Bulleted List: JRPS and America

After seeing a Nintendo roundtable discussion, Kotaku posed the decade old question, “Why doesn’t America like JRPS? This is an old discussion, but now Japan is actually thinking about trying to care. Just like Japan culture at large, they were making things for themselves and that was enough. Making games solely for the interests of Japan was successful. Now it’s not as profitable, and Japan’s gamers are starting to like western rpgs. So what’s the problem?

They may be too feminine for western eyes. Some are guys, some are girls, some of the more girly ones are guys. It’s a somewhat safe bet that shorter hair is a guy and longer hair is a girl, but that only gives about a 70% success rate.

Spanning a decade is a bit of a stretch for Americans. Not much in America is older than 400 years. (nothing the settlers didn’t drive out, anyways.) An American game may be way in the future, or way in the past, but if it actually travels that amount of time in the storyline, it’s just not feasible. Western RPGs usually stay within one lifetime, and often a couple years, of their main character. JRPGs will casually span decades, centuries, or even longer. This is sensible enough, since Japan has a longer unified history than America.

Even though Westerners want to complain when their $60 game is not long enough (Call of Duty), they also complain when it is too long. Maybe they want to attain a more immediate sense of achievement. Maybe they collectively lack the attention span. One could argue that Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV are long, successful, American games, but then we enter the realm of theme.

Length in American Games is permitted, but only if the theme is good enough. Red Dead Redemption has an old wild west theme, something that is truly American. Grand Theft auto has a modern urban crime theme that, sadly, America really goes for. Mass Effect is a more neutral theme, but I’m willing to bet two things on that account: less Americans would play it if it didn’t advertize militarized male lead (as A LOT of American games do) and that a good chuck of the people that liked mass effect would enjoy a Square-Enix type RPG.

I know there aren’t as many turn based RPGs these days, but it should still be said that Americans are generally impatient, and hate taking turns or waiting in line. To take turns in a games is widely held as a boring and time wasting endeavor.

I will take the most recent successful example I can: Kingdom Hearts. It’s not secret that I’m a big fan. Before Kingdom Hearts, I was intimidated by the whole JRPG genre. It was too intricate, too time consuming, and seemed generic. However, I was hooked on Kingdom Hearts from the moment I played it. I know it’s not really a JRPG, but it was a gateway game for me.

I have been buying and playing every Kingdom Hearts game since. Kingdom Hearts 1, 2, and Birth By Sleep are legitimate entries, but Re:coded and Chain of Memories are senseless money makers. Exploiting a successful series with sub-par titles is a quick way to frustrate players. This is no different than what Activision has done to Tony Hawk, Guitar Hero, and… well most of their games.

That said, I think one of the greatest strengths of the JRPG genre is the emphasis on storyline. It could be to their detriment, but engagement in a great story will carry a player through repetition easily.  Eternal Sonata had an amazing storyline, pulling in a variety of themes gently scattered throughout game play. I loved playing it, but when explaining it to others I always qualified that they would need to enjoy the story first, and the game second. I think storyline is what Western RPGs are improving. They have finally started to understand that games are capable of holding a novel-quality story.

The culture at large is accepting this too, as many more games are being made into moves. This is something Japan has been aware of for a long time. Maybe it’s because they already had serious cartoons for adults, so the jump to games wasn’t such a stretch. Maybe it’s because they are can more easily connect with their audience than the west.

Despite how much America resists them, there is a trend developing to make Western RPGS better. The west is learning it can make deep, engaging RPGs with rich story lines. They are more willing to elongate their stories. They are beginning to see characters age and stories expand beyond the present moment. They may even start varying their character models. Strangely, Western RPGs are taking over JRPs through imitation.


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