Frankly, it’s time to drop the “RPG” from “JRPG.” They are, simply put, not RPGs. They are often brilliant games, I’m certainly not denying that (in fact, I often prefer “JRPGs” to the output of western developers), but philosophically they’re far closer to adventure games. FFXIII is more like Uncharted than Skyrim.
To explain, we first need to look at why JRPGs got dubbed as such in the first place. Back in the early days of the genre, Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy were pretty progressive games. They had worlds that were at the time massive, and there was a sense of exploration that virtually no other game at the time had.
And those games were heavily influenced by pen-and-paper RPGs, which came first and still define the genre. Final Fantasy, for instance, had a spell system remarkably like that of Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition. Mechanically, these games were not so far off a primitive pen-and-paper RPG either. The levelling system was similar, character roles were similar, the idea of having a small party questing through dungeons and fighting ancient evils is similar from a broad story perspective. We forgave those games for their primitive approximations of the other traits that make up the genre on the basis of technological limitations. And so, as the “closest thing” the likes of Final Fantasy became the first RPGs.
|As you can see, this game is very similar to Final Fantasy games|
Fast forward 20-odd years, and none of those traits we forgave for being technological limitations have been resolved in the JRPG. Let’s look at it philosophically; the JRPG is a linear adventure. Even when there are multiple endings, the player is led by the nose towards a conclusion. Interactions with NPCs are limited and as a result there is no requirement by the player to create a story. That was certainly not what the likes of Monte Cook and Gary Gygax had in mind when they pioneered an entire genre.
Western RPGs on the other hand, have since their very genesis aimed to recreate the spirit and philosophy of pen-and-paper RPGs, even if the mechanics are different. Being able to explore a world at your own pace, and behave according to whatever moral code you like is a critical part of the definition of an RPG, and while western RPGs have it, JRPGs do not.
To say that would be missing the broader picture of what Skyrim really is, and what a FPS is. It’s the same with the JRPG. Ignore the philosophy of the RPG and focus on the raw mechanics, and a JRPG still looks like an RPG. But it’s not really.
JRPGs would rather pull you though a story, following the ups and downs of characters that are presented to you by a writer. You’ll fight some battles, and become more powerful. You’ll explore exotic locations, and there’s almost always some kind of sex appeal thrown in. You’re not playing an RPG, you’re playing an adventure story.
Which is why people are right and wrong to say Zelda games are JRPGs, incidently. They are indeed similar, philosophically, to JRPGs. They’re just wrong to assume that the “RPG” bit belongs.
Of course, on a purely practical basis, the JRPG has been a useful four-letter term to describe a style of game with common characteristics. The letters themselves, from a semantic perspective, have no meaning beyond “like Final Fantasy/ Dragon Quest/ Tales Of games.” As such we’ll keep using it as journalists to save us a few thousand words of description every review. That said, hopefully people learn that sharing “RPG” in the name does not mean JRPGs and western RPGs are related in any way.