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Hey Japan, stop making me save the world

Jason Schreier

This is a column by Jason Schreier dedicated to the analysis (and occasional mocking) of his favorite genre, the Japanese role-playing game. Whether it's because they're too antiquated or just too niche, he believes JRPGs don't get enough attention in the gaming industry today. It's time to change that.

You've seen this play before. Some ragtag heroes are standing at the edge of some interdimensional space portal or subterranean crystal labyrinth or evil god's castle. They're holding powerful weapons -- acquired after hours of tedious mini-games -- and staring down some nasty monster or deity or demon squirrel.

Their goal? Save the universe from imminent doom.

If you're anything like me, you're probably already yawning. The go-forth-and-save-the-world trope is so worn out in video games by now that it's hard to muster up even an iota of compassion for all of the artificial people that need rescuing. Japanese role-playing games are the worst offenders of all, spitting out bombastic villains and supernatural events with reckless abandon and little regard for reality. Games like Tales of Vesperia and Lost Odyssey might start you off with small tasks and adventures, but at the end of the day, you know you're going to have to prevent the apocalypse.

On some level this makes sense: It's cool to feel like you're the man. It is cathartic to start off as a weakling and grow stronger and stronger as your journey progresses -- and you have to be pretty damn strong to save the world. (Or worlds, as the case may be. Japan is crazy.)

The problem with this method of story-telling is that it gets very old very fast. While traditional JRPGs like Dragon Quest can be as comforting as a familiar blanket or a warm cup of tea, they can also have trouble convincing us to stay emotionally invested. It's hard to care about saving the world when you do it every weekend.

So what does make us care about stories? Simple: the people driving them. If we connect with fictional characters' desires and flaws, if we believe that they are real human beings with real motivations, it's easy to empathize with their journeys.

Unfortunately, many JRPG developers have subscribed to the idea that a protagonist doesn't need to be believable. The main character wants to save the world because he wants to be a hero. Maybe he just likes protecting people. Or he's just sick of killing sewer rats.

How do you make people relate to your character? Film school teachers will offer a single piece of advice: "Raise the stakes." Add more conflict. Make things worse for your protagonist. Give him more obstacles to overcome. Allow us to connect to his struggles.

But that doesn't mean you have to raise the stakes for the whole damned world. Take Inception, one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2010. It's filled with villains, explosions, and plenty of conflicts. It's also about a single person's journey -- in some way or another, every moment of the film is dedicated to protagonist Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his attempts to get back home to his family. We are invested because the stakes are high for him. The world won't be destroyed if he fails -- but his personal world might be.

It's not just Hollywood. Gaming's most powerful narratives are not about massive conflicts; they are about individual journeys. John Marston's harrowing path to salvation in Red Dead Redemption is far more interesting than some gang of silent warriors trying to defeat a god. We are invested in the world of Planescape: Torment because of its hero's fascinating quest to discover his own identity. Both of those games throw endless hurdles at their protagonists, forcing us to feel both admiration and empathy as we guide them through the sorrow of survival.

Of course, even save-the-world adventures can be touching -- so long as they don't expect us to care about saving the world. So long as they are personal journeys, journeys that take our protagonists through the rollercoaster of ups and downs that makes a great story. Journeys that raise the stakes.

Jason Schreier is a freelance writer/editor based out of NYC. He's a contributing writer for and occasionally writes for a number of other sites and publications, including Edge Magazine, the Onion News Network and G4TV. You can follow him on Twitter at @jasonschreier.

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