The DDNet Debate: On JRPGs, narrative, and that Ian Bogost article

31 mins read

It’s time for this week’s DDNet debate! This week we thought we’d discuss our favourite genre of all – the JRPG, and what we look for from games in the genre.

Naturally such a discussion was always going to lead us to start talking about narratives, and then this week game academic, Ian Bogost, published an article on narratives in games that proved to be very, very controversial in the broader gaming community. So of course we decided we needed to discuss that too.

Be sure to drop in and let us know what you think about JRPGs, the Bogost article, or anything else that we chat about this week!

Lindsay M: JRPGs are about three things to me. One, the narrative – I want something so engrossing I won’t leave my couch for days and the characters will become my new family. Two, the aesthetic – when I think ‘JRPG’ I am thinking of surreal meets the real with vivid colours. And three, the music – something bold and sweeping, orchestrated with little to no vocals.

Matt C: I look for JRPGs to give me what western RPGs can’t: good stories, relatable characters, colours, fun.

Ginny W: For me – it’s fun. Also characters that don’t look like John Cena or Justin Timberlake

Moshe R: Regarding the stories/narrative, I will add that I tend to look for more in a JRPG (to the point of expecting it). Being indoctrinated as I am in Western culture (read: American), I find the better JRPGs take me off balance with their narratives through themes I am not used to or would even consider outright weird if they weren’t presented to me in a video game. The better ones leave me feeling a better person that is more open to new lines of thought as a result.

Off the top of my head, Fire Emblem Fates Conquest deals so well with so many heavy moral themes (though it doesn’t go to what I would call the weird department), or Persona with its idea of… personas. Whereas a big Western title like Fallout 4, with all its production values, feels so shallow in comparison.

Harvard L: I feel that JRPGs with weighty stories are actually a bit harder to get through… I have I am Setsuna ready to go having bought it excitedly, but I’ve yet to start because I don’t feel ready or in the mood for something that heavy. I’ve experienced similar things with lots of games – Final Fantasy X, Persona 3, who knows what other games are waiting in my library.

On the other hand I love powering through simple, grind heavy JRPGs that don’t challenge me as much mentally. Kemco games, Dragon Quest spinoffs. I’ve sunk 60 hours into Conception 2, which I admit isn’t one of my proud moments having not started Persona.

Brad L: JRPGs are the one genre I have found hard to stay into since I became a parent. If it’s not a handheld game I can take to work then it becomes problematic. I have a bunch of JRPGs on my PS3 and PS4 I haven’t even touched yet and it saddens me.

So I guess something I can play in short bursts and still get something out of it is what I most look for in a JRPG.

Matt C: That’s one big problem I have with JRPGs, Brad. They’re too friggin long. It’s become an expectation that a JRPG will require 40 hours minimum of your time, and that’s just not feasible for a lot of people. There’s a huge untapped market for short-form, 5-10 hour JRPGs.

Brad L: Yeah, I remember FF7 being like 50 hrs and that was plenty.

Matt S: regards to the length, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a JRPG that lasts for a really bloody long time. As long as the game’s good, of course. If I’m in love with the characters, find the narrative compelling and interesting, and I’m enjoying the world and combat, then of course I want to spend a lot of time in the game.

Of course, actually having that time available to me is another matter, and I’m sad that there are so many JRPGs that I otherwise enjoy that I’ve never managed to quite finish. I agree with Matt that there’s a huge potential for 5-10 hour long JRPGs. Or even episodic JRPGs that are 50 hours or so long, but are portioned out in 10 hour blocks over the course of six months.

As for what I personally like about JRPGs; it’s the narrative and the characters. If I love the characters and narrative I’ll put up with anything in a JRPG. Conversely, if I don’t love them, then the game could play brilliantly, and I’ll find myself quite bored of it all. I’m one of the few that don’t think combat is so important to the genre; in fact, with many of my favourite JRPGs, if you were to remove the combat entirely, I’d actually be happier.

Take the Atelier games, for example. Easily my favourite JRPG series, but I actively try and avoid the combat in these games wherever possible. I like those games for their simple, homespun charm and the delightful characterisation.

So I guess that’s my question for everyone: Are there any JRPGs out there where you only care about the “gameplay,” and it doesn’t matter to you that the characters or storytelling is weak?

Brad L: Pokemon, I suppose. I couldn’t care less about the story, I think everyone kinda plays them for the gameplay and the catching and evolving elements.

Matt S: Does Pokemon have a bad story, though? It’d minimalist, sure, but those games are all filled with humorous characters and each new area is a joy to discover.

Matt C: Would a JRPG be a JRPG without combat? Or would it be a visual novel? or a simulation game?

Harvard L: Dragon Quest 1 is the purest form of grind and explore gameplay. It makes it work in a way other early JRPGs don’t, though. Things like Phantasy Star and even Final Fantasy 1-3 (not remastered) feel somewhat coarse to play, but Dragon Quest 1 could kill me over and over and I’d love it.

Matt S: Dragon Quest 1 was a narrative-heavy experience, though. That exploration *was* the narrative.

Matt C: By that logic, combat is the narrative as well.

Matt S: It can be, absolutely.

Matt C: Persona is a good example of that. There’s a lot of narrative wrapped up even in something as simple as summoning personas and casting spells.

Matt S: Perfect example (beyond Persona) is the boss battle where Cecil fights himself in Final Fantasy IV. He climbs a mountain, and there at the top he battles himself, to be reborn a paladin and that rebirth and redemption story is the narrative core of the entire game.

Matt C: That’s an explicit example. But every battle before and after that ties in as well. Every fight with Dark Cecil, where you’re casting Darkness and fighting with Dark-elemental swords, is part of his characterisation as a Dark Knight. And every battle afterwards, where he’s a Paladin, casting white magic and using Protect, is part of his characterisation as a Paladin.

Matt S: I don’t think an overload of random battles is particularly effective narrative. I agree it’s narrative, but in general with JRPGs I find the non-boss battle encounters tend to mess with pacing and lower the impact of the important battles.

Matt C: There are plenty of games that don’t use “gameplay” so well, sure, but I don’t think you can just remove them.

Harvard L: I think the later Final Fantasies are super guilty of this. Final Fantasy 7, 8 and 10 had the most inconsequential overworld battles. I think 13 and 15 got back on track, they started thinking about how the individual encounters serve as world and atmosphere building exercises again.

Matt S: The Persona games are the perfect example; the battles with the shadows just get between me, and the dungeon’s end boss. I do it because I have to, but I generally feel myself tuning out of combat in these games.

And here’s a good example of how that can be subverted: NieR Automata. If you carefully pay attention to what you do in Nier, you realise quickly enough that though you have the opportunity to get involved in a hell of a lot of combat in between the set pieces, there actually isn’t that much that you have to do. I think I stopped bothering with fighting the robots in the overworld after the first hour. Dungeons are incredibly short experiences that funnel you to the boss super-fast.

And of course NieR’s bosses are all critical pieces of storytelling.

Harvard L: I think Final Fantasy XV does a really, really good job of keeping the focus on important battles.

With Persona, I think there’s value in the way persona impedes your progress through the game, Matt. The characters constantly refer to the dungeon crawl as an exhausting experience, and it takes up time which could otherwise be used in maxing your social links (which I found much more fun anyway). It becomes a representation of the sacrifice you go through to save your friends, and the difficulty of doing so, and it does it far more effectively than if you could just blitz right through to the boss

Matt C: I just think it’s pointless to try draw a line between “gameplay” and “narrative” when they so often blur. It’s more useful to just talk about the overall picture, and how the different aspects contribute or detract from that. You can’t just say that JRPGs would be better without combat, because there are too many caveats.

Matt S: The Atelier games would!

Matt C: Would they, though? Granted, I haven’t played many.

Matt S: I genuinely think so, yes. I don’t think even the boss battles add anything to those games. Mostly because the Atelier games have non-combative narratives; there’s no real “antagonist,” it’s just a bunch of people trying to live happy lives. The combat pulls away at that.

Harvard L: Like Matt C says with other games, the characterisation of Atelier is done through the combat. I base my like/dislike of the characters based on how hilarious their combat animations are.

However, I do think there are games which twist their narrative so that there’s more combat in it. Especially the very tropey times games ask me to find three pieces of a weapon which is the only thing that can defeat a strong boss – that entire process is just a formality to shoehorn in three dungeons and boss fights.

Matt C: Also: in general (not every game), combat is fun, and that’s fine, games are allowed to be fun.

Matt S: What I’d really like to see is JRPGs make even the boss battles optional. Or, more specifically, a non-violent solution to boss battles. Give players that want to the ability to work their way through conflict in a different way.

Matt C: It’s not a JRPG, but Torment: Tides of Numenera did this really well.

Harvard L: I would really disagree with that; I don’t understand why developers would bother to build mechanics which the player could just switch off at whim.

Matt S: Harvard – you can turn off random encounters in Bravely Default and it worked wonders.

Harvard L: Part of the design philosophy of JRPGs is that their linearity reduces the capacity for player choice. So it feels weird if the game asks me how often I want to fight, which boss I wanted to defeat with violence and which ones I didn’t.

I did end up turning off the random encounters for Bravely Default but it messed up the game’s curve really badly. I’d waltz across to the next plot relevant boss and find I was under leveled, so I’d crank encounters to 200% until I was ready, and then it was back to 0. But if the encounters had been consistently at 100% (or in Bravely Default’s case, 50%), then those encounters would have been part of the whole exploring, adventuring experience, and that would’ve been much better.

Matt S: I would turn off random encounters when my party needed to get out of a dungeon and go heal. It meant I could spend maximum time in a dungeon, right up to the last battle before my party would be creamed, and made for efficient leveling up. I really liked that about the game, actually. Being able to turn the encounter rate up also helped when I needed to grind. I don’t think giving players the ability to play the game on their terms is a bad thing.

I mean, if you look at western RPGs – they’re all about giving players the ability to play on their own terms. And I love the genre for that. My issues with western RPGs tends to be the dudebro that’s crept into them, plus the limited focus on an overarching narrative through the whole experience. So if Japanese developers can figure out ways to put that player choice into their games, without compromising the strong storytelling, I’m all for that.

Matt C: If being able to turn off encounters forces developers to think about ways to design combat (or any other gameplay) that people want to take part in, that’s not a bad thing

Harvard L: Now that I think about it more, having those options is like a statement saying “there is more to the game than just the combat, so you can enjoy what we think is great without what you think might suck.” And from there it’s easier to understand.

Matt S: Okay, we probably should talk about Ian Bogost’s piece, hey? I know a lot of people are going to look at the headline and draw opinions before reading it through, but I highly recommend reading every word, as it’s a potent piece that speaks to some of the issues that games have as they try and stretch towards being legitimised as art forms, and as a guy that has just been arguing that games should have no gameplay, I found it to be very provocative. What does everyone else think?

James S: Can I mention yet that this article is kinda hot garbage? Like, yeah its provocative, but for all the wrong reasons.

Matt S: I dunno. I mean, I see a lot of people getting upset about the article for things it’s not. Bogost isn’t really saying “get stories out of games completely”. What he’s really saying is that game developers try too hard to define game narratives in the same terms that we look at literature and film, and it’s just not going to end well for 99.9999999999% of games if they’re trying to invite comparisons with Shakespeare and Citizen Kane.

Rather, game developers should be looking to dump the cutscenes and look for new ways to tell stories in games that is organic to the gaming media. Stories that games can tell that can’t be done better by writing a novel, in other words.

I think that general line has merit. Despite having just spent all this time saying that I exclusively play JRPGs for those stories, I do think the gaming medium is struggling to produce real classics that are classics beyond the medium itself, and that’s because games are so slavishly loyal to telling stories in a way that’s not natural for them.

Matt C: Games already do that, though. He’s making a big song and dance to call for something that’s already happening, and erasing a lot of other work that’s been done on this front.

Matt S: It doesn’t happen *much*, to be fair. There are some games that are certainly pushing for gaming to develop its own way of telling stories, but they still tend to be the exception rather than the rule.

Matt C: And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with games trying to emulate film or literature or whatever else. All art forms imitate others, that’s how different mediums develop. Maybe most games aren’t as good on a pure storytelling perspective as certain highly-praised books and films, but that doesn’t mean the whole endeavour should be abandoned. Games are also a lot, lot, lot younger than those other forms.

Matt S: I think the article was more a product of the games industry being in the same place that films were in the 30s and 40s. Film didn’t really have its own identity for telling stories back then either; they were basically theatre but recorded. But then films like Citizen Kane rolled around and film started developing its own identity in telling stories.

I think games will get there. They’re not there yet, though, and I think that’s the place where Bogost’s article is coming from.

For now, the majority of games are inferior imitations of the stories being told in film (principally). It’ll get better as more “arteurs” start playing around more with the form. ‘

Matt C: Games are already on that path, though, but he’s suggesting that devs stop exploring a huge chunk of storytelling potential. Even the most linear, filmic games are fundamentally different from film because of player interaction. Even something like Uncharted, which is the height of games-trying-to-be-like-movies, invokes a different sort of relationship with the audience because the audience has to actually do something to drive the story forward. Even if it’s just pressing a button, What he’s calling for already happens a lot in indie spaces.

Matt S: But Uncharted’s also an excellent example of the struggle that game developers have of taking their cinematic aspirations and making them gameplay. Uncharted is story bit, and then generally unrelated bit of gameplay as players get to the next story bit. The story bits don’t impact much on the gameplay bits, and vice versa. It’s layered in a way that the layers aren’t interacting with one another on a foundational level.

Yes, a lot of good stuff is being done in the indie space, I agree.

And I’m not suggesting the article is perfect. Just that it’s thought-provoking and worth thinking about beyond the gut response.

Do we want narratives to get better in games?

I do.

So Bogost’s piece got me thinking about how that can be done.

That’s valuable, right?

Matt C: I think so. I don’t think telling people to stop trying is the way to achieve that.

Matt S: I don’t think the article is suggesting we ban game developers from making story games. It’s just challenging developers to think about why they’re doing it that way. I mean, did we all think Barthes meant we should kill all the authors in the world?

Matt C: “On this measure, alas, the best interactive stories are still worse than even middling books and films. That’s a problem to be ignored rather than solved. Games’ obsession with story obscures more ambitious goals anyway.”

Matt S: And I’m sure if Bogost works on more games he will ignore the problem, rather than solve it.

Matt C: To go back to the Uncharted example, the “story bits” and “gameplay bits” are still fundamentally linked. Most of the plot and exposition happens during the “story bits”, but the sense of exploration, danger, adventure, world, environment that comes through the “gameplay bits” underpins that and gives it context. As much as I play Uncharted games for their story more than their gameplay, the story would be fundamentally weaker without that gameplay.

Sure, it gets the balance wrong sometimes, especially in the first game, but that doesn’t mean the whole exercise if broken.

Matt S: I disagree. Having to do arbitrary climbing sections to sneak into a building because the game needed a gameplay section is artificial to me. Having to go through a cover shooter section with a dozen enemies because an Uncharted game needs shooter bits is artificial to me. I find the Uncharted games to be very artificial and arbitrary in design, and it hurts the overall experience’s cohesion.

There are bits it gets right; I really enjoyed the diving section right at the start of Uncharted 4, because it was a seamless and contextual part of the broader narrative at that point in time, but an hour later my dude was in Scotland engaged in a gunfight with a dozen dudes that suddenly popped up when one raised an alarm, and it was nonsense.

Gunfights with a dozen dudes don’t happen just randomly in good films.

Matt C: Watch this then:

 I agree to some extent, but the problem is the way its implemented. Uncharted tends to go overboard with its gameplay bits, I agree. But they still bring something to the games that fundamentally can’t be achieved in a non-interactive form.

Matt S: In that film, that was a two-minute sequence in the context of an entire film, so even if it is gratuitous (and I think it is, in this case), it’s not dominating the experience, or detracting from the broader cohesiveness.

Matt S: If Uncharted were to have one 15-minute shooter bit in its six hour run time (for example), then I would agree with you that it was probably put in there to enhance the broader narrative.

The point is, I guess, and what I really take from Bogost’s piece, that if games want to do story, they should work on more organic ways to put it into the game. Not have “story bits” broken up by “gameplay bits.” Make it one complete picture, where all the bits bleed together.

The Last Of Us is the same. On the one hand you have this incredible story inspired by The Road. It’s emotional, powerful, potent. But then it’s broken up with these inane sequences where you sneak around and stab zombies in the neck with a shiv.

And if you remove the inane and unnecessary zombie bits, what do you get? The Road, basically. The Road is still violent. It’s still a story of survival. It’s still a story about the moral compromises that desperate people make when we all face the end of humanity. It’s everything that The Last Of Us is, minus unnecessary guff that breaks up the kind of story it’s telling.

Matt C: I have that same issue with The Last of Us. But I don’t think “games need to stop trying to be narrative experiences” is the answer. The way to improve The Last of Us and Uncharted is to better integrate game and story, not to just abandon one or the other.

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