The recent resurfacing of the ‘is JRPG a genre?’ debate on twitter didn’t really break any new ground (it totally isn’t, by the way), but I did finally decide to sit down and respond to one common structure in the discussion. When we point out that the word ‘Japanese’ refers to a nationality and thus using it in a marketing role like a genre name is suspect at best and outright appropriative at worst, we often get responses along the lines of ‘but you have to admit there are some common features, like random encounters, turn-based combat… etc. etc. etc.’
I’m going to focus on just one of those common examples (some of which are much more common than others), but the general thrust of my argument applies to each of them in turn. There is something iconic about turn-based combat and JRPGs, in the sense that games culture takes the presence of a turn-based system as one of the key signifiers that a JRPG is being played. In reality, though, ‘turn-based combat’ refers to a very loose grouping of mechanical styles that contribute a wide range of different affects (feels) to the games they appear in.
What I want to do here is highlight some differences that exist between different kinds of ‘turn-based combat’ systems. I’m not trying to develop a rigorous taxonomy – I no longer believe this to be a useful project – and I want to avoid sweeping claims about the effects produced by different systems. Some of that is inevitable, though; one cannot talk about difference without pricking the common neurological tendency to classify.
Breaking up the concept of ‘turn-based combat’ is particularly important because it helps us get over a stumbling block that emerges when we try to move from a strictly genre-based account of JRPGs to a more genealogic model like the history we’ve been trying to develop at DGC. This is the tendency of the western JRPG press to treat consistency across generations of JRPGs as a product of development inertia rather than the work of skilled designers who understand their own history – a tendency that reinforces narratives of the Japanese industry as backward and obsolete rather than a distinctive and legitimate cultural industry in its own right.
One final note before we get to some examples: the temptation to see ‘turn-based combat’ as one of the defining characteristics of JRPGs overlooks a long history of Japanese-made RPGs and games with clear RPG backbones that are not turn-based. These run from Secret of Mana and the early Zelda games through Kingdom Hearts to Dark Souls. Arguably at least some metroidvanias fall into this category. These games absolutely belong in a history of Japanese RPG development, both in terms of their influences and the games they have influenced, but they aren’t my main focus here.
A good place to start is with a difference that is often overlooked, but nevertheless has profound consequences for the kind of decision-making that players are invited to do in engaging with a game. This is between combat systems that divide turns between the player and the computer, and systems that divide turns among characters and other agents in the environment. Do all the player’s characters act before any of the computer-controlled enemies? Does the player input all their commands for a round in one go but have them play out intermingled with computer-determined actions? Or does each individual unit have its own timer, so that a player’s input is always tied to one specific character at a time?
For a straightforward example of the difference this can make to play, compare Disgaea to Final Fantasy Tactics. In Disgaea, there is a player phase, in which the player’s units can act, once each, in any order, followed by an enemy phase in which the player’s units sit completely passive. A key part of play is arranging complex sequences of actions that build combos, move enemies around the field, and exploit environmental effects (like the geo puzzles that dot most areas). This is only possible because – with the exception of counterattacks – the player’s turn cannot be interrupted by enemy responses.
In Final Fantasy Tactics, on the other hand, each character acts in turn, independently of the others. A fast character might get twice as many turns as a slow one, and the order in which character and enemy turns come up depends entirely on their stats. Here there are no dramatic combos and any grand plan may be interrupted by the enemy moving around.
This brings up a second kind of difference, too, which is the extent to which action order is random. In Disgaea, the player has almost total control over the order in which their units’ actions happen, and while they cannot control the order in which enemies act, they can nevertheless be sure that enemy actions won’t spill out of the enemy phase. In a game like FF Tactics, some prediction of the turn order is possible, but only a few steps into the future.
In the early Final Fantasy games, combat proceeds by rounds in which each unit in the fight gets to act once, in an order determined at random but influenced by each unit’s stats. Players enter all commands at the start of the round and then must wait to see what order the actions happen in; any planned sequence of actions (for example, one character casting a spell to increase another character’s damage output before the second character launches an attack) may thus fall apart on execution if the virtual dice rolls go against it. How capricious a game’s turn order is makes a huge difference to its difficulty and its mood, and is something that each game’s design team must give substantial consideration to for balance reasons if nothing else.
Maybe the most conspicuous difference is between those turn-based systems that are ‘active’ and those that are ‘static’ – roughly between games in which, if the player stops making inputs, the player characters will eventually die and those in which the game will wait indefinitely for input. Whether or not you can put the controller down safely determines how a game fits into your life, how quickly you can switch attention to something else in your environment. One of the most maddening things about Eternal Sonata is that different segments of the combat sequence have different rules for this. Enemy actions are not safe since the player must be alert for the opportunity to block or counter. Player character actions are safe at the start of the game, but as the combat system evolves they become bound by a timer that eventually completely stops waiting for player input.
A difference that opens up particularly productive questions is between games that feel turn-based but aren’t and those that are turn-based in some strictly code-centric sense but disguise the fact. Final Fantasy XIII frequently gets described as a ‘return’ to turn-based combat after the real-time action of Final Fantasy XII, because in FFXIII, a character must pause for several seconds between chains of action – it feels like waiting for another turn to come up. Meanwhile, characters stand idle for much shorter periods in Final Fantasy XII, and can move around under direct player control while they wait (the relationship between spatiality and temporality hinted at here deserves much more detailed development, but it will have to wait for another time).
Under the hood, the opposite is true. In FFXII (except in the recent Zodiac Age remaster), each character’s actions, once fully charged, are placed on a first-in-first-out stack called the ‘effect queue’, from which they are then discharged in strict order (it’s actually a bit more complex than this – there are multiple stacks for different kinds of actions – but the point stands). When an ability with a long animation is being discharged from the queue, combat grinds to a halt while it plays out. There are some extraordinary speedrun techniques involving ‘jamming’ the effect queue to prevent particularly large and flashy enemy abilities being added to it.
In FFXIII, there is no queueing. Player-character actions go off in the middle of enemy attacks and vice versa. Indeed, high-level play in FFXIII requires carefully timing these intersections, for example to ensure that a character is in the middle of a jump at the moment an enemy uses a ground-based attack.
Is it reasonable, or even meaningful, to call a system turn-based if turns can happen at the same time? Which matters more for counting a system as turn-based, the mechanical rigidity of ordering in FFXII or the wait-your-turn feeling of FFXIII? What’s really interesting about this question is that, however you answer it, you implicate a variety of western games too.
The BioWare/Black Isle AD&D games – Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale etc. – are turn-based in just the way that FFXII is. There are strong similarities between the 90s X-Com games and Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre, and I gather also between the 2012 X-Com remake and Valkyria Chronicles. That’s not to say that these games influenced each other directly in either direction, just that strict, mechanical turn-basis appears on both sides of the Pacific.
The more experiential kind of turn-taking found in FFXIII is actually pretty widespread in western games. Pong has it, for crying out loud. So does any cover shooter – sure, you can poke your head up out of sequence, but good luck with that.
Again, the point of all this is not to propose a new taxonomy but to resist the idea that there’s a single, stable systemic pattern distinctively associated with Japanese RPGs. When a Japanese studio decides to make an RPG, its designers must choose among all these differences, picking which design heritages to draw on and combine and which to leave aside. Saying that JRPGs have turn-based combat (and by implication that western games don’t) is a gross oversimplification.