Off To A Slow Start: JRPG StoriesAndrew Barker explores the sluggish opening hours that seem traditional for JRPGs.02.21.14 - 12:06 PM
How many times have you sat through the opening hours of a game and said: "I wish they'd get on with it?" While this problem is encountered across a wide range of games, it is perhaps most prevalent and noted in the role-playing genre, specifically games in the Japanese style. Nearly every time a new JRPG is released, there will inevitably be players bored by the opening sequences who want to get on with the core of the game. But are slow starts always a bad thing? Do they add anything to a game, or should the slow stories go?
I recently played through Tales of Xillia on PS3, but it took me quite some time. While I didn't dislike it, it seemed that the characters weren't developing, and the story wasn't really going anywhere. Nevertheless, I decided to stick with it, and finally, at about 15 hours in, the plot started to take some interesting turns and pull me in. Though some of you may prefer slow starts, I think it's safe to say that any story-focused game that takes 15 hours to get going is doing something drastically wrong.
Are slow starts always a problem? I think this is where we begin to have a terminology issue. By its nature, a slow start is a problem. It implies that something is dragging when it should be moving more swiftly. So, yes, "slow starts" have no place in video games. But in many cases, what may be considered a slow start by some is merely a setting of the scene. Numerous games have incredibly complex worlds that take time to introduce, since dumping it all on the player at once is headache inducing. Final Fantasy XIII is a good example of where starting fast is not always helpful, since so much of the world building is confined to the dry, dull encyclopaedia entries.
When Tales of Graces was released, I saw many complaints about how the child section of the game dragged on. I happened to love it. Aside from Hubert peeing his pants, I thought it was adorable. Obviously, mind-set and personal preference will also determine what one player loves and another struggles to tolerate. I suspect there are many of you reading this who will disagree with my feelings on the first 15 hours of Tales of Xillia, too. So, perhaps slow starts can be forgiven in worlds with large and complex narratives. In those cases, "paced starts" may be a better way to describe them.
Or is it that simple? Let's take a look at some fast-starters. In the western world of games, Baldur's Gate II takes off at lightning speed with Jon Irenicus torturing and interrogating the main character. Of course, since it's a sequel, much of the expansive and complex world and story is already known. That said, I, and many others, played Baldur's Gate II first, and still managed to understand the setting. Final Fantasy VII is another great example. Within a couple of minutes, Cloud and Barrett are leaping off a train and taking out guards. We have no idea what they're up to, what the world is like, or even who Sephiroth is, but what both these games do successfully is string you along with new information. They don't attempt to dump it all on you at once, nor leave you to read through dozens of encyclopaedia entries. Instead, they manage to tell an exciting and interesting story from the moment you begin.
The Shin Megami Tensei has been doing just that for some time, most notably in recent years with Persona 3. The game begins with Yukari putting a gun to her head while coffins line the streets as the dark hour begins. It seems that games with modern or futuristic settings manage more interesting starts than traditional fantasy worlds and stories. Perhaps this is partly due to the history of high fantasy novels they're drawing from. One opening I believe manages to blend all these things together, and happens to be one of my favourites, is Final Fantasy XII. Here we are introduced to the world of Ivalice through action, intrigue, loss and love, all within the space of seven minutes. Poor Rasler Nabradia doesn't make it past the first in-game movie, yet I remembered and respected him long after I was done with the game. Sure, then we're stuck with Vaan and Penelo for a while, but don't forget that exciting first gameplay sequence with Basch!
I think one of the biggest contributors to these slow starts is unnecessary dialogue. If you've played any JRPG before, you'll be aware of lengthy dialogue between characters where nothing important will actually be said. It's a common trait of the genre found in everything from Tales to Atelier to Dark Souls – yes, even Dark Souls. Some games even use it as a primary focus; Compile Heart games are notorious for more inane dialogue than story progression. Work all these needless details into the opening sequences, and the player has wasted time reading content that neither adds to the story nor develops the characters. Of course, there's always a place for humorous banter, even senseless, but for those of us who have played games in the genre for over a decade, much of it has simply become rote and predictable.
But isn't it that predictability that we love? Often, it is. I already know what to expect when I load up a Tales game for the first time, and I look forward to it. Yet that shouldn't stop a game from taking risks or simply getting on with the story, rather than fleshing out unnecessary moments in the game. Are paced, careful starts always a bad thing? Definitely not. Taking time to explore, explain and grow into a world can be important. Slow starts, however, need to go.