When I was younger, it was a given that each new video game was going to get at least two playthroughs. The number of games I owned was very small and I couldn’t buy new games whenever I wanted. Life was hard as a young gamer. As I got older, I eventually got to the point where I could afford to buy whatever game I wanted to play. So, that’s exactly what I did. After more than 25 years and hundreds of games across all genres, my gaming habits have significantly changed. These days I would consider myself a gaming nomad. I seek out new ideas or the absolute best in class games. I think to myself, what does this game have to offer which is fresh and exciting. It’s also not uncommon for me to start games and never finish them. Young me would be appalled. There is one genre, however, that I always return to. In between my explorations and samplings, JRPGs are my fallback. But what makes these games different? Why am I excited to play my twentieth JRPG but have little interest in first person shooter number 20?
There are many aspects about JRPGs that I enjoy, but ultimately the reason I return game after game is for the stories they have to offer. To me, JRPGs are the best video game format for telling stories. Western RPGs and CRPGs do an amazing job of letting players create their own tales and characters, but that’s not what I’m after. I want to hear your story. I want to get to know your characters and live in your world. JRPGs are the best video game equivalent to reading a book or watching a show. There are purely narrative video games out there, but I find that they don’t have enough gameplay to satisfy me. JRPGs give me the opportunity to explore new worlds, meet interesting personalities and thoroughly engage my brain. I get to overcome tough battles, solve fun puzzles, and complete challenging quests.
Realizing what I truly enjoy about JRPGs has helped me understand why some JRPGs are so disappointing. I think there is an entire subset of this genre that is more focused on combat than story. Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler are two games I can immediately think of. The combat system in both games is amazing, top of their class. Fighting is what these games are about. The narrative and characters are a vehicle for the combat. That’s not what I want. At that point, I’m back to simply playing game number 20 of the genre. I want story number 20. I want unique and interesting personality number 160. This is the reason I struggled with Dragon Quest 11. I felt like I had experienced that story and met those people before.
So what do I want from my JRPG stories? I want to meet complicated, nuanced characters. I want to see people develop and grow. Maybe they grow for the better, but maybe they even grow for the worse. Show me points of view I’ve never considered. Wrap me up in convoluted political situations where there’s no right choice. I love exploring new worlds and slowly discovering complex magic systems. Maybe there’s a crazy ecosystem that our characters are simply trying to survive. I am seeking immersion in new worlds. I am seeking emotional experiences that are different from my own. The stronger the emotional impact, the better!