After I finished Xenoblade Chronicles 2, I knew I had participated in something big. I was mesmerized by the story, witnessing a boy, a girl, and a giant kaiju-boat take part of a series of gigantic events. Elements such as turn-based combat, stats, items, tales about episodes of huge magnitude and dialogues that seem endless are combined with dramatic cutscenes. These are all elements found, one way or another, in JRPGs.
I believe that from time to time, as a result of our eagerness for telling memorable stories, a new JRPG comes to light, some introducing meaningful changes, but never erasing what constitutes the genre. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a fluid real-time combat based on auto-attacks to charge powerful skills. Final Fantasy VII Remake proposes to reread a classic, giving voice to the action as well as the emotion once experienced by many through rudimentary graphics and past technologies. These changes are welcomed, but JRPGs, with their traditional foundation, should also be celebrated by their own capacity to tell all these tales. The genre has proved it can repeatedly stage great stories by repeating familiar mechanics and themes. In order to better understand the uniqueness in this form, we can look back at epic poems in which formalism as well as structure were rules part of an art of storytelling.
As a genre, epic poems appear as a medium for stories of big proportions and of enormous cultural value to a nation. While the Odyssey narrates a number of mystical situations in which Odysseus goes through, just to return to his home, The Lusiads is a tale that glorifies Portuguese history and its people. These poems followed very fixed norms regarding the number of verses (separated by stanzas), rhymes, and even thematic conventions as asking for inspiration from a muse, for example. Any radical change in these norms ends in disqualifying it as an epic poem. Because of this, authors have found the need to explore the genre’s traditions in order to create meaning, and provide unique experiences to readers.
JRPGs aren’t too far from this. From the process of leveling your character to, sometimes, giving the player few actions to choose from in their turn during combat, designers are trying to bring emotion and a myriad of feelings while they strive to maintain all the traditional aspects of JRPGs. I don’t think I could ever forget how excited I was after beating Waltz nº1, in the Ice Cavern, during my first playthrough of Final Fantasy 9. I was young and clueless about the possibility of changing my target during combat, so I kept attacking Sealion, summoned by the black mage. It was relentlessly cured by its summoner, which conducted me to defeat more than once. Even if the game tried to explain to me I could, and should, have attacked Waltz first, the language barrier prevented me from understanding it. Although the encounter was not action intense, it invoked anger, frustration, and happiness throughout. All of it with only a static background, an unrealistic sense of time and an awesome soundtrack.
So, the distinct mechanics and aesthetic features in JRPGs’ fashion form the digital tools a storyteller has. It demands creativity from an author to develop a unique work in such conditions, and how differently the well-known formula of a JRPG can be applied and used to tell different and yet really epic stories is a sign of authorship from its designers. Take Bravely Default as another example. It’s a game that excels in using turn-management as an important mechanism to create tension. Traditionally, combat turns work as a representation of time in, which gives the player a moment to create strategies. However, in Bravely Default, they are tied to the specific mechanics of using the brave command, which grants additional actions in a same turn for the price of not being able to act for some time, or default, a type of defense stance that gives the players points to deploy when brave is used, preventing the character from spending too much (or any) time without acting.
There are no means to see when it is your enemy’s turn or which action they will take as usually happens in similar games. To choose default might seem to be the safest option, but it will make the fight last longer. On the other hand, by spending their turn choosing the brave command, instead of defending, players are haunted by the fear of finding death by the enemy’s hand. Such as poets trying to produce meaning through the repetition of sounds or rhythm, designers kept a formal aspect of the genre (instead of changing to an action-based battle system) and aimed at creating different outcomes compared to how it was initially thought.
There’s also a type of expectation related to the narrative, which must be depicted in a very dramatic and emotional way. Every story portrayed in a JRPG is supposed to be incredible, such as in epic poems, whose characters deal with forces bigger than them, trying to endure challenges thrown by gods or achieving superhuman abilities. While Gilgamesh, figure from a Mesopotamian epic, looks for eternal life, Vasco da Gama, in the Lusiads, encounters giants and faces strong storms that almost sink his ship.
In Final Fantasy X, Yuna’s journey with Tidus and their friends starts with the simple plan of visiting temples, but it quickly escalates and the group ends up challenging fate and forces beyond their own comprehension in order to save the world. They evolve as characters, facing many difficult moments and enemies to prevail in the end. The magnitude of a story has a lot to do, also, with how it is told. In Octopath Traveler, each character faces their epic adventure individually. They may seem ordinary, but by following their personal paths, players learn about what they had to do to overcome a past which haunts them or to succeed in accomplishing their dream. Simple stories are told as epic deeds from an individual perspective. In the end, the feeling of taking part in something memorable is what the tales told by JRPGs are meant for.
To experience an epic story, the player has to go through a lot. As Xenoblade Chronicles 2 ends, the truth behind the origin of its world and conflicts is discovered. As a bystander, the player follows Rex and his party as they observe a new world unfolding. All that happened will once be told to the future generations as a great myth. However, without leveling up my characters, participating in their conversations or watching some (really) long cutscenes, I would not have felt the same way after witnessing the whole journey. The use of these traditional features are crucial for our experience. As it happens with epic poems, without the rhymes, the structure and recurrent themes, reading their stories would not be the same. Many of these were transformed in prose or translated to other mediums, such as movies. Even though the results were not necessarily bad, they were far from evoking the same. JRPGs, such as epic poems, are the result of creating something unique by mastering already established rules. The way stories are told is as important as what they are trying to say.