RPG Soapbox: The Genre Distinction

on November 23, 2011 10:00 AM

Especially this generation, there has been one gigantic, gaping divide between two different genre philosophies. We know them better as Japanese RPGs and Western RPGs. While they are both technically the same genre, they are so different from each other in design that they might as well be as different as a shooter is from a racing sim.

My issue with gamers in general when dealing with these two genres is many-fold, to be honest. I also think there’s a misconception in the industry, and between gamers in general, exactly what we’re talking about when we define these genres. So, please join me as I do a bit of ranting, hopefully you won’t be disappointed and will throw your two cents in on this entire clusterfrak of a topic in the comments.

This is Not a Geographical Debate
First off, I’d like to get one thing straight – this has nothing to do with where the game is primarily produced. This has everything to do with the philosophy behind the game design. Dark Souls is not a JRPG, it is a WRPG. Why? Because even though it was produced by a Japanese developer, the philosophy behind the design of the game is very Western. If there were to ever be a game that took the anime style of Tales of Xillia, but the design direction of Skyrim, and developed by SquareEnix, it would completely be a Western RPG.

This isn’t a geographical debate, it’s a matter of design philosophy. I do think sometimes people forget this, as well. Now that that is out of the way…

RPG Soapbox: The Genre Distinction

The Need for a Distinction
Let me make this very simple for you – I want to punch kittens every time some site (especially large, well-trafficked ones) toss up “Best RPG of…” lists and slap both JRPGs and WRPGs together. First off, this is a completely unfair comparison, much as I mentioned above. The two genres are so totally different that they are practically on separate ends of the spectrum. You simply can’t compare them within their wider genre like you can shooters or platform titles.

Secondly, these sites tend to focus almost exclusively on AAA, big budget titles, and more often than not, those are of the Western variety – the Skyrims of the world, if you will. The problem with that is simple: What makes an RPG great (and this really goes for any genre out there) is not the amount of money behind it, but the way it is executed. I don’t care if you have $100 to your name and build an RPG off of that – if you execute everything well, I’ll be nominating your title for RPG of the year over titles that had millions of macaroons behind it. That should be the philosophy of everyone in this industry.

It sickens me that the huge trailer and advertisement fest that is Spike’s Video Game Awards has no JRPGs in their “Best RPG of 2011” category, when titles like Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky and Radiant Historia are better than most of their nominations in any category, especially the RPG one. The solution is simple, but they’ll never do it just because of the kind of show it is – separate the RPGs into two genres. Lord knows they have tons of other useless categories, they can actually spare things to make a distinction that is actually helpful to the industry.

RPG Soapbox: The Genre Distinction

They Mix Like Oil and Water
This is directed more at developers, especially Japanese ones – for the love of all that is good on this earth, stop trying to bastardize your games by catering toward the Western crowd. Every…single…time…this has been attempted it has failed in some way, shape or form. Every time. The company that is at the biggest fault here is the one I grew up loving – SquareEnix. Two examples would be The Last Remnant and Final Fantasy XIII.

First off, I just want to say that I personally did enjoy both these games, but not because they were geared toward Western audiences. I enjoyed them for the shreds of JRPG that were still in them. The thing here is that fans of each genre actually want each genre (with a few exceptions, which I will discuss next). If I want to play a JRPG, I want a defined, more linear story with characters that are set in stone with established back stories. I don’t want any of this lame “create your own blank slate character” crap. I come to play JRPGs for their characters, the story and how they interact with each other. I don’t need an open world with a bazillion different things to see and do, I don’t need total and complete customization of every aspect of my character. I just need a direction to go and a story to experience. That’s it.

Now, if I want the experience a Western RPG like Skyrim, of course I’d look to that genre. I don’t in any way want them to mix, because they’re highly different types of games and I’m going to be in the mood for one or the other, not both mashed into one product.

That being said, I don’t necessarily want the developers to stop trying, per se, but create new IPs for that, don’t try to change your existing ones to mold into some perceived notion that gamers now want both, or that JRPGs are dying so that you have to start westernizing your games. We don’t want that, and JRPGs are not dying by any stretch of the imagination. Enough already.

RPG Soapbox: The Genre Distinction

Gamers, You Don’t Get Off the Hook, Either
The vast majority of the time, you have your JRPG fans, and those who are not (who typically enjoy the WRPG experience). JRPG fans want their JPRG, and those who don’t, don’t.

However, there is a subset of gamers that feel they should both be mashed together. When a highly anticipated JRPG comes out that doesn’t have some feature of a WRPG that they feel like they want, they cry like babies and come to internet forums the world over to be all emo and crap. Waaahhh, this game is too linear, waahhh, that game doesn’t have enough side quests, waaahhhh.

If you want a game that isn’t linear, go play an Elder Scrolls title. It’s that simple. I understand that a game like Final Fantasy XIII is very linear, moreso than many would have liked. I get that. You know what? That does not make it a bad game! It just means you don’t like it like that. Whether your thoughts are echoed by the majority or not is a moot point. A game is not bad just because you, or any portion of gamers, do not like something. If you don’t like it, don’t play it. I absolutely dislike shooters, I dislike Grand Theft Auto, I dislike most sports games – does that make Battlefield 3, GTAIV and Madden 12 bad games? Absolutely not. It just means I don’t like them.

People need to get it through their heads that this industry is not there to solely cater to their individual whims. If you want that ability, go into game design yourself and create your own experience just the way you want it.

The Conclusion of the Matter
So, basically, I’m saying that these two very distinct and strong sub-genres are a very necessary distinction, but I think the industry needs to start picking up on that. It’s unfair to group them together when they are so very different. This goes for awards and lists, like I mentioned, and it goes for developers and gamers in general, as well.

I’m sure no one would dare think of putting Skyward Sword and Modern Warfare 3 into the same category, competing against each other (aside from maybe Game of the Year, but who is going to nominate MW3 for that, anyway?). To that same point, it’s very much not ideal to throw all RPGs into the same pot, because they are just as different.

 /  Reviews Editor / PR
Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.