The title of this week’s column already speaks loads and I wanted to write about something a bit less serious than last week’s endeavour. In turn, I thought I’d take a stab at exploring the implications of Skyrim as a JRPG. What would happen if the beloved Elder Scrolls franchise took a JRPG turn into a wholly different area of game design territory? Would it be a turn for the better, or worse? One would need to consider whose questionable hands the game would fall into. Examples could consist of studios like Square Enix, Atlus and Nintendo.
Is the idea of an open world initially that of WRPG developers? or are Japanese designers taking influence in their own development of RPGs, which includes Western RPG elements? I’ve always wanted to draw attention to the similarities and differences between both WRPGs and JRPGs for much of this year. But it is important to explore what makes JRPGs particular as a subsection of the RPG genre.
Firstly, I think it’s crucial to point out that JRPGs aren’t just limited to storylines with downtrodden protagonists and oversized swords. Generally, many JRPGs have turn based combat systems, linear storyline development and epic overarching narratives. Yet many games have broken with this tradition. The Final Fantasy series over the past few years has slowly moved towards faster paced gameplay and a simplification of storyline development. This has resulted in the foregrounding of linear storytelling.
Linearity has always existed within a plethora of JRPG titles, with Final Fantasy VII being a prime example of the main story being the centre of attention. Side stories offered space for character development, and were additional in nature. Skyrim unlike Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger and games from the Persona series doesn’t have an identifiable cast of ‘main’ party characters in which the story is developed. A Bethesda game like Skyrim allows the player the freedom to cast their own twist upon the origins of a character with an intimate process in which a character can be tailored to the player’s wants and needs. Your character doesn’t have to be typecast.
In Skyrim, your character is meant to be an extension of your own viewpoint and the medium for your own story to be told. One which fits your own decisions and choices made throughout the game. In JRPGs, the main character is the primary driver of the story and is your window into the world of the game. Skyrim provides a more active role for the player. If Skyrim were to be a JRPG the method of storytelling Bethesda employs would be ineffective. Perhaps, this may boil down to a cultural difference in the ways stories are told in Eastern and Western cultures, and different levels of assessment for the role of the character within the overall narrative of the game.
A JRPG will typically always have a main cast of characters which builds upon character relationships for major dramatic effect later on in the storyline of the game. Limitations on divergent storytelling are not present in Skyrim. Due in part, to the overwhelmingly large map that creates a base for many branching storylines meaning that if you finish one side quest it may lead to another. It is more interactive than the JRPG formulaic approach of letting the story unfold within one direction. Giving the player a few choice endings in the end and providing a layer of replay value in the game. Skyrim simply would not fit within those restrictions. I’m not arguing that JRPGs don’t have branching storylines. Indeed, they do have branching side stories where character development may take place.
However, a WRPG like Skyrim places dialogue choice, hours of gameplay, the vastness of the map and areas in the forefront of game design as the main appeal of the game. The incentive for exploration in JRPGs like those of the Final Fantasy tradition is the promise of upping levels, new weapons and loot. A game like Skyrim whilst promising such benefits will take the time to tease out the lore and story side of things within the game, and depending on the choices you make the story told will be tailored your character creation. Whilst a game like Final Fantasy will be limited to stock story options with no true deviation and variation in the storyline.
Aesthetically, Skyrim follows a different approach to visual and audio design than the typical JRPG which affects the construction of the narrative. Skyrim is more about decisions and is dependent on in-game visuals. The world of Skyrim cannot be as visually stunning as that which is found in a game like Final Fantasy XIII because of its open world nature. By the same token, Skyrim is not decidedly an ugly game, but still has vast beautiful vistas and has to compromise a certain amount of visual fidelity found in JRPG equivalents. Otherwise, the game can’t fully fulfil promises of free-form exploration and questing.
Lastly, one of the most integral parts of an RPG is its combat, skills and levelling up systems. An effective discussion of these elements in both JRPGs and WRPGs would take up more space than I could allocate in this column. But I can try to elaborate somewhat. Skyrim has a slightly different levelling system to that of a JRPG. A JRPG has level progression relative to the acquisition of a certain amount of experience points. Normally spread across a party of characters.
Skyrim’s levelling up system is directly connected to your fighting style in-game and what abilities, weapons and spells you choose to use. The amount of usage is then reflected in the levelling up of those core skills and abilities you constantly use. This means your character is directly representative of your unique play style whilst a JRPG may cater to only a select few play styles. Combat in JRPGs is more structured than in Skyrim which offers a free flow in the weapons, spells and abilities you can specialise in. A traditional JRPG prefers class orientation and strict choices in what you can and cannot do within the confines of combat.
Ultimately, JRPGs and WRPGs like Skyrim differ because of their overall structure. The trouble with translating an open world experience into a formulaic JRPG is that tensions would emerge. However, I shouldn’t dismiss such possibilities as improbable. Although a minor section of JRPGs may not stick to the formula; others conform steadily to the tropes. Moreover, I can’t predict the future. Square Enix seem to be considering Western audiences with the change in the combat system of the Final Fantasy franchise. Maybe an open world Square RPG is in the works, or the HD remake of Final Fantasy VII that everyone hopes for is on its way. It is plausible and at the same time doubtful.