From the Archives: Wandering the World

I’ve asked this question before in our visual novel column, but it bears repeating: why do we play?

The answer is different for everyone, even between fans of the same type of game. Some enjoy JRPGs for their heavy focus on story and character development in a narrative sense; others enjoy the gradual process of building up their strength and power and being able to take on the toughest challenges the game has to offer. Others still enjoy finding all the secrets there are to find in the game — and there are usually a lot.

For me, as a self-confessed narrative junkie, I primarily enjoy the experience of hanging out with the characters, of fighting alongside them and, eventually, taking on some sort of earth-shattering, physically-improbable Big Bad, probably in space. Battling against all odds. Building those bonds between people that the Persona series is always banging on about, you know?

But this isn’t the only way to enjoy a JRPG.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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There’s a curious JRPG offshoot that can prove just as compelling as its more conventional, usually turn-based brethren. I’m not really sure quite what to call it (if anything) as it has a lot in common with both “traditional” JRPGs and the more Western format of open-world explorathons like Skyrim.

It’s actually a relatively rare format to see in JRPGs, as many still follow the “visual novel with battles” model that was set back in the 16-bit era and has been adhered fairly rigidly to ever since, but it most certainly exists.

I’m talking about titles such as Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles. Both of these games are markedly different from your usual JRPG experience in that you can freely wander around the world without being limited by various transport options, they’re relatively non-linear (in that each area sports a wide variety of tasks that can be tackled in any order) and the narrative takes a bit of a backseat to the experience of wandering the world, exploring and discovering things.

That’s not to say the narrative is weak, of course — both Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII have good stories for the most part. (Although I grant that Final Fantasy XII  flat-out becomes Star Wars without a single ounce of apparent shame towards its conclusion, it’s definitely solid up until that point.)

But the point of playing these games is very different from the point of playing, say, Persona 3. In the former case, you have a huge world to explore, filled with interesting people, places to see and things to do; in the latter, you have a much smaller world that is fleshed out in a considerable amount of additional detail. In the former, you’re making a journey through a massive and well-realized world; in the latter, you’re making a journey through time and seeing how the same locale evolves.

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Confession time: I don’t really enjoy open-world RPGs in the Bethesda mould. Sure, I’ve beaten both Oblivion and Fallout 3, but at some point between Fallout New Vegas and Skyrim I realized that I just wasn’t having much fun with them. There was too much nothingness, too many tracts of green/brown/grey land with little to distinguish it from the green/brown/grey land I’d been clambering over for the past half hour. And when I eventually reached some sort of civilization, everyone acted like robots and had absolutely no personality about them.

I didn’t give a crap about any companion characters I picked up, either, reloading when they died purely because they were convenient packmules or because they were crucial to a quest rather than because I actually cared for them.

All this makes me quite surprised that I enjoyed Final Fantasy XII and Xenoblade Chronicles quite as much as I did, since ostensibly both of them follow the same patterns. So what’s different?

Well, several things. Firstly, color. It sounds like a simple thing, but if you compare and contrast the world of Skyrim to the world of Xenoblade Chronicles, it’s like someone whacked the Saturation control on your TV up to full for the latter and dropped it right down for the former. That’s not to say that either is necessarily “better” or “worse” than the other, of course, but in my case, I found the vibrant colors of Xenoblade Chronicles (and, for that matter, Final Fantasy XII) to be considerably more appealing than the comparatively drab, realistic visuals of Skyrim.

I play games in my free time primarily to “escape” reality, so immersing myself in a world that is obviously fantasy rather than something which could be a few miles away from my house (at least until some car-sized spiders show up, anyway) is always going to be preferable.

A bigger deal, though, is characterization. Skyrim has a beautifully-rendered world filled with some of the most boring people I’ve ever had the misfortune to interact with in a video game. There’s the odd exception, of course, but for the most part Skyrim’s populace is an army of cookie-cutter robots who all say the same thing until the end of time. (If I hear “arrow to the knee” one more time I will hurt someone, I swear.)

Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII, meanwhile, are filled with unique characters. In Xenoblade Chronicles’ case in particular, every single NPC in the whole game has a name, a job, a daily routine, a personality and a connection with one or more other characters somewhere else in the area or world. In fact, a completely optional part of Xenoblade Chronicles’ gameplay involves you wandering over the entire world attempting to connect everyone together on an “Affinity Chart.” Here’s proof that it’s possible. (I can’t take credit for this screenshot, sadly, though I made some decent progress on my own Affinity Chart over the 100+ hours I played.)

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(Image via GameFAQs)

Of course, Skyrim and its ilk do plenty of things that Xenoblade Chronicles and Final Fantasy XII don’t — the Japanese duo don’t allow you the freedom to go on a killing spree in a town, for example, nor to dump baskets on people’s heads, nor to steal things, nor to be anything other than a model citizen, except when the narrative dictates that you should not be.

It seems that with an increased level of freedom comes a reduced level of “personality,” then — some players are happy to make that compromise, but for my money I’ll take stronger characters and more limited interactivity over being able to carpet my living room with cheese wheels any day.


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular Swords and Zippers column on JRPGs. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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One thought on “From the Archives: Wandering the World”

  1. As someone who likes open-world games, I find this combination of JRPG and open world, which seems contrary at first, pretty appealing. However, there’s actually a Western (albeit not American) RPG that is actually quite similar: The Witcher 3. Like Xenoblade, it offers relatively little freedom, there aren’t that many possible activities and it’s largely focused on quests. And like Xenoblade, its strength lies in its narrative and it offers interesting stories with memorable characters.

    And frankly, Bethesda games aren’t very good in general. They do a lot of things, but none of them very well. They live from the sum of their parts, but the individual parts are often mediocre at best (New Vegas is much better, being made by the original Fallout developers, but carries a lot of baggage from Fallout 3). So, despite being more or less the creators of open-world RPGs as we know them, their games aren’t really the greatest examples.

    Thing is, though, games like that, RPGs with a large, free to explore world, have been around since a long time, even before the first Elder Scrolls. Like the Might & Magic games (I particularly fondly remember playing the Xeen games, several years ago, and exploring the world and fulfilling several quests, unsure how or if it brings me closer to to finishing the main quest) and of course Ultima, which particular in later games comes closer to “modern” open world by portraying a “realistic” world where you have a lot of freedom.

    The difference between those (even Ultima) and Elder Scrolls is that the latter is supposed to be a “playground” where you can just do what you want and even the main quest is completely optional. That’s not the case with the former, where there isn’t actually that much to do aside from exploring the world and doing side quests, which, while fun in itself, all fuels into preparing you for the main quests.

    Games like Xenoblade or The WItcher 3 are, in a way, more similar to these old-school CRPGs than Bethesda’s games. Even with their modern concessions like quest markers (unlike classic CRPGs, which tend to be rather… obtuse). Ironically, that also means that JRPGs like Xenoblade make for better Western RPGs than modern Western RPGs (outside of indie stuff, at least).

    And that’s really not a bad thing. Just exploring a big world can be fun in itself (see also Breath of the Wild, which has exploration practically as its main feature. It’s also a good counterpart of something like Xenoblade, in that it features little in the way of quests and it’s all about the world itself.) And some good old questing is enough to give you something to do in it. A tighter, more focused experience can easily be more satisfying than a game where you can do everything you want, but nearly everything feels like a waste of time.

    Like

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