East beats West: The RPG war rages on

There appears to be a growing divide amongst gamers as of late. With the seemingly endless influx of new releases and a majority of them role playing games, it’s hard to not notice the growing gap between Western and Eastern RPGs.

In the PSOne era, Japanese RPGs ruled the console. New installments of Final Fantasy, Wild Arms, Chrono Cross, and a myriad of strategy RPGs gave fresh new engagement to strategy and storytelling. With the emergence of the PS2, companies like SquareSoft (later SquareEnix), XSeed, ATLUS, and BanDai, produced hit after hit: Final Fantasy X, Kingdom Hearts, Wild Arms Alter Code F, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4, and .hack volumes and the Xenosaga trilogy. Each and every one of the above mentioned games not only encompassed a rich, moving story with excellent voice acting and CGI, but also featured brand new elements of gaming that truly encapsulated the definition of role playing game (such as the dating simulator in Persona 3 and 4, or the excellently produced sport Blitzball in Final Fantasy X). It was a complete and immersive experience.

That being said, in our modern generation of consoles the number one complaint about these giants of creative storytelling and innovative gameplay seems to boil down to this: “They’re too Japanese.”

I’m not here to judge (okay maybe I might be) but it seems absurd to generalize an entire genre of games down to what essentially becomes a racist comment. Simply put: cultural diversity seems to upset the current generation console owner to the point of dismissing what could be the most creative and diverse games available on the market.

I do realize where the Western gamers’ opinions form, though. In my opinion, our giants of RPG creators boil down to three huge companies: BioWare, Bethesda, and Blizzard. All three seem to draw upon two major themes in the creation of their games: swords and magic fantasy (complete with dragons), and futuristic, GI Joe styled space odysseys. Hence, we have Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Star Wars: The Knights of the Old Republic, Diablo, and World of Warcraft. All are fantastic games. All contain fantastic stories. But none have the kind of sweeping storytelling that JRPGs are known for. Western RPGs tend to contain open world spaces that don’t allow for a more focused type of storytelling. And many of the games listed above rely on first person to persona the role playing experience. JRPG characters tend to have wily, eccentric personalities, sometimes tipping the believability scale. But they carry charm.

Of course, that’s not to say Commander Shepard can’t be charming. My worry is that, as Western gamers, we have been trained to take full reigns on our gaming experience, but then critics paradoxically criticize RPGs for their struggle to tell coherent stories in a focused way. I can’t help but feel that we, as gamers, are subconsciously asking for less and less storytelling, character development, and focus on the experience of watching and playing as a story unfolds.

I’ll never forget how I kidnapped the princess while performing a theatrical play in Alexandria, or the melancholy feeling of having to fight my best friend because he was possessed by Ansem. But I often forget how I ended up in Whiterun. It just sort of happened.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Maybe not.