Sunday Meditation: The Future Of JRPGs May Be Western
Westernization could well be responsible for the malingering status of the JRPG, but when considering my own premise I'm strangely optimistic about the future.
I never believed that the genre actually died out due to a lack of consumer interest. I think many factors played a part, especially the tug of war between Microsoft and Sony at the start of the last generation, but cost and sales are likely culprits as well.
Even if Final Fantasy had remained great it never would have pulled in the kinds of sales that would justify the massive investment. Suikoden, Grandia, Shadow Hearts, all of these were top quality and as mainstream as possible in their day. If new versions were made though, they would probably command the same or fewer sales. The question for me is why not just make the same kinds of games but with better textures?
Apparently nobody thought of that and so we are where we are. Where we are isn't so bad though, trust me. With the indie and Kickstarter scene heating up we have a window into the hearts of tomorrow's game developers and yesterday's AAA talent fed up with trends. When I peer into those hearts I see gamers just like me who grew up playing the same JRPGs, having the same deep experiences, and holding onto similar warm memories of grand adventures. There's just something special about enjoying yourself without constantly being tense isn't there?
It is abundantly clear that Japanese developers have moved on from their awesome creations of the past, opting instead to put all eggs into the basket of global appeal. No matter what words we hear year after year it is painfully obvious that the altar at which they will worship for the foreseeable future is called action.
Elsewhere, fledgling developers and even top-shelf devs like those at Ubisoft are starting to embrace their roots. People are starting to discover that there is an unquenchable thirst for classic, sometimes even turn-based gaming. There is a thirst for a bit of strategy surrounding a compelling and flamboyant narrative, for an undying feel of familiarity, for fun without a racing pulse, for a touching moment between action sequences.
Patrick Plourde of Far Cry 3 fame is creating the JRPG-inspired Child of Light, it will mix 2D platforming with the classic art and turn-based combat of games like early Final Fantasy titles. In Bellevue, Washington Distastercake (which may or may not be a single human being) is plugging away on Soul Saga. This one looks like the little JRPG that could. Having reached pledges on Kickstarter amounting to $199,528 even though the goal was just $60,000, one can assume that if you build it the fans will come.
Project Phoenix is another title, this one a collaboration between east and west, that appears to be blazing its own trail as an indie game with AAA talent. It seems to have strong ties to the past, but will feature a squad-based RTS battle system. That doesn't really appeal to my old school desires but what I'm trying to latch onto here is the tone of change that is just starting to show itself. I'm sure some of you will try to stop me here and exasperatedly point to something like Xenoblade Chronicles on Wii, but my lifelong gamer instincts tell me that the bulk of the roughly 25-35 year old people who make up the audience for traditional JRPGs are either gaming on Playstation or not gaming at all.
In the absence of Japanese developers making traditional JRPGs I think there is still reason to hope that the genre can begin again. For whatever reason it seems to be the western audience that was most touched by these games so maybe only they can resurrect them properly. Big name publishers and developers may come around some day when they realize there is a market for these games, but in the mean time I don't have a lot of difficulty trusting the people who grew up with the games in question ushering in their rebirth no matter what culture they come from.
It's about getting it right, and perhaps it will take western dreamers putting their hearts into it to recapture the magic of those halcyon days.
11/2/2013 David D. Nelson