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Of Js and Ws

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By Nelson Schneider - 10/23/11 at 10:08 PM CT

As I mentioned previously, I hate the term ‘JRPG.’ Not only is it used as a pejorative against my favorite genre, it adds negative connotations and a perceived need for segregation where none exists. What does the dreaded JRPG need to be segregated from? Why, the Aryan Race of ‘WRPGs,’ of course, with the ‘W’ standing for ‘Western.’ If this usage of Western was meant to separate RPGs featuring cowboys and six-shooters from RPGs featuring swords & sorcery or RPGs featuring space ships and mecha, it might make some sense. As it is, though, it’s just a way to geographically separate games by their country of origin. And it doesn’t really work.

What people are mistakenly calling ‘JRPGs’ should technically be called by their old name, ‘Console RPGs.’ But wait! Now that consoles are capable of running ports of the games formerly known as ‘PC RPGs,’ that line has been all but erased. It started to blur a long time ago when games like “Dungeon Master” and “Eye of the Beholder” appeared on DOS and the SNES, but now new PC games almost always receive simultaneous releases on two consoles.

So, since gamers are no longer able to segregate RPGs by hardware, they decided to segregate them by region of origin. Doing this is, of course, ridiculous, as there are a variety of RPG sub-genres, with games in each sub-genre coming from both Japan and ‘The West.’ Both “Baldur’s Gate” and “Final Fantasy 12” are turn-based RPGs that disguise the turns with constant character animations. Both “Diablo 2” and “Phantasy Star Online” are loot-grinding hack ‘n slashes, one with mouse-clicks, the other with button-mashes.

But the definition of what makes an RPG what it is has become increasingly contested through the course of the 7th Generation. There have always been people who have lumped non-RPGs into the genre for ridiculous reasons. During the Golden Age, it was not uncommon to find “The Legend of Zelda” and “A Link to the Past” categorized as RPGs, when they are clearly action/adventures. The incredibly sound logic behind their classification as RPGs was the fact that the main character uses a sword.

Poor reasoning like this continues to this day, with the most common argument being that ‘RPG’ stands for ‘Role-Playing Game,’ and therefore applies to any game in which the player takes on the ‘role’ of an established character. By this brilliant logic, every game is an RPG, except those actual RPGs that allow the player to create a custom character.

I only wish the two preceding arguments were strawmen, but I continue to see them employed on Internet message boards. Perhaps I am being Trolled.

Then there is the argument that JRPGs feature whiny, androgynous metrosexuals going through the motions of a Shonen anime. While I agree that this is a disturbing trend in RPGs coming out of Japan, and was started by the likes of “Final Fantasy 7” and “Final Fantasy 8” back in the 5th Generation, it is not a good qualifier for adding that ‘J.’ If anything, these should be called ‘BRPGs,’ with the ‘B’ standing for ‘Bad.’ Furthermore, these negative qualities aren’t just limited to RPGs, but are symptomatic of an overarching problem with Japan’s pop-culture. Should we start tacking a ‘J’ onto every Japanese game that features a girly-man hero or lolis? Should the likes of “Devil May Cry” be classified as ‘JTPS’ or “GrimGrimoire” be classified as a ‘JRTS’?

On the other side of the coin is the ‘WRPG.’ This term seems to have originated among the Xbox-owning populace as part of a disturbing bit of nationalism that has recently crept into gaming culture. While those of us who experienced Atari’s videogame crash first-hand or second-hand understand that the West has a long reputation of making terrible games, newcomers who purchased the Xbox at the recommendation of their favorite rap star put Western games on a pedestal. Shooters are the best, online is necessary, and the only RPG worth playing is a WRPG.

What exactly IS a WRPG, anyway? Well, apparently it is whatever a developer says it is, as this generation has seen an enormous number of shooters released under the auspices of RPG-dom. In many cases, so-called WRPGs are just action games with RPG elements tacked on. While RPG elements DO make any genre better by instantly adding gameplay depth, it does NOT make them full-fledged RPGs!

Yes, there are honest-to-goodness RPGs made outside of Japan. Most of them were made a long time ago for the PC, but a few, like the venerable ‘Ultima,’ ‘Might & Magic,’ and ‘Wizardry’ series found their way onto consoles before such ports were common. None of these deserve the special addition of a ‘W’ to their category (though ‘Ultima’ is more than worthy of the ‘BRPG’ category mentioned above), and none of them received such a designation when they were new. These are RPGs, plain and simple, with very little difference from the ‘Final Fantasies’ and ‘Dragon Quests’ that dominated the genre on the other side of the Pacific.

Just imagine an older gamer, who hasn’t owned a console since the SNES, who suddenly decides to get back into gaming with the purchase of a PS3. And imagine that this gamer’s favorite genre back in the day was RPGs. His list of Top Games Ever Made includes the likes of “Final Fantasy 4,” “Final Fantasy 6,” “Chrono Trigger,” “Lufia 2,” and “Wizardry 5.” If this gamer were to visit a game forum and ask for recommendations of good PS3 RPGs, would it not be a disservice to him to recommend games that play like shooters?

Instead of worrying about country of origin or trying to go back to the no-longer-valid console/PC segregation, I think all RPGs should just be classified as ‘RPGs,’ along with well-established sub-genres like ‘hack ‘n slash,’ ‘turn-based,’ and ‘tactical.’ And in order to be a genuine specimen of the genre, a game must have the following three features:

1. No reflex skill improvement from player, instead the character improves
The main element of RPGs, and the one that is most commonly spliced into other genres, is experience points and character levels. These mechanics allow games to present increasingly difficult challenges without requiring the player to develop and maintain the twitch reflexes necessary to progress. RPGs have always been the genre for those who prefer strategy over reflexes and who have longer attention spans.

2. Indirect control of character(s)
Even in so-called action-RPGs, the player’s interaction with their character never involves direct control. Menus, mouse-clicks, cooldowns, or even automated defenses take direct responsibility for success or failure away from the player and place the burden on the character.

3. Gamplay does not closely resemble any other established genre
While the gameplay, specifically battle systems, in RPGs can vary wildly, they are all unique to the genre itself. If a game looks like a platformer (or shooter) and plays like a platformer (or shooter), regardless of the whether or not it has any RPG elements, it is still a platformer (or shooter).

Just because Western developers rarely make non-MMO RPGs anymore doesn’t mean that we need to reclassify their other games to fill-in the gaping void left behind. I have been called ‘closed-minded’ for refusing to accept the errant categorization of games by developers. But if I was actually closed-minded, I would not have played “The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion” at all. I played it and, despite my predictions, enjoyed it. However, I did not enjoy it as an RPG, which it is not, but as a Sandbox action game, which it is. Properly categorizing and profiling games by their similarities is not a crime; this is not racial profiling. When developers falsely advertise their games as the wrong genre, it just serves to confuse the consumer and disgraces the cast of “Sesame Street” who have, for decades, tried to teach the children of the world ‘which one of these things just doesn’t belong here, which one of these things just isn’t the same.’

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View Nick's Profile


Wrote on11/06/11 at 01:41 AM CT

The best way I see genres and sub-genres working is to group games together that are very similar. When a new generation of games comes out, and those games are different enough that they separate from other games in an established genre, it only makes sense to make a new sub-genre to keep these like games together rather than making the original sub-genres too broad and in-concise. Many action and sandbox games seem to include some RPG aspects, but it is important to step back and classify the game by it's main genre first, but include a secondary genre to show that is has RPG aspects (or RPG elements). This site does that and allows the reader to see different genres and sub-genres present in any given game.

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Wrote on10/27/11 at 02:12 AM CT

Curious: condemning the act of splitting off the JRPG to protect the Aryan WRPG... in a blog post to protect the pure blood lines of the RPG like you’re guarding a cul-de-sac in Conneticut from a black family moving in.

Also curious: RPG mechanics can enter another genre without changing it to an RPG, but once other genre’s gameplay mechanic enters an RPG...

“Sorry, son... we don’t much care for mixed-race marriages in these parts.”

Whoops. Guess that game’s moving to the other side of the tracks.

But anyway, JRPG semantics aside:

While I see what point you’re trying to make with feature #1, I think games like Super Mario RPG certainly reward excellent reflexes, while some of the later Mario RPG games in the Paper Mario or Mario & Luigi line make success without improved reflexes over the course of the game borderline difficult at times. I know quick fingers certainly saved me a time or two.

I’d rather see the phrasing turned a bit to read more like “Decisions by the player in character development plays the most crucial role in success.” This allows grey area for Mario & Luigi-style games while clearly addresses action RPGs where player level/equipment is still more important that actual reflexes or sometimes even tactics. ‘Cause I know you don’t want to hear this, but even Borderlands is more about my level compared to enemies and what my equipment is than how good I am at the FPS genre. Just play a game hosted by someone 5 levels different from you and you’ll see what I mean. Same reflexes... vastly changed success rate.

Don’t freak out, though, I’m not trying to make a case for Borderlands to move into that white colonial next to the Gundersen’s on Chrestshire Lane.

In conclusion, I just think this has been made... too complicated. Dave brought up an interesting point about genre definitions. For example:

First Person Shooter - the camera is from the character's point of view, a gun goes off in real time when you press a button as you aim the weapon and move the character simultaneously.

Rhythm - inputs from the player must coincide with prompts from the game where matching the prompts more accurately produces greater success.

RPG - well.... hmmm... oh hell, just read this -

Do you see? I honestly don't think anyone could write about "how do you know you're playing an RTS" as much as you've written just to provide a guideline for RPGs. Defining RPG doesn't have to be this difficult, and why anyone would make it this hard in response to some perceived threat is just beyond me.

I sort of thought a great line for what is still an RPG and what isn't anymore was presented here:

And... I mean, that video's not even five and a half minutes long, and he even reviews a whole game as well.

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Wrote on10/26/11 at 01:06 AM CT

I disagree with your definition of a RPG. Your definition is way too specific and compares it to other genres which is not how you define something. Your "indirect control" criteria is way too old school. You should be able to describe a genre simply, with just a few sentences. As far as your JRPG comment, it may have some good points, but I really am not concerned with it.

Believe it or not Nelson, when something has "elements" of a genre, it makes it one. It may not be a hard core RPG or fall into the old school RPG way of doing things, but MANY games don't fit genres exactly. Get with the times Nelson, these new games are bringing more to RPG's whether you think it's good or not.

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