RPGs were long considered by many to be best handled by Japanese developers like Square Enix, Level 5, and Game Freak. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy titles have all sold over one million copies, some of them having sold more than four million, like Final Fantasy VII which has pushed ten million copies to date. Game Freak is responsible for developing the highest-grossing RPG series Pokemon, which by 2011 had been purchased over two-hundred fifteen million times. The continued success of games released by these and other developers is a testament to the staying power of genre themes with which people are not willing to part. Character customization, the ability to level-up those characters with the allotment of experience points, side quests, and a grand storyline (often involving a female cat-humanoid) are all few a components that comprise the familiar JRPG.
Western RPGs are taking massive leaps forward, however. Whereas JRPGs have the tendency to be completely linear, meaning the player is told where to go the entire way through the game, WRPGs have become traditionally open-world, meaning the player has the option to explore the vast reaches of the games, making their own respective decision to follow the main quest-line, complete side-quests, or simply just eliminate the game’s population of wildlife. Bethesda Game Studios is one western developer that is largely responsible for the rise in popularity of these games. They have released massive titles like the Elder Scrolls I-V, as well as Fallout 3 and its expansion, Fallout New Vegas. These games, like many JRPGs, allow the player to allot skill points to various attributes and abilities that they wish their character to have, often allowing for a character which is very powerful in its field of expertise. I can hardly do these games justice in simply describing them as games where you “allot skill points,” though. There are simply so many routes the player can take their character both in terms of their abilities and where they want their character to go. The scope is simply huge in games like Fallout and the Elder Scrolls, as well as in Bioware’s Mass Effect series, which, similar to Fallout 3, allows the player to determine the general morality of their character.
In my opinion, character customization has been handled more efficiently by western developers, because they give the player such a wide range of abilities to choose from that by the game’s end, the player can feel accomplished in having created a truly unique avatar. Despite this opinion, it cannot be understated how well some JRPGs pull off telling a story which perhaps could only be told in a linear setting, where the game itself leads the player through the story. In some ways, the difference between JRPs and WRPGs is like the difference between movies and games as a whole. Movies, like JRPGs, progress exactly the way the director intends them. The story is displayed without an ounce of the audience’s input and movies are largely successful because of it. Story-telling is in our DNA, and we soak up other people’s ideas like sponges. Video games, like WRPGs, are the marked difference in that they allow the audience to actually immerse themselves in the story. Instead of simply showing the plot, video games give the player an exploratory view, and one that perhaps leaves them more invested with the characters.
In many ways, I appreciate these genres for their differences between each other. JRPGs and WRPGs are so unlike that they can barely be said to be in the same genre. It also has to be noted that these two categories contain numerous subcategories like tactical RPGs, action RPGs, and the gigantic massive-multiplayer online RPGs, each with their own good and bad attributes. There are moments in these games that, at least for me, define my experience with video games and these moments seem to be directly tied to the genre they were produced in. The ascension out of the vault into the desolate landscape of Fallout 3 was unbelievable. The initial glare of the sun in the player’s eyes, followed by endless hours of post-apocalyptic gameplay left me astonished. Similarly, I will never forget how moved I was when I learned the fate of Yuna in Final Fantasy X, and how the main character reacted to her ill-fated purpose. The xenophobic tendencies of the Japanese seem to impress upon game developers that they do not need to change certain JRPG archetypes, but that is only true to a certain extent. Much in the way that western developers have taken ques from Japanese developers and then improved upon them, so also do Japanese developers need to capitalize on the attributes which have made WRPGs so successful.