United We Stand

Joe Myers | 9 Nov 2010 08:29
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When it comes to life and videogames, one thing's for certain: I'm a mutt. With my mother being from the Philippines and Dad being from a city in Arkansas that you can't say without having people look at you funny, you end up finding yourself with a foot in the door of both Eastern and Western societies and their ways of life. In games it's a chance to really see the schism between the Eastern and Western ethos in not just day-to-day routine, but in culture and media, including videogames, and there's no better example of this than in the JRPG.


Pop in Final Fantasy, for example, and you'll quickly realize that it will take a combination of Thief, Black Belt, Fighter, and Black Mage working together as a team to defeat Garland and save the kingdom. It's this ethos, the idea of a collective of people from all walks of life, that really makes the JRPG such an enduring genre despite all the criticism it gets. In a nutshell, the story isn't about galumphing off to fight some dragon, it's about the people you're with and their experiences - past and present - while you're galumphing.

An RPG is, by definition, a game in which the player gets to be someone else. In typical Western-style RPGs, the main character is such a blank slate that even the responses one is able to give are flat - either flat-good, flat-neutral, or flat-evil. As great as Mass Effect is, even with its creative dialogue and intricate responses, in the end, it's just that - a matter of selecting just good, neutral, or evil choices. Commander Shepard just isn't capable of surprising the player with his personality the way Beat does in The World Ends With You when you find out that he isn't just a tough guy with a chip on his shoulder, but someone grieving over losing himself in the heart of his sister. Yes, it's easy to like Shepard, but it isn't because he was a fully developed character, but because at some level he is the player. Beat started out as being an annoying dumb character, but ends up becoming more of a sympathetic, relatable guy. Why is it important? It made the side character of a somewhat sleeper JRPG more interesting than the main character of one of the biggest WRPG franchises on the market. There simply isn't a lot of real personality to go around, but that sort of goes with the individualistic ethos of a WRPG.

Now, there's no denying that Commander Shepard is a badass, but from a literary perspective, who's more interesting? The guy who gives it all at face value or the one who you get to see develop over time? It makes sense though, looking at it from our cultural perspective. Here in the West, we're more likely to value self-expression, a person's individual characteristics and customization, and self-esteem. Western videogame heroes embody it too - the one hero, standing alone against insurmountable odds. In the Fable series, you're viewed as "the Hero of Albion" or "the child of the Hero of Albion", not "the leader of a revolution." The self is a separate entity, detached from others, with the boundaries between people being rigid and straightforward. This person is here to give you a quest, no more no less. This companion is here to provide long-range support, not ask you how your day went.

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