The Question Mark – JRPGS: The Videogame Teenager

Okay, tell me if you have heard this one before: once upon a time, in a fantasy or perhaps sci-fi land, far, far away a teenager with very loose control over his hair gel bottle has been tasked with saving the world. It turns out that he is the chosen one and must rally his friends together to fight an evil enemy. The friends include a loud and brash fighter-type, a quiet ingénue woman that the hero secretly pines after, the hero’s female childhood friend who is clearly romantically interested in him, and an odd creature character with magical special abilities. After exploring the world and facing much adversity, the ragtag bunch of young heroes defeat their enemy, only to discover that another even bigger enemy was behind the nefarious deeds all along. Any of this sound familiar? If so, then congratulations: you have definitely played a Japanese role-playing game!

"C'mon Mr. Drippy, let's go express our opinion in a pointed blog post!"
“C’mon Mr. Drippy, let’s go express our opinion in a pointed blog post!”

Japanese role-playing games – or JRPGs – occupy an interesting space in videogaming as no other genre that I can think of has the nationality of the country so attached to it. The Witcher isn’t called a Polish RPG, despite being made in Poland. It is just called a role-playing game with the adjective “western” only occasionally added to differentiate it from the distinctive kookiness of the Japanese variety. Now, it already sounds like I am coming down on JRPGs and I don’t mean to because I honestly like them and there are few genres of any entertainment that elicits more nostalgia from me than a good ol’fashioned JRPG. Let’s take a look back, shall we?

In the beginning, there was only Fantasy and it was Final

In every generation, computer gaming enthusiasts continuously tout the complexity and maturity of the games that are exclusive to the PC as a platform. I would argue that there was no bigger truth to that than in the 8-bit and 16-bit generations where limited technology, marketing, and staunch kid-friendly corporate value systems limited the breadth of console gaming. Even Sega, which loudly proclaimed that it did “what Nintendont”, offered similarly basic experiences although often loaded with additional blood and ‘tude.

You had me at Spider-Man!
You had me at Spider-Man but then you throw in MJ? I love you Genesis!

There is nothing wrong with a basic experience per se – Pong is basic, Super Mario Bros. is basic, as is almost everything that requires a two button controller. For every Zelda or Metroid, there was probably one hundred Excitebikes or Track and Fields, fun games for sure but nothing that will have you gripped to your controller at all hours of the morning. From Star Control 2 to X-COM: UFO Defense, Dune 2, the adventure catalogues of Sierra and Lucasarts, the Ultimas or Wing Commanders – PC was the place to be for older gamers seeking a deep multi-hour experience.

Kids are pretty smart though and they wanted Zelda-sized experiences out of their games. Enter the JRPG: the equivalent of a gaming gateway drug. One of the first, and most notable, remains Final Fantasy.

It is now pretty widely known that the name “Final Fantasy” stems from the fact that it was Squaresoft’s last attempt at making a game before they were to go out of business. They threw everything into the game, including the kitchen sink, and a large yellow bird that you could ride around on.  It had story, personality, complexity, and it was a huge success (despite the fact that you had to buy the healing potions one at a time – I am still annoyed about that).

Growing Pains

My mom didn’t want us to have a Nintendo when we were kids. She saw the zapper and thought that it would conditioned her boys to join the military (in her defense, the zapper really does look like a gun – I would like to see Nintendo release something like that today).

Nintendo zapper: Fun toy or insidious military training tool?
Nintendo zapper: Fun toy or insidious military training tool?

One day, I had to have a tooth pulled and – to reward me for being tough son of a gun – she borrowed an NES from a friend along with a couple of games, including the original Dragon Warrior (also called Dragon Quest, it’s complicated, don’t ask). From fighting my first slime to getting my first phat piece of l00t, I was hooked. I played Dragon Warrior more than all the other games combined and didn’t even come close to finishing it before, to my dismay, I had to return the system.

Ignore his cuteness - this sucker means business.
Ignore his cuteness – this sucker means business – and yes Beau, this is the best resolution I could find.

The same pattern repeated itself when I got my wisdom teeth yanked, except this time it was a Super Nintendo and I finished the game. This time it was the story-heavy adventure of Cecil, the Dark Knight and his friends in Final Fantasy II (or IV depending on how you count – it’s complicated, don’t ask). As a young teenager at the time, the emotions presented in that game – betrayal, friendship, love, loss – while perhaps rudimentary by our Last of Us modern standards, captured me and whisked me away. Whereas many of the PC RPGs I played had me inhabiting nameless avatars, Final Fantasy II made me a part of a team of friends, one that bonded together as the adventure took them to the moon and back. And the music! Oh that music! Final Fantasy III followed (or VI, it’s complicated, don’t ask) and upped the stakes further, allowing you to control an epically large cast of characters as they worked to take down an evil empire. Games like Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Breath of Fire helped round out the SNES, each epic in scope with soaring musical scores and intense emotion.

These guys are my homies.
These guys are my homies – even that backstabber Kain.

The JRPG reached its nadir with Final Fantasy VII on the original Playstation. Sony pulled off a coup, luring Square away from Nintendo and putting a large marketing campaign behind the first PSX-exclusive FF game. I remember seeing actual television ads! People at my school legitimately asked if I had ever heard of “Final Fantasy” as if it had never existed before. It was completely crazy and while not the sole reason the Playstation beat the Nintendo 64, at least a significant one. Final Fantasy VII came on something like a hundred CDs with video and everything. It was big-time and – twenty year spoiler alert – included the death of a major character. Multiple other JRPGs, including two other Final Fantasys, were released for the Playstation and if you ever look at a “Best of” list of its games, you will see a lot of Japanese content. Some of the games, like Suikoden and Final Fantasy Tactics tried to broaden the narrative scope to encompass entire wars (don’t worry, they were still resolved by teenagers). However, with Halo, Grand Theft Auto, God of War and the Xbox on the horizon, console gaming was about to become increasingly adult.

Not only is this not a girl but that sword is also super practical. Crazy, I know!
Not only is this not a girl but that sword is also super practical. Crazy, I know!

The End of an Era?

Now time has gone on, gamers have aged and consoles have become increasingly similar to computers. Some of the most complex and mature gameplay experiences now exist solely on console. Time has seemingly not been kind to the JRPG which has almost remained stagnant, evolving little since the days of Cecil and his Red Wings. The narrative tropes are visible, young teens saving the world with their friends, the game mechanics recycled (random battles anyone?), all catering to the same young audience that is now spoiled for choice. The days of a JRPG making or breaking a game console are long past and many of the franchises have dried up in popularity in the West.

As I have mentioned on EXM recently, I am currently playing Xenogears, which many are saying was the last truly great JRPG. I am enjoying it, if partially in a nostalgic way, but at this point I feel like I can see a lot of the seams. I truly hope that the story of Shulk and his friends is resonating with young teens in the same way that Cecil’s Red Wings won me over. The emotion these games possess are powerful and the values they share important but, as sure as one day we have to grow up and become adults, so too does it seem that we are all fated to leave what we all used to view as the most narratively complex videogames behind.

Is there a JRPG that meant a lot to you? Is there still room for them in this modern world or are they teenaged relics of a previous generation? Tweet at @exmpodcast or @croftonsteers and let me know!

The Question Mark – Generation Game

A First in Blogging History

Beau and I cover a lot of gaming ground on the Exclamation Mark podcast, often covering the gamut of multiple topics in any given episode. Every once and awhile, I want to expand on some of things we discuss – particularly with regards to what I am playing and what we discuss in the Dialogue Tree. To that end I have decided to venture into the sparsely populated world of videogame blogging. It is my understanding that this is the first videogame blog ever written in the history of the world. I could be wrong but probably not. This blog is definitely filling a hole in the market.

I hereby christen this the first ever post of the Question Mark!

The Greatest Gaming Generation

This week I wanted to discuss something I jokingly mentioned on an early EXM episode: the upcoming gaming generation gap – the first ever gaming generation gap actually. This might be long – whatever it is my first blog.

As a gamer in his mid-thirties, I don’t want to say I am the original or inaugural gaming generation but I am damn close. I read somewhere that Hugh Hefner was addicted to Pac-Man when it came out and there were enough people playing Atari that they figured they could have sold all those copies of E.T.: The Game that they buried in the New Mexico desert. Gaming happened before I was born but my generation was the one that really had immersive games in their living rooms and on their Nintendos, Commodore 64s, and PCs (sorry Sega Master System – nobody cares, call me when you become the Genesis). From Sierra’s Mixed-Up Mother Goose onwards, I was a gamer (a term I loathe because I think everyone is a gamer to some extent – I guess it is no worse than calling a movie lover a “cinephile” which sounds super dirty and about a step away from illegal activity).

OG in the house! Best get King Cole his pipe and represent!
Original Gamer in the house! Best get King Cole his pipe and represent!

I have been playing games for every console generation since, upgrading PCs, playing BBS games on a dial-up modem, collecting an assortment of handhelds from the Game Boy on, heck I even worked for Nintendo for a spell! Growing up, I often tried to engage my parents into playing videogames with me. Neither of them ever had much interest and clearly looked at the hobby as a “kid’s thing”, a phase that would pass, much like playing with Lego (hello Minecraft!) or reading comic books (hello Avengers: Age of Ultron!). Little could they suspect, games would ended up growing up with me, becoming increasingly mature and complex and appealing to a variety of audiences, including adults.

Now, I am a new parent. For the longest time I thought I would be a super “cool” parent when it came to videogames. I would be the guy that knows all about the latest games and could keep up with my kid and understand the appeal of all the latest fads, Pokémon, Skylanders or whatever. In my idealized world, my child and I would be coop gaming together as part of them growing up. When they became a teen, gaming would be the one thing that I could remain current on. While all my music would be “lame” and my taste in movies and books “square” (kids still say “square” right?), my knowledge and appreciation of games would be my one redeeming feature – the one bridge of the generation gap. In my mind, all was well. Gaming was always changing but it was never going to get away from me.

I may not like them, but at least I understand them.
I may not like them, but at least I understand them.

Then came the Playstation 4, a console with a button that encapsulates how far behind I have fallen: SHARE.

Livestreaming the Future

The Exclamation Mark streams each weekly podcast live on Twitch. If you are not familiar with Twitch, it is probably because you are over thirty. It is a livestreaming site where people watch other people play videogames. Sometimes they watch matches of competitive gaming, labelled esports, such as League of Legends or Counter-Strike. Sometimes they watch retro-gaming playthroughs of old NES or SNES game (Beau told me that there is at least one person streaming Super Metroid at any given time). Sometimes they watch recently released games – the latest hotness – to see what they look like. Sometimes they collectively engage in active participation, such was the case in Twitch Plays Pokémon. For the most part though, they watch instead of play. Some of them play a game while watching other people play a different game.

People watched a fish play Pokémon. A fish.
People watched a fish play Pokémon. A fish.

Increased bandwidth has led to the growth of Twitch and livestreaming which has enabled the growth of esports. After several failed attempts at launching a gamer television channel, esports finally found their home online. We are in a boom period with tremendous growth, both with regards to livestream and esports. Consoles had been lagging behind but both the PS4 and the Xbox One seem to have embraced streaming to such a large extent that it is now featured in their hardware, such as through the aforementioned “Share” button.

I don’t understand any of it. I don’t like any of it. It seems stupid to me, completely ridiculous. The banality of watching someone play a game when you could literally be playing a game yourself is tough for me, as someone who loves to play videogames, to wrap his mind around.

This is how I see streamers and esports players.
This is how I see streamers and esports players.

Some people – including my co-host Beau – would probably read that last line and spout off a ton of reasons why these things are worthwhile: they could compare esports to me watching NHL hockey on television instead of playing it myself or they could make allusions to competitive players improving their skills through watching videos of others online. They could even talk about people who may not have the money to buy a game, being able to at least experience some of the hype through watching it. I have heard many of these arguments and find them all flawed. Any way I look at it, watching gaming livestreams seem ridiculous and stupid. It is almost infuriating in how obnoxious and dumb I find it.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter what I think. Not. One. Iota.

Thousands if not MILLIONS of people watch livestreams, share videos over Twitch, YouTube or other services. Countless others compete or train to participate in esports. Competitions like Heroes of the Dorm or the International or whatever South Korea is doing in Starcraft, are flourishing. People are doing it, people are enjoying it, and, in many ways, it is part of our collective gaming future. The fact that someone hated rock and roll music or comic books or Star Wars didn’t stop these things from defining generations and growing in popularity. If anything bothers me, it is the “me not understanding” part.

This is what streamers and esports players actually are.
This is what streamers and esports players actually are like.

One day in the not so distant future, my kid is going to turn to me and say “Dad, did you see PewDiePie’s livestream of the finals of the Warcraft Annual Invitational?” and I will clench my teeth, press pause on my archaic console, turn around, force a smile and say: “No, please tell me more dear.”

If I am going to be the victim of a generation gap, I am at least going to be smiling.