So now I’m living in Japan, the birthplace of my preferred RPG style. Technically, RPGs were invented (or at least “popularized”) in the west in the mid-seventies by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson with their game Dungeons & Dragons. You could argue they were invented far earlier alongside comedy and theatre, with people pretending to be others, and perhaps even improving their own created characters. Live-action role playing, if you will (Yeah, I said it! Theatre is just LARPing with expensive outfits, well-thought-out scripts, and fewer trips to the hospital. Not that I’ve done either…). However, D&D gave us stats and progression systems inside largely created fantasy worlds.
But eh, D&D isn’t really my style. Too much work. Gotta write down everything and read a bunch and wait for huge lengths of time for others to make decisions. I can barely wait the 5 minutes some friends take to decide where to eat dinner. And that’s going to affect my stomach—the most important muscle in my body! Maybe it’s not a muscle. I’m not a rocket biologist.
Japan popularized the simplified RPG formula when it came out with classics like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy on the Nintendo Famicom. You had five abilities, not four hundred and thirty-seven. Computers did all the damage calculations. You had a pretty sure idea of where to go (as compared to games like Ultima which gave little clue). Explorable areas had borders and boundaries, but the lack of data forced you to use some imagination to see the world. For me, it was the best of both worlds. A bunch of data that required no effort to keep track of.
Anywho, that’s the country I live in now. The one that made the RPG elegant.
When you bring up video games and books and movies and whatever other form of “entertainment” you want, it’s inevitable that it will be described as ‘escapist’ somewhere down the line. That’s just science. Monkeys and typewriters. But it will come up sooner than if we were talking about breathing. I don’t breathe to forget about the world.
I’m pretty sure the Japanese crafted the perfect escape from their own world.
You see, life in Japan is complicated. There’re a lot of examples I could use. An outsider probably thinks about the Tokyo Metropolitan Railway map or the Japanese language itself. Someone who lives here probably thinks about the trash sorting and pickup systems or the Japanese language. The language isn’t that complicated. I’m not sure why everyone thinks about it.
Because of that complication, having no complexity to something would be unfamiliar. Strange. Bad. When there’s complexity, not understanding is fine. If there’s no complexity, you must understand.
Japanese RPGs are essentially complexity layered in simplicity. The numbers in the background play with each other in confusing ways, there are hoards of enemies and weapons and armor to play around with. But at its core, a JRPG doesn’t require much to understand. It will drip layers of complexity over time, never letting every element be known until late in the game. It tries to tell you that it’s complex, but all you really need to do is use a few commands.
It’s okay if you don’t understand—the game is complex. It’s familiar.
Regardless, I’m here and loving the familiar complexity. Loving it most of the time, anyways.