Extra Punctuation Transcript
I’ve been picking up vibrations through the old general internet discourse banjo string that JRPG may no longer be an acceptable term? Like it’s racist, or something? Because it’s got the word Japanese in there? I don’t know if I’d go along with that. Maybe if it was being used in a derogatory context, but for me it just refers to a particular kind of RPG characteristic of many classic games that have come out of a specific country. I wouldn’t think it was any more racist than saying “Italian horror movie” or “Parisian style street cafe.” Still, I’m over forty as of this year, preparing to spend the rest of my life uselessly taking up space in the world I’m leasing from the next generation, so probably not my place to decide these things.
Well, just to make all our positions clear, here’s specifically what I mean when I refer to a game as a JRPG: A narrative-focussed game with an anime visual style and at the very least the common RPG trappings of levelling up, character stats and equippable gear. With a protagonist who’s something of a blank slate teaming up with a number of well-established NPC party members and a menu driven combat system of some kind. I’m content to classify Final Fantasy XVI as more of a hack and slash or spectacle fighter than an RPG if everyone else is.
And of course there’ll be a grandiose plot that will almost inevitably end with teenagers using the power of friendship to kill God. That’s a pretty vintage observation of mine, but it still surprises me how it continues to be relevant. Now, as noted in previous episodes, I’m no fan of JRPGs, I’ve only personally completed four of the buggers: Earthbound, Paper Mario 2, Persona 4 and Persona 5. And it’s weird how it’s not just that they all end with using the power of friendship to kill God; all four of them also have a bit near the end where God almost kills the party but then the heroes imagine and/or solicit help from every NPC they’ve met over the course of the game and their combined positive energy gives them the power to prevail. Quite literally using the power of friendship, y’see.
But as I say, these are the only four I’ve finished myself. I know the endings of other JRPGs from watching Youtube videos and general cultural osmosis and I’m aware that there are outliers, some that only loosely fit the description of “teenagers using the power of friendship to kill God.” Chrono Trigger’s main villain is Lavos, which is more of an all-powerful destructive beast than a God, but I’d argue the distinction between “God” and “most powerful being known to exist” is more semantics than anything else. And the heroes don’t gather the power of all their friends at the end to kill it, although success only coming because of everyone working together is a prevailing theme, especially in that whole sequence where Crono stone cold dies and his allies have to work to bring him back.
So even if they’re not literally using the power of friendship as in the four examples I’ve played, there’s usually some lip service given to it. Usually someone will at least mention that it is their friends that give them their strength, or emphasis will be placed on the villain being a lonely figure trying to impose their personal will without caring about others. And I suppose I bring all this up to express my disappointment that JRPGs seem to constantly fall back on this one set of themes.
Don’t worry, I’ll supply my own counter-argument with this sock puppet on my hand. “Oh Yahtz, surely what you’re describing here are fairly universal storytelling themes, some of which are an inevitability of the medium. Is it so strange that games featuring as a central element of gameplay the player characters gradually becoming stronger fighters taking on more and more powerful monsters, should culminate with them having to fight the most powerful being in the world? That is to say, God?” Well, perhaps you’re right. “And as for using the power of friendship, you yourself said that a characteristic of the genre is acquiring a party of NPC allies, surely the theme of relying on others would also arise naturally from the format?” Yes, okay… “And as for teenagers, seems unfair to pick on the RPGs considering how much of Japanese culture generally is fixated on characters of high school age. Come to think of it’s unfair to pick on the Japanese, since young people at the age of awakening not yet self-realised or hardened by experience are natural candidates for a hero’s journey in any culture. Look at Dune, Game of Thrones. Hell, Luke Skywalker definitely wasn’t old enough to shave.”
ALRIGHT, SHUT UP, MR. SOCKY. True as all of that might be, I don’t buy that always ending with teenagers using the power of friendship to etc is some inescapable necessity of the format to which we can only throw up our hands and cry “oh well.” I know, because I’ve seen alternatives. In both Persona 4 and Persona 5, funnily enough.
Save world from evil god is an element of the plot of Persona 4 that at best takes a back seat. For the most part you’re investigating a series of murders being carried out through the Midnight Channel, a shadowy otherworld that manifests the collective unconscious that only you and the killer knows about. You follow a lead to what turns out to be a copycat killer, finally uncover the real killer as they start threatening you and your adorable blameless little sister directly, then turns out there’s another real killer who’s someone you know and thought was a friend and you have to defeat them in the Midnight Channel as well as the source of their power – hang on, I think I forgot something. Oh yeah. Spoiler alert. And you know what, if the game had ended there – which indeed it does if you can’t figure out how to get the 100% good ending – I’d have been perfectly happy. But then it turns out there’s another real villain even realer than the last who is god and wants to destroy the world and you have to defeat them with the power of friendship before you can finally piss off home. Almost feels like the game itself knew of my criteria for JRPGs and felt it had to sellotape on the standard ending at the last minute.
Then there’s Persona 5, which is a fairly straight case of the teenage protagonists using the power of acquaintanceship to assassinate Jehovah, but then there’s the extra semester that gets added on after that in Persona 5 Royal. Where a new threat emerges in the form of, again, a character we know, who is attempting to impose their will upon the world. Except it turns out the world they want to create is a nice one where everyone’s happy. And you might even agree with him. You have the option of agreeing with him and getting an early ending. But if you want the full experience you have to battle him in the Metaverse and there’s your prerequisite epic fight but then in the ending the villain shows up again to say “Welp, guess you were right all along. No hard feelings. Bye!”
Both these plots represent viable alternatives to evil god trying to destroy world gets friendshipped to death. And the connecting factor between the two is characters. Persona 4 and 5 are very good at characters. Characters we understand and watch develop and want to see succeed. Villains with complex motives that we want to act against but at the same time can see their point of view. The plot of Persona 4 would have worked perfectly well if the supernatural element were entirely removed. If the murderer’s weapon of choice was a big stick with a nail in the end rather than a metaphorical shadow realm. Because what matters is that all the peril and drama is created by interactions between characters. At least right up until the bit where you have to kill God.
It’s not that I flat out object to gregariousness-fueled deicide and think it’s always bad. There are plenty of games that have done fun things with it, Undertale for one, it’s just a plot device, but at the same time, there’s something inherently lazy about it. Sod it, let’s broaden this out beyond JRPGs to any plot that culminates in “stop evil powerful being from destroying the world,” like about 90% of filler Doctor Who episodes. It’s disappointing because it’s so mind-numbingly broad.
Wanting to save the world is a universally understandable motive that the audience is automatically on side for. No-one in their right mind would oppose it. But that makes it a crutch for lazy storytelling. The challenge is to build characters well enough that we can relate to them or take an interest in them and want to see them achieve their goals even if that benefits no-one else. I mean, the plot of Silent Hill 1 was “evil god wants to destroy the world,” and I always found that a bit cheesy. Meanwhile, broadly speaking, the plot of Silent Hill 2 is “Sad man gets more sad.” And it’s the best psychological horror game ever made, piss off.
And remember what I said when I was praising the writing in most of Rockstar’s games: almost none of Rockstar’s protagonists get called upon to save the world. The rest of the world couldn’t care less if they live or die. But we get invested because of the strength of the characters, and our attachment to them is far greater because of it.
As I say, stop destruction of world is a perfectly functional plot, but that’s all it is. Functional. It can make for a very nice foundation on which to explore some deeper concepts, but I do get disappointed when a game falls back on it. ‘Cos it instantly broadcasts not just a lack of imagination, but a lack of confidence in its own characters and their ability to engage. It’s arguably detrimental to character building on a personal level, ‘cos it kinda bulldozes everyone’s problems out of the way, doesn’t it. Sorry, hot girl party member number 2, much as I’d love to help you overcome the lack of closure you feel for your father’s unrealistic expectations, the world’s about to sodding explode. And I’d rather it didn’t because I have to live on that.