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[personal profile] cashew
If you're wondering, the reason I'm writing this in the first place is because I would like to do some self examination on what I like/dislike about games as I make my own. You are probably thinking, "But [personal profile] cashew, how can you not know what you like? Just put what you like in a game and go from there." Well, dear hypothetical reader, the reason I approach the problem via this kind of categorical analysis is because just throwing things you like about a game into a single game doesn't actually make a good game. Much like throwing ingredients together doesn't result in a meal or mixing chemicals don't necessarily result in a chemical reaction unless you know what the working mechanics are, so too goes with games. By understanding what makes a game a certain genre, I think it allows me to understand what about that genre is engaging. And since I am aware that I tend to enjoy games that are classified as "JRPG" (FF, Tales, Pokemon, Valkyria Chronicles, etc.), I think it is worth while to wrangle with what makes an RPG an RPG, and what makes an RPG a JRPG, as opposed to some other type of RPG.

Disclaimer: I did not come up with these concepts in the ether. However, due to the fact that I did not systematically record all the sources from which I drew inspiration, I cannot offer sufficient credit. Just let it be known that I do not think I'm making any new discoveries/understandings and that these points have been brought up, but the originator of these ideas are difficult to pin down in the vastness that is the internet.

Before we discuss what is an RPG, I think it is important to discuss what is NOT an RPG. Too often, I find discussions mired in the trappings of RPG, often citing things like leveling, experience, statistics, attributes, equipment, RNG, turn-based battles, power-ups, and many other mechanics that people associate with RPG. However, all of these trappings can just as easily be applied to games that have "RPG elements", yet these games remain fundamentally NOT an RPG.

For example, the Legend of Zelda series is often mistakenly called an RPG, yet it is always categorized as "Action Adventure". The reason many mistake it for an RPG is because of how much of RPG trappings exist. Link has Hearts, which serves as a measurement of how many hits he can take, which some argue works like an HP bar. You gather power ups and ever more powerful equipment that help you continue with your exploration. There's also a huge world to explore and an over arching story involved. There are NPCs. Towns where you can buy healing items. Dungeons to crawl for treasure. Shops to spend rupees. Yet, all of this does not make Legend of Zelda an RPG, because the core mechanic of Zelda is fundamentally an adventure, it is about exploring and figuring out how to open those doors so you can get to the next thing. It is about keeping all the items you found with you, because you never know which one of the many things in your inventory just might be the thing you need for that next dungeon. That is the same mechanic across all types of adventure games, action, point-and-click, or text based.

So, if RPG is not about levels, experience, stats, attributes, etc. etc., then what is an RPG?

Well, first we have to acknowledge that there are many, many types of RPGs and a definition of RPG must encompass the core engagement of all of these types. So let's take a look at the many ways in which RPGs can take form:
LARP - live action role-play (in other words, play acting)
(just to add: LARPing gets a bad rep, yet people fail to realize LARPing is what a lot of therapist use to help their patients to overcome a lot of psychological problems, so, respect y'all)
PnP RPG - pen and paper, also called Tabletop RPGs (exemplified by Dungeons and Dragons)
MMORPG - massively multiplayer online RPG (exemplified by World of Warcraft)
CRPG - classic or computer RPGs (exemplified by Ultima)
JRPG - Japanese RPGs, or console RPGs (exemplified by Final Fantasy)
Freeform RP - non-restrictive roleplaying, often taking place on a forum/social blogging circle (LJ, tumblr, CBR-rumbles forum, etc.)

There are, of course, many more hybrid RPGs, but let's stick with pure RPGs for the moment to figure out what unifying concept is behind all things called "RPG". Of all the ideas that have been bandied across the internet, the one that I find to be the most satisfying is this:
Unlike other games, a role-playing game is a game in which the character, not player, determines the success or failure of an action.
In other words, it is the only type of game that takes the player's skill out of the equation of the game and allows the characters' skill to determine the outcome. And that, I think is true of any and all (pure) RPGs. A player's inability to do something does not mean the character they play is unable to do it, and vice versa. This is why there is a huge emphasis on player knowledge versus character knowledge. This is why, often, the outcome of an action is determined by stats or the roll of a dice, and not the player's skill. Even in freeform RP, players must discuss and convince others that their character can achieve something, before carrying on with the action. This is why there are IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) distinctions. You are NOT the character, but more importantly, the character IS NOT YOU.

To bring this home to video games, look at something like Mario. Mario's ability to jump and stomp goombas is determined purely by the player's twitch reflexes. There is nothing inherent about Mario that improves his ability. Only the player's skill has any determination. In contrast, when you select "Attack" for a character in a video game RPG, it is not the player's skill that determines whether the attack connects, but rather the character's hit roll.

And because of this, the engagement of an RPG is not improving the player's skill, but rather the visible improvement of the character.

Another interesting aspect of RPGs is that all RPG stem from the nerd debate of "if [blank] and [blank] got in a fight, who would win?" And since often characters do not have quantifiable abilities, a lot of these discussions often requires narrative to justify the reasoning. I point to CBR Rumbles board as the quintessential RPG mentality. Thus, it is not so much that RPGs have a monopoly on narrative, but that without narrative, the RPG tends to fall apart, since so much of its development history is steeped in the narrative culture, even if it is something as simple as trying to justify the why two characters are fighting in the first place. This is also the reason why those who are attracted to RPGs also tend to place a huge, huge emphasis on the narrative.

Okay, so that covers what is an RPG. Now comes the harder part, what is a JRPG?

At this point, many, many words have been written about how does one classify a JRPG, rather than just another "RPG". Of course, this all originated from the fact that in Japan, their first RPG was developed on a console. Because of the limitation of console (a d-pad and two action buttons), the JRPG (or console RPG) needed to simplify the controls. A lot. Typing in commands is not possible. Having hot keys is not possible. So how do you issue complex commands with just a D-pad and two action buttons?

Menus were the answer. By selecting actions from a menu, console RPG condensed the complex RPG commands down to some very simple input: change the selection with D-pad, confirm selection with one button, cancel selection with the other. This simplicity of input lies at the core of all JRPGs, and all RPGs that are classified as JRPGs. It also just happens that this reduced complexity of input meant that less attention is put into the multitude of interactions between different commands and that meant more attention could be put into the second trait of RPGs: narrative. As such, JRPGs became associated with a strong narrative. Where computer/classic RPGs were mechanically complex, JRPGs became narratively complex. Thus, strong narrative, linear story, fixed characterization, and lack of customization became associated with JRPGs.

However, as the genres evolved and mixed and inter-bred, this distinction is no longer so obvious. Mass Effect, a distinctly non-JRPG, is released on a console, has simple controls, and strong narrative. Pokemon, a very much JRPG, has simple controls, loose/lax narrative, and very little character development. Then you have Action RPGs that add even more twists. Kingdom Hearts, a classic Action RPG, but also definitively JRPG, has complex controls, strong narrative, very little customization, etc.

So, we've come to a point where I do not think it is very helpful anymore to define a console/JRPG by its mechanics. Nor does it help to try to define it by nation of origin, since RPGs like Dark Soul, Demon Soul, Monster Hunter are all made in Japan, but very much NOT JRPGs.

Yet, despite the many types of JRPG, there is still a very distinct JRPG-ness to a JRPG. Here I would venture a suggestion: a JRPG is an RPG that evokes the core values of console-RPGs. JRPG is a style of RPG rather than a genre. This style is something that values narrative, has distinct characterization, and is aesthetically stylized. Of course, it must also sport the core RPG mechanic as its main focus, that is the determination of outcome is reliant on the character and not the player skill.

Yes, many games not made in Japan fall under this category, and I would argue that they are JRPGs nonetheless.

P.S. By the definition I offered, Undertale is most certainly a JRPG.
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