Editorial: Six Lessons that JRPG Developers Need to Learn from the West

Dialogue Trees Will Set You Free

I have no personal predilection towards dialogue trees in RPGs. In fact, I find the prospect of their appearance in JRPGs to be rather dismaying, but that is beside the point. It appears that the general gaming population have fallen out of love with extended cutscenes, though RPGs rely heavily on a lot of story information being conveyed to the player. This puts JRPGs in a difficult position. WRPGs have neatly sidestepped this gaming trend by implementing dialogue trees which allow them to deliver many hours of recorded dialogue while keeping the gamer involved though their interaction with the narrative. JRPGs, on the other hand, seem to have struggled with this concept. JRPGs gunning for mass appeal have often attempted to dodge audience complaints by heavily downsizing their story component, all but negating their distinct appeal to me. The JRPGs which don’t expect to do heavy trade in the West continue with their lengthy narratives, yet ironically this component is rarely of a quality to justify Western gamers sitting through them.

JRPG developers should at least consider the implementation of limited dialogue trees in the games they intend to send to Western markets. This is not to say that they must occur in the same fashion as in Bioware titles, where the development team effectively cedes control over the protagonist’s characterisation to the player. Instead look to productions (like The Witcher 2) that opt for a far more cinematic balance on the cutscene to dialogue tree ratio. Gamers are empowered to make some very important decisions, and they are also prompted to determine the order in which questions are asked of NPCs. Yet the developers retain almost complete control over Geralt’s characterisation.

At the very least, dialogue trees should be used to permanently replace the archaic silent protagonist.

Allow the Game’s Setting to Tell as much of the Back-Story as Possible

It should be the game designer’s primary goal to create a culturally rich environment in which their story can play out. The lore of their imagined world should be readily accessible through books, log entries, item descriptions, and requisite NPC interactions. This is very important, as having the game world convey this information means that the game’s primary story sequences do not need to be weighed down with backstory exposition and arcane jargon like fal’Cie and l’Cie.

A culturally robust game world is not simply desirable for narrative purposes. It is also the most effective way to engender the interaction, exploration, and immersion that are so important to RPG experiences. Even if the player were to only interact with ten percent of the lore available to them, the mere fact of knowing it is there is able to situate them within the reality of the game’s setting. Without such interaction, the vestiges of a game world’s cities and empires are so much digital wallpaper.

Step 1: job for life, step 2: ???, Step 3: profit!!
Square Enix General Meeting

Adopt an Incentivising Pay Structure

I believe in a fair day’s pay for a full day’s work, so the concept of incentivising pay has never sat particularly well with me when applied to anyone not holding a leadership position. That said, such regimes have been shown to eke out better performance from a workforce, and computer programming is far more variable a task than carving bars of soap or assembling widgets. At any rate, the question of whether or not this is the correct approach is moot: the West has broadly adopted this structure and Japanese development has ceased to be competitive. A system of performance pay, deadline bonuses, and an easily disposable workforce tends to see the cream of the talent pool rise to the top and efficiency maximised. By contrast, a salary for life tends to result in creative stagnation. Such was the view of ex-Capcom man Keiji Inafune, who bemoaned the Japanese salary-man’s tendencies only to focus on the completion of his own job and never to take charge of the broader project.

Hire Professional Writers, Do Not Let Motomu Toriyama Touch a Pen

The Stephenie Meyer of Video Games
Motomu Toriyama

There are a few specialist scenario writers floating around in Japan, such as the eminently talented Kazushige Nojima and the eminently less talented Masato Kato, but their use is the exception rather than the rule. The Japanese tendency to have the design team heavily involved in the authoring of a game’s scenario has led to some surprising gems, with Hideo Kojima and Tetsuya Takahashi rising to particular prominence. At other times, scenarios have ranged between a schizophrenic mess (the Star Ocean series) and an unmitigated disaster (anything written by Motomu Toriyama). I suppose it goes without saying that we might have missed out on some true gems if specialist writers had always handled scenario duties by default. Yet it is also intuitive to query just how many game narratives may have been saved by having writers on board who knew what they were doing. Better yet, think back to A Thousand Years of Dreams, and then imagine if Kiyoshi Shigematsu was given an entire game to author! It is an immutable fact that dedicated writers achieve more consistent outcomes. Even the Dragon Age 2 writers achieved some pretty good results despite the constraints they were put under by the design team. In short, Japanese development needs to spend a little money in order to produce a more consistently polished product.

Hire an Autonomous Localisation Team and Voice Acting Director

Weaboos might curse the name of Victor Ireland, and purists may be dancing mad at every noted difference thrown up by the localisation process, but most average people just want to play a well-written game. It has been often noted that a 1:1 game translation is almost impossible, but I do not much care if the localisation team even tries to adhere to the original script. I am of the opinion that translators should see themselves as writers first and linguists second. The localisation process should not be viewed as their chance merely to preserve the original script, but rather to improve upon it for their native Western audience. For this to happen, the original game designers must defer their judgement to the people who are fluent in the language of the market they wish to penetrate.

If localisation is important then voice direction is paramount, and it seems to be the area in which Square Enix seems increasingly to be erring. No matter how strong the script, and regardless of how talented the cast, it will all come off poorly if the voice direction is not there to back it up. In this area Japanese studios MUST hire Western voice directors and allow them as much latitude as they should be affording to their translation team. The 3rd Birthday was never going to be a narrative masterpiece. Yet if one were to read the game’s script in isolation from its cutscenes, then I bet they would be surprised to find just how competently it read. Square Enix tend to ruin their Western localisations by vocalising sounds which should remain inaudible, particularly in relation to their female characters. So while the language used is coherent, it is punctuated by gasps, moans, and whimpers. I get that the Japanese are considerably more vocal in the random noises which they allow to pass their lips, but for goodness sake they should remove these quirks from their English productions because they do not fit with the reality of a characterisation of any character who is not deranged. Many Parasite Eve fans have torn strips from Square Enix for the weak characterisation of Ada in The 3rd Birthday, but I am not at all sure that her characterisation has changed. What has changed is that Ada is now voiced, she is voiced in English, and voiced in such a way as to only make sense in Japan. I have my doubts that an autonomous Western voice directer would have allowed this to slip through.

Avoid Obtrusive and Prolonged Tutorial Sequences

Expect to do a lot of this!
More exciting Final Fantasy X gameplay!

There is no greater barrier (within reason) that a game designer can erect in order to more fully obfuscate the player’s enjoyment of his title than to weigh down proceedings with a mountain of compulsory, in-depth tutorial. Nothing irks me more than, in sitting down to my fourth playthrough of Final Fantasy X and having to sift through screen upon screen of animated tutorial–though of course it was not much better on the first, second and third occasions. This is an area where JRPG developers really need to learn from their western counterparts, because the JRPG developers seem to get it wrong every single time. There is no excuse for reams of information to be dumped on the player when it is infinitely more expedient to make use of context sensitive tutorial messages, floating dialogue boxes, or, I don’t know, the instruction manual. Even a simple yes/no prompt before kicking off a five minute epic on inventory management would be much appreciated.

7 comments

  1. Sounds about right.

    Man, your FFX example is the best one. The worst part is that Sphere Grid tutorial guy on the boat where you meat Rikku. He’s talking in another language and if you talk to him forgetting what his purpose is, you’ll go through the lengthy unnecessary Sphere Grid tutorial AGAIN.

  2. I do not have a problem with lengthy tutorials, I have a problem with UNSKIPPABLE tutorials. The Megaman Battle Network is terrible about that, every game basically has THE SAME unskippable tutorial.

  3. Unskippable tutorials are painful.

    I think the Atelier (especially Rorona since that’s what I’m playing right now) series finds a decent balance without resorting to a silent protagonist or excessive dialogue tree options. There’s enough dialogue and character interaction to flesh out what’s going on if you want it but you can minimize it if you don’t.

    I have to disagree with you about localization, though. As someone who has worked on the translation of books, it was made quite clear to me you should not be re-writing the scripts. If you want to be a writer, make your own game or write your own book. If you’re a translator, your job is to adapt the original story into a new language. Sure, the idioms may have to change to suit the new audience, but your job is to present the story in a new language while being as true to the original writer’s intentions as possible.

  4. I’d rather something good than something faithful; it seems they are all to rarely one and the same.

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