In a recent interview with Edge, Square-Enix president Yoichi Wada made mention that he wouldn’t be opposed to the idea of a Final Fantasy title that was created on the input of Western developers (possibly Square-Enix’s own Eidos, for one example?). Now, after over 20 years of Final Fantasies, they’re open to the idea of reaching out and stretching their legs, getting development input from the Western side of things.
Now, the idea itself is sound. I can definitely see areas that Japanese RPGs could improve upon, and they should take a lesson from their Western counterparts. So, I’m not saying this whole thing is a horrible idea. But, there are a couple things that bother me about this possibility.
1) Western RPGs are so dark and foreboding: They seem to all be set in some sort of medieval-type era with demons, dark things from the depths of the planet, dwarves, orcs and lots of blood. Diablo, The Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age: Origins (among many others) all follow this doom and gloom approach. I would absolutely not want to see that permeate the typically more high-fantasy and brighter settings of JRPGs. This also bleeds over into the characters themselves and the atmosphere surrounding them and their story (if there is a decent one) is usually heavy, like a fog that you need a knife to cut through. I much prefer the more colorful, optimistic tones and characters of the typical Japanese style (although some deviate from this formula like Demon’s Souls).
2) Western RPGs tend to let the story suffer in favor of generic characters and sandbox-style game play: It’s hard to really connect with the characters when things can become too generic. Too many choices and character-created and named generic characters affect how we perceive them within the story and can change the emotional impact of what are supposed to be major plot points. I don’t want Japanese RPGs to lose their flare for the dramatic, the grip they typically have on our emotions, the connection we have to the story and the specific, pre-defined characters within it. [For more on this topic of how generic characters and extreme non-linearity in the game structure affects a player's connection to the entire experience, check out my article from last week on the topic.]
The point is, I wouldn’t want JRPGs to lose their identity, but other than that, I’m open to the idea of Western developed Japanese-style RPGs. Perhaps it could even spice up the sub-genre a bit, wouldn’t you say? Japanese RPGs are already big on multiple endings, but there are usually very few choices to make during the game itself. As a recent example, to see dialog bits in Star Ocean: The Last Hope, all you have to do is complete certain dialog tree prerequisites with certain characters sometimes in a certain order. There are no real choices. Without going to extremes, can we see a few choices here and there that might enhance the story but not cause a disconnect between the player and the characters? It’s possible, I’m sure. In the same vein, can we have some deep, mature topics within the game without turning everything into a dreary, doom-and-gloom experience? I would think so, I’ve seen it done.
Again, I reiterate: What I’m worried about most is JRPGs losing their uniqueness, their quirkiness, their identity. That is something I hope they never lose. However, I feel they can still be influenced for the better by taking a page out of the Western RPG book of tricks.