Final thoughts from GDC: How JRPGS can dance to Reisuke Ishida's beat

This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

For all the discussion about the dire straits the Japanese game industry finds itself in, my lasting image of GDC 2012 will be of a Japanese developer who got so excited about his projects that he literally started dancing at his podium.

That developer was Taito's Reisuke Ishida (Space Invaders Infinity Gene), and he was in town to host a talk titled simply, 'Five Techniques for Making an Unforgettable Game.' No self-flagellation about the declining quality of Japanese gaming here; just Ishida running between the two screens on either side of his podium as he danced to the trailer of Groove Coaster. I find Reisuke Ishida's enthusiasm for the craft infectious, to say the least.

Two hours later, I listened as Keiji Inafune congratulated himself on being one of the first to recognize that the industry was in trouble, and exhorted Japanese developers to reclaim the proverbial Eye of the Tiger.

"There was heated competition," he said in reference to the days of the Famicom. "Now, in 2012, we're older. We have families. Maybe we have mortgages."

When he said that, I started mentally cataloging the better-known Japanese RPG developers around the industry, and realized that he was pretty much right. Leading lights like Dragon Quest's Yuji Horii and Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi have been making games since the early 1980s -- nearly 30 years now. You certainly won't find them dancing to any of their trailers.

It would be interesting if someone like Ishida were to make a Japanese RPG, I mused. Given his background in music games, he would probably want to build on the work begun by Threatrhythm Final Fantasy. But then again, he might bring something entirely new to the table as well. And with new consoles like the 3DS and the Vita on the market, and the Wii U coming soon, the time is right for some fresh blood.

    A couple other JRPG-related thoughts from GDC:

  • JRPGS Needn't Be Synonymous With Anime: JRPGs have long been inspired by anime, and they share more than a few of that medium's excesses. But whoever said that JRPGs have to drawn exclusively from art styles exclusive to Japan?

    That was one of the major points made by Sony's Yoshiaki Yamaguchi during his panel "Bring the Visuals of Gravity Rush to PlayStation Vita," in which he described how he was influenced by French comics, known as bande dessinee. The goal, he said, was to create a world that "wasn't simply a picture, but a living, breathing entity."

    I'm not saying that Square Enix should embrace French comics when developing the look and feel of Final Fantasy XV, but a radical art shift would nevertheless be very welcome. Japanese developers needn't even look beyond Japan for new inspiration. After all, who wouldn't want to play a JRPG with the look and feel of Okami?

  • JRPG Developers Should Draw More From Their Own Experiences: When I reviewed Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2 for Joystiq, I couldn't help commenting on how much it borrowed from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Not that it's unique in that regard. American developers are every bit as obsessed with Alien, Star Wars, and Indiana Jones as Japanese developers are with Dragon Ball Z and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and it shows.

    But the best developers don't steal from pop culture so much as translate what they loved growing up into gaming. In discussing Seven Cities of Gold during GDC, Sid Meier referred to his childhood love of subjects like pirates and trains. Shigeru Miyamoto famously loved to explore the caves and forests around his home. Even Cliff Bleszinski swears that he will one day make a game set in the New England countryside -- his childhood home.
Think of the success of Pokemon, which is based upon bug hunting, one of the most common of childhood activities. Using the fundamental framework of statistics and customization, I don't know why this approach can't be applied elsewhere. Maybe, someday, someone like Ishida will come in and make an RPG based around being a DJ. Not exactly a childhood activity, but still something that he feels passionate about.

That was the main theme of GDC for me -- channeling a passion into a meaningful new approach to game development. It's a theme that was addressed over and over again, even in the way that French comics inspired Yamaguchi to embrace a third way for Gravity Rush's art style. And I saw that theme in action when Ishida danced to the tune of Groove Coaster.

Is there a JRPG out there that's powerful enough to get its creator dancing? I don't know, but I'd like to find out.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.