Swords & Zippers: Drawing the Line

Swords & Zippers

Any dedicated JRPG fan will know what an uphill struggle it is to get people who have found themselves drifting away from the genre to actually play one of your favorite games. All too often, people are keen to dismiss the whole genre as the “Japanese bullshit” I referred to when I discussed Hyperdimension Neptunia  a few weeks ago.

Ever-determined and ever-optimistic, I took to a Google+ community I’m a member of that represents a small but diverse cross-section of gamers from all across the world, covering a broad spectrum of ages, experience levels and tastes, and I posed them a question. You can read the whole thread here if you like, but I’ll summarize my findings below.

My question simply asked people to look at the below image and tell me — without looking up any information they didn’t already know, and assuming they had all the time in the world available to play these games — which ones they would be willing to try out.

Unsurprisingly, I want to play all of these.

Unsurprisingly, I either want to or have played all of these. How about you?

The games collected here are just a random sample of titles that I’d call “JRPGs” from my personal game shelf, and if you’re curious, they include Aselia the Eternal, Lost Odyssey, Eternal Sonata, Blue Dragon, Nier and Resonance of Fate on the top row; Shadow Hearts, Shadow Hearts Covenant, Persona 3, .hack Infection, Final Fantasy XII and Drakengard on the second row; Ar Tonelico, Ar Tonelico II, Odin Sphere, Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower on the third row; Hyperdimension Neptunia, Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2, Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, Dark Souls and 3D Dot Game Heroes on the fourth row; and The Adventures of Alundra and Yakuza 4 on the bottom.

The responses I got were pretty interesting. The titles which attracted the most interest were the ones which have had lots of high-profile sites writing about them, and consequently lots of people talking about them. These included the three “Operation Rainfall” titles Xenoblade ChroniclesThe Last Story and Pandora’s TowerYakuza 4Dark Souls and Persona 3. If Ni no Kuni was around when I’d done this experiment, it would be included in this category, too.

At the other end of the spectrum, people were more cautious about titles like Blue Dragon and Eternal Sonata due to mediocre or inconsistent reviews, and most were completely unaware of more “niche” or explicitly anime-style titles such as Hyperdimension Neptunia, Atelier Rorona and Aselia the Eternal, with Aselia being by far the least-recognized title among them due to its PC-only release in the West.

Titles like Eternal Sonata attracted more cautious responses than more well-known titles.

Titles like Eternal Sonata attracted more cautious responses than more well-known titles.

But why is this? Why does something like Ni no Kuni sell out everywhere (believe me, I know; I spent several hours trying to order a copy earlier) and yet other examples of the genre go pretty much ignored? Why are so many people quick to state that this last console generation has been light on good JRPGs, when a healthy proportion of the titles above are PS3 or Xbox 360 titles? What is stopping people from checking out some of these games? I delved deeper, and started to probe as to why some titles resonated more than others.

“I would give the games that garnered more positive attention from the community a go first,” said one participant in the discussion, who had previously played both Dark Souls and Persona 3 to completion, but had only a passing familiarity with the genre as a whole. “Of those that I know absolutely nothing about, I would probably pick the titles that looked more serious, dark, and adult first, and the cutesy, fetishized, anime style games would be the last things I would try, if at all.”

When probed as to why the “cutesy” games put him off, he added “It’s the aesthetic, for sure. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or a personal one, but I can’t take that oversexualized, twelve year old anime girl art style seriously, no matter how great the ‘story’ is. The point seems to be titillation above all else. Anime is fine, but this particular subset of it doesn’t interest me.”

That’s a fair point there, and one which is particularly apparent in the Hyperdimension Neptunia games I’ve been playing recently. A number of the beautifully-drawn “event” pictures that are peppered throughout the story have a rather gratuitous “bounce” feature whereby you can press a button to make the characters in shot boing up and down a bit and consequently get a glimpse of some boob-jiggling action. Completing the game also unlocks some promotional artwork (presumably from Japanese magazines) which is rather heavy on the titillation — these include one of the character Uni in her rather skimpily-dressed “goddess form” doing crunches with her legs spread, and another of the twin characters Rom and Ram sitting naked (but tactically covered in soap bubbles) in a bath eating a banana together in what can only be described as a somewhat provocative manner. In both cases, there’s no explicit sexual content, but it’s clear what the implications are, and some people might not like that, particularly given the apparent (though never outright stated) age of the characters. Fair enough.

I'll... Uh... No, I got nothing.

I’ll… Uh… No, I got nothing.

Except… that’s not really the whole story at all. While a lot of Hyperdimension Neptunia and its sequel is made up of rather gratuitous fanservice like this, there are considerably more positive things you can say about it — like the fact that the all-female cast never once needs to rely on a male character to save them, or the fact that every character is clearly gay and everyone just accepts this as perfectly natural, or indeed the simple fact that the game as a whole makes it very clear that the creators of the game consider these characters as far more than just tits and ass — they’re well-defined characters who each have their own personalities, and I defy anyone who plays both games through to not feel attached to at least some of them by the end. The very definition of moe.

Sadly, though, the provocative, titillating part is the thing that people less tuned in to the quirks of Japanese media notice first, meaning that they probably won’t give the games enough of a chance to discover the deeper, more thought-provoking bits. That is, of course, their prerogative, but it’s also a prime case of judging a book by its cover — albeit one which is at least partly the fault of both the developer and publisher!

But I digress.

Dark Souls: dark.

Dark Souls: dark.

“I usually try to avoid privileging ‘cute’ over ‘grim’ or vice versa because in my mind the true Zen is in embracing both the Black Knights and the Unbearably Fluffy Bunnies,” pondered another participant in the discussion. “You can do either well or badly; well-done stuff still deserves love whether it involves ruffles and sparkly romance scenes or bleak post-apocalyptic vistas in which a Lone Hero is the only source of light in a dying world, etc. Something that is ‘cute’ to look at can nevertheless be thought-provoking and interesting, and something that is ‘serious’ can still feel like something composed on the back of a junior high notebook.”

Another fair point, and one that’s true of anime just as much as games — first impressions count and help determine whether or not you’re going to stick with something, sure, but in many — though not all — cases there are a variety of hidden layers beneath that bear further exploration.

“Re: art styles and ‘darkness’ — as an anime fan for many years now I am completely unfazed by big eyes and spiky hair, though I roll my eyes at oversized breasts with the best of ‘em,” she added. “Though, in fairness, I also roll my eyes at those women in WRPGs like Skyrim whose armor has great big ‘windows’ right over their breasts. Really, guys? That’s like tattooing your chest with an X and ‘Stab here.’”

Quite!

“[Most of] them interest me in the ‘man, I loved Voltron when I was a kid’ kind of way,” added another commenter. “What I mean is I’ll always have a soft spot for the anime aesthetic, but as a 40 year old father I simply don’t find anything to relate to in the games. I don’t even try anymore, no matter how great the reviews say they are.”

Nier: Genuinely mature, gritty, thought-provoking and at times disturbing -- but its flaws are too much for some.

Nier: Mature, thought-provoking and disturbing — but its flaws are too much for some.

What you can “relate” to is very much a subjective thing, and it doesn’t have to be something that directly equates to your own life — the commenter above notes that Rayman is a particular favorite, for example. However, characters who do resonate with players’ real-life situations can also be extremely powerful — you just have to look at how well “parent players” responded to the character of Lee in Telltale’s The Walking Dead game as a good example. That said, Nier is a game on this list that should, by that theory, have resonated with this commenter, as it is a game about a father doing anything to save his child, but he had little interest in trying it, due in part to its mediocre review scores, its reputation and the fact you need to beat the second half of the game four times to see the whole story.

“Based on covers alone I’d play much of the bottom left side (and have!) because when a cover comes at me with their very direct anime style I know they’re speaking my language,” said another commenter who, as you might expect, is a big fan of both anime and the more colorful end of JRPGs in general. “Odin Sphere and Aselia the Eternal both are high on my list because of their very striking beautiful artwork. Shadow Hearts is interesting because a friend of mine mentions it often, Resonance of Fate has the Tri-Ace logo on it and I love those guys. The rest don’t really leap at me in the same way — I’d still probably look at the back, but I see a lot of drab colors and lack of contrast.”

This is effectively the opposite of what our first commenter was saying; rather than being put off by the colorful anime style, this participant in the discussion actually sees it as an appealing element that attracts him to the games. (I very much fall into this category, too.) It is all a matter of taste, ultimately, and it’s good that a diverse spectrum of opinions is catered to by the modern games industry.

Moe is the worst thing to happen to anime and Japanese games,” said another commenter who obviously feels rather strongly about this. “A lot of American fans will agree with you there. We’re still trying to accept the fact that most Japanese games are targeted towards 17-year-olds and not 35-year-olds like the rest of the global video game industry.”

A good point, though not necessarily one I agree with. I have always been of the opinion that “target age” is, for the most part, a fairly meaningless concept since no two people of the same age are exactly alike. I’m 32, and I like moe. I enjoy the feeling of virtually hanging out with characters who are specifically designed to be fun to be around and who are designed to elicit feelings of genuine affection — it’s a nice atmosphere to immerse yourself in. Moe is also such an ill-defined concept that it’s all but impossible to pin it down as a single cause of driving someone away from a game. Look at the success of Recettear on PC, for example — a game that is so overflowing with adorableness you should probably put a towel down before starting to play it.

EasyGameStation's Recettear: proof if proof were needed that not all moe is bad moe.

EasyGameStation’s Recettear: proof if proof were needed that not all moe is bad moe.

“I enjoy the insanity, energy and visual pop of many moe themes in general,” responded the anime-and-JRPG fan from earlier. “There is also often a theme of pure-hearted love or friendship or the like along with it — something you don’t see in a whole lot of Western media outside of cartoons, which tend to be fairly low quality. Interestingly, I think the Brony movement is very much the Western equivalent to the beginning of moe; different cultures find different things acceptable and pleasing. However when a thing can speak to someone in the strongest possible terms of love, tolerance and friendship in a colorful and direct way I can’t say I’m surprised that plenty of people find that makes them feel good, and what makes you feel good is not a bad guideline on what you want to watch, talk about and give double thumbs to! Also, Japan at least found that people are willing to spend a lot more money in the name of love and hugs and endorphins then on grim tales of space and fantasy. Exceptions exist to the rule, but I’m not surprised you can draw ‘deeper’ from a moe-influenced wallet because you’re tapping into emotions that make the subject feel like things are alright, and that life sure is exciting and fun.”

I was pleased that someone brought up the Brony phenomenon, because I was going to do it if no-one else did. There’s a huge amount of crossover in the appeal elements of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the more colorful side of JRPGs — multi-layered humor that adults will “get” on a different level to kids; bright, colorful, cheerful visuals; themes of love and tolerance; strong, exaggerated characters who tend to embody particular character traits; the list goes on, and can apply just as much to something like Hyperdimension Neptunia as it can to My Little Pony. (In other words, if you’re a JRPG fan, you should maybe check the show out — and vice versa, for that matter!)

One thing became abundantly apparent from the discussions surrounding this issue: you really can’t please everyone. And that’s actually a good thing (though perhaps not for sales figures) — by specifically focusing deeply on a particular niche rather than attempting to make something with broad but shallow appeal, developers are much more likely to evoke a strong emotional response and build a small but dedicated base of series evangelists who feel that these games really “speak” to them.

And this isn’t just true for JRPGs, either; it’s something that the industry as a whole is starting to really understand. Outside of companies like EA and Activision (and to a lesser extent Ubisoft), who are still for the most part courting the biggest audience possible — a necessity, given the size of their games’ budgets — a lot of developers are now realizing that they’ll get a much stronger, more passionate response from fans if they give them what they want to see rather than trying to cater to the lowest common denominator. So long as that situation continues on its present path, I think we can all be happy in our own little virtual worlds.

Look at them. Love them. Or dont. I-it's not like I care what you think or anything...!

Look at them. Love them. Or don’t. I-it’s not like I care what you think or anything…!

Oh, and also, you should totally play Hyperdimension Neptunia Mk2. Oh come on, I’ve got to try at least a bit to convince you, huh?

____

Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. You can follow Pete, author of this article and GrE’s managing editor, on Twitter.

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