Wednesday, October 3, 2012

#41: The RPG Cultural Divide: East Versus West

It is no secret that there is a huge cultural divide between Western and Eastern styles of video game development. Due to the way each region of the world developed on similar, yet fundamentally different, lines over the centuries, the games developed by each regions cater to wildly different tastes and demographics. The most obvious divide we see is the one between Role Playing Games developed between the two regions of the world. Though both derive from the same RPG systems (like Dungeons and Dragons), they each took those systems in wildly different directions indicative of their cultures. We are all at least somewhat aware of this since we distinguish between Western style and Eastern Style RPGs, but what really separates the two? This week will be dedicated to answering that question.

The first key difference between the two styles of RPGs is that while Japanese RPGs generally tend to emphasize being part of a team, Western RPGs have a higher focus on the individual. We see this manifest in a variety of ways. In Eastern RPGs, like Final Fantasy, the player rarely takes the role of a single protagonist. Instead, they play as a group of people who are working together towards a common goal. While there is often a very clearly designated “lead character,” (Cecil in Final Fantasy IV or Cloud in Final Fantasy VII) they were always just the head of a group and not a significant figure that can do everything by themselves. Even in the later games of the Persona franchise, which borrows many tropes from Western RPGs, the player character is the team leader. Though exhibiting great power in their own right, they have party members and teammates to rely on. Their powers are even a direct result of connecting with others and forging bonds, still indicative of the team aspect of many Eastern RPGs. Compare this to RPGs developed in North America and Europe. In games like The Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect, the player is placed squarely in the center of the action. They are directly responsible for doing things. It is not a small team of individuals completing objectives and advances the plot, but rather one person. Even when the designers give the player squad-mates (like in Mass Effect) or companions (like in Skyrim or Fallout), the protagonist is clearly the driving force, the strongest character in the game, and the one who takes control at key story events. The lead character's individual contribution to the plot is highly valued over the contribution of other characters.

Another way in which Eastern and Western RPG design are separate is in the way they allow players to interact with the plot of the game. In an Eastern RPG, developers generally have a very tight reign on the narrative. There is a plot to the game, yet the player has limited ability, if any, to influence it. When they are given agency, it is only with regards to minor details. A good example of this is the blitzball tournament near the beginning of Final Fantasy X. The player is technically able to win the tournament. However, if they do, they will only receive a slight reward for it. Otherwise, the plot advances as the same way regardless of whether the player won or lost, and it is never mentioned again past that point. This is not a criticism of the game, but merely an observation of what JRPG developers expect of their players. On the opposite side of the world, Western RPGs have a very strong focus on player choice and how that choice influences the narrative. Players are given a higher degree of freedom to poke and prod. Developers ask players to look around, gather information, and make decisions that will directly affect the game experience, if not the overall plot of the game. While absolute freedom is impossible, since games are just programs and thus have constraints, they try to loosen the reigns as much as possible. The ability to make choices that affect the events of the plot is best exemplified in some of Obsidian Entertainment's latest works like Fallout: New Vegas and Alpha Protocol. These games force the player to choose between several factions, each with their own views on the events at hand, and pick sides. Another example of choice in games is the Mass Effect series, despite my criticisms. The plot itself will generally remain generally the same, but the player can impact events and change many of the series's key events in significant ways. Choices have consequences and the franchise forces the player to live with them. In essence, Eastern games took a few liberties with the concept of role playing while Western games tried to stay truer to the concept. Both are valid tactics, it all comes down to the designer's preference.

The final point I will make with regards to the difference between Eastern and Western RPGs is the JRPGs tend to be of a generally slower pace than their Western counterparts. Though there are exceptions to the rule (like the Star Ocean franchise), JRPGs are usually turn-based or semi-turn-based. Battles focus on taking in all the relevant information and making good moment to moment decisions into order to win. The speed and flow of battle is intentionally slowed in order to give players time before committing to certain actions. Tactical thinking and good strategy is much more important in these games than speedy inputs or reflexes. The Final Fantasy series is very well-known for this. They pioneered the Active Time Battle system that has become a staple of the franchise and one of the most enduring examples of turn-based gameplay. For a while, the West used turned based systems as well. They worked well for the isometric RPGs of old (and still do). Though even back then, those turn-based games had a faster pace than their Eastern counterparts. Now that we have come to modern gaming, Western-style RPGs have become more action-oriented. Instead of being an outside force directing a group of people in a turn-based fight, games like The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect have the player actually play as the main character in a three-dimensional space, moving around and engaging enemies directly instead of being some omnipresent overlord directing from over the shoulder. While they are not always as quick and visceral as shooters and action games, Western RPGs were always significantly faster and more direct than their Eastern equivalents: It has just become more pronounced now. It is the player themselves, as the Dovahkin or Commander Shepard, who goes through and defeats hundreds of enemies. However, it is worth noting that this one is even less of a hard and fast rule than my previous two points. It is more of general trend and there are multiple games that deviate from it.

I must once again stress that this is not meant to criticize the style of either region. Like my earlier comparison of Fallout 3 to Fallout: New Vegas, it is more of a compare/contrast between development styles. Depending on the goal of the video game, be it in mechanics, plot, etc., both of them have benefits and drawbacks inherent to their design. Though unlike the Fallout comparison, these two styles could effectively be considered separate genres entirely because they are that different from each other. It is fascinating that two groups can take the exact same inspirations and achieve different, yet equally viable results from them. This speaks to the cultural differences between us all. It is not a bad thing by any means. In fact, I think it is to be celebrated. That is why games are treated as forms of expression and speech. They speak to us and to our sensibilities. All these different people and philosophies brought together by a love of entertaining the masses. Truly, I can think of few things better than that. :)

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