The Past, Present, and Future of Japanese Role-Playing Games
Whenever I’m asked what my favorite video game is, I’m torn between Super Mario Bros. 3, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy VI (originally titled Final Fantasy III in the US due to gaps in the import schedule). But deep down, I know it’s Final Fantasy VI, that dorky alchemy of mages, rogues, and opera interrupted by an evil, talking octopus.
Released in 1994 by Square when I was ten years old, Final Fantasy VI was the first Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) I obsessed over. Developed by Square and directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Final Fantasy VI takes the familiar feudal/magic setting of most JRPGs and splices it with a techno steampunk flair. The game opens with three robots slowly trudging through a snowstorm as credits scroll. That might not seem revelatory now, in an era when so many video games resemble movies, but you have to remember this was 1994, a time when the cartoony Earthworm Jim, Donkey Kong Country and Doom II topped the sales charts. The opening to Final Fantasy VI as experienced in 1994 was shocking and epic, a dramatic departure from so much of what came before. After the prologue, you embark on a 60-hour campaign of expert storytelling, compelling gameplay, and a sense of freedom and exploration against the familiar JRPG backdrop of swords and spells.
The foundation of most early JRPGs is the turn-based battle system. In games like the aforementioned Earthworm Jim or Super Mario Bros., you have one-to-one control over your avatar. Press right on the controller, and your avatar moves right. In JRPGs, you have one-to-one control during exploration segments, say spelunking a cave or chatting up townsfolk in a local pub. But once you encounter an enemy, you’re whisked away to a battle scene where two warring factions dutifully line up on opposing sides like Civil War soldiers. Usually, you have control of a large party of highly customizable wizards and warriors. Train your characters to be healing mages or knife-wielding thieves or powerful summoners; the choice is usually yours, and that’s the fun. The actual battles themselves, on the other hand, are controlled by menu choices, more like chess than Mortal Kombat. Instead of pressing B to attack, you select “attack” from a menu and patiently watch your character independently move to the opposite side of the screen and whip the enemy in the face. It’s a thoughtful game engine that rewards strategy over brute force, and although some early JRPGs deviated from this formula—the Tales series utilizes a Street Fighter-lite battle system—this was the happy standard.
Beyond the battle system, Final Fantasy VI neatly mixes narrative and exploration. After the opening robot march, you’re treated to long text scenes that slowly explain the war between the Empire and the Returners. These chunks of narrative are broken up by brief moments or battles in which you’re given control, but the first twenty-five minutes are highly structured. Once you escape from the Empire through a subterranean cave, however, the world opens up in many intriguing ways. Travel south through a forest, and you’ll encounter a castle shimmering in the desert like a mirage. Go east and discover a cave filled with mysterious wonders and fierce opponents. The structure of Final Fantasy VI and the vast majority of early JRPGs is this: explore a dungeon, fight a boss, watch a cutscene, explore the map, find a town, watch a cutscene, repeat for thirty hours. Early JRPGs are perfectly tuned artistic structures: chorus-verse-chorus. Exploration is balanced with narrative, and the player is successfully immersed in the artificial digital world. This sense is heightened in most of these games when you discover the inevitable vehicle—usually an airship—that allows you to explore the game world at your will. Some areas may be inaccessible to you, and the game always prods you toward the next triggering cutscene, but these games feel massive and open, and that sensation—even if it is a total lie—is the key.
In Janet H. Murray’s prescient 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, she stresses the importance of agency in all forms of digital entertainment. To become truly absorbed in a piece of digital narrative, she argues, the user must be able to feel like they can affect the digital world. Unlike film or literature, video games are not a passive medium; they thrive on interactivity. This means that a user is immersed in a video game when they feel like they have interesting choices to make—everything from the story decisions in Heavy Rain to whether or not you should run under a platform of bricks or volley over it in Super Mario Bros. The same goes for something like the outmoded hypertext fiction of the late 1990s. Allowing a reader to select their path forward, the next lexia, the right door instead of the left, provides them with a sense of agency.
This feeling, however, is just an illusion. You have zero agency in hypertext fiction, just like you cannot truly impact the world of Heavy Rain or Super Mario Bros. But the designers of Super Mario Bros. can program so many possible procedural rules with so many choices that it feels like you have agency. For example, you can’t dream up a gun in Super Mario Bros. and run around shooting every Goomba you see, but you can attempt to leap for the difficult-to-reach Fire Flower and kill everything in your path instead of dodging your way through a swarm of foes. You can only make that choice, however, because a designer programmed it for you. This provides the sensation of agency without actually granting any real freedom. The user is always trapped within the rules of the game, hypertext, etc., but they feel like they aren’t.
All of this brings me to Final Fantasy XIII, the 2009 installment of the landmark JRPG franchise. I came to FFXIII after an extended hiatus from console games. I hadn’t immersed myself in a Final Fantasy game since 2003’s unfortunately titled Final Fantasy X-2, a bizarre but thrillingly fun installment tonally similar to the Charlie’s Angels films. I purchased Final Fantasy XIII at a used game store for eight dollars and didn’t play it for months, savoring it like a fine bourbon on my shelf, waiting to open it when the moment was right. When I finally popped that Blu-Ray into my PlayStation 3, I was stunned by what I found. The beloved Final Fantasy of my youth was gone, replaced by the most beautiful treadmill in the world.
Unlike the fairly simple plots of most early JRPGs—emotionally inaccessible teen must fulfill their destiny and topple an evil empire, usually finding love along the way—the story of Final Fantasy XIII is so convoluted and chopped up it would make Quentin Tarantino’s head spin. We open on a beautifully rendered cutscene of a futuristic train. Before we can even take in what we’re seeing, there’s an explosion, soldiers screaming, and suddenly we’re thrown into the game’s battle system fighting legions of jackbooted stormtroopers firing Call of Duty rifles at us, a stark contrast to the swords and spells of earlier games. The plot of Final Fantasy XIII is told somewhat out-of-order, and at the game’s start, we have absolutely zero context for any of the beautiful violence.
In terms of graphics, Final Fantasy XIII—running in crisp 1080p HD in Square’s Crystal Tools engine—is an absolute achievement. The game is more visually stunning than many Pixar movies, and in spite of an oddly rendered finger or two, you’ll be blown away by the lifelike presentation of a totally surreal world. The problem with the beautiful opening of Final Fantasy XIII is that it lacks agency. Unlike Final Fantasy VI or earlier entries in the series, the thirteenth installment in the aging franchise does not relinquish agency to the player after a few minutes or even a few hours of exposition. The aforementioned structure of dungeon, cutscene, exploration, town, cutscene is thrown out the window. Once you’re given control of the game’s protagonist, wiry antihero Lightning, you can only move her forward despite the deceptive openness of your environments. Many rooms in the early going of the game will open up into massive antechambers with pillars and staircases, but divert even a few inches from the path forward to the next lengthy cutscene, and an invisible wall will frustrate your progress.
Despite appearing open and inviting, the world of Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful, 30-hour treadmill. You walk forward, encounter enemies, watch a cutscene. That’s it. That’s the entire game. No towns, barely any diverging paths. Shut up and walk.
Compounding this sense of humdrum inevitability is the game’s “updated” battle system. Unlike earlier installments, you can only control the lead party member in Final Fantasy XIII, and you cannot select who that is until practically the end of the game. In battle, your allies are controlled by artificial intelligence. Unfortunately, these teammates are so smart, they usually wipe the floor with any reasonable opponents. Making matters worse is the revamped menu system. In earlier games, you had to take your time and strategically choose which action was the correct option multiple times per battle. In longer boss fights, you often had to make dozens of correct tactical choices to overcome a superior enemy—like the aforementioned talking octopus attempting to ambush the opera.
In Final Fantasy XIII, the first menu option available is “auto battle,” which selects the perfect tactical choice for any conceivable situation. There is no way to turn this off, and, if you’re like me, at first you’ll resist. You’ll take the extra time to delve into your command menu and select the appropriate sequence of attacks. But what you’ll soon realize is that you’re just picking what auto battle would have chosen anyway.
Instead of freedom, the battle system of Final Fantasy XIII values speed. Chaining together attacks as fast as possible is the only way to defeat stronger foes, and the extra seconds you spend manually building your attack plan often lead to death. Before long, you’re simply hitting X through every battle, willfully submitting to Square’s nihilist mechanics. Sure, you might every once and awhile change your party’s paradigm—a maneuver that switches your team’s job classes on the fly—and you do have access to a job tree reminiscent of Final Fantasy X that allows you to somewhat customize your characters. But after a few hours of selecting auto battle hundreds of times, marching through one hallway after another, and watching incomprehensible cutscene after cutscene, it occurs to you that you aren’t playing Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII is a beautiful machine that plays you.
Janet H. Murray’s agency is completely ignored here, and although Square tried to rectify this in the game’s two sequels, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns, it’s still a daunting prospect to endure a 30-hour treadmill before getting to slightly better games.
In ninth grade, I wrote hundreds of pages of Final Fantasy fanfiction and uploaded it to the still-active Final Fantasy: Worlds Apart forum under the username Kefka’s Eden—combining the name of the final villain of Final Fantasy VI with one of the most powerful summons from Final Fantasy VIII. I spent hours of my life socializing with other FF fans from across the globe. The early games in the series hinted at vast, living worlds I desperately wanted to explore in the deepest realms of my imagination. Final Fantasy XIII hints at nothing. Its sterile world is a snow globe. It’s a dead end.
Despite an enormous amount of hype and promotion, my beloved Final Fantasy VI—although critically revered—was not a financial hit in the American market. In 1994, no JRPG had truly caught on in the way Mega Man 2 or Doom had. Costly financial blunders like Earthbound, Breath of Fire or Lufia felt like SOS signals from Japan, a call that only a minority of American nerds seemed to answer, kids likelier to be obsessed over Lord of the Rings and statistics instead of the fast-paced gore of Mortal Kombat.
That all changed with the steampunk Final Fantasy VII, released for the original PlayStation in 1997, the same year as Janet H. Murray’s pioneering book. Buoyed by movie-like commercials and a graphical presentation that dumped the 2D sprites of the previous installment for groundbreaking 3D characters and beautifully rendered cutscenes, Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy VII sold 500,000 copies in North America in less than three weeks. Within three months, the game had sold a million copies. As of 2015, the seminal and genre-redefining Final Fantasy VII has been purchased over ten million times.
From the late eighties to the early 2000s, the majority of bestselling console games came from Japan. Of the top 30 highest-selling games in the 1990s, 25 were designed in Japan. By the year 2000, only six of the top ten bestsellers came from Japan. In 2014, it was only one. Because of America’s larger population and despite a higher occurrence of gamers per capita in Japan, our gaming market is considerably bigger. Franchises that directly appeal to the American markets—Call of Duty, Madden, Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto—have left fringe, anime-inspired series like Final Fantasy or Mega Man in the dust. Making matters worse is the increased costs of developing a game. In the ’80s, a routine Nintendo game required four employees and three months. So if one game flopped, your company wouldn’t be immediately bankrupt. Today, major studio releases require hundreds of employees and multiple years of development time. Companies crank out fewer games as a result, and Japanese companies must aim their products toward the Western market if they want to achieve financial stability. That means gutting the offbeat fringe elements that initially appealed to JRPG fans pre-Final Fantasy VII.
So how did this lead to the sterile hallways of Final Fantasy XIII and the slow erosion of the agency Janet Murray called for in 1997? After the financial breakthrough of Final Fantasy VII, Square and Sakaguchi released VIII, IX, and PlayStation 2’s X in yearly installments from 1999-2001. Each follows the structure of earlier JRPGs overlaid with an increasingly shinier coat of paint a la Final Fantasy VII. IX and X are absolute triumphs that simply must be experienced by fans of the genre, but what I really want to talk about is Square’s financial dud from that same period, 1998’s Xenogears, a game that predicts much of the company’s focus—and failures—throughout the 2000s.
Eschewing the 3D presentation of the PlayStation Final Fantasy games, Xenogears utilizes 2D graphics that would have been achievable on the Super Nintendo while mixing in anime cutscenes and a sci-fi, Gundam-esque setting. The brainchild of Tetsuya Takahashi—a veteran of the beloved Chrono Trigger, not to mention Final Fantasy VI—Xenogears mixes JRPG tropes with Jungian psychology and an 80-hour gnostic storyline about murdering god. Xenogears was originally intended to serve as Final Fantasy VII, but because of the dark, existential subject matter, the game was spun off into its own unique series.
Like Final Fantasy VII before it, Xenogears follows the typical JRPG chorus-verse-chorus structure outlined above—at least, it does until you pop in the second disc. Near the end of your adventure, agency is thrown out the window in favor of a bizarre, almost documentary-style narrative. The game’s two protagonists, Fei and Elly, sit down interview-style and simply narrate the remaining events of the game in dense blocks of scrolling text like a 16-bit episode of The Office. Static pictures illustrate the action, and every once in a while, you’re shuttled away from the interviews and allowed to play brief, narrow dungeons—eerily predictive of Final Fantasy XIII’s hallways—or even fight a boss or two. By game’s end, you’re once again handed control of your party, but the vast majority of the world is closed off. Formerly vibrant towns and dungeons are inaccessible, and the only major thing left to explore is the final area leading to the game’s conclusion.
Nearly every 1998 review of Xenogears applauds the game’s complex story and first half’s exploration but bashes the tedium of the second disc. Speculation ran rampant that Takahashi’s Xenogears had gone horribly over budget—the project was, after all, started before the 3D Final Fantasy VII but didn’t come out until a year after that game’s release—and this was the reason why the final thirty hours of the game feel so rushed. Although this has never been confirmed or denied by Square or Takahashi, determined Xenogears fans have hacked the second disc’s code and discovered a plethora of unused areas, bosses, conversations, and miscellaneous content, giving credence to the idea that much of the game’s second half was scrapped due to time for the speedier interview/hallway option.
Like Final Fantasy VI before it, Xenogears saw success in Japan but flopped abroad with a mere 280,000 copies sold. The lesson of Xenogears should have been that even the most rich and complex digital narratives—and surely Xenogears remains one of the most adult and engrossing examples in the genre—turn limp without the magic of Janet H. Murray’s agency.
Unfortunately, the exact opposite happened. The final moments of Xenogears contain an Easter egg straight out of a Marvel superhero movie. Endure the credits, and, at the very end, “Xenogears Episode V THE END” flashes on the screen. Episode V! Like Star Wars before it, Tetsuya Takahashi viewed Xenogears not as a standalone story—although the PlayStation classic certainly has a sense of finality and closure in its final few hours—but as one part of a six-part epic. After the poor international sales of the game, it became clear to Takahashi that Square would not fund another entry in the series. In response, he rounded up 20 of his staff members and split off to form Monolith Software, a company that paired with Namco before being gobbled up by the golden gods of Nintendo. Freed from the shackles of Square, Takahashi and Monolith Software spent the next seven years developing the Xenosaga trilogy, the unofficial prequels to Xenogears.
Initially released on the PlayStation 2, the Xenosaga trilogy follows a spaceship crew on an adventure across the galaxy.
With the outer space setting, you might imagine that perhaps Xenosaga players have free reign to chart their paths and explore the universe at their leisure in a fashion similar to the airships of early Final Fantasy games. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Xenosaga trilogy takes its cues from the second disc of Xenogears. You are given control of your characters for a brief few moments, maybe an hour or so at most, before you set the controller down to watch 30-minute cutscenes of dull exposition. The Xenosaga games more closely resemble Japanese visual novels than the classic JRPGs of the Super Nintendo, and Gamespot even gave the first installment its “Most Pretentious Game of 2003” award—hard to argue when the trilogy’s subtitles are Der Wille zur Macht, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, and Also sprach Zarathustra. Once again, the games sold poorly, and the series ended with Episode III even though more entries in the saga were planned.
With four poor-selling examples of agency-less JRPGs going unheralded abroad, you might think that genre leader Square would take note and continue producing content like the record-setting Final Fantasy VII, a game that still encourages exploration. But like Tetsuya Takahashi, the higher-ups at Square continued to move in a more cinematic direction reminiscent of the failed second disc of Xenogears, culminating in the beautiful treadmill that is Final Fantasy XIII. The harsh truth is that no entry in the series has ever outsold Final Fantasy VII. Square has attempted to tinker with each new installment to make it more palatable to the mainstream American market it briefly entranced in 1997, but those changes—the elimination of agency, the dumbing-down of the battle system, the shying away from traditional feudal imagery for sci-fi steampunk Hot Topic emo tomfoolery—have only managed to alienate the Japanese base and the niche American players who cherished Square’s 16-bit offerings like dispatches from a more magical world. With the release of Final Fantasy XV rapidly approaching, one question remains: how can Square, and the JRPG as a whole, evolve…or even survive?
After the massive global success of Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy VII, Square embarked upon an unexpected path. Instead of focusing primarily on sequels or even the forthcoming Xenogears, they devoted the lion’s share of their resources to developing a super center of 960 workstations and 200 employees for their newest division, Square Pictures. For years, game developers have talked about the need for games to become more like movies. I’ve argued elsewhere that this is straight-up misguided, that making video games hem closer to film robs them of their defining feature: agency.
The 2001 film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is an unmitigated disaster on every front. I should know. I rushed to see it with my dad on opening day while on vacation at the Jersey Shore. His response during the credits was simply, “I can’t believe you made us waste two hours of vacation on that.” He wasn’t wrong. Despite boasting a talented voice cast including Alec Baldwin, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, and Steve Buscemi, despite featuring realistic CGI characters that fourteen years later still blow Pixar films out of the water, Sakaguchi’s directorial debut is a lifeless husk of eco-friendly technobabble. Yet again, Square abandoned all pretenses of swords and sorcery in lieu of a post-apocalyptic military setting complete with huge guns and global warming-induced ghosts. Like other video game-to-film adaptations, it feels like a 2-hour cutscene with all the interactive fun ripped out.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within cost Square $137 million to produce and only earned $85 million at the box office. The film almost bankrupted the company, and Square Pictures was immediately shuttered. Director Hironobu Sakaguchi was thrown on the movie’s funeral pyre and voluntarily resigned from Square in 2004. But none of that would stop the company from trying to succeed in the film industry. A mere four years after the collapse of the movie division, Square, unbelievably, released a movie sequel to their best known property: Final Fantasy VII. Diehard fans had been petitioning for years for a sequel or, at the very least, a remake of that beloved PlayStation classic. What they got first was Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, a direct-to-DVD movie directed by Tetsuya Nomura, a rising star in the company—viewed by many as the successor to Sakaguchi—who’d helmed the wildly successful Disney/Final Fantasy crossover, Kingdom Hearts.
A junior in college, I tracked down a fan-subtitled bootleg of Advent Children months before it was released in America. I’d recently replayed Final Fantasy VII in anticipation of the film and popped the DVD-R into my PlayStation 2 with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas Eve. Sitting next to me was a patient girlfriend, and all I’ll say is that our relationship never recovered from this film.
It’s not that Advent Children is as intolerable or as unwatchable as The Spirits Within, it’s just so utterly unnecessary. Final Fantasy VII ends on an ambiguous cliffhanger, and instead of addressing any of those lingering questions, Advent Children simply introduces a new group of uninteresting characters only to sweep them offstage minutes before the film’s climax. The movie ends just like the game, with yet another battle between antihero Cloud and the one-winged angel himself, Sephiroth. Advent Children adds almost nothing new to the Final Fantasy VII mythos—which, when blown up on DVD, are revealed as pretty threadbare.
Advent Children works better than The Spirits Within simply because it actually resembles something that might be called Final Fantasy—look, a sword!—but you still spend the entire film wishing you were playing it instead of passively watching it. These movies take the worst tendencies of Xenogears’ second disc or Final Fantasy XIII to their improbable, anime-inspired zenith. Sitting in my dorm room, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Square had turned into a company that had virtually nothing in common with the developers I had worshiped at age 10.
With their forays in the movie business hopefully behind Square, one of the potential futures for the JRPG may come from an unlikely source: the lucrative mobile and handheld markets. 2013’s Final Fantasy: All the Bravest is an iOS and Android return to the 16-bit style of earlier games. In this freemium game, you amass a gigantic team of generic archetypes and actual characters from the Final Fantasy series in a campaign against the franchise’s most dreaded villains. One of the chief joys of the game is seeing pixelart renditions of 3D characters like Cloud of even XIII’s Lightning, but like newer games in the series, All the Bravest is totally linear. You have no control over movement, and the battle system simply requires you to swipe your finger like crazy across your legion of characters, causing them to attack whatever villain you’ve encountered. There are no story sequences, and the game simply shuttles you from one battle to the next. You only have enough energy to fight so much per day, and if you want to play as specific fan favorite characters, you have to spend real money within the game. Because of its ultra-simplistic gameplay and money-grab philosophy preying on nostalgia, All the Bravest has been maligned all over the internet. Once again, it’s completely lacking in agency.
In 2015, Square released the much more successful mobile game, Final Fantasy: Record Keeper, another 16-bit return to the Final Fantasy canon. The game retains the character-collecting and freemium model of All the Bravest, but this time, there are story justifications for the action and, more importantly, the battle system resembles a traditional Final Fantasy game. Gone are the blistering swipes of All the Bravest, replaced with the simplified strategies of the Super Nintendo classics. Record Keeper foregoes the sense of exploration of earlier games but hits a happy middle ground for quick gaming on the go.
This formula is perfected in Square’s Bravely Default, a traditional JRPG for Nintendo’s handheld 3DS platform. Bravely Default abandons every staple of the genre established from Final Fantasy VII onward. There are few drawn-out cutscenes, and the steampunk and gun aesthetics of later games are tossed aside in favor of knights and magic and exploring a feudal world via an airship. You once again control your entire party, and the overworld opens up to you very early in the game. In short, Bravely Default, despite not sharing the name, feels more like a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game than anything Square’s released in over a decade. It’s a fun throwback—one Janet H. Murray would approve of—and the legion of fans who adored those 16-bit classics turned out in droves to purchase and enjoy the game.
Bravely Default won Gamespot’s 3DS Game of the Year Award—the inverse of Xenosaga’s dubious accomplishment—and sold over a million copies worldwide. That’s fewer than Final Fantasy XIII, but handheld and mobile games like Bravely Default, All the Bravest, and Record Keeper cost far less to develop than full-fledged console games that must attempt to appeal to the casual majority of American gamers. Like a low-budget indie film, Bravely Default doesn’t have to aim itself at the broadest audience possible; it just has to resonate with the core base of fans, and what Square’s discovered is that the group who fell in love with the worlds of Final Fantasy IV and VI have been waiting all this time for a return voyage.
If Square and other JRPG developers accept that the success of Final Fantasy VII was simply an anomaly, perhaps they will move toward the successful handheld model of Bravely Default (the 3DS is a treasure trove for JRPG enthusiasts, including fantastic entries from the Dragon Quest, Fire Emblem, and Shin Megami Tensei series) and Record Keeper, not to mention the mobile-optimized ports of Square classics like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. With this strategy, they’ll never again produce a homerun, but they won’t strike out Spirits Within-style, either. Bravely Default is a sunny day double, retro and reassuring. You could point to the Pokemon series or Pokemon Go here as counter-examples—they’re all sales chart homeruns—but I’d argue that the Pokemon games are extreme aberrations, cultural phenomena that don’t correlate with the market realities of producing a far more niche title like Bravely Default or even the more mainstream Final Fantasy.
The low-budget return to the niche market of the 16-bit days has been an attractive option not just for smaller Japanese developers—Idea Factory’s Hyperdimension Neptunia series and Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea franchise immediately come to mind—but also younger American upstarts who grew up on the same JRPGs I did. Developed solely by wunderkind Toby Fox, Undertale is a deceptively adult RPG that cops the look and feel of the original Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest or any other 8-bit RPG on the Nintendo Entertainment System. It’s nostalgic, to say the least, but this isn’t nostalgia in the vein of something like Shovel Knight, a recent 8-bit-styled 2D platformer that perfects many of the mechanics and concepts introduced in ’80s classics like DuckTales, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Zelda II.
Undertale perfects 8-bit RPG mechanics, but it complicates them with a story that is both hilarious and emotionally affecting, infinitely fun and extremely challenging. Undertale broaches death and murder with multiple queer characters and the inherent weirdness of being a kid all while preying on thirtysomething nostalgia. Thanks to the widespread proliferation of freemium game development studios like Unity and GameMaker, new voices in the industry are able to eschew the major studio path of companies like Square and Ubisoft and write more personal games for online distribution via Steam. Toby Fox made Undertale all by himself on GameMaker with crowd-sourced funding. It’s sold nearly two million copies. When I play Undertale, I feel like I’m glimpsing the future of the genre—an adult telescope trained on our 8-bit past.
Square, on the other hand, has very different plans. Final Fantasy XV launches this December, and those expecting a return to form following the success of Bravely Default are in for a disappointment, as FFXV deviates more from the traditional JRPG structure than any other non-MMO game in the series. Starring four anime boys on a cross-country road trip, the Final Fantasy XV demo opens with the group dealing with the aftermath of a car accident. A mechanic tells them it’ll cost a significant amount of cash to fix their car, but lo and behold, there’s a bounty on a local monster’s head that’s exactly the same amount of money. At first glance, Final Fantasy XV seems to address every criticism of Final Fantasy XIII. The open world is massive and much more in line with the gigantic modern playfields of Monster Hunter than the claustrophobic treadmill that is Final Fantasy XIII. Although the game nudges you toward the next cutscene trigger, you have full reign to veer from the beaten path and explore the massive forest the demo gives you access to. Finally, Square’s returned to Janet H. Murray’s agency.
Unfortunately, everything falls apart the moment you encounter an enemy. Final Fantasy XV drops the tedium of Final Fantasy XIII’s lifeless fights and the strategic menu battles of earlier Final Fantasy games or even Bravely Default. Instead, you have total, one-to-one control over your party leader in battle. You can lunge at your foe, cower behind a rock, fly up to the top of a tree, or hurl your blade. The action sequences are exciting and kinetic, but they don’t feel like a role-playing game, and I’d go so far as to say that Final Fantasy XV isn’t a JRPG at all. It’s an action game like Kingdom Hearts or even a stat-focused version of Assassin’s Creed or Legend of Zelda. This is Final Fantasy in name only.
Days after Final Fantasy XV’s demo was released, participants were asked by Square to complete a survey intended to shape the final months of development. Americans overwhelmingly preferred Final Fantasy XV over their Japanese counterparts, the gamers who had always been the series’ fiercest defenders. Maybe Square has finally discovered the way to repeat Final Fantasy VII’s North American success: turn the franchise into a cookie-cutter American action game.
Another potential path for the genre is even bleaker. In 1994, if you asked me to imagine what a Final Fantasy game might play like 20 years in the future, I probably would have described something resembling Skyrim. Or Fallout 4. Or Mass Effect. Or any of the other critically acclaimed and bestselling role-playing games from North American developers who grew up with JRPGs and a healthy dose of Dungeons and Dragons and Diablo. Skyrim takes the swords and sorcery milieu of earlier Final Fantasy games and places you in a first-person perceptive. You create your character, and you choose your motivation. The game world is miles upon miles large, and although there is a general story you might choose to follow, everything is completely up to you. Travel to the ancient seas of the north. Venture into the snowy wilderness of the east. Join the rebellion. Side with the empire. Learn from the magician’s guild, or break bread with an ancient talking sword that eats its victims’ souls. Everything is up to you, or at least, Bethesda has programmed so many procedural choices within Skyrim that you completely buy into the illusion that you can affect the world. Skyrim is Janet H. Murray’s agency taken to its inevitable peak. You decide on the character, motivation, and story. In the face of that, perhaps I really am blinded by nostalgia. Perhaps pre-canned narrative JRPGs really are doomed to the same video game fate reserved for hopelessly outdated text adventures like Zork: extinction.
Last spring, I taught two sections of The Critical Discourse of Video Games. My students were a bright, wonderful mix. Some were casual players, curious how video games fit into the humanities, and some were even more diehard than I am. A few of them enjoyed JRPGs and even wrote about them throughout the course, and mostly they focused on titles from when they were children, like 2006’s Final Fantasy XII. One such student stopped by for office hours and asked what I thought had happened to the JRPG, why newer titles were either niche releases or essentially action games. I thought of my other favorite genre, the 2D shooter, how prominent those games were in arcades when I was a kid, how they’d been reduced to fringe bullet hell titles on Steam or the occasional, quickly forgotten major release like the absurdly titled Dariusburst: Chronicles Saviours on PlayStation 4.
I told him I wasn’t really sure and recommended Janet H. Murray’s book. I told him I thought the JRPG had retreated into the niche marketspace, that we probably wouldn’t see a breakout title like Final Fantasy VII again unless it was something very meta like Undertale that commented on the entire genre. He nodded, and I could tell he was confused. He asked me to tell him more about Final Fantasy VII, and I realized he hadn’t even been alive in 1997, that the days of multiple JRPGs topping the sales charts must have felt as prehistoric to him as 1962’s Spacewar! felt to me. The JRPG was a history lesson, no different than when I explained the seeds of postmodernism to literature students or dirty realism to creative writing kids.
“What’s going to happen to them?” he asked, notepad and pen in hand.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. “I don’t know.”