Editorial: Japanese RPGs - The Young Adult GenreWherein we find an answer to one of life's little conundrums.09.04.12 - 11:09 AM
In the world of books, the young adult label transcends marketing. The genre label certainly manipulates consumers and makes it easier for them to purchase books by creating familiar wells to draw from during each visit to the library or bookstore, but there are traits shared by these books and no others. These are stories best read when one is a young adult, and they almost always feature young adult characters, just as children's books usually have child protagonists. One does not necessitate the other, however, and thus there are additional commonalities, such as a focus on plot, clear and succinct prose, and themes relevant to young adults. Most high schoolers don't want to read about the power of redemption, the nature of grief, or any of the few other typical themes rehashed by "literary fiction." Instead, they read coming of age stories, high school dramas, and morally questionable vampire romances.
The young adult genre is a true one, then, but does it extend to other forms of entertainment and art? Certainly there can be said to be young adult films, and not just those adaptations of popular young adult books, like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Consider The Breakfast Club (among other John Hughes films), Over the Edge, and recent films like , an adaptation of a less popular book. Music is slightly trickier, although many could agree that the music you discover when you're 15 doesn't hold the same power ten years later. Tastes mature, and that maudlin love song you repeatedly listened to in high school no longer speaks to your adult self. In fact, we're often embarrassed by the things we liked when we were young. Young adult is not so much a genre, then, as a type of story.
Where among the video game world can we find young adult stories, then? Certainly there are children's games – those simple, Elmo-infested games often found on Nintendo consoles and handhelds, for example. They feature tasks and characters that could only possibly appeal to children. Young adult games must lay just beyond...
I posit that, with exceptions, the young adult genre of video games falls within the realm of the Japanese RPG.
What are some of the most common traits of the conventional JRPG – some of which are now considered hackneyed and undesirable? JRPGs typically feature teenage characters in a narrative more concerned with plot than theme. The stories are often about growing up and self-discovery, and there's often a melodramatic love story involving a heterosexual couple. The dialogue is usually easy to follow, and the characters have simple, unsophisticated problems. What are these but the traits of most young adult books, and, ultimately, young adult stories?
And even if JRPGs aren't always the easiest games to play, they're typically more forgiving than those from other genres. One needn't have incredible twitch skills to beat most JRPGs, even those reliant on action, such as the Tales franchise. The skills developed after years of playing games aren't often needed to succeed with the common JRPG, and thus the genre acts as a sort of gateway to the video game world, much as young adult literature encourages its readers to keep reading into adulthood. Furthermore, the gameplay mechanics are largely the same from JRPG to JRPG, just as the words in young adult books are largely those the reader has encountered elsewhere. Games are made of gameplay whereas books are made of words, and the young adult genre provides a familiar and accessible environment. JRPGs provide that, particularly those governed by the classic turn-based battle.
Save your outrage, because I intend no debasement of the JRPG or those who love them. Being "young adult" is not inherently bad, nor does it mean adults cannot – or should not – enjoy JRPGs or young adult books. After all, how many adult readers has The Hunger Games found? Are they ashamed of their tastes? If they are, they have no reason to be; we enjoy what we enjoy. Some of the best JRPGs, including Persona 3 and 4 are exemplary young adult stories full of characters finding themselves, which is just what young adults try to do.
I write this as an answer I've been seeking to one of my life's challenging questions: why have I fallen out of love with the JRPG? I know this question haunts others as well, many who, like me, first played RPGs because of Final Fantasy or the SNES classics. Many cite the relative conservatism of the genre – called stagnation by many – as the reason, but I disagree. First person shooters haven't changed much, and I have lost no love for them. Others might claim that the good companies or the good developers have moved on or gone sour. A few might echo the criticisms used by those who never liked JRPGs in the first place: spiky hair, "emo" characters, and the overabundance of cutscenes, but these individuals are merely piteously self-unaware. They have forgotten or are afraid to admit that they once enjoyed anime character designs, melodrama, and a verbose story, and they certainly can't determine why this love has vanished. Perhaps the genre hasn't tired of these building blocks, but you have.
The real answer is that we grow up, and, although nostalgia has us in its seemingly inexhaustible spell, we can't force ourselves to like something we've moved beyond.
As I mature, I usually find the melodrama of the JRPG irrelevant and sometimes even fatuous. Once, the characters and their struggles spoke to me, but I am not the same person I was ten years ago, or even the same person that rose out of bed yesterday morning. I appreciate the genre and even enjoy celebrating it at times, just as I respect the books and films that are no longer appropriate for me. Of course, I will enjoy JRPGs in the future (and not just those with "Souls" in the name – perhaps our most adult games), and there are exceptions to what I've laid down here. I'm not incapable of loving a JRPG, just as I'm not incapable of loving a young adult book. For the most part, I simply enjoy different things now. Such is the nature of growing older.