Part of Your World: Through the Years of Exclusivity in RPGs

Oblivion

In my initial contact with role-playing games, the genre held a kind of “mystique” that transcended the on-screen material and established, for me, a tangible allurement; both to that of the games themselves and the people who spoke about them. The narrative and gameplay depth had a captivating air of exclusivity and mystery, so it wasn’t long before I became enamored with the idea of interaction with the people who left YouTube comments I half-understood about that magnificently sprawling game Oblivion.

A critical gem and commercial marvel, Oblivion embodied each facet of my entrenched love of fantasy and newfound infatuation with the idea of role-playing. Of course, this perspective was mostly achieved through the benefit of hindsight and an extensive interaction with the community at large. But at the time? Shit, all I knew was that Oblivion looked fucking awesome.

Human sensibility directly coincides with filters. To varying degrees, we’re all aware of what to say, and the context in which we say it, so our internal filters act as a guide to upholding social propriety. Yet to view the human experience as a continuum of one-sided coffee filters — deciding which grounds are fine enough to let escape — only truly recognizes half of the possible paradigms associated with our ability to filtrate information, and in a vacuum at that.

Indeed, it’s far more apt to perceive humans as a two-way filtration system; that is to say both a representation of the aforementioned “exothermic” information filtration, as well as a permeable endothermic barrier. Just as it would be problematic for an individual to practice their death growls at church, so too would it be for someone to absorb and process all information at all times.

In other words, while our actions are defined by our environment, the causation of these actions is not necessarily a positive correlation between the stimuli and the reaction; just because someone is told to eat cake does not mean they’ll devour the nearest slice possible; they may just say “no” and move on with their life. Yet it cannot be denied that their action was, whether filtered positively or not, a reaction to an external stimuli.

The importance of this filtration system we all possess correlates to Anzaldúa’s “borderlands” concept in how we, as individuals, cannot develop in a vacuum since we are constantly impacting and refining one another through our actions. Though Anzaldúa stresses the importance of the impact predicated upon environment in which we live, our individuality is not merely a product of what we experience, but rather how we choose to act in accordance with what we filter.

The Witcher

So. Video games.

Specifically, the role-play kind. Even from a casual observation, role-playing games represent a very diverse genre from even the most superficial aesthetic sensibilities to fundamental gameplay features and narrative direction. While big, flashy numbers are nearly always a visual constant, precisely no one will be mistaking Cloud Strife’s jumpsuit/hair-gel combo for the grizzled scars and teethed glory of Geralt of Rivia; and the design ethos follows a similar suit.

The number of times I hear exclamations from folks upon booting up a Shin Megami Tensei or a Final Fantasy as if they’re expecting the freedom of movement present within an Elder Scrolls borders on the absurd.

Yet the dichotomization in design philosophy isn’t just about whether or not a game presents itself as a strategic action RPG or a turn-based RPG. In fact, perhaps the most important schism in design is evident in the narrative presentation with the Eastern design favoring a more cinematic, linear direction while their Western counterparts are more deeply rooted in D&D-style non-linearity and freedom. In such sweeping generalizations as I’m willing to make, this disparity pretty accurately represents the archetypical characteristics of Eastern and Western role-playing games, respectively, with the outliers only really serving to reaffirm the norm.

At around the time of the original PlayStation’s triumphant denouement, Japanese role-playing games were at the vanguard of the console market, with titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest defining console gaming into the early 2000s. Strategic, turn-based combat wasn’t just expected in mainstream gaming, it was actively celebrated by games journalists and consumers alike. Hell, not only was Final Fantasy VII the most expensive video game of its day, but it also sold nearly seven million copies in 1997.

Yet for all their presence in the ‘90s, the JRPG influence wavered as Western developers like Black Isle and Bethesda bridged the gap from the more eclectic PC market into the commercialized console realm.

With the release of games like Morrowind and Baldur’s Gate on the Microsoft’s Xbox, combined with a slowly saturating selection of Japanese console RPGs on Sony’s PlayStation, it was clearly a shift in powers from East to West — and the environment in which the role-playing community engaged in discourse began to broaden in order to meet these trends in the genre’s library.

The process manifested in a divisive play of hostility; codification of JRPG versus Western RPG, therefore, serves to establish a rather polarizing environment in which the role-playing community engages in any degree of discourse — whether it manifests itself in games journalists like Joe Juba proclaiming some heralded “end of the JRPG,” or in YouTube commentators shit-talking each other based on another’s preferred subgenre.

Oblivion

I unknowingly entered this environment at around age thirteen — all filters off. I thought Oblivion looked fucking great. Unlike my Call of Duty or Halo, this game had a quality of depth — a world that, after watching the Gametrailers review for the umpteenth time, I began to realize felt truly alive. It made the effort to create the illusion. I heard descriptive words like “lore” and “customization” thrown around a lot in that review.

These words intimidated me — presenting a window into a community that saw dice in place of swords, text windows instead of reticles. Understanding what it all meant was difficult, but the challenge generated an alluring mystique to these interactive books. I think that’s when I was hooked.

Then I played Oblivion, and I hated it.

I had a fling with the idea. Everything was too open, combat was shitty, and everyone’s faces looked like stretched leather. That janky CGI-animated movie Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children confused me. It also reminded me of Kingdom Hearts. I didn’t understand a thing regarding the story, but definitely liked the music. I hadn’t heard that kind of rock/opera fusion, like, ever before. I watched the movie a few more times.

The PSP library was awful, so I bought as many games as I could to justify the initial investment. Picked up Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII before leaving for a six-hour road trip to Vermont (it lasted eight). I played through the game as far as I could, then got stuck. Level grinding hadn’t yet entered my gaming lexicon.

I don’t know why I bought Oblivion again, but I know I wouldn’t have if I stopped watching its reviews. The allure got the better of me, so I forced myself to enjoy it. I wanted to be a part of this community.

Still, I couldn’t believe Mass Effect was a role-playing game from what I’d seen. It looked more like an action game to me, but I was interested nonetheless. After finally convincing mom to let me buy the game, I couldn’t believe how quickly I finished it. First RPG completed under my belt, and it — well, it was probably my favorite game. Certainly the most memorable. I can’t believe I wasn’t allowed to play this; it was more of a TV show anyway. The sex scene wasn’t even all that bad. Role-playing games? Way more interesting than shooters.

I watched Final Fantasy VII on YouTube because I wanted to know what that game on the PSP I played was all about. Then I found a comment on the first part of the walkthrough:

“Way better than Mass Effect. Fucking casuals today.”

The walkthrough progressed, eventually reaching the first scene at Cosmo Canyon; earthy tones juxtaposed against a deeply meditative tribal beat struck within me the perfect kind of resonance — that which I didn’t know even existed. It didn’t have cinematic cutscenes, but emphasized music, writing, and direction. Nanaki’s mournful howl was only eclipsed by Bugenhagen’s words regarding the transience, beauty, and permanence of life that, to me, became sacred — heightened in its melancholic foreshadowing of something dark and profound beyond the narrative’s grand horizon.

This was how video games could tell stories.

Final Fantasy XIII

I finished watching the game, and the experience — well, it got me interested in writing in a way its modern Western counterparts never did. Perhaps, thinking back, I delved into VII to understand the hype surrounding Final Fantasy XIII. March was on the horizon, and marked some pretty significant releases, but I asked for XIII for my birthday. I guess I forgot that Mass Effect 2 was released within the same month.

For a whole summer, I steeped myself in Final Fantasy. I played all the games that were available to me and watched the rest (except the first three). As I grew to appreciate the series in its entirety, I talked about it with folks who grew up with the originals. I think they were impressed I had played the other games like Final Fantasy VI; that meant I had good taste. We never discussed games like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age.

Exp. Character traits. Talents. Perks. I filtered, digested, and eventually expressed:

“RPGs should be all about the story. All about the characters. Gameplay doesn’t even matter. It can play like shit for all I care, so long as it’s memorable — just look at Final Fantasy IX. Turn-based combat should be represented more in RPGs. Western games have lost touch with their roots in that sense.”

Consideration: my ideas or the community’s ideas?

I seemingly ran out of good JRPGs at some point. Having sifted through the catalogue of the SNES and PSX golden age, the dearth of quality modern JRPGs was stark. Having to really dig for the games was getting pretty tiring. Tales is all right I guess, but Sakuraba ain’t no Uematsu, that’s for goddamn sure. Being a predominantly JRPG player has its disadvantages. It sucks adhering to a genre whose modern iterations lack any means of narrative fulfillment. None of these stories have made me feel anything in, like — well, long enough for the tropes to stagnate.

I sure caved all right, but I’m glad I did. Goddamn, Dragon Age was good, Western or no. Didn’t fully understand the wonky-ass real-time combat, but the story. It was great to feel an investment in gaming narrative again, and it was over before I knew it. The best feeling is when you don’t know when you start falling in love with a story, you just realize you do — then you want more. I can’t remember if that was my idea or someone else’s, but I felt that when I played a Western RPG too now, which was kinda weird.

Note: non-linear narrative is compelling. Are the decisions that I, the player, make in Fallout 3 more compelling than the opera scene in Final Fantasy VI? Does it have to be either/or? Then I replayed Final Fantasy VII. Where has that feeling of association gone? It felt like a role-playing game, suffix or no.

Dark Souls came out in the fall of 2011. I was sick at the time of its release, sequestered within a dorm at Drew University, head-hammered with an eternity of pounding migraine. A Japanese, Western-styled game. Baffling, yet I haven’t personally met anyone that doesn’t like it. I liked it, too. I read a YouTube comment asking why CoD’s online multiplayer wasn’t considered an RPG if it had role-playing elements. I thought it was a good question, but it was downvoted into oblivion.

What the hell kind of game is Destiny? What the hell kind of game isn’t a role-playing game? How have we created such a constrictive environment that only affirms the majority’s consensus? How much value does a community ascribe to a genre-defined environment? Does our cultivation of its definition in turn define we who create it? Do our definitions ultimately matter if they seem so arbitrary?

We’re all playing a role in games.

Destiny

Eric Dale, my Eastern Religion professor, probably didn’t notice I’d been absent for a day, but as I walked into class, I certainly noticed the difference in topic. In that short time, the class had moved on from Confucianism into Daoism. I felt that I was able to follow the lecture reasonably well since it seemed I hadn’t missed much of the new subject given that the content was pretty well-contextualized within this singular lesson. And Dale, the hardest of hardcore Confucians, must be pretty bummed to be moving on.

But for me, Daoism provided some closure — a small, but significant answer to another of life’s stupid little anomalies that lingered in the back of my mind. The Daodejing differentiates the Dao and the De — the Way, and the physical manifestations of the Way. The Dao, with all the forhead-embryonic-immortality-Full Metal Alchemist-type stuff certainly has its own kind of mystical appeal; seeing the world as a harmonious Dao in which all life was but a manifestation of the harmonious Dao was just fascinating enough for me to scribble a little star next to several of my notes so that I’d really remember it. It felt important.

But try convincing someone of the practicality in seeing reality as a completely harmonious, homogenized End of Evangelion blob.

And so, I think this value of definition is the answer to my little video game conundrum. We need definition in how we perceive things, no matter how arbitrary, if only for the sake of practicality. When I say “JRPG,” you think spiky hair and giant swords. Or maybe you think of Akira Toriyama. Either way, we’re on the same wavelength. The discourse that surrounds these definitions — these role-playing sub-genres — is just an artificial byproduct of the disparities between completely segregate methods of game design, linked together solely in their arbitrary label. But you can’t deny that the label is still important.

Definitions exist for practicality’s sake, important not for their definition, but in their meaning to us — ironically undermined by a pointless exercise in combative and exclusionary genre rigidity.

Definition is a nice guideline. Just go with the flow, dood.

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