Originals

Classic JRPGs Did World-Building Like No Other Games

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Wilt thou change this world... Or wilt thou change thyself?

July 21, 2022

There has been a recent surge of JRPG revivals, in the form of remasters, HD remakes, or spiritual successors. These games contain complex narratives and systems that redefined the way we look at our own engagement with video games and storytelling in general. However, those who didn’t get the chance to try these games might not be aware of the unique traits that warranted their remasters and remakes.

The appeal back then was how the worlds of these returning JRPGs were interactive and mind-bending in ways that may never cross anyone’s mind, such as Chrono Cross’s two parallel worlds, Final Fantasy X’s unique Blitzball sport, and Radiata Stories’s rich recruitment system. These worlds were truly alive, and hold lessons in design and storytelling that other games can still learn from today.

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Most discussions about JRPG worlds boil down to which NPCs had the best dialogue, but there is more to NPCs in a video game than just chit-chat or branching text choices. In games like Xenoblade Chronicles or Radiata Stories, all NPCs had this complex network of connections where you had to figure out how each NPC was living their life and how they all related to one another. All their side-quests are also interlinked, even across different regions. You really had to listen to them and make sense of what they said.

Radiata Stories, for example, had a thoroughly developed NPC life map, where each of the available (and recruitable) 177 NPCs has their own lifestyle, job, and schedule, governed by the game’s internal clock system. You could only recruit certain characters at specific times of the day, over the course of more than 1 day, after certain story events, or if the protagonist belongs to their faction (Human/Non-Human). Having certain times also implied the existence of certain preferred spots, so you had to listen carefully to their dialogue, habits, and where they usually spend their time.

There were also many unusual circumstances for recruiting characters, some of them requiring careful planning around their daily schedule and initiating the chance by yourself. It was common for JRPGs to have non-moving NPCs (Like shopkeepers and such), and reuse their sprites in different towns. In Radiata City, the main hub of the human population in Radiata Stories, there were over 100 different people who were constantly moving and living, and they all had their distinct looks and personality quirks.

These quirks were not just limited to daily conversation. Take Marietta for example, whose clumsiness kept haunting her even in battles, and she would fall a lot in front of the enemy, leaving her exposed to their attacks. Others like Lord Lucian had a direct connection to the fate of the world, adding complexity to their character. Choosing the human or the non-human path can unlock different scenarios for him, and control who can be recruited, and who can defect from the party throughout the game.

The classic JRPGs would even craft their own fictional sports and integrates it into the story, like Final Fantasy X’s Blitzball. Tidus, the protagonist, was not just tasked with saving the world from evil, but he was also the star player for the Zanarkand Apes, one of the main Blitzball teams in the world of the game. This was a key part of his characterization, tying him to the world and other main figures of the story.

Tidus was connected to the NPCs of Spira (the world of FFX) not just through a few lines of dialogue, but a multi-layered web of relationships affected by things like religion, different languages (Albehd Language), and a national sport (Blitzball). The interesting thing here was how the NPCs use Blitzball to take their minds off a world threat known as SIN, which deemed as a punishment from their god for depending on technology and other foreign languages.

Mini-games usually help you take your mind off the main story and its themes, but here they increase your understanding of the world – Even collecting the books that help you decipher this language was its own mini-game. The end goal is to help you understand the ideas and thoughts of an entire civilisation you did not care about before. Having these separate activities and beliefs causes many positive and negative collisions with NPCs that deal with the topics of racism, conservatism, and religion, among other things.

The sequel to Final Fantasy X, Final Fantasy X-2, goes even further in that regard, making you do publicity campaigns and holding concerts in order to ease the confusion and bewilderment of the citizens of Spira. In Final Fantasy, the world is your number one priority, and the world-building influences your party’s relationships with everyone else – it’s not just there for aesthetic purposes.

In Chrono Cross, people are the ones who give life to the world and influence it. In the aforesaid games, your interactions with NPCs deepened your trust level and progression. In this game, the total opposite happens. You gradually become detached from the people you’ve cultivated friendships and bonds with, through twists and turns unique to the world of this game.

In Chrono Cross, you have the ability to freely explore two worlds: one where you were born and lived normally, and one where you died 17 years earlier. This simple fact will cause a great distortion in every location and person you meet across the two worlds, especially when you are forcibly teleported to the other world at the beginning with no way of returning. This unexpected trip comes with a devastating sense of helplessness, and how you go about resolving it depends on the amount of integrity you have.

The game experiments with the factors that define a human relationship, and plays around with them. Would you befriend the same people if they had other backgrounds, or if you looked different to them? As you go on, you become robbed of not just your own past, but your friends and even your own body. There are a lot of developments that make you question what exactly defines your presence in the hearts of people, and you will begin to feel how whimsical fate can be.

People who used to deal with you based on a relationship of mutual trust start asking for money, while others who used to be amiable begin to act hostile, even though they are the same people you knew. They act differently because they had a preconceived image of you, and could not cope with the changes you kept going through. We are asked to keep going, even if the things we are attached to are lost.

It takes a great deal of effort to create two overlapping overworld maps, with different interpretations for all the characters and the scenarios in addition to the cause-and-effect between every character and their related circumstances. By the end of Chrono Cross you come to appreciate not just the world crafted within the game, but the grand scheme of life itself. It is always changing and unpredictable, yet enchanting and worth fighting for.

The narratives and twists provided by these worlds have shaped JRPGs and produced stories unique to the genre. We need to bring those games back. The HD-2D remake technology employed by Square Enix is a step in the right direction, giving these stories a place on modern platforms, so they can inspire a new generation of players and creators.

Originals
Mohamed Hassan

Mohamed (He/Him) from Egypt is Interested in gaming as a storytelling medium and how it can give shape to new emotions and life lessons. He is currently learning the Japanese language and is interested on learning more about the Japanese culture and other cultures and how they are represented in gaming. Also a Long term fan of JRPGs, Indie games and VIsual Novels.

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