Monday, 20 April 2015

Random Encounters

Spring 2008, Skies of Arcadia Legends. Discovering that when you're flying about the eponymous skies, the D-pad fixes the camera in a range of positions that must have been carefully chosen to bring out the best in the Delphinus. Seriously, it's the sexiest airship you will ever see.

Summer 2008, Final Fantasy XII. Arriving at Mt. Bur-Omisace to learn that Vayne has murdered Larsa's father and usurped the throne of Archades. Somehow the politics of the situation mean the arduous journey I've just completed is now irrelevant. I share Vaan's confusion – not so much getting sucked into the character as his mental state jumping out to run around my synapses for a moment.

Winter 2008, The Internet. Every week a new thread on The Escapist's forums complaining about 'emo protagonists', 'linear plots' or 'turn-based combat' (that last always with an exception, of course, for X-Com and no mention of Disgaea). The code by which Halo and Yahtzee fanboys scorn the JRPG.

Spring 2009, Eternal Sonata. The game's pathological fixation with absurd gamewalls peaks with a wide-open meadow where some invisible force constrains me to the middle third.

Summer 2009, Blue Dragon. I kick every rock and search every poop left behind by a defeated monster, collecting endless items I barely have any use for. Is there a comprehensive guide to this game? And if so, how small is the print on the maps?

Winter 2009, Athera. Finally catching up on Janny Wurts' Wars of Light and Shadow with the storming of volume 8's titular Stormed Fortress. The close of a tale whose arc has encompassed a life from infant to manhood and the decades of history that go along with it.

Spring 2010, Final Fantasy XIII. Splitting the cost with a similarly hard-up student friend so we can get it on release day. Spending the next three weeks arguing about whether it's any good, squeezing every drop of value we can from the wasted characters and incoherent world.

Summer 2010, Resonance of Fate. Is this a world map or a puzzle minigame? I struggle to make headway, captivated by the mechanical geography but slowed by the dreary colour scheme. I never finish the game.

Summer 2012, Extra Credits[1]. Normally brief, it takes three episodes and almost twenty minutes for the series to dismantle the genre and render verdict: JRPGs are in trouble. Failure to evolve and a slow decline in core quality mean players can now get everything the JRPG used to specialise in elsewhere, without the steep time costs and stodgy combat.

And yet.

Summer 2012, Tales of Vesperia. The climactic cutscene of act 1 is as potent as I remember from my first brush with the game. Something in how this murder is delivered makes it just that – not a righteous execution, not vengeance, not a desperate but ultimately ennobling act. Murder. The dark side of a certain ideology.

That cutscene – and a second that echoes it a few hours later into the game – floated around in my head as I was starting this blog and rounding up possible topics. Vesperia is one of my favourite games and I really wanted to dig into what made that scene so effective. So I loaded up the game for the first time in a while and started playing.

And the cutscene stands up, don't get me wrong, but I started to notice other things that were also really effective, or at least weird enough to be worth commenting on. By the time I reached the second cutscene I had other things I wanted to look at through the rest of the game. By the end of the game, I had enough questions to justify a second play, then a third.

Long story short, I've put 200 hours into the game in the last six weeks, and produced some 26,000 words of notes. Vesperia, I think, is as concerned as I am by the trend that Extra Credits episode picked up on. This idea that 'the genre has lost its way'.

Thematically, Vesperia deals with journeys and exile, hostile wilderness and troubled homecomings. Formally, it turns back on itself and its franchise, poking at the foundations of the JRPG world with a mix of wry affection and lampshades. And lampshades on lampshades.

And there's a slightly weird technological context, too. I feel like JRPGs were slow to make the jump to 7th generation hardware[2]. Blue Dragon, Eternal 'how the hell did I get made?' Sonata and even later titles like Resonance of Fate feel like a tentative toe in uncertain waters. For a brief period, the majority of new JRPG stories were appearing on a non-Japanese console, the Xbox 360. Vesperia emerged towards the end of this displacement.

What I've found myself working on, ultimately, has three dimensions; in the first place, it's a close reading of Tales of Vesperia. The game deserves it, whatever its relation to its genealogy. More broadly, I'm taking a historical look at the JRPG as a genre. For now, I've fenced that in to the window between Final Fantasy XII and XIII (Q1 2006 to Q4 2009), because Final Fantasy generally does more to shape 'public opinion' than the rest of the genre. Sandwiched between those is a reflection on the Tales franchise, because Vesperia can hardly address its genre without looking at its own peculiar subgenre.

To that end, I'm building a reading list (gaming list? Playing list?). For now, it's here on Backloggery (in my wishlist as well as my actual backlog). I'm looking for key JRPGs – especially on gen 7 home consoles[3] – that ought to feature in any critical look at the genre in that period. This is a starting point only – I'm not expecting to be able to write a thoroughgoing history from such a narrow slice, and I don't have access to every species of hardware I'd need for that either – but suggestions are most welcome.

A lot of what I've discussed here is my own impressions, and really my impressions not of the games themselves but of other people's impressions of them. For my money, the JRPG was never 'in trouble', except possibly commercially. But the idea of a genre crisis is widespread, and that bears some investigation.

[1] EC has a bit of a reputation for appropriating the work of other writers. If anyone can point me to more nuanced writing on which their JRPG episodes are based or build, I'd appreciate it – it'll save me quite a bit of work.

[2] I did a bit of a survey, and as far as I can tell there were 10 new JRPGs on gen 7 hardware between 2006 and 2009, compared to 16 on the PS2 alone.

[3] I specify home consoles partly just to narrow my focus, but also partly because I think they shape perception of the genre a bit more – they're seen as 'more important' by a certain key section of the press and player base.

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