Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Western RPGs vs Japanese RPGs - I: What Makes Them Different? - Extra Credits

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["Penguin Cap" by CarboHydroM plays]

We get many an episode suggestions in the old inbox everyday

but there's one topic that gets requested constantly:

the subject of Western RPGS versus JRPGs.

We very lightly poked at the topic here and there in past episodes,

but we decided that it's high time we expanded on it a little.

And by a little, I mean a ton.

We originally just planned to do this as one episode,

but once we started writing it,

we quickly realized that this job wasn't getting covered in less than a fortnight

So, I guess I'd better get started then.

For starters, you know what the weirdest thing is about

about the Western versus JRPG discussion?

It's the fact that we use the term "JRPG" at all.

I can't think of any other genre that we define by its nation of origin.

I mean, you never hear anyone throwing around terms like

"JFPS" or "Western platformer"

So, why do we use the distinction here?

I mean, it's weird, isn't it?

Well, the main reason we use it is because something unique happened with the role-playing genre.

It was popularized independently in two different places

which, as we'll see, led to a strong divide.

Practically every gaming genre we have was either:

a.) popularized in Japan and then later emulated in the United States, such as the platformer;

or, b.) popularized in the States and then later emulated in Japan, like the first person shooter

But both Japanese and American developers had encountered tabletop RPGs on their own

And so they began in parallel working on their own interpretations of the genre.

Okay, well, technically the U.S. had a headstart with things like Rogue, but

many of these were mainframe games and just never made it across the ocean to Japan.

And by the time that Ultima III and Wizardry began to really influence Eastern developers

there had already been a string of domestically produced RPGs in Japan

that began to take their own unique take on the genre.

But, perhaps more significantly,

you'll also find that almost every major RPG house in Japan

that you can name today built Eroge visual novels in their early period,

often before they had ever built any thing that we would call an RPG.

While this is something that many companies (and RPG fans) may not care to admit,

It's also something that I believe had a profound impact on the way Eastern developers

would come to think of the RPG.

Even though these original visual novel games were,

in many ways, regrettable and the narrative in them was often deplorable

they were, nonetheless, focused on narrative in a way that non-text games

really hadn't been in the West.

This, combined with the fact that Japanese Kanji allowed more

words to be displayed in the same amount of memory,

and, later, screen space,

directed Eastern efforts toward a more narrative-centric delivery.

Western efforts, on the other hand, focused on entirely different aspects of play.

But to talk about what those are, I'm going to have to go on a bit of a tangent here.

I think we've been making a mistake all this time when we've been comparing

JPGs and Western RPGs and lumping them into the same broad category.

I'd like to contend,

and I'm going to spend the next three weeks explaining why,

that JRPGs and Western RPGs are actually two completely different genres.

In fact, our insistence on still referring to them based just upon geography

kind of hints at the fact that most of us sort of recognize this,

but we haven't found a way to articulate it.

One of the things James has been talking about more and more frequently

at schools and within the industry,

is that our fundamental methodology for how we define genres is



Most of the time, when we talk about what makes a game belong to a certain genre,

we only talk about surface elements;

the visible mechanics or dynamics of the game.

"This game's an RPG because it has a levelling system."

"That game is a first-person shooter because it has guns and a first-person camera."

"That other game is survival horror because there are zombies in it."

But what we really need to be looking for

are the underlying reasons why we play a genre.

Simply looking at mechanics or dynamics is a misleading approach,

and both consumers and developers fall prey to it all the time.

And it can be destructive.

You actually see this happening in the industry a lot.

Some developer will see a well-made, successful game

and try to make a game like it themselves.

They'll manage to create a game that appears, on the surface, to be similar to that other game,

but still manages to fall flat somehow.

It may look similar to that great game or share some of the same mechanics,

but it just doesn't work as well as the original.

And that's because the developers conflated the techniques used to build the game

with a much more important question of why the player plays the game.

This would be like defining film genres by types of cinematography

or literary genres by formulaic plot tropes.

Yes, a genre may often use a specific style of cinematography,

or story conventions,

but those things don't *define* the genre

Genres and all things are actually defined by what the audience desires to get

out of interacting with them.

We go to a romance for a different reason than we go to a

comedy or a drama.

We can identify a romance by the emotions it tries to invoke in us.

Not by its editing style.

And the same is true of games.

Let me ask you:

Why is it that we don't think of Mass Effect as an RPG even though its combat is built around

third person shooting?

Why are we so confident in labeling Call of Duty a first person shooter

even though it has a leveling system?

It's because we're assigning those labels not because of their surface mechanics

or camera perspectives, or techniques.

But because of their fundamental human desires and emotions and interests

those genres deliver on;

the underlying reasons we play.

Which is radically different in these two cases.

We'll probably be making an entire episode about this later so

I don't want to go too deep into it now, but

there are various different ways that games can engage us.

Which some designers refer to as

"core play aesthetics".

Narrative, challenge, fellowship, discovery.

And that's just to name a few.

Every game engages us through a combination of these aesthetics.

Usually focusing on one or two primarily.

So two equally fun games can be engaging you in completely different ways.

Now this allows for a lot of semantic arguments as we look to

granularly define the reason why we play one game or another.

But game design is an alchemy.

Something between a science and an art at this point.

Which is part of the reason why we're going to need two more weeks to

define the specific underlying reasons we play JRPGs and Western RPGs.

It's tricky, because when doing this sort of analysis

you have to determine the key aspects of the genre.

The core reasons you play.

Not just elements that happen to be in the game.

For example,

discovery is a core play aesthetic of games like Skyrim or Minecraft.

It's one of the main reasons you play those games.

Discovery can also be an element in other kinds of games, though.

From everything from Resistance, to Galaga, to God of War.

But it's not a core play aesthetic of those games.

So in analyzing these games and breaking down their key elements,

we always have to ask ourselves:

Is (blank) an element of this game;

followed by:

Is (blank) the *reason* I play this game?

It's an easy place to get lost as a starting designer.

[Music fades in] So hold onto that thought until next week.

We'll be back on the topic of RPGs trying to define why JRPGs and Western RPGs

are actually two different genres.

See you then.

["In a Cave" by Hyadain plays]

[Music fades]

The Description of Western RPGs vs Japanese RPGs - I: What Makes Them Different? - Extra Credits