Swords and Zippers: The Mode of the Medium

Recently I’ve been playing a bit of Bioshock: Infinite (PC version) as it was on-sale recently and I had thoroughly enjoyed the original, heard good things about it, yadda yadda yadda. Yet I seem to have developed a pattern: boot up the game, play for about 30 minutes to an hour, get to a checkpoint, exit the game.

I think I’ve found what is really bugging me about the game, and that is I simply can’t give a shit. I don’t care about the main character and I have failed to imprint on him in any way, I don’t care about the sidekick whose programming is so obvious she sometimes slides across terrain without a single pixel lifting an arm in an effort to tweak the model, and I don’t care about the villain. Bioshock handled this by giving the player absolutely zero information about your character and instead created an incredibly mysterious setting for the character to emerge in, and when the truth(s) were finally revealed it was a great experience.

But believe it or not, this isn’t about bashing the latest triple-A game to be released. By example, it’s an experience that I find myself continuously relying on JRPG’s for, like some kind of benevolent drug. It’s something that a JRPG delivers in its own unique way, and in a way that I realize is more in tune with my tastes when it comes to other media. JRPG’s all tell a story, and if you can provide an example of one that doesn’t… I’ll concede the point. Yet every game on my shelf and memory card that can be justifiably called a JRPG has whisked me away to another world to act out a tale that matters with characters that have more dimensions than some people I know.

The full playable cast of Star Ocean: the Last Hope minus 1.

The full playable cast of Star Ocean: the Last Hope minus 1.

The method, or what I’ll call focus for the rest of this little brain-fart, of a JRPG varies from game to game. Largely of course it focuses on the party-system and we’ll get to that in a quick second, yet there are enough differences in that methodology to shake a stick at; deviations from it, while rare, are also worth differentiating as they change how the player interacts and reacts to a story.

First, the party mechanic. Or, as I like to call it, the Firefly Method. For those poor, poor souls unfamiliar with the relatively ancient TV-series, Firefly was a space opera that followed the adventures of a crew of various individuals. While there were a few overarching plot elements, the focus of the story was extremely character-driven (read: Cowboy Bebop [and tons of other anime]). Episodes largely stood on their own with little to no background info needed; as for what did matter, it mostly involved the characters’ stories. JRPG’s such as those of the Star Ocean series and the Persona franchise are very close to the money in this regard.

Star Ocean: the Last Hope in particular strikes very close to the Firefly Method in its focus, in no large part due to the fact that they fly around together in a really cool spaceship. While Star Ocean 4 does have a very important plot goal that completely overrides the last few hours of the game, for 90% of the time it simply looms over the horizon as the characters pursue their adventures in completely unfamiliar territory. The focus, plot forgotten, more often than not is the present now that the characters face, largely regardless of its “big picture” impact. As the crew, which grows larger as the game progresses, moves from planet to planet the characters learn new things about the universe and the people who have been living in it. More importantly the characters learn more about each other, and through “private actions” this information takes a one-on-one feel as Edge (the protagonist) interacts with his fellow shipmates.

From Persona 3, a conversation with a random individual. Yet the game's interactions hold the key to Persona 3's powerful intricacies.

From Persona 3, a conversation with a random individual. Yet the game’s interactions hold the key to Persona 3′s powerful intricacies.

Other games do a pretty good job with this method as well; foremost among them are the original Valkyrie Profile (Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, for those late PSP adopters) and Persona 3 to name a couple. Valkyrie Profile(: Lenneth) in particular hits this focus square on the nose as your goal as stated in the beginning is to simply gather powerful warriors for the Ragnarok; for the other 80% of the game, your experience is dictated by the characters you meet and learn about. Persona 3, unlike the fourth game, has a more general goal of learning more about the strange world and the mythical tower Tartarus (not toothpaste) until the late game (as opposed to an overarching goal of solving a mystery), and tends to feel like playing episodes of a game from “month to month” of game-time – especially since a large part of the game consists of moving through school life and interacting with the many intricate NPC’s. (Not that Persona 4 doesn’t do this too; P3, it seems, pushes the experience slightly further along the spectrum.)

Of course, there is more to JRPG’s than a single focus. Enter the Hero Method. This focus, which I contemplated calling the Ip Man focus or the last-man-standing focus, is all about YOU. Not you; the character whose actions you dictate – and theirs alone – for the entire game. Examples for this focus are obvious and include recent contenders like Pandora’s Tower and Fragile Dreams and older titles like Odin’s Sphere. The latter two are made obvious by the fact that the player simply does not control anyone else. They interact with a ton of characters, but the focus is largely on their interactions alone and not on the feel of a large group of people as is the case with those discussed above and others.

Very early on, it is made clear: this is about you and your character... characters... it makes sense, I promise.

Very early on, it is made clear: this is about you and your character… characters… it makes sense, I promise.

Odin’s Sphere is an interesting case, but the argument here will be not only does the player only control one character at a time, but the game actually makes an effort to show that the story changes based on whose perspective you experience it from, and it does indeed change. Events that occur through the lens of one character change drastically going to the next; sometimes, they don’t really change all that much but they are different. The focus is on that character and how they view things; after all, for each of the five main heroes there is a final boss.

The last I’ll offer up here, the Save-the-World Focus, is as you’d expect. While arguments can be made for all three foci and many more for every game, this one in particular applies to quite a great deal of JRPG’s. Prime examples here include Valkryia Chronicles and Devil Survivor where events very definitively flow from one to the next and the focus lies in advancing the story towards the final goal, characters and the like coming in a second (sometimes a very close second, as is especially the case with Valkryia Chronicles). The goal in these games is outlined very clearly from the outset: end the war (the former) and survive! (the latter). Other games also set goals early on and work towards them, and sometimes they change, but the key here is the focus – what really seems to drive the game.

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