On JRPGs and what makes them stand out

RPGs hold a special place in my heart. I grew up with games, learned them first with Mario and Duck Hunt and Sonic and Double Dragon, with a couple of other odds and ends inbetween. But that gaming I did as a kid was all mastering twitch, skill-based gameplay. And I truly got addicted when I first discovered the original Pokémon Red and Final Fantasy VII.

You see, Pokémon Red and Final Fantasy VII, as RPGs, were NOT twitch skill games. I mean, you may argue that FF7 was timed in its encounters with the Active Time Battle, but it wasn’t hard to just enter the “Attack” command, and you had ample time to plan your moves, monsters had a delay in their action times to compensate for player input time. So you didn’t have to make split-second decisions to jump or dodge or fire at an incoming enemy. You had time to make decisions.

I need to specify too, when I say I got addicted, I do mean it. I played a very large quantity of mostly JRPGs after I discovered these games. They became my main game fix, along with Starcraft for a while. I have played in their heyday on the PSX and the PS2. So I can confidently say I know RPGs. Especially JRPGs.

The idea to write this post came to me as I was thinking up interesting systems to use in a turn-based JRPG system, and I ended up remembering so many articles and commentaries on the so-called “death” of JRPGs, or their shortcomings, or even people suggesting how to improve upon them.

Why did I like JRPGs so much? Why haven’t WRPGs driven up the same passion in me? People have suggested all sorts of theories about such topics too, but nothing I came across really properly captured my thoughts on the matter, hence the need to organize them in this post, so here goes.

The first thing that undeniably comes up when people mention JRPGs of yore is their narrative aspect. Because yes, games back then spent very little time with narrative prospects. In Sonic, you destroy robots, little animals come out, and whenever you crush one of Eggman’s big robots, you open a canister full of those little animals. That was called a plot back then. By contrast, Cloud’s struggles with himself within a larger world and with his friends, a team of people with other concerns and personalities, this definitely produced a narrative on a whole other scale.

Side note, I also play Dungeons and Dragons with friends semi-regularly. We had a conversation last time about how the advent of the internet brought about min-maxing from a thing that was shunned to something that is fairly normal. The best theory we could conjure up for that is simply that people online don’t give a crap about the adventures of Ragnar the Paladin that happened to strangers in a strange friend group. Even though DnD is pretty much a game about narrative, the most interesting conversations people have will be about the system itself. That’s something everyone shares an interest in. Rules questions, min-maxing “character builds” and homebrew rules. I’m not saying that’s all people talk about, but this part is relevant for my point about computer RPGs, bear with me.

Yes, video game academics love to talk about the impact FF7 had on video game narratives as a whole. It was eye-opening, shocking. Games can make you cry! But…

*FF7 SPOILER WARNING* (Though to be fair this specific part has been discussed to death already anyway)

But… As a kid who played FF7, yes we would talk about that event once, because those who us who used Aeris were bummed to have her taken from us, and those who didn’t use her in our party were suddenly justified. However, our favorite conversation topics when it came to FF7 were about the 2 partners you teamed up with after Cloud, and your reasons. Also, Materia builds. (“If you grind enough Materia Points, you can set up your entire party with the Final Attack-Phoenix Combo that makes it so you can never die!”) Or strategies for specific difficult fights (“Did you know Ruby Weapon is actually vulnerable to Stop, of all things!?”)

Yes, narrative plays a part in RPGs. But rather than being the PURPOSE of a JRPG, I would say that it serves the same purpose as the narrative in Call of Duty. It strings you along between encounters and boss fights, and gives context to everything.

My point is, JRPGs were popular, and still are popular, because they’re games centered around their combat systems and their exploration systems. The “good” narratives on top of them are merely icing on top of the proverbial cake. JRPGs reward you for making good decisions when it comes to assembling your party, if the option is there. They reward you for giving your party members equipments and skills that allows them to overcome all of the unknown challenges the game will throw at you. They reward you for actually making good decisions in battles, where all of your planning comes into effect.

If I may draw parallels, I would say JRPGs offer the same kind of enjoyment a TCG like Magic: The Gathering offers. You want to assemble a strong combination (deck) from a large pool of options (characters, skills and equipments) and then play this combination to the best of your ability in combat (an actual game).

So JRPGs are about choice. At every point in the game. Good JRPGs don’t punish you for having bad reflexes. They will, however, punish you if your party can only inflict Fire-elemental damage.

Games that add these popular seasoning that is RPG elements add that type of mental stimulation to their games for the planning, but ultimately, decisions tend to remain on a skill-based thing made easier or harder with your choices. In essence, these games have planning as a subsection to make your skill-based experiences more tailored to your tastes. (Bad at jumping? Take the Jump Distance+ boost! Good at Jumping? Take the Jump rewards+ boost!)

But JRPGs are not dead. Many people jumped all over the Shin Megami Tensei franchise ever since the advent of Persona 3, and much more recently Bravely Default told Square-Enix that JRPG fans still exist and that we want content.

Of course we still exist! Our desire for games that make us plan and execute without the pressure of twitch gameplay needs to be sated too! JRPG fans like a good narrative, but good gameplay tied up to it is what will make the sales. And good RPG gameplay offers you meaningful decisions frequently, preferably in battle and out!

And all of this was supposed to be a preamble as to why I think using generic MP was actually a poor idea if not from the fact it’s become a norm. Oh well, that may be for another blog post, after I’ve written up some more game system designs on paper somewhere!

On Paradox Games and their approach to Culture

Let me get this out first. I’m a recent fan of Paradox Grand Strategy Games. But I’m a HUGE fan already. Over 500 hours of Crusader Kings 2, as well as a complete Let’s Play series on Youtube? Check. Approaching the 250 hours on Europa Universalis 4? Also check. No sign of stopping either anytime soon? Also check.

With that said, I want to talk about Culture. Now another disclaimer. I don’t have academic knowledge of how culture works. I have discussed in the past with people who did, and otherwise everything I’ve learned on the topic is from hobbyist research particularly in history. So I’m no expert on the matter, nor do I claim to be one. But I do have some knowledge. And it is enough to make this blog post. If I say anything blatantly wrong, feel free to correct me, I’m open and welcoming of constructive criticism!

Cultures, both in Crusader Kings 2 and in Europa Universalis 4, play a non-negligible role in the stability of your sprawling Empires. As they should. Ruling over people of different cultures is inherently harder than ruling people who share your cultural inclinations.This makes sense.

In Crusader Kings 2, both individual characters and counties (Think of them as provinces) have culture. Conquering a county of a culture different than yours applies a large penalty on the province’s performance for a decent number of years, and also as long as the province and you have different cultures, there is an increased risk of peasant uprisings. Cultures belong to different cultural groups (largely geographic in categorization) and cultures of a different group than yours inherently have a larger risk of peasant uprising. It should be noted that culture does play a role in some aspects of the game. They removed cultural requirement to create titles, but nor cultures still determine what kind of special retinue you can assemble. It’s a small but non negligible “game” aspect. For example, characters of Greek culture can assemble Cataphract retinues, widely considered the most powerful because of how combat works.

In Europa Universalis 4, provinces have cultures, and each nation has a primary culture. Cultures can become accepted (and be treated the same as the nation’s primary culture) if they ever at any point provide 20% of the total income of your nation. They will lose this status if they drop to representing less than 10% of your nation’s total income. Provinces with non-accepted cultures will pay less taxes, produce less goods, and send off less manpower. They are also more likely to revolt and desire to splinter off as their own nations and defect to another nation that has their culture as the primary culture.

What drove me to writing this, the meat of this article/post/whatever you want to call it, is how culture CONVERSION is handled. Let’s look at them step by step. And then look at some historical culture conversions. Then I will suggest alternate approaches that may not break the games I so cherish.

In Crusader Kings 2, characters can switch cultures in several ways. A character gets his culture first from his primary parent. The primary parent is determined by simply whose dynasty is continued with the child. Usually the child gets his father’s culture (and religion), but in matrilineal unions, the child will get his mother’s culture (and religion). A child needs to be educated once he turns 6, and can be educated until he turns 16. If his assigned tutor is of a different culture than him and his liege doesn’t share the child’s culture, the child has an opportunity to pick up his tutor’s culture. If the child IS the liege, he can pick up any tutor’s culture as his own. Then, an adult vassal can take a decision to “convert” to his liege’s culture. The liege cannot force his culture on his vassals. You can choose to take up your liege’s culture so he likes you more, but it’s your decision to discard your former culture, and this decision angers people who share a culture with you. You also have a decision to adopt your capital’s culture, should your capital province have a different culture than your character, with the same repercussions as if you adopted your liege’s culture. This seems fine to me, for the most part. Within the confines of the game, this offers a somewhat believable use of culture, as one of the many, many variables of the game.

However, provinces can also switch cultures. This can happen to a province after 50 years of being ruled by lords of the same (different) culture. The game will pop an event saying “You felt surrounded by strangers so you decided to bring people from home to live here.” This flips the province to your character’s culture. The narrative context of the event makes sense, but it is very limited in scope and, for me at least, it severely disconnects what really happens in such an event.

In Europa Universalis IV, if a province has been integrated in your nation (Cored in game terms) and it has your nation’s religion, you can press a button that spends Diplomatic Power, one of the game’s resources produced by your monarch and your advisers slowly over time, and, after some wait time, the province has your nation’s primary culture. There are no repercussions, This very system is what prompted me to write this in the first place. It is so wrong, so overly simplistic, and so unrepresentative of what actually happens during historic culture conversions that I feel it needs a massive overhaul.

To understand where I’m coming from, and this is where I’m most likely to be misinformed so please, please correct me if I’m wrong. Culture is a way of life inherited by a group of people in a geographic region. It is manners, language, beliefs and more. It also evolves constantly, over time, but slowly, as it reacts to external stimuli.

An example to illustrate this natural evolution. Modern day France was first settled by a large group of people collectively related to as the Gauls. The Gauls had their way of life, fitting of the Antique era France. One of the Gauls’ main adversaries was a growing republic rather historically well-known. Rome. The Gauls proved superior in the 300’s BC and sacked Rome, destroying earlier records, and instilling fear of them in the Romans. Until a few hundred years later, where Julius Caesar led the Gallic wars to an astounding victory that turned all of Gaul into Roman territory. The Romans were very lenient on their subjects when it came to faith and as such all the Romans did was slowly bring their technology to the Gallic region, their language, Latin, and some of their customs. Romans settled in Gaul, where they remained a minority, but still an important minority. A result of this is that the native Gauls slowly obtained traits of their new lords, but they also retained a lot of their identity. The new culture is referred to by historians as Gallo-Roman. Neither fully Gaelic, but not fully Roman either. This took hundreds of years of mostly peaceful coexistence. A few hundred years in, Rome began to decline, and Gaul was invaded by the Germanic tribe of the Franks. They settled Gaul and made it their own kingdoms. But they were a minority. However they were the new overlord, so the same process happened. Gallo-Roman adapted to their new overlords the Franks, and the resulting culture was a hybrid melting pot of everything. But all of this was achieved through largely peaceful coexistence over extended periods of time. Note too that the Frank lords eventually took aspects of the Gallo-Roman culture and incorporated it in their own. It was a two-way street.

By contrast, forced and rapid culture conversion happens indeed more rapidly, but it is far less pleasant. Modern-day Turkey was known for a long time as Anatolia, as Asia Minor. It was a crossroads where many civilizations converged. The last people to take this land were the Turks of the Ottoman Sultanate. But the Sultans in power didn’t like the multicultural nature of their new homeland, especially the Greeks, their bitter rivals. The Ottoman Sultanate sought to homogenize Asia Minor into a land more their own exclusively, and fast. They accomplished this with genocides, forced exile and the destruction or appropriation of cultural monuments meaningful to the former owners. This was bloody, it was kept under wraps, and whenever it’d come up in the open, it was fervently denied, and made them be despised by everyone who heard about such actions, especially people of the cultures that were decimated.

For further examples of forced cultural shift, see the Spanish Inquisition, the colonization of the Americas, and in a modern-day setting a subject that is very touchy with the news, what Israel is doing to Palestine, to name a few. For one close to some of my friends, see what Britain tried to do to the French Canadians in the 1700’s and the 1800’s. Quebec still feels scars of this today, that’s how powerful forced cultural conversion is, whether it succeeds or it fails.

Forced cultural conversion involves settling people of the new culture, forced exile, genocide, and forced conversion of people of the old culture. It is a highly confrontational and politically suicidal move that must be kept under wraps. If exposed, it rouses the entire culture involved up in arms to defend themselves, and it impacts neighboring countries with a massive influx of exiles fleeing for their lives. Neither of the games address this point at all.

In Crusader Kings 2, cultural conversion of a province should be an event chain with many nefarious choices randomly popping up, it should be expensive and it should not guarantee success. It should also cause a lot of uprisings, and long-lasting opinion penalties with every character in the same culture as the one getting converted, and a reduced penalty to characters in the neighboring culture group. Also, if a series of rulers of a given culture rule over another culture without conversion happening with force or with the ruler just adopting the locals’ custom, there should be an event for the ruler, the province, and members of the ruler’s court that share his culture, to have them all converted to a new culture hybrid of both, possibly allowing it to spread through events over his whole realm with people of both his culture and the original province’s culture, to simulate a healthy cultural exchange’s natural endpoint.

In Europa Universalis 4, it should have the same kinds of ideas with an event chain that could take years, one that leaves scars especially with other provinces of the same culture as the one that got converted, and it should give every country with the culture being converted as a primary or accepted culture a large opinion drop and a Casus Belli to stop the process if it gets exposed. It should also reduce the province’s efficiency on the short to medium term. I don’t see an easy way to add in peaceful cultural shifts however, given the systems in place. As a game much more about Imperialism however, I don’t see peaceful cultural shift as being necessary to the simulation. But that convert province button really needs to be heavier in different ways.

There are other routes that could be explored, and my understanding of certain events or situations may be lacking, in this case I would appreciate being corrected so I could maybe revise my assumptions and my conclusions as necessary.

P.S. In Crusader Kings 2, if William the Conqueror successfully takes over England, there is a unique event that will “create” the English Culture, born from a coexistence between ruling Normans and the Anglo-Saxons they ruled over; They themselves being a cultural melting pot of everyone else who invaded England over the centuries. So there is awareness of this at Paradox. I just wish culture conversion was more historically accurate, while still remaining an interesting decision for the players.