The JRPG Conundrum (part 1?)

It’s about that time of year again. Last May, Bioware’s Daniel Erickson claimed that Final Fantasy 13 was not an RPG, explaining that it had no character creation or goofily obvious dialog trees. The reaction was about as expected from the itinerant gaming pundits on the internet: a huge debate over semantics. Of course, most of these guys either have short memories or have not studied their hobby particularly well or, for that matter, have not actually swam past the familiar genre points of Final Fantasy 7, Baldur’s Gate, and Diablo. If they had, they would realize that CRPGs are nothing like the tabletop games that spawned them because no computer program can replicate the human involvement of an actual dungeon master, much less players. Erickson’s definition actually eliminates not only Japanese developed RPGs, but a large portion of the genre’s progenitors.

Semantic arguments serve an important purpose, of course; if one cannot argue about the definition of words, what else can one have to argue about? (What is an RPG if words have no meaning? … sorry, I couldn’t resist) The problem with the argument is that if either side took its position to the most logical end, they would render the term “CRPG” a complete misnomer. That would be logical, disregarding the context in which we use the term “RPG,” but not sensible, and it solves approximately nothing. And besides, it’s old news.

The decline or death of the Japanese RPG is a favorite meme of gamers and game journalists in this current console generation, and there are at least a couple of narratives repeated by those who believe their understanding of the genre, and video games in general, and the people who make and play them sufficient to explain this phenomenon. The first explanation, and in my experience the most prevalent, is that the Japanese developers, conservative and risk-averse, wallow in dated conventions of game-design and that Western developers, more willing to change with their audience and to meet their audience’s demands, have usurped the Japanese position within the industry as the purveyors of what we call RPGs. This set off the argument last year.

The other narrative posits that Japanese developers, unlike their counterparts in the west, failed to grow up with their audience; this is the argument made by people who hate or are at least antipathetic towards anime illustrations and teenaged heroes of ambiguous gender, who balk at the narrative conventions so closely associated with the genre. Both sides miss the point. One focuses on the games as games and the other on the games as media, but both miss the mark in complementary ways.

It’s the latter I focus on because this year’s annual celebration of “What’s wrong with the JRPG” comes as a reaction to a peculiar little game published by NIS America and developed by their equally, eternally peculiar partners, Idea Factory, Compile Heart, and Gust. Hyperdimension Neptunia blipped on my radar thanks to a few mentions on the WAHP podcast and the few sites actually willing to cover odd Japanese games. A niche title in an increasingly niche genre, Hyperdimension Neptunia seems like an odd choice for localization when looking at the overtly moe illustrations and its developer’s track record. The ambivalence towards the Japanese aesthetic here in the west has, as mentioned, never been so pronounced, and even Japanese otaku refer to developer Idea Factory (アイディアファクトリー) as “Idea Fucktory” (アイディアファック), though not without some affection, if I understand correctly.

The game’s plot, as much as any game can be said to have one, is what made it a candidate for an American and European release. Hyperdimension Neptunia envisions the “console war” as a battle between goddesses in a vaguely defined space-opera milieu filled with anime and game references that exist solely as references to anime and video games. The main characters personify game platforms and developers; Neptunia is based on Sega’s ill-fated, never released console that became the Sega-32X add-on for the Genesis, and Compa stands in for developer/Idea Factory subsidiary Compile Heart, and etc. They battle against Airfore, a play on R4 piracy.

The tone of the professional reviews, however, suggests that NISA should not have bothered, no matter how cute their project’s story. The largest professional review sites (IGN and Gamespot) took aim mostly at the “hypersexualized” characters, most of whom resemble very young women. Taking note of this, Eurogamer’s Simon Parkin ranted about sexism, ending his review calling the game a “sexist, senseless and ultimately stupid cultural curio.” He scored the game a two out of ten, which according to Eurogamer’s scoring guide, denominates Hyperdimension Neptunia as “atrocious.”

Not having played the game, I cannot speak to its mechanics, though they look very similar to those in NISA’s previous PS3 release, Trinity Universe. I can laugh at the charges leveled against it and shake my head. Never mind that by any normal standards, highly praised American games feature sexism every bit as noticeable (and often more graphic) as that seen in the relatively harmless sexual fantasies of Hyperdimension Neptunia. A closer look at this game shows just how wrong the accepted narrative of the JRPG decline is; this game, as bad as it seems to be, was developed specifically for the Japanese gamers who grew up playing video games.

In Japan, games are for kids. In America, games are for kids and grown-ups who want to pretend that theirs is not a childish hobby. The Japanese developers who make games for otaku realize that their audience has no vested interest in proving the social legitimacy of their hobby, and the otaku seeks to fulfill his needs through media, as explained by Hiroki Azuma in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Idea Factory, Nippon Ichi Software, Key, Image Epoch and others realize this and provide what their customers want. The games have grown up with their audience, in that these are games that are made for adult consumers. They have grown inert with their audience as well, but that’s another, much more involved matter.

Neither does the claim that Japanese RPG mechanics have not evolved hold up. They have merely not evolved in a way that pleases western gamers who have only recently discovered the sort of games that used to appear only for the PC. In fact, compared to games like Baldur’s Gate, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex, the current RPG offerings on the consoles are significantly dumbed down. Bioware, Bethesda and their peers have found what works, and are now crafting variations on the same concepts that fulfill their customer’s wants, which are sometimes creepy, sometimes sexist, and very often the product of their consumer’s internalized nerdiness. If the JRPG is said to be stagnant for not dramatically changing in the past twenty years (although in subtle, sometimes unfortunate ways, it has), so must western RPGs, and all other games that fit under a generic label.

Make no mistake: the average Japanese developer makes the average JRPG for teenaged boys (Namco’s Tales series is the most obvious example) because that is their primary audience. But rather than acknowledging this fact and readjusting their expectations, professional reviewers persist in treating games developed for a very particular audience on the other side of the planet as though they were made for them by their neighbors. It’s an attitude born of a false sense of superiority and never offers anything that even approaches constructive, insightful criticism. And it is lazy. Damnably lazy.

The truth: Japanese RPGs are not in decline; they are merely declining in the west. Both Euro-American and Japanese audiences have grown apart in interests. That those of us who still enjoy many of the mechanics in Japanese games, particularly the experimental efforts of teams like Gust, have fewer and fewer games localized for our amusement – and that non-critical video game critics who have bought wholesale into so stale a meme as the one about which I just wrote over a thousand words help to drive mainstream disinterest – is frustrating and sad.

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