Recently, four of our dedicated editors sat down to talk about the development and future of the RPG genre. Specifically, they decided to focus their discussion on the ways in which the Western RPG has begun to become a distinctive sub-genre and how it differs from the Japanese RPG. In Part I of their discussion, our editors look at the formations of the distinct categories and how the games differ on a fundamental storytelling level.
Eric Farand, Editor-in-Chief
Can you guys quickly summarize what we mean by "Western" versus Japanese RPGs and tell us about some basic differences in terms of storytelling?
Damian Thomas, Chief Reviews Editor
Sure thing, Eric. Western RPGs came about based on the pen & paper games that arose in the '70s and '80s, and therefore focused on letting the player create the story by his/her actions, at least as much as was possible with the technology of the time. Japanese RPGs have been around since I started playing RPGs. I entered via the console forum, which basically meant Japanese-made games. There were exceptions–such as Ultima, that made it onto the NES–but by in large the majority were from Japan.
Mark P. Tjan, Previews Editor
And trust me when I say that the result is two totally different genres. One major component of most Japanese products is "masking," where an art style or role is simplified down for the main character so that the reader can become one with that character. By contrast, most other story figures are given a greater deal of complexity to enhance the difference between "you" and them.
And what affect does masking have on plot development, both in Western RPGs and Japanese ones?
Mark P. Tjan
Instead of speaking in general, let me give specific examples. Masking is not as customizable in JRPGs largely because of linearity, but Chrono Trigger serves as an example. Chrono is integral to the story, but his actual background is not at all interesting. He has no hidden secrets, no ancient past, nothing of the sort! He's a small-town kid who's become entangled in a huge web of karmic events, and must affect them accordingly. By contrast, Lucca, Marle, and all the others have far deeper developments. What Chrono serves to do is bring them all together, and without him they just don't function as well as they should.
In that regard, masking is done to help the story along, while in WRPGs, masking is done to help the statistics along. One example is Fable, where your entire character is a mask for you, but not because he contributes anything unique to the story. Rather, he is contributing to the statistics around him. WRPGs attempt to create choice and control, often successfully, by giving you freedom on when you do certain events. JRPGs restrict that control, and instead give you one event after another, thus reinforcing the linearity of things. You aren't being masked with the statistics of your character–that is, his or her relation to the game mechanics–but you are being masked by the story mechanics.
Mark nailed it right on the head. The divide between the two boils down to that point: freedom vs. linearity. Japanese RPGs are all about telling you the story, and that's probably why they shouldn't be called Role Playing Games in the traditional sense. After all, the term came from America to refer to games such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which each of the players chose a role and along with the Game Master created the story. Japanese RPGs rarely let you affect the outcome of the story, and even when they do, it's usually not to a great degree.
Patrick Gann, Chief Soundtracks Editor
Eric, you're the head honcho around here. What difference do you see between the two groups?
Personally, I feel there is a big difference in "style" and "feel" between the Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs. I have pretty much exclusively played Japanese RPGs in the past since I was never into Western RPGs, which were primarily on PCs and very Dungeons & Dragons-like. However, lately there are more and more Western RPGs that are appearing on consoles and I have started to appreciate them. Titles like Fable, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion have changed my views on Western RPGs and I now play both styles of RPGs and appreciate both in different ways. I still very much enjoy Japanese RPGs and I hope that the emergence of Western RPGs will only serve as a complement instead of a replacement for Japanese RPGs. I think that more than ever it's possible to enjoy both styles while in the past there were very distinct camps.
Pat, we know you always have strong opinions. Do you have anything to add that our readers might look forward to?
I know this may not be a fair thing to say, but I think that, even more than their Japanese counterparts, Western RPGs are going nowhere.
Well, that's it folks. Stay tuned for our next installment of the roundtable, where Pat will be bombarded with questions and the editors will look at the evolutions of the genres and the changing nature of emotion, story-telling, and music.