Tuesday, May 22, 2012

RPG Showdown: Abstract vs Simulative

More generally known as western vs Japanese RPGs (WRPG and JRPG respectively). I have been meaning to write this piece for some time now. After viewing the three Extra Credits episodes on the subject I got even more fuel into writing this. Mostly because I greatly disagree with episode 3. In short it claims that Japanese RPGs did not evolve in gameplay whereas western RPGs did (by taking influences from other genres). They make up the term "menu-based combat" to describe JRPG combat systems and go on to claim that it is old-fashioned and outdated. I have two problems with this statement: 1) I can point out numerous JRPGs that have very clever combat systems and 2) some of these are "menu-based combat". Combat system cleverness is a matter of opinion but trying to make a distinction between combat systems with some "menu-based combat" ridiculousness is flat out wrong.

Disclaimer: MMORPGs are left out of this.

Abstract and Simulative

It is true that Japanese style RPGs are falling out of favor. A big problem is their horrible quality of late. It is also true that they employ very different gameplay than their western counterparts. However saying that one has evolved and the other hasn't is not unlike claiming that only American board games or only European board games have evolved. The distinction between combat systems J and W RPGs arises from entirely different design perspective and is in part explained by the differences outlined in episode 2. In other words, WRPG combat systems have evolved into a form that supports the player's fantasy of being the character - they are simulative in the sense that they, like American board games, are rich with content matter. They want to evoke feelings that are relative to the overall game experience.

JRPG combat systems on the other hand are more like European board games in that they are often very abstract rules-first theme-later in design. The way the combat system plays out has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the game. This fits with the general approach that the player of a JRPG is a puppet master who is observing and controlling pieces in the game instead of trying to experience the world through a single character. Because of this, a lot of stuff that would make no sense at all from a simulative point of view are perfectly valid design choices for JRPGs. Stuff like giving commands from a menu to a bunch of character standing in a static formation and taking turns to hit each other. This removes a lot of limitations from system design.

Neither approach is better than the other. However, taking sides is really easy. Want an immersive in-character experience? Play a WRPG. Want to tinker with an abstract system? Play a JRPG. Let's take a closer look though. After that I can tell you why I prefer the JRPG.

Simulative RPGs

If we look at the evolution of Bioware games we can observe the simulative design approach pretty clearly. Baldur's Gate is pretty damn close to a pen and paper RPG played with figures - you can even see the die results! Although combat in Baldur's Gate does look more "realistic" than any Final Fantasy of its time it's still pretty abstract. Baldur's Gate plays more like a small scale tactical game than anything else. The game even runs a turn-based system underneath its real-time surface. Knights of the Old Republic implements a rather similar system but with less NPCs under the player's control. Unlike BG which had a very old school static alignment system, KotOR places the main character's alignment as a consequence of their actions in the game.

Jade Empire involved more direct control of the player's character and made the game real-time. Mass Effect, considered a paragon of modern roleplaying games by some, shows how far Bioware has come from Baldur's Gate. The player's control is quite tightly limited to one character. Allies can still be ordered to use their special abilities and to follow some generic orders but all in all they fight on their own and often out of the player's sight. The bird's eye view has been replaced with more personal participation. The game's mechanics reflect this; they've been designed to be plausible in their context. This is why Mass Effect plays a lot like a first person shooter. First person shooters have been the standard for simulating a firefight since, uh, Wolfenstein?

All of these games have a lot of situations where the player has the ability to choose the outcome of certain events. Likewise, they all allow the player to create their own character - their personal avatar in the game's world. The choices reinforce the player's ability to roleplay their character. Although the range of freedom is naturally more limited than in pen'n'paper games it is usually sufficient to give a decent illusion. Notice also how everything in the game mechanics has been given a plausible in-game explanation. When they changed weapon overheating to plain old ammunition in Mass Effect 2, they didn't simply change the mechanics - they also provided an in-game explanation for doing so.It's still stupid, but hey, at least the explanation exist.

Other titles reflect similar design principles. They all derive their mechanics from a more action-oriented genre. Deus Ex Human Revolution is a first person shooter at its core. The Witcher 2 uses a combat system that could be directly from a number of hack'n'slash games like God of War. Conveniently both of these games, just like The Elder Scrolls series, feature a lone protagonist. I don't think this is a coincidence. AI is tough and giving orders to AI characters is often an annoying burden to the player so it makes a lot of sense to not have a party at all in game that is first and foremost about the player's fantasy of being the protagonist. Having a lot of NPC characters around also takes attention away from the player's avatar. E.g. Baldur's Gate is not a game about just the protagonist, it is a game about the entire party. The story is about the protagonist, but gameplay treats all party members equally.

Character development systems are typically more artificial. It is not really possible to make such systems plausible, at least not in all contexts. Human Revolution gets away with it because new abilities are just new or enhanced implants which kind of explains how the protagonist suddenly gets a lot better at doing something. Most games are not as fortunate. Although some games kind of aim for realism with systems where skills get better as they are used, the time frame will never be anywhere close to realism. But that's okay, we're talking about games after all. There are two development systems that clearly form the mainstream in western RPGs: ability trees and use-based progress.

Since development systems are almost always artificial in some respects, it's not exactly clear why most western RPG titles land on one of these schemes. Ability trees can be mapped back to pen'n'paper systems where point distribution is a very common character creation and development mechanic. Systems where abilities go up when they are used have more base in reality, especially if we ignore the time frame it takes for the character to improve. One advantage with both of these systems from the simulative perspective is that they typically don't get in the way of gameplay. Advancing is simple and relatively straightforward. Relatively, because in some games (e.g. Diablo 2) the huge amount of synergy between abilities and equipment in the game requires serious consideration (although D2 does this in a rather fucked up way since there is no way to correct poor choices later).

Abstract RPGs

As was established in the Extra Credits episodes, Japanese RPGs should be considered a different genre altogether because they are not about roleplaying the player's personal avatar in a world but rather following and controlling the story of a group of characters. They can be considered abstract in the same sense that European board games can be considered abstract. It would be perfectly possible to take the entire gameplay mechanics of a fantasy JRPG and swap them with the mechanics of a scifi JRPG and the end result would probably work just as well. In other words, gameplay mechanics are very loosely tied to theme or game content. It's not that this abstractness naturally follows from being group-oriented. It's more like it is allowed because there is less emphasis on creating a roleplaying fantasy. Designers can throw in-game plausibility right out of the window.

Because gameplay does not actually need to make any sense at all from the thematic perspective, it is perfectly justified to have all combatants stand in a line and take turns to hit each other. Since the systems of modern JRPGs are making as little sense as ever, this tendency is clearly not just a consequence of technical limitations of the first gaming consoles. It's just a design approach where mechanics come first. Although the approach has not changed, it is rather lopsided to say that gameplay in JRPGs has not evolved. Even Final Fantasy main series  - which is pretty much among the least innovative series in the genre when it comes to combat mechanics - has quite recently revamped its combat successfully. The series is also known for its hybrid approach to turn-based combat. While personally  I consider it a disaster (except for the newest version) it brings about another interesting aspect of JRPG systems.

The stereotype of JRPG combat is the classic one that is completely turn-based and static (i.e. no movement). However, the active-time battle in FF series is not exactly turn-based but also not real-time. It's a temporal hybrid. Likewise, spatial hybrids exist. Shadow Hearts uses a fully turn-based system where the player cannot directly move any characters. However, all sorts of attacks and effects cause combatants to move around. This is relevant because area effects cover a specific shape only instead of hitting either just one target or every target. In Valkyria Chronicles and Resonance of Fate, only one character moves at a time - in full real-time in fact - while everyone else stands still but reacting by shooting at the active character. Resonance of Fate in general is a really good example of a unique and very gamey combat system. It's not perfectly executed and does get a bit repetitive towards the end, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Whether it is turns or real-time, JRPGs often have some gamey mechanics on top of the basic system. Modern Shin Megami Tensei games use press turns, extra turns granted by critical hits or hitting an opponent's weakness. A bunch of other games (e.g. Xenosaga, some FF titles) also use turn order manipulation schemes for great tactical effect. Shadow Hearts uses the judgement ring as a reaction micro-game for activating abilities and it is notable that it's not just a random addition but rather a full customizable subsystem in itself. Players who are really good with the ring can gain significant advantage in combat. Shadow Hearts also features combo systems which are another rather common mechanic. Typically unleashing attacks in a combo is far more powerful than simple trading of blows. Stagger systems are pretty much the same. These systems generally make timing of attacks an important factor in combat.

I could go on about examples for several more paragraphs, but let's just stop here. If you're not going to take my word for it, know that I can throw more examples at you. I mean I didn't even go into The World Ends with You or Valkyrie Profile here. So, point? The point is that these combat systems distinguish themselves from each other by using unique mechanics. It may seem that there has been no change on the surface. The real charm is in the details and subsystems which create a combination of game mechanics that is more often than not rather unique. Overall the design space is very board-gamesque in the sense that having a novel system is almost a requirement. This goes for character development schemes as well. More often than not, JRPGs have some kind of parallel development schemes. Level advancement is still quite common but typically it is not the only means of character development.

There's no need to go further than the Final Fantasy series for examples of this. Almost every game in the series has a drastically different character development system from the rest. The job system takes a new approach to character classes, allowing players to change classes and learn new abilities. Learned abilities can be equipped by other classes (but there is only one slot, you cannot have everything). The Sphere Grid in Final Fantasy X starts out like a multiple path skill and attribute tree but special spheres allow characters to teleport around the grid and learn abilities learned by other characters. In postgame, players can replace attribute bonus nodes with better ones, reconstructing pretty much the entire grid. One of my favorites is in FFVIII where the player can attach stacks of spells to character attributes in order to boost them. This system, called Junction, is a lot more central in developing characters than leveling up.

Again, these systems are very gamey. In games like Pokemon and the Shin Megami Tensei main series, developing characters is a game in itself with very detailed rules. GameFaqs is full of JRPG guides that show just how much detail has gone into these systems. The big downside is that these games rarely bother telling the player exactly how complex these systems are. Crisis Core for example has a materia fusion system that the game makes sound rather straightforward. Near the end of the game I looked at a materia fusion guide (in GameFaqs) and was pretty much blown away by it. So. Many. Rules. These are games for tinkerers. People also play them for their story, sure, but that's just to draw the masses in. The real game in JRPGs is tinkering.

Sidenote: Yes, I do realize that one reason why JRPG sales are plummeting is that their western counterparts have caught up and gone past in storytelling. A lot of people did play them for their story, especially the more mainstream titles like Final Fantasy. However the amount of detail in the game systems is a pretty clear sign of what the core audience plays these games for. That, and the fact that especially in some titles the story is clearly just an afterthought.

And the winner is... 

It shouldn't be a big surprise that I favor JRPGs. I'm a tinkerer and I like games that have very clockwork-like mechanics. I find that by releasing themselves from constraints like realism and full immersion, system designers can come up with much more compelling gameplay. I do enjoy the stronger roleplaying in western RPGs and understand why a lot of people prefer it. I also see how the linear nature and naivete of JRPG stories is unappealing to fans of more adult roleplaying. However, I feel that the western RPG in its pursuit of  fantasy has left behind the really gamey side (yes, the one where spreadsheets are involved). The playing experience is simply very different in, say, Mass Effect than it is in Resonance of Fate. The western RPGs I've played lately are a lot like games of another genre (usually shooter or slasher) but with more story and more freedom and some math in the background (but then again, character development is common in all games these days). There's absolutely nothing wrong with that but I just miss the more unique nature of JRPGs.


Although I stand behind this classification, it is mostly true for relatively modern games and even then there are exceptions. Dragon Age: Origins is reminiscent of Baldur's Gate - one of the gamiest Bioware games. Then we have Legend of Grimrock which is another blast from the past. Diablo, a game with tons of number crunching, now in its third incarnation. These games are generally further from pure player fantasy and closer to the abstract. It's also worth remembering that although the two genres have rather geographic names, western style RPGs have emerged from Japan - especially recently with the Souls games and even more recently with Dragon's Dogma. Western attempts at Japanese style RPGs are admittedly rarer but most likely not unheard of - especially if you are willing to look outside retail.

But to really summarize the point of this rather lengthy piece: the difference between the two RPG genres is their level of simulation. Western RPGs favor simulation and freedom to power the player's roleplaying fantasy. Japanese RPGs favor abstract gameplay to create nonsensical yet delightful and complex systems for players to tinker with.