My goodness, but the time it flies! As many of you will be aware (and some of you won’t) this past week marked the fifteenth birthday of brand Playstation, and by extension the fifteenth birthday of Sony’s small grey miracle box of seemingly limitless potential. It is funny to think that it has been a good thirteen, perhaps even fourteen years since this diminutive plastic box of formative joy and wonder came into my life and impressed on me the ideals which I cherish to this day. And with this in mind, and at heart, I cannot help looking on this era with appreciation for our time together, yet with sadness too for the design ideals which are being slowly lost to the veils of time.
The Playstation offered JRPG developers the perfect balance of freedom and constraint. The tyranny of text volume limits and the necessity of reducing complex conceptual designs into crude pixel art was at once lifted, giving game makers unprecedented latitude in visual and narrative expression, without giving them so much rope as to hang themselves with it. Through the use of simple, yet colorful 3D graphics and complex pre-rendered backdrops it was possible to fully realize the artist’s vision, and not have it cost $100,000,000 over a six year development cycle to develop what is essentially an uninteractive grind tube. No, this was back in the days when creating complex and appealing building interiors was still justifiable for use in a one-time event scene, and it was possible to easily create epic vistas of near mind boggling scope and beauty without it murdering the development budget (still waiting on that FFVII HD remake? Protip: NOT GOING TO HAPPEN). Everything feels smaller now.
Just as important was the system’s audio capabilities facilitated by the Playstation’s CD storage medium. Musicians now had the ability to fully realize the complex instrumentation they could but mimic before. Despite my affection for the simple purity of midi tunes, I cannot but listen to the arrangement of ‘Time’s Scar‘ and fail to be impressed, and neither can you I am sure. Yet once again this is the perfect balance of freedom and constraint, CD storage did not possess sufficient capacity for many games to ruin their narrative with bad VA, nor did reviewer expectations foist the obligation on development teams that they repurpose their game’s budget to cater towards the very expensive implementation of voiced dialogue. Moreover, a well told story demands a certain amount of dialogue, and the PS1 with its relatively accommodating set of expectations allowed players to experience game dialogues as quickly as they were able to read, and with a minimum of physical acting between lines. Now however, in addition to the expense of creating cutscenes, the simple act of voicing and choreographing these scenes in a believable fashion effectively means that dialogue takes many times longer to convey than in the PS1 era. Now, given that the market is driven by consumers who will baulk, cry and scream bloody murder the instant that control is taken from them for over two minutes, this means that dialogue will be truncated in all JRPGs that aspire to be more than a niche title, while it will tend to be a bloated amorphous morass in those that do not. It might seem almost axiomatic that in instances wherein a game’s presentation inhibits the creation and consumption of content, then such affectations might be dispensed with, yet such an approach is unlikely to gel with the entitlement ‘professional reviewers‘ are possessed of. They will cry at having to read in the absence of full voice acting, while in contradictory fashion also crying at the absence of Japanese audio.
In looking back to the PS1 era, we look back to a time when game production was at once simpler and more complex. Design teams were still intimate enough for directors to leave their stamp on the product, and not have it lost ‘neath reams of focus testing and corporate interference (if Yoichi Wada’s focus was to destroy Squaresoft, then he’s achieved it admirably). With fewer non-essential complexities of production, designers were freer to implement experimental mechanics, and construct more holistic, substantial worlds. With fewer logistical constraints developers were at greater liberty to exercise the better angels of their nature in pursuing something grander than corporate profit, many aspired to Art, and in some instances they achieved it. My goodness, but how circumstances have changed.
JRPGs circa 2010 are in desperate need of a new paradigm, either in design or economic formula. The very things that identify a JRPG as being top-shelf, are the same things that often curb their potential and stop them from being any good. As the gaming industry has expanded exponentially, and game budgets have begun to rival major Hollywood films, it would be charitable for me to say that JRPG sales have stagnated. Any game from this genre which once commanded pride of place as a killer app at the helm of the good ship Playstation is now considered a runaway success to break 300,000 LTD in sales, when THQ is bitterly disappointed at only selling 2 million units of their latest generic fighting game. In stark contrast to all that has come before, North American and European studios have seen an explosion in terms of their output, even Canadian development is viewed as the proverbial bacon on the hill, yet Japan who was once the brains-trust of global gaming artistry, is now the sick man of Asia.
We thus find ourselves at an unhappy juncture where a new hardware generation could spell oblivion for the console JRPG, either they will find a new way forward, else perish. And call me a radical dreamer, but I do wonder why we can’t strip back some of these presentational pre-requisite affectations and place a stronger emphasis on content. Is there any reason that pre-rendered backdrops could not look stunning at a HD resolution? Have JRPG enthusiasts forgotten how to read? Does rebalancing the priorities of the genre even threaten to shrink its market-share? The ranks of those who would openly declare themselves as JRPG enthusiasts is surely such a dwindling, meager and dispirited lot by this point that the lack of something as inoffensive as stilted voice acting will surely not be sufficient to deter them from their pursuits of flagellant masochistic purchase intent, and who knows, if Japanese designers have not forgotten how to create quality content then perhaps they will be able to spare their game industry from the yawning abyss of incompetent, uncompetitive and unviable malaise which threatens to subsume it so completely. Ah, but then again, when is the last time the Japanese gaming industry displayed the vaguest hint of development plasticity?
If the health of an industry can be measured by the number of battles which take place atop an airship in flight, then we can conclude that the SNES demonstrated the vast potential of this nascent electronic medium, the PS1 in turn ushered in an unparalleled golden age of game development replete with halcyon, sepia tones and a Uematsu soundtrack, the 128 bit era for its part looked a little green around the gills, while the current console generation finds it long dead, and marked ‘do not resuscitate‘.
Please feel free to share your fond memories of the PS1 or comment on Lady GAGA!!!