Modern games deftly conceal their complexity. Developers apply extraordinary expertise rounding edges off the spiky systems that underlie most games. We routinely praise games like the Mass Effect and Civilization series for balancing depth and accessibility, offering players a degree of control that makes them feel powerful, but not overwhelmed. Games that fail to strike this balance are typically described as awkward, difficult, or vaguely “old-school.”
The problem with this design approach is that it tends to sacrifice a kind of complexity many of us value. Too often ‘accessible’ translates as ‘easier.’ Such an approach may offer a safe landing for new and casual players, but for those of us who recall a prior console era populated with more intricate titles, it can be hard to find the kind of satisfaction we used to feel playing mainstream console games.
That’s why many of us play JRPGs. Despite all the ways developers have conspired to kill the genre - the formulaic design rut, the narrative clichés, the calcification of once-innovative franchises - we continue to seek out these offbeat games, finding meaning in the experiences they deliver. Sometimes that meaning arrives via characters and storytelling - JRPGs have long explored narrative spaces ignored by other genres - but more often it comes through the systems at the core of an expertly designed JRPG.
A good JRPG (any well-designed RPG, for that matter) envelops a player in a unified ecosystem that weaves together rules, mechanics, and storytelling such that each informs the other in the player’s mind. In other words, everything should feel interconnected and deliver meaning in the sphere of the game. When I’m determining my tactics in a real-time battle, my position, buffs, skills, spells, inventory, etc. all factor into outcomes, constrained by the game’s rules. Nothing new here.
But a great game plugs me into a super-system that adds momentum, stakes, and narrative consequences to those actions. I make this move here and now, not simply because I judge it optimal, but also because the relationship I’ve cultivated with my battle partner has made this move possible.
I care on multiple levels at once. Yes, I want to know how the story comes out, but in the big picture that’s only a small part of what’s in it for me. I play JRPGs for essentially the same reasons my uncle tinkers with cars in his garage. It’s not about where you drive the car; it’s about making that motor purr the way you want.
“If you can’t drive a stick shift, you don’t know how to drive.”
–My uncle Larry teaching me to drive his truck, circa 1982.
The more a game exposes its systems to me, the more possibilities I see to fully invest myself in that experience. Many of these systems could be simplified or automated, but I often don’t want that. I like to lift the hood and work on the motor myself. I want to drive my own way and feel the engine propelling me.
This is what the best JRPGs do. They let us feel the power and responsiveness of their systems, and they give us fun-to-use tools to access those systems. Complexity is a welcome trait in a game that encourages me to skillfully exploit its systems. For many of us, this is the real allure of gaming across genres. It’s why assiduously avoiding “spoilers” has never really made sense to me.
Lest anyone doubt the possibility of a new JRPG doing all the things I’ve described, along comes Xenoblade Chronicles, the best pure RPG of this generation. Tom Chick calls it “a landmark achievement in the genre,” and he’s right. Better than any game I can think of, Xenoblade Chronicles embraces its systemic elements and enables players to leverage them in fun, consequential ways.
60+ hours in, the game continues to astonish me with its conciseness and vision. No grinding, no superfluous subplots, no drippy sentimentality. Director Tetsuya Takahashi has fashioned a JRPG that preserves what serious players love about the genre and jettisons the stuff JRPG detractors hate. By focusing on relationships (character to character, and characters to world) he has found a way to render narrative from a level-up system. More importantly, he has created a world that, literally, conveys the values his game explores.
Others have reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles more meticulously, and I encourage you to read them. If you decide to play the game, I’ll offer one bit of advice: grab the Dolphin emulator, rip the game from your Wii disc, and play it on your computer in HD bliss. Xenoblade is a beautiful game with a vast world that beckons you to explore it, but the Wii’s limited resolution does it no favors. Do yourself a favor and run it through Dolphin if you can. Xenoblade Chronicles deserves the best visual treatment you can give it. A community-driven HD retexture project is also underway.
Tomorrow another ambitious JRPG arrives in North America, conceived by another veteran designer: Hironobu Sakaguchi’s The Last Story. I look forward to my first peak under the hood.