When we left the roundtable, Patrick Gann threw down the gauntlet with his claim that: "even more than their Japanese counterparts, Western RPGs are going nowhere." We pick up with Pat's supporting evidence to this claim while also looking at the changing nature of emotion, story-telling, and music.
Eric Farand, Editor-in-Chief
Pat, do you care to justify your claim about the future of Western RPGs?
Patrick Gann, Chief Soundtracks Editor
Sure, but in order to do so, let me give you a brief history of how I started playing games so that you can understand where I think they're going. I was raised on standard Japanese console RPG fare. I bought everything Squaresoft released, good or bad, throughout an entire decade. And I loved it all.
My experience with Western RPGs is linked, of course, to the PC. My first RPG on the PC was the original Elder Scrolls game, Arena. I also got a hold on the SSI D&D games (Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession, Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, and Menzoberranzen). I loved these as well.
The Japanese RPGs served to tell me a story in a fun, colorful world with memorable characters. Games like Chrono Trigger, Wild Arms, and Tales of Destiny are all examples of what I loved in a J-RPG.
The American-made stuff was great too, but for completely different reasons. I learned a lot about customizing a character, particularly with equipment and statistics. The first Elder Scrolls was great because I could do anything I wanted. I could create my own spells, break into people's houses, walk huge distances from town to town in randomly generated fields: what more was there to ask for?
Well, there was one thing I wanted that I never did find in the Western RPGs: a story.
Damian Thomas, Chief Reviews Editor
Wait a minute Pat, you’re telling me that Western RPGs don't have stories?
Let me finish here. The SSI games did tell pretty good stories (heck, they were based on books!). But none of them had really memorable central characters. Furthermore, they were all based on realism: realistic character design, even in a fantasy world. Think of the point-and-click adventure classic, Myst, and its sequel Riven. The worlds were lush and beautiful, but live actors were filmed to be the main characters.
Mark P. Tjan, Previews Editor
But those games were a long time ago and things have changed since then, haven't they?
Not as much as you might think, Mark. Take the Elder Scrolls series as an example. Oblivion is a beautiful game: tons of graphical innovation went into it. But at the end of the day, it's the same game as Arena. Really, it's the same! I could (and do) have just as much fun with the first game as with the fourth (not surprisingly, both are equally bug-ridden too).
In stark contrast, Japanese RPGs have continued to grow on all scopes. The graphics continue to improve: so too with the storylines. Sure, there are plenty of cookie-cutter cutesy-anime characters running around, especially in those 2D niche titles. But scripts are getting longer and more complex as the years go by. The philosophical themes we've seen in games like Xenosaga, Shadow Hearts, and even some of the Final Fantasy titles far exceed what I've seen in most Western RPGs.
Pat, you hit on some good points and one that I want to talk about.
What's that chief?
For me, what separates JRPGs from WRPGs is the "emotional" aspect. I love Oblivion right now and am enjoying every minute of it, however, I'm not sure if I'll remember it as fondly in a couple of years the way that I remember old JRPGs: like Lunar, for example. There's something special about JRPGs that have yet to be replicated in western RPGs. The total package of artful graphics, memorable melodies, character interaction and development and immersive storyline is what makes the JRPG stand out.
I'm not sure if I understand. Can you tell me more about emotion and be more specific?
It's an intangible; it can't be entirely explained. Look at how many people still say to this day that the best Final Fantasy game ever is Final Fantasy IV or VI or VII. If you REALLY compare the early Final Fantasy titles, they obviously can't compete with more recent games like Final Fantasy X or Final Fantasy XII. The reason that people still say that those old games are better is because of that intangible factor. A sort of nostalgia associated with the emotional aspect that the game had on you when you originally played it. I've played Final Fantasy IV only recently for the first time on Game Boy Advance (after playing more recent FF games like FFX) and to be honest, I thought it was average. The same thing can be said with Chrono Trigger, that I played last fall for the first time. I just don't have that emotional attachment to it that people who played it back then now feel. THAT is what Japanese RPGs have that western RPGs don't. That special something that makes you remember an RPG fondly even though it's not THAT good by today's standards.
Mark P. Tjan
Dude, you’re so wrong about Chrono Trigger. But that's a different argument. What about Pat's claim about Oblivion? Isn't it a better game than the original Elder Scrolls?
I could be wrong but I don't think Western RPG fans will come out and argue that the first Elders Scroll game was better than Oblivion. With better graphics, sound, options, gameplay mechanics, more freedom, there's just no way that previous incarnations could match this new version. That's because there isn't that "intangible" that I'm talking about. There are no memorable characters, there are no memorable plot twists. There is no emotion involved. That's the difference.
Oh boy, you brought up my favorite word: sound. Anybody want to talk about the difference between the music and soundtracks in Japanese and Western RPGs?
Western RPGs try to make music more like a film score, and I think I know why. In Western RPGs, since the player drives the story more than the game itself, designers have to make their music more general, in case what the player chooses is not what the planned music would convey. So a lot of it is very background-ish and vague. JRPGs, on the other hand, know what the story is going to be, and can tailor the music more to the scene at hand, creating a stronger bond between music and scene, and therefore making it more memorable.
Mark P. Tjan
Damian made a good point: There's a lot of very general-sounding music in Western RPGs, to the point that I'd say they're almost bland. Consider for instance the BGMs off Suikoden's soundtrack and how well composed they are to evoke a mood. They aren't necessarily character-specific, but they are designed to evoke emotion, which I think a lot of Western RPGs don't even attempt. I can't even write that off as generality, so much as I don't believe that music has been as thoroughly developed for Western gaming as it has for Eastern.
On this, I'm clearly biased. Japanese compositions make up a good 85% of my music library, and it's now over 17 DAYS long! Everything from the familiar, lulling strains of Uematsu to the spirited rhythms of Kajiura run through my list, and much more.
One question lingers in my mind: why?
Why do I like Japanese RPGs most? Why do other people despise J-RPGs and only play the American-made stuff?
I have a theory, and it's bound to make me look like a self-absorbed, pseudo-elitist gamer. Here it is: Western RPGs are made for immediate gratification, whereas Japanese RPGs bring about lasting rewards.
Here he goes again...
That's a wrap for today folks. Come back next time when our staff talks about instant gratification in RPGs and how MMORPGs factor into the east vs. west debate.