Monday, 28 September 2015

What a Wonderful Genre

I sometimes wonder whether there’s a value in genre-based critique, particularly for a genre as diverse and nebulous as JRPGs. Looking at Tales of Vesperia means addressing the genre at large as well as its contemporaneous western perception, but I’m wary of falling into the trap of fanboyism. I’m not even sure what might constitute a ‘genre crisis’, never mind whether one actually occurred.

The perception of a genre crisis persists, though. I think it’s probably been there for a long time – some of the things that bring it about are inescapable consequences of an international games industry – but the phenomenon of games being proclaimed ‘the saviour of the JRPG’ is newer, I think. The World Ends With You is the first such game I was aware of.

To quote the almost inevitable arch-villain of any extended defence of the JRPG, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw, from his 2008 review of TWEWY:
“I had heard that The World Ends With You does things differently to most JRPGs, and while I took that with mountainous piles of salt … I thought if the release dates are from bizarro world, maybe the entire game is, too, and will turn out to be the first good JRPG.”[1]
And that’s very much the perception I remember having of TWEWY. That it does things differently. Maybe it’s just what this genre needs. TWEWY certainly positions itself as modern and exciting, not always successfully. Its contemporary setting, punk aesthetic and action combat were all trumpeted as much-needed progress; even Yahtzee found a positive word for the game’s look.

But the actual extent to which the game innovates is unclear. Modern settings weren’t new; the Persona franchise was a decade old by TWEWY’s release, and more obscure modern-set games go back much further (the original Mother, for example, came out in 1989). Action combat in Japanese RPGs goes right back to the SNES (Secret of Mana, Tales of Phantasia). Even the ‘punk fashion’ doesn’t actually look so very different from the outfits on display in any number of earlier titles.

The game’s treatment of its female characters is sadly predictable. Shiki, Neku’s first partner, gets damseled at the end of the first act to provide motivation for acts two and three. One of the female villains is an ‘ice queen’ archetype, the other emotionally erratic and constantly being told to calm down. Rhyme gets fridged in act one, then turns out later to have already been in a different fridge all along[2].

On the mechanical/structural side, the game really isn’t that innovative at all. The plot progresses as the search for cutscene triggers, along with the completion of occasional arbitrary challenges and a steady supply of boss fights. You can overlook it at first, but about half-way through the second week there’s a day where all you do is go to a new area, find out what the next challenge is, backtrack to grind it to completion, and repeat.

There are genuine innovations here – the gender-neutral but not gender-ignorant clothing/bravery mechanic is one that I wish had taken off – but the game’s biggest strength lies in its dialogue writing. When not burdened with the demands of exposition, the dialogue is incredible. But TWEWY isn’t the first well-written game, and good writing predates digital games by a few years at least.

In fact, I’d argue, one of the things that got the game touted as forward-looking, the non-turn-based combat, is a real weak spot thematically. For a game trying to engage with the modern, digital era, where combat serves among other things as a metaphor for brand advertising, I feel like turn-based combat would have been quite at home. It could have been built around the frantic exchange of text messages or emails – discrete bursts of activity followed by an anxious wait for the potentially disastrous response.

Turn-based combat was a favourite punching bag of JRPG haters, though, and probably still is. Certainly Yahtzee went after it with knives drawn – reviewing Super Paper Mario, he crowed that “The stupid, effeminate, blouse-wearing turn-based combat is replaced with wholesome, traditional, masculine head-stomping,” which is a perfect distillation of the insecurity that underpins a lot of JRPG criticism.

But attempts to get away from turn-based combat have had mixed results. TWEWY’s system at least produces some sense of rhythm and party interaction. Eternal Sonata and other games that adapted Paper Mario’s action command system tended to end up with blind guesswork and repetition. More drastic experiments like the gunplay in Resonance of Fate could be bewildering, not to mention difficult to balance because of a lack of precedent to learn from.

Meanwhile, games that stuck to a known formula for combat tended to draw less notice, but be more consistent. Tales of Vesperia adds only tweaks to a system polished through Tales of Symphonia and Tales of the Abyss. Blue Dragon worked wonders with a modified version of Final Fantasy X’s completely turn-based battles.

I’m not complaining about innovation per se. My problem with all these examples is that they’re innovation at gun-point, innovation not driven by the needs of the work but the demands of a hostile audience. If there is a genre crisis at all, it resides in this tension. Certainly that’s what Vesperia engages with at every level of its design.

What I’m not sure of is whether there’s any great value to my pointing this out, which is a bad thing to say at the end of a thousand-word blog post. I don’t expect to be able to persuade people, and I don’t really want to try. I’m certainly not qualified to approach this as a design textbook, or even as a way of advocating a design principle. I do want to capture what Vesperia expresses, though, and that involves at least a little of both those other things.

[1] Yes, I watched that video carefully enough to transcribe it. Don’t say I never suffer for my work. (The note about release dates refers to the fact that TWEWY – like more recent ‘genre-saviour’ Xenoblade Chronicles – came out in Europe before America).

[2] Okay, yes, I’m indulging my love of tortured metaphors here. Bigger-than-average-spoilers for explanation: having been killed off in act one to get Neku angry at the Reapers, Rhyme turns out to have come into the Reapers’ game as a result of a death whose function in the story is to motivate Beat.

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