A few thoughts on [JW]RPGs
Faithful followers of this blog might be familiar with my stance on this generation of Bioware RPGs.
However, as much as they would like to think otherwise, Bioware isn’t actually synonymous with WRPG. The term “WRPG” is even somewhat misleading, as many people equate it solely with American RPG giants Bioware and Bethesda. Lesser-known (but arguably more skillful) studios like CCP, CD Projekt RED–to whom PC gamers owe limitless fealty for their brainchild Good Old Games–or Runic Games aren’t often considered in the great WRPG vs. JRPG debates.
I’m resisting the urge to pull out the “just play what you enjoy” copout here; this is the Internet, and people expect uninformed, half-baked opinions. This past winter, I’ve watched Tori play through both 360 and PS2 RPGs while immersed in The Witcher 2 and Skyrim. This experience has outlined what to me seem like the key differences between the genres: WRPG fans favor engaging gameplay and
the illusion of choice, and JRPG fans choose epic stories and dynamic characterization. YES I KNOW THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS AND CLICHES SHUTTHEFUCKUP. I am making a generalization. For every Geralt of Rivia, there is at least one BrickShep. For every Auron, there is a Yuffie Kisaragi. Nothing is perfect.
Why do I say JRPGs are better with story and character in the face of OMGMEGASTORY Mass Effect? Quite simply, I never felt emotionally invested in any of BrickShep’s crew during my playthrough, to say nothing of the dead-faced automaton himself. Making the gut-wrenching choice between Kaidan and Ashley boiled down to simple utility. Ashley was useful in combat; Kaidan used up valuable oxygen on the Normandy to whine about being bullied. Choice made, chuckle had at the image of Kaidan disintegrating in that nuclear fireball, reflection that if the game really did allow freedom of choice, it would have let me chain Joker to the bomb as well because fuck that guy.
By contrast, while watching Tori play through sleeper JRPG Nier (as fantastic a game as ever there was), I felt myself choking up when one of the characters sacrifices himself to save the others. The event is 100% scripted, unavoidable, no you do not get a goddamn fucking choice in the matter, and it was far more powerful than any option on any dialogue wheel ever made has ever been.
I suppose the bottom line is this: I view the video game RPG (not pen-and-paper RPGs) as an electronic, interactive novel. I want the story to be so amazing that I am willing to grind for hours on trash mobs to see how it ends. With Mass Effect and most of the rest of the WRPG line, I feel as though I am reading a choose-your-own-adventure book. Story length and depth are sacrificed to write in alternate paths and endings that really don’t matter all that much. Combat tends to be more engaging (Fable is loads more fun than Final Fantasy XII, for example), yes, but I don’t play RPGs for gameplay. If I want fast-paced, enjoyable combat, I’ll pop in Arkham Asylum. If I want a sweeping storyline full of memorable characters and fantastic music, I’ve learned to put up with squeaky voices and big eyes.