Case File 07: RPGs - East vs. West
What do you look for in a role-playing game?
By Benjamin Turner and Christian Nutt | July 29, 2003

Welcome to Spy / CounterSpy, in which two GameSpy editors give their takes on issues related to gaming. At the end of the article is a link to the forums, where you can have your own say in the debate.

While the modern electronic role-playing game was created by Westerners, in the mid-80s the Japanese took the basic elements of the genre and began creating a very different beast. Today, Japanese RPGs tend to be linear and story-based, while Western games are often more non-linear and feature more character customization. Each approach has its merits ... and detriments. Which do you like more?

Stories are nice. Gameplay is better!
Benjamin Turner, PS2 Editor
The first RPG I played was Enix's Dragon Warrior, and it was only the first in what would become a steady diet of Japanese-developed RPGs (JRPGs). I cheered when my party beat Chaos in Final Fantasy; I sort of heavily sighed when Nei met her tragic fate in Phantasy Star II. And I was exuberant when we got to fly to the moon in Final Fantasy IV -- too cool! That was probably my peak, though; after that, few RPGs seemed as huge in scope or as startlingly original as FFIV had. In fact, I noticed that the games were starting to repeat themselves. Most JRPGs seemed to follow similar formulas and trot out predictable clichés, and I was no longer able to lose myself in their plots for hours on end.

While I continued to play JRPGs, this feeling of discontent only grew as the years went by, finally reaching its zenith with the 1997 release of Final Fantasy VII. Outside of the fancy graphics, it struck me as completely mediocre. The characters were bland caricatures, the translation was nearly sub-literate, and even Uematsu's vaunted soundtrack seemed depressingly lackluster. But as you probably know, the game was a smash hit and many players list it as their favorite RPG of all time. Had I finally gone full circle and come to hate RPGs?

I thought so at first, but then I remembered a Western-developed computer RPG (CRPG) I'd toyed with back in 1992, called Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. It was unlike anything I'd ever played on consoles; it had a first-person perspective, wonderfully written text, very dark atmosphere, and the ability to actually create my own characters. Most strikingly, there was a great sense of freedom; I could do anything I wanted to at any time, within limits. The world of Lost Guardia was more like a sandbox to play in than a stage on which to watch a scripted play. I would later find that some of these traits, like greater freedom and player-developed characters, were common to many CRPGs, just as long, linear plots were endemic to Japanese games.

After trying out some more CRPGs, it became apparent that RPGs still held a great deal of appeal for me; I had just been playing the wrong type. Some people enjoy the conventions of JRPGs, but I'm past the point where they can interest me. I want to create my own characters instead of playing someone else's; I want to explore a world at my own pace rather than being shuffled through a pre-planned, linear progression. Most of all, I want to be able to replay a favorite game and have a very different experience. Thanks to an emphasis on player freedom above plot, this is where many CRPGs excel.

That's not to say that I hate JRPGs. As Christian often tells me, recent years have seen some nice steps forward on the Japanese side; in fact, I really liked this year's convention-demolishing Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter (my current D-Ratio is 1/8). Still, for every Dragon Quarter it seems there are many more Xenosagas, JRPGs that value linear storytelling over exploration or free-form gameplay. That is not for me, so as it stands now, I cast my lot with Western RPGs.

A perfect synthesis.
Christian Nutt, Xbox Editor
The Japanese RPG is by far the more interesting of the two design schools to me. I'll admit that my experience with Western RPGs is comparatively limited, but the things that Japanese RPGs do really well, they do really well. For example, I love the approach Japanese developers often take towards battle systems. It's often suggested that Japanese RPGs' battle systems all boil down to hitting the same button until all of the enemies are dead, and often games come up with nothing more imaginative than that. However, the best games offer systems that emphasize strategy and timing.

Final Fantasy X replaced the series' aging system with a more intricate turn-based battle scheme that features more elaborate strategy based around special attacks and timing. Later battles in the game require dedicated planning to beat efficiently. Xenosaga's battle system also has a more strategic bent, with a variety of attack options with different ranges and a modifier gauge to take into account, too.

I'm extremely fond of tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile for the original PlayStation, which offers combo-based, more action-oriented battles: you have to not only worry about timing, but using the correct characters and attacks in the right combination to achieve the combos which power your super attacks. I could list tons more console RPG's with a variety of great battle systems, but I'll stop here. Conversely, it seems that many Western RPGs (KOTOR, I'm looking at you) are more concerned with the rules underlying the battle system rather than the experience of battle itself, and I don't find that nearly as engaging.

Movie or game?
The character building system in Japanese RPGs is typically much less flexible, but it's also much more focused -- as it's typically oriented towards battle prowess, and often clever systems like FFX's Sphere Grid arise from this. Another targeted aspect of Japanese RPGs is the world: Final Fantasy X and Xenosaga, to use those games again, didn't offer much exploration at all. In truth, that's just cutting the dross and using design resources intelligently.

As far as story goes, dialogue is vastly important to these games, and while it's interesting to have choices and explore different paths, the narrative of Western RPGs is often less than focused. The character development in contemporary console RPGs is extremely complex and nuanced. Conversely, you're not offered the "role playing" experience that the genre's moniker might suggest, but we use that term only because these two evolutionary paths are derived from the same decades-old origin.

In truth, Japanese RPGs are not role playing experiences in the pen and paper tradition, and I'm fine with that -- in fact, I actively enjoy the tightly woven narratives and character development of the best contemporary console RPGs. That sums it up: every aspect of a great console RPG is impressively fine-tuned. While there are entertaining elements to Western RPGs, such as dialogue trees, that I'd like to see Japanese developers experiment with, the way that all of the design elements of a great Japanese RPG work in concert to offer a truly engaging experience as a whole is what really excites me the most.

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