Why categorize jRPGs and wRPGs?
There has been some discussion lately about whether there is really such a huge difference between jRPGs and wRPGs after all. Quite aside from whether we can prove that “East is West” based on a sample size of two, I’d like to discuss an issue hinted at near the end of Rowan Kaiser’s piece: specifically, the utility of having the categories jRPG and wRPG to begin with. Given that I actually use the designations jRPG and wRPG on this site, I feel I ought to explain why.
First, a clarification: jRPG and wRPG are not primarily geographic terms. They do not strictly refer to games that were actually developed in either Japan or “the West.” Rather, as used in common parlance, they refer to general styles of RPG that were popularized by developers from these respective regions many years ago. There is nothing to stop a Japanese developer from producing a wRPG, or a Western developer from producing a jRPG (Anachronox being a classic example of the latter).
wRPGs and jRPGs are distinct subgenres in the extremely large tent that is RPGs. But they don’t embody the full variety of RPGs–not on their own. There are other subgenres, and sometimes they overlap with each other. There are tactical RPGs (also known as strategy RPGs), action RPGs, roguelikes and first person dungeon crawlers, to name just a few.
Although some games blur the boundaries between these categories, the categories themselves are not meaningless. They serve as a useful shorthand for qualities that a game shares with certain RPG forbears; they place the game within a particular tradition in the long and varied history of RPGs. The wRPG and jRPG traditions share some qualities, but there are also some very real differences between them. I’ll outline a few below.
In general, wRPGs tend to be much less restricted than jRPGs when it comes to exploration (particularly in the early and mid-game). Seminal wRPGs like Wasteland, Fallout and Baldur’s Gate give you access to the entire game world almost immediately. By contrast, jRPGs open up to player exploration only gradually. Most jRPGs feature an overworld map, but make only a few points of interest on the map accessible at any given time, forcing the player to advance the plot to open up more locales.
Simply put, exploration in a typical jRPG generally doesn’t open up into anything comparable to that in a standard wRPG until at least the halfway point (or sometimes, even the endgame), when the player obtains a special means of conveyance that allows him or her to bypass the overworld’s plethora of geographic obstacles. You can always cherry pick exceptions (such as Final Fantasy 12), but the overwhelming majority of games in the jRPG subgenre follow this pattern.
This difference in approach is actually visible from differences in map geography. To examine a small sample, here are the overworld maps in Baldur’s Gate, Morrowind, Oblivion, Fallout and Fallout 2. By contrast, here are overworld maps from Dragon Warrior 3, Lunar, Lunar 2, Phantasy Star 4, Final Fantasy 4 (B), Final Fantasy 6 and Final Fantasy 9. The mountains in the Fallout games are passable; the mountains in the Elder Scrolls games are sometimes passable; mountains in the others are not. Compare the frequency with which one encounters impassable mountain ranges or oceans among the wRPGs versus the jRPGs. Notice anything?
In the jRPG maps above, you can actually see that the liberal use of impassable mountains and water effectively turns large portions of the world into corridors between two or three visitable locations. Exploration is thus rendered highly linear. In recent years, Square-Enix seems to have decided that it isn’t worth keeping up the facade, and has shed the overworld entirely.
Similarly, you might notice that wRPG exploration tends to lack the sheer breadth of most jRPGs. wRPGs tend to limit themselves to a relatively confined geographic area, whereas jRPGs typically take the player across the entire planet…sooner or later.
Linearity of narrative
At first blush, this seems like more of a similarity than a difference: all RPGs feature a linear main plot, in the sense that there is only ever one main plot line in the game. Having a narrative that is truly nonlinear from start to finish would be prohibitively difficult and expensive–so much so that only one game has tried anything even approaching the scale of such an undertaking.
True plot branches would require the developers to create multiple entirely different stories to structure the game; in effect, it would amount to something like creating multiple different games in parallel. That can work well enough in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but that’s a book. In a game, developers have to provide assets for every thing they put in the story, balance gameplay, and so on. Sandwiching multiple, independent game-length stories into a single title would cost an astronomical amount of money, to say nothing of the necessary time commitment.
Thus, where major plot branches occur in RPGs, they almost invariably lead directly to an alternate ending, or else happen near the end of the game, where their effects on the plot can be contained at minimal cost. That holds true for wRPGs and jRPGs alike.
However, with that huge caveat, wRPGs and jRPGs do still differ noticeably in this area. Compared to jRPGs, wRPGs tend to offer much less linearity of narrative. They just happen to offer that nonlinearity on a small scale: in particular, by offering highly customizable characters, meaningful dialog options and consequential faction allegiances, where one choice affects the availability of other choices down the line.
Dialog options and faction allegiances do sometimes appear in jRPGs, but infrequently. Further, when they do, they tend to be stripped of consequence. Chrono Trigger was a high water mark for jRPGs in terms of offering consequential choices to players, but even it can’t compare to the variety of consequential choices offered in wRPGS like Planescape: Torment or Dragon Age: Origins. This isn’t to say that one approach is better than the other, only that they’re undeniably different.
Random battles (referring specifically to enemy encounters randomly generated by the game that “pop up” without forewarning or the opportunity to evade them) are not unique to jRPGs: notably, major wRPGs like Fallout 1 and 2 had them, as did Baldur’s Gate.
However, there is a difference between the subgenres in how they are used. When random encounters appear in wRPGs, they are typically limited to the world map, and when resting in dangerous areas; encounters within dungeons and other locales, by contrast, are typically hand-placed, and make each individual enemy visible at a distance.
In jRPGs, random battles traditionally occur absolutely everywhere (with the sole exception of populated towns). Random battles also tend to occur with much greater frequency; so much so that jRPGs have become almost synonymous with constant random battles. Using random battles like this has major consequences for a game’s pacing, and serves as another big point of differentiation between the jRPG and wRPG traditions.
Exponential versus linear progression
The standard jRPG approach to character and item progression is exponential. The player begins with tens of hit points and attack damage, and rockets upwards from there, eventually ending the game with thousands of hit points and dealing several thousand damage per attack.
Items in jRPGs follow a similar curve, leading to something of a material consumption treadmill. Progression through the game involves constantly replacing old items and equipment with newer, more expensive models. That stuff you bought in the last town worked really well against wolves, but now you’re fighting giant toads, and they barely scratch them. So you buy the really expensive new models. And those work exceptionally well–until you get to the next area, which has enemies those weapons can barely scratch, and a town that sells a yet more expensive version of that same equipment. And so on. (I was pleasantly surprised to see the indie jRPG Deadly Sin 2 subverting this with its healing items, which actually remain useful throughout the whole game.)
Now, wRPGs love their leveling and loot collection too, but wRPGs tend to progress linearly in these areas. Characters begin the game doing about 5 damage per hit, and end the game doing less than 30 (up to 99 for exceptionally powerful and expensive spells). Health progresses in a similar fashion, as do magic points. This sort of linear progression is largely a consequence of wRPG systems arising more directly out of the systems of their pen-and-paper ancestors, which relied on dice and math that could easily be calculated by people sitting around a table and swilling beer. Needless to say, you aren’t going to roll 10,000-sided dice for damage in a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
The exponential progression of jRPGs serves to reinforce the more linear exploration and narrative models they employ. The constant attrition of useful items in jRPGs means that you must constantly accumulate gold to buy more stuff to get to the next area. But prices rise exponentially as well, along with the gold dropped by monsters and the stats for those monsters. You can’t push very far ahead, because you’ll get slaughtered; you need those items to progress. And if you revisit earlier areas of the game, the enemies will have such laughably inadequate stats that you can merrily mash the attack button and one-shot them all until the heat death of the universe, all without taking so much as a scratch. But they won’t drop anywhere near enough gold to make it worth your time. So you’re stuck in whatever area the game wants you in until you’re leveled up enough and/or have current enough equipment to progress.
The linear progression of wRPGs, by contrast, reinforces their more non-linear approach to exploration and narrative. Because the top of the character development scale is within a single order of magnitude of where the characters begin, players aren’t as boxed in as they are in games where the character progression is steeper; it gives players the flexibility to beat the game in far more unusual ways that don’t necessarily involve hours of combat and leveling up.
I wouldn’t consider the above list comprehensive, but I think it does its job in establishing my premise: namely, that there are recurring, salient differences between the wRPG and jRPG traditions. As someone with an interest in RPGs, it’s awfully useful to have a shorthand for all of those qualities I described above.
But what about outliers? Jay Barnson uses Telepath RPG: Servants of God as an example to show the absurdity of subcategorizing RPGs. Telepath RPG is a hybrid wRPG / tactical RPG. So yes, it doesn’t fall neatly into one subgenre or the other–but it doesn’t have to. Just saying “it’s a hybrid wRPG / tactical RPG” gives you a huge amount of information about how the game probably plays.
Even when games do subvert their subgenre conventions, it’s still easiest to start from a baseline of what is traditionally done, then move on to talk about those specific areas where the game confounds expectations. For instance, it is much faster for me to tell you that Deadly Sin 2 is a jRPG which innovates in a few areas than it would be for me to describe the whole game in minute detail, system by system. It’s in the tradition of Dragon Warrior and its progeny: it’s a jRPG. That provides valuable context and allows me to move on to discussing the particulars that set it apart. That, friends, is why we have subgenres. For my part, I’m going to keep using them.