With all of the Mass Effect: Andromeda news and gameplay coming out, I figured it was as good of a time as any to really dive into an analysis of Role-Playing Games (RPGs). The genre first came into being in the 1970s, inspired from the table-top RPGs that had become more popular at the time. However, RPGs faced a very different type of evolutionary process compared to the gaming genres that came both before and after it. Other genres originated in either the United States and were adopted by the east, or they originated in Japan and were adopted by the west. For example, American’s bloodthirsty love for violence gave birth to the first-person shooter while the Japanese appreciation for visual novels and manga brought about the “Point-and-Click” and visual novel game genres.
RPGs are different because the genre came to prominence in both the east and west at the same time. The two different cultures bred two similar but ultimately different styles of role-playing. This has led many gamers to consider the RPG genre to actually be two sub-genres: the Western RPG (or just RPG because we Americans are pretty arrogant like that) and the Japanese RPG (JRPG). In my opinion, these names are now, honestly, a little bit stupid and outdated. They worked when Western RPGs were just coming out of the U.S. and JRPGs were only being released from Japan, but that is no longer the case. The names of these sub-genres imply that a role-playing game’s country of origin is the leading factor in determining what type of game it is. In fact, it is the gameplay that determines whether a game is a Western RPG or JRPG. Let us quickly cover what makes each sub-genre unique.
We will start with the west. Western RPGs follow a more American style of thinking by focusing on the individual. The protagonist that the player controls is a blank slate: no name, no backstory, no face, and no personality. These are all things that the player fills in with their own preferences. The player then embarks on a journey with no set narrative. The overarching story remains consistent across all playthroughs, but the order of individual tasks to complete, how these tasks are completed, which allies to recruit, and which enemies to kill largely remains up to the player. This means that each adventure that each player decides to undertake is very different. The game provides the framework and the player gives it substance.
The upcoming game Mass Effect: Andromeda is a Western RPG. Players will be given control of their own Ryder, determining Ryder’s sex, gender, face, abilities, personality, and squad mates. Bioware has provided the world in which players can be themselves.
Yet, not all Western RPGs are made in the west. Last year’s Dark Souls III, a game made by the Japanese developer FromSoftware, is a Western RPG. All of the Soulsborne games are. Players determine their chosen undead’s sex, starting class, starting gift, face, and body type. How the player tackles the world’s many enemies are open to personal interpretation. Not all enemies or bosses are mandatory either. The player also gets to choose how to level up their own character and whether to help (or hinder) the many possible allies they will meet on their quest. The game’s focus on action and adventure in an open world, as opposed to telling a detailed and coherent story, is also a very western trait. So even though Dark Souls III was made in Japan with eastern themes and lore by a Japanese developer, it should be considered a Western RPG.
The JRPG is very different from its western counter-part. Abandoning most of the responsive action present in Western RPGs, JRPGs usually have turned-based combat or no combat at all. The world also tends to be more linear with only one clear path to take as opposed to the endless possibilities of an open world. A JRPG protagonist is their own person. They have their own backstory, emotions, and face. Whereas a player is the protagonist in a Western RPG, they are more of a puppet master of the protagonist in a JRPG. The story in a JRPG is set. The emotions and actions of the protagonist and the characters around them are set. The player is only given minor control over how the story will play out. So, although a Western RPG may feature multiple endings based upon the player’s choice, the JRPG will not.
Most of the Final Fantasy games are JRPGs, the most recent notable exception being Final Fantasy XIV. Combat is geared more towards a turn-based system (even in the most recent entries which have a half turn-based, half active combat system), the protagonists are their own people who are immune to the motivations of the player, and although side quests do exist across many of the games, they have zero impact on the game’s ending or the characters’ dialogue in later cut scenes.
Just as there are Western RPGs that come out of Japan, there are JRPGs that come out of the west. Child of Light, developed by Ubisoft Montreal does feature a world the player is free to backtrack in so they may explore and take part in a few side quests, but the game offers no reward for exploration and pushes a linear agenda. The combat is entirely turn-based. Aurora, the main character, cannot be swayed by the player’s whims and is her own person. No amount of work can change the outcome of the story in Child of Light. No matter what the player does, the story and its characters are set. So even though Child of Light features western themes (royalty, fantasy, and a hero destined to be the chosen one) and is made by a French developer from a western country, it should be considered a JRPG.
Thus we reach the problem. Although Western RPGs like Mass Effect are still made primarily in the west, some are made in Japan. Conversely, even though Japanese RPGs like Final Fantasy are still primarily made in Japan, some are made in the west. We keep these titles because of tradition but gamers should really come up with new names for these two different types of RPGs. If “western” RPGs are going to continue coming out of Japan and “Japanese” RPGs are going to continue being released by western developers, things are just going to get more confusing going forward.
I propose making names based on the themes of the two different RPGs. Western RPGs have the player role-playing as themselves. There is also typically a lot of adventure, action-based combat, and a story full of choice. Japanese RPGs have the gamer role-playing as a specific person. Combat may be less exciting but the pre-established characters and choices typically make for a more coherent story with a single definitive ending. So perhaps Adventure RPGs and Story RPGs? Hmmmm…no, that still creates a disconnect as both styles of RPG can feature adventure or story. Each style may put a heavier emphasis on one or the other but that does not make them mutually exclusive. Immersive RPGs and Puppet RPGs? Better, but not quite there. I suppose for now the names Western RPG and Japanese RPG will have to stay.
Which sub-genre do you enjoy playing more, Western RPGs or JRPGs? Are you more a fan of games that allow you to personally jump into another world or games that allow you to become someone else in another world? Neither one is better, they are just different and thus appeal to different types of people. Personally, I like Western RPGs a little bit more than JRPGs but I have many games from both sub-genres cluttering my shelves and just as many from both genres that I do not like playing at all. That being said, I just really enjoy the ability to choose how my character reacts to certain people and events and how that in-turn influences the adventure that unfolds.