiration, but contemporary American computer games like Ultima and Wizardry.

The Black Onyx (1984)Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)Dragon Quest (1986)

In light of these examples and the histories they speak to, we’re compelled to make key revisions to mainstream understandings of JRPGs’ history. Although the basic rules and mechanics of role-playing games came from America (developers explicitly used Ultima and Wizardry as their foundations), Japanese creators were more active than they’ve been given credit for. Far from passively accepting Western developed concepts, we now see developers actively taking note of developments in game circles, choosing their sources of inspiration, and modifying them to whatever purposes they see fit. Looking more closely, we also see these developers working in a very specific context, like the early history of simulation games. Koei’s early work with role-playing games stemmed from their already prolific work on simulation games, and ASCII was similarly active in that field.

Yet this provides us with only a small glimpse of how contemporary video game developers conceptualized the projects they were working on. Yuji Horii was inspired to work with RPGs partially because of his work on Portopia, a previous game he’d developed to explore his interest in adventure games. In fact, both Yuji Horii and Koichi Nakamura originally arrived at Enix by way of a programming competition. Turning back to The Black Onyx, we find that its creator Henk Rogers would later play a key role in Tetris’ rise to popularity, culminating in his founding The Tetris Company. Even outside the JRPG space, and as late as 1988, Nintendo incorporated clear board game mechanics into Super Mario Bros. 3.

Koudelka (1999)Final Fantasy XII (2006)Sigma Harmonics (2008)Crimson Shroud (2012)

The point here is that Japanese game developers’ interest in tinkering with the mechanics of play consistently led them to modeling aspects of analog games. This alignment was by no means accidental, being specifically pursued time and again across several games. Earthbound makes players more attentive to their hit points with an odometer system. Phantasy Star, Digital Devil Story, and the first Final Fantasy employ their own strategies to emulate the representational nature of a Dungeons & Dragons game. Judging by Crimson Shroud, Akitoshi Kawazu’s career, and the explosion of board game-esque video games like Mario Party from the 1990s onward, neither this interest nor the results of it have abated over time.

As far as working concepts in game design are concerned, many of the separations thought of as natural are in fact artificially constructed. Digital and analog games are one such example, as demonstrated, and so is the separation between narrative and play. Going back to Dungeons & Dragons, one of the game’s most distinctive elements (at least in its original 1974 context) was how narrative and play informed one another. Players were expected to create characters with unique personalities and histories; a Dungeon Master managed play by reading from a pre-written scenario; and together, these forces combined to create emergent fantasy narratives. Japanese roleplaying games were quick to replicate this analog play in a digital setting. The first Final Fantasy is perhaps the obvious example, but Romancing SaGa’s loose scenario-based structure provides a clearer illustration.

How did this history influence the genre’s style of play? That’s difficult to pin down. There are multiple histories that need to be teased out, each one bringing its own contribution to the genre. And with over three decades and countless titles and developers to account for, the diversity of JRPGs makes cleanly outlining trends difficult. Perhaps it would be best to address each specific history and the contribution it made to the genre’s style. Let’s begin with how digital and tabletop RPGs interacted in Japan. Two points need to be iterated: digital RPGs had an established presence before tabletop, and both scenes evolved alongside each other. In theory, this should have left both with a clean slate, where neither one was given any standard to adhere to other than what they gave themselves.

In practice, though, JRPGs and tabletop have spent much of their respective histories looking to each other for influences. Since tabletop games wanted either to maintain continuity with a brand or appeal to systems players already knew, they created play experiences with less complex rules than non-Japanese tabletop RPGs. And because JRPGs, in some forms, act as a replacement for tabletop experiences—especially considering the difficulty to have space for tabletop games in Japanese housing layouts—JPRGs held onto board game-esque rules and physical interaction long after the Western zeitgeist abandoned these in favor of idealistic hyper-realism. Broadly speaking, we can see this in motifs like grid-based movement (Resonance of Fate, the leveling systems in Final Fantasy X and XII, many strategy RPGs), or in mathematical formulae ultimately determining success. (There are too many examples of the latter to list.).

That said, while digital and analog games were working with similar ideas, the differences between the two fields introduced nuances and opportunities that weren’t available to the other. Where digital games are concerned, rules were no longer interpreted by human players, but executed automatically by a computer. In other words, short of modifying the game’s code directly, JRPGs provided no means by which players could question (much less alter) how the game was played. Because computers could act as both players and dungeon masters, we see a shift away from communal experiences with multiple players and toward more rigidly defined challenges meant for a single player to overcome.

True, we could say the same of early American roleplaying games. Yet unlike Japanese roleplaying video games, which were born in a commercial context, American roleplaying video games were born in an academic context. The earliest American RPGs, like Moria, Oubliette, Avatar, dnd, etc., were all student experiments on the PLATO system, meant to translate the already well-established tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons into a digital context. This created a need to account for multiplayer experiences and led to early counterparts to MMORPGs. By the time the first officially licensed Dungeons and Dragons video game was released (1982), the brand was so popular that it was expected the game mirror an existing property.

Single player experiences were similarly affected: players had to manage (and understand) a litany of statistics on their own, and narrative was often conveyed through a module approach, where story wasn’t just a single linear development but a collection of smaller, unrelated events. Although Japanese roleplaying games would emphasize this differently (generally with a strong narrative thread joining those events together), the basic module format has always had a presence in the genre. Games like Kingdom Hearts and the SaGa games make obvious use of it, while others like Shin Megami Tensei, Pokemon, Nier, and Dragon Quest reference it via their episodic narrative formats.

Nobunaga’s Ambition (1986)Final Fantasy VI (1994)Fire Emblem: The Binding Blade (2002)

However, these developments didn’t occur in isolation, Before roleplaying games in Japan, there were simulation games. Like role-playing games, Japanese simulation games interpret the world through abstraction. They aim to simulate reality, not through discrete events, but through underlying forces, processes, and rules that dictate how those events happen. To specify that, play in simulation games is highly mathematical and deterministic. Players spend their time managing numbers and the formulae relating them to each other. To keep things from being too deterministic, a semi-randomly determined event will sometimes occur to throw the player’s plans into disarray, keeping them in the moment. If a simulation game does employ narrative, it will likely employ the barest semblance of one, and only as a means of contextualizing play.

Roughly speaking, a lot of what’s been said could also apply to games like Ultima I and Wizardry. The only difference was how these games contextualized their abstraction. One of the more overlooked features of the first Ultima game was its movement penalty: moving even one square depletes the player’s food supplies, and letting that supply drop to zero results in instant death, regardless of how much HP the player has left. Given this, the interest parties like Koei, ASCII, Horii, and Nakamura had in roleplaying games begins to make more sense. The genre offered simulation games a new avenue to explore, like exploring worlds (which the movement penalty requires to be coherent). Thus we have a JRPG ludic identity: abstraction has been preserved, but on top of that we have the idea of managing scarcity. Shin Megami Tensei and Dragon Quest Monsters: Caravan Heart are good examples of this, considering both borrow and modify Ultima’s movement penalty system for their own purposes.

Of course, “movement penalties” also manifest at a much broader level for the genre. If one were being curt with their definitions, then describing gameplay in JRPGs as navigating between points to advance the story would work. But couldn’t the same be said of countless (perhaps the vast majority of) video games made over the years? Definitions as reductive and broadly constructed as these serve only to falsely assert a lack of interactivity in JRPGs (interactivity being the ill-defined yardstick for measuring a game’s quality).

More specifically, they overlook important elements of game design like the means we’re given to reach these points or the activities populating the space between them, the latter being especially relevant to this analysis. What impedes the player’s ability to move the story forward? What constitutes the bulk of the JRPG play experience? In many cases, it’s the battles. Whether predictable or random (itself a significant design choice), these battles will inevitably drain a player’s resourceshit points, magic points, movement points, items, weapon durability, special attack reserves, time, body parts, etc. I say “inevitably” because, assuming we’re talking about turn-based battle systems, there’s often very little the player can do to avoid this situation. This isn’t an action game, where should the player find their health dwindling, they can theoretically rely on their skill to avoid failure. The reliance on statistics will either result in deterministic battles, thus reducing the player’s ability to change outcomes in their favor, or force that player to rely on blind luck in the form of random number generation.

Play, then, becomes focused on planning, both in the short term and the long term. By short term planning, I mean planning for and within individual encounters: buying restorative items, equipping characters based on whatever needs a given situation poses, the management of those restorative items in the field, the management of spell use (whether those spells draw from a common pool of resources or function similarly to items), etc. By long term planning, I refer to managing how characters develop and how they will address challenges in the future. If characters are defined at the player’s behest, then this challenge manifests in deciding how their skills and strengths develop, such that they can meet the game’s increasing demands. If characters are defined for the player in advance, then it’s up to them to settle on a play style that will be flexible enough to easily address a variety of problems.

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness (1981)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)Mother 3 (2006)

There’s one last aspect of the JRPG’s ludic identity that I want to discuss: the genre’s interest in designing systems around character psychology. As developers grew more accustomed working with the genre, and as advances in technology allowed them a greater range of creative expression, we see a movement away from characters as representatives of fantasy archetypes (fighter, archer, mage, rogue, etc.) and toward more specifically defined individuals with their own histories, personalities, etc. JRPG designs followed suit in their own unique ways. For example, a given character’s statistics tell us how that character perceives themselves, their abilities reflect what they believe themselves to be capable of, and how both these categories develop show us the impact these beliefs have on the character. Alternatively, because these statistics rarely have any use outside battle (Star Ocean is the one counter-example that comes to mind), they might also reflect a character’s ability to mediate conflict with the Other. And in that vein, battles become an ordeal in managing several disparate personalities in such a way that both the team and its individuals flourish.

(The Other is a philosophical concept defined as “an existence one recognizes as ‘not the Self.'” It was first developed by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 19th century and has been extensively discussed in philosophical circles since. However, many philosophers generally agree that Self and Other can only be defined in reference to one another (“I am me because I am not you, and vice versa”) and that the two enter into conflict because the Other poses an innate threat to the former’s perception of the world.)

Technical explanations alone are insufficient in explaining these developments. Ultima and Wizardry (the two games cited as the foundation of Dragon Quest) make similar technological demands and even overlap in some important ways, but either points to radically different paths the JRPG could have developed along. In Ultima, the Avatar’s encounters with enemies are still bound to the world he inhabits. Little is implied about the Avatar’s relationship with himself or this Other, and that Other is given an objective grounding it never exceeds. What we see in Ultima is an early parallel to the American understanding of games-as-simulation and literalist mirroring of reality, although the game wouldn’t have been understood as such at the time.

The model JRPGs would follow, the one foreshadowed by Wizardry, provides no such objectivity in its encounters. What we instead see is an active disruption of the game’s reality. Continuity is destroyed as the enemy interrupts the protagonist’s understanding of the world and fixes their attention entirely on this existential threat. Player and protagonist alike are sucked into a parallel realm defined entirely by conflict with an enemy. The only way either party (player/protagonist or enemy) can leave this realm and restore the previous order of reality is by eliminating the threat the opposing party poses, whether by destruction, fleeing, or in rare cases, communication. It’s a model that can be (and has been) put to a wide variety of uses. To name a few examples from the early 1990s:

  • Final Fantasy IV prefigures Persona 4s psychological encounters with Cecil’s mirror fight. He faces the embodiment of all the harm he’s done to the world as a Dark Knight, but to reject this image of himself and respond to its presence with violence would only strengthen its grip on his psyche and negate the moral progress he’s made. It’s only by accepting this Shadow as a part of himself (IE by accepting the harm it inflicts on him and knowing he can come out stronger for it) that he can begin his life anew as a righteous Paladin.
  • Shin Megami Tensei depicts a moment of Parasyte-esque Absurdity early on through its battle system. On an errand for his mother, the protagonist wanders into an alleyway and discovers a man being attacked by a demon. The demon lunges out at him before running off. The protagonist, meanwhile, is arrested for murdering the man the demon had attacked. By the time the protagonist sorts out this problem, he finds out demons had killed his mother and taken her place in an effort to kill him. The protagonist kills this image of his mother, severing his last ties with normality.
  • Looking just at its battles, Dragon Quest IV can be described as the completion/realization of the self through a community of others. Unlike many other games (including later Dragon Quests), the cast’s personalities are so diverse and different from one another that all of them maintain their individuality even after joining forces. At best, the Hero can only vaguely guide their actions. Yet this doesn’t stop him from uniting them under a single banner to fight for what they believe in. This becomes all the more meaningful in light of the contrast the Hero forms with Psaro: both suffer similar loss throughout the story, but without a community of supportive friends (just underlings and cohorts), Psaro gives into his despair he feels. In fact, he gives into it so much that it transforms him into an inhuman, grotesque perversion of ultimate evil.

At this point, you may wonder why I’ve invested so much energy defending JRPGs against the initial notion that they’re not games. Why bother addressing an argument that’s been dead for the better part of a decade, and that no respectable critic will embrace today?

Unfortunately, the situation is more complex than that. Although it’s hard to think of any critic that will openly defend either the “JRPGs are dead” argument or the logic it’s based in, the effects of that argument have survived well past its death. The game writing community’s ideas of what games should be, of which games are permitted to define the history of modern video games, still call upon those two specters of “games as sport” and “games as simulation of reality.” I’m also reminded of how consistently Final Fantasy XV was described as “strange” or “weird”, words that no other major release from 2016 had to endure so frequently. Unlearning these habits is going to take more work than has been invested until now, and certainly more work than what this piece can hope to offer on its own. Still, it can at least provide a start.



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