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The story's the thing: whatever happened to storytelling in JRPGs?
by Andrew Testerman

Back in January, Square Enix released Final Fantasy XIII-2, a follow-up to Square’s most recent (and, in some circles, controversial) entry in the long-running JRPG series.

Reviews of the game have ranged from lukewarm to rather positive, but many of the critiques boil down to the same thing: the combat and gameplay are fun, but the story is awful.

For the unaware, the story is a direct continuation of XIII’s narrative. XIII-2 follows Serah, sister of the first game’s protagonist, and Noel, a time-travelling soldier who was sent back to avert a global apocalypse sometime in the future. Ignoring the prominent Terminator parallels, XIII-2’s story entails Serah and Noel travelling to different points in time, defeating dimension-shifting 'paradox' monsters and engaging in stilted, 'stylised' dialogue that wouldn't fly in a remedial script-writing class. XIII-2’s jargon-heavy world doesn’t try especially hard to welcome new players into the fold (though, to be fair, it is a direct sequel), and the melodramatic character interaction only further obfuscate the tale.

How far JRPGs have fallen in the past decade or so. Once the fore of storytelling in gaming, JRPGs are now bringing up the rear, with even the most highly-praised stories carrying an almost apologetic level of explanations and qualifications. Meanwhile, gamers are finding compelling plots and engaging characters in even the most action-packed genres.

It didn’t always used to be this way. Back in earlier days of gaming (by my watch, right up through the SNES), players more or less had to choose whether they wanted action or story. Platformers like Super Mario World or Donkey Kong Country were exciting and fun to traverse through, but they weren’t exactly go-to games for players looking for an emotional, involving experience. Conversely, RPGs didn’t offer thrill-a-minute gameplay like their platforming and shooting console-mates, but instead gave gamers characters, story arcs and more cerebral thrills than seeing how many coins they could collect before the end stage.

Now, in 2012, the wall between visceral action and involving story has been completely broken down (though not entirely removed). Games like BioShock and Assassin’s Creed are giving gamers compelling plots and engaging characters while still providing twitchy, fast-paced action. Meanwhile, games like Final Fantasy or Star Ocean, representing a genre once synonymous with storytelling, offer players staid, clichéd narratives and cardboard-cut-out characters. It’s all a bit backwards, really.

There are many potential discussions about what RPGs still have to offer the gaming world now (or, for that matter, what even qualifies as an RPG anymore, what with every game nowadays having some sort of XP system), but today we’re limiting it to JRPGs and their stories. Why do JRPG stories fail to hit, and what can be done to get the genre back on track?

I’ve held a pet theory about JRPG storytelling for a while now, and Final Fantasy XIII-2 helped to solidify it (funnily enough, it was Final Fantasy XIII that helped me form it in the first place). Back in the NES and SNES days, developers didn’t have the technological prowess to tell the stories they had in mind, one-to-one; instead, they needed to make concessions based on the technology available, both in terms of what could be displayed onscreen, and what their characters could say.

This creativity through limitation led to some of gaming’s most beloved titles: Final Fantasy VI; Secret of Mana; Chrono Trigger. Each of those games had a weighty, complex story, and the technological ceilings of the Super NES made it necessary that each story be told as cleanly as possible. Rather than tell it in the manner of a movie or television series, game directors and producers adopted a new kind of storytelling specifically for video games, one whose episodic, overarching structure most closely resembled a novel. This style helped present mature themes like suicide, addiction and death in an understated way that was simple enough to avoid melodrama, but focussed enough to avoid dulling their impact.

All this changed with the release of Final Fantasy VII. With the added hardware of the PlayStation, many restrictions imposed by the NES and SNES were lifted, letting directors and producers create games that adhered even closer to their creative visions. Players could explore even more expansive worlds, and characters could express themselves on even greater levels, with better animations and dialogue than ever before. Directors could tell exactly the story they wanted to tell, exactly the way they wanted to tell it.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the results have been so alienating. With the aforementioned hardware restrictions, game designers were forced to leave the Japanese-only sensibilities of their storytelling at the door, and instead created stories with broader, more universal themes.

Nowadays, traditional JRPGs are completely and totally steeped in Japanese storytelling conventions; the kind that are nigh-inscrutable to everyone but the most ardent Japan apologists and actual native-Japanese folk. In their desire to replicate their precise storytelling vision, game creators are able to emulate their favourite torrid Korean soap opera down to the most exact detail, leaving the non-Korean-soap-opera fans in the dark about the game’s appeal at all.

It’s not that JRPGs need to ape Western themes, or conform to a traditionally-Western idea of a game story. Chrono Trigger, my favourite game of all time, had an extremely strange story, involving a sentient robot, a talking frog and a cave woman fighting to save the world from a space parasite. Yet, the game’s story was — and still is — highly praised, not for its particulars but for its execution. Chrono Trigger painted its characters and story decisions in articulate, simple strokes, letting players meet the game halfway and invest themselves in its tale. For such ridiculous material, it had a pronounced level of subtlety and reservation (again, no doubt brought on by the SNES's limitations). It was broad, but sincere, and didn’t become caught up in trying to oversell itself.

Of course, it isn't as though top-tier JRPGs are in danger of becoming extinct. Quality JRPGs are still being made today, like Atlus’ Radiant Historia, a JRPG that, by all accounts, displays the exact same control and maturity that its 16-bit predecessors did. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, then, that the most highly-praised traditional JRPG in years was released for the DS, a system with only slightly less hardware restraints than the SNES. Perhaps DS developers know something that console devs don’t?

Ultimately, if JRPGs are to dig themselves out of their current hole, they need to concentrate on what made them popular in the first place: storytelling. Not just Japanese storytelling, but storytelling that even JRPG neophytes can get wrapped up in. I’m not saying that publishers like Atlus should ditch such delightful J-games like Disgaea or the Atelier series, but I do think there should be room for both. Strong characters and compelling storytelling transcend cultures. JRPGs have since gained ground in terms of play mechanics, with games like Tales of Vesperia and Final Fantasy XIII-2 offering gameplay thrills on the level of the industry’s best. All they need to do is remember what they did better than any genre in gaming.

Watching JRPGs lose their prominence in game storytelling has been painful, but I firmly believe that great games can still be made using their template; look at 2008’s Lost Odyssey, a game that used old-school RPG gameplay while creating memorable locations and characters in a new, distinct way. Game storytelling is a broad field, with no one method standing 'superior' to any of the others, and there’s no reason why gamers shouldn’t have the option to enjoy a quality JRPG story along with the Portals, Uncharteds and Call of Dutys of the industry.

Note: for an excellent read on why JRPGs don’t necessarily need a good story to succeed, check out writer Kat Bailey’s new JRPG column on Joystiq.

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- Andrew Testerman

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