Tracing the Alternative JRPG

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Role playing games are a poison. I can’t get that thought out of my head, so I rationalize it. They’re a storytelling container, they’re a medium, they make sense in context. And I’ll admit again, they don’t respect my time. I’ll admit again, they’re needlessly violent. Even so, I can respect them, these objects that don’t show respect for themselves. This is a craft that funnels into the pleasure of numbers and of conquest, a craft that is weaponized to exploit feelings of compulsion. There’s a coincidence that arrests me, an alchemy untapped and unexplained. Someone needs to explain their history. Someone needs to articulate their craft. I feel self-important, and burdened, and wrong. It’s a performance and a trap that isn’t particular to jrpgs, but for me it’s going to be about jrpgs. And so I’ve stockholmed myself.

the thing i hate about game culture is there’s no real creation, no challenging, no constructive criticism, no moving forward, no healing. the fundamental truths of games can never really be questioned unless you want to greatly offend people’s entire basis for being. even as the industry moves on coldly and the world of indie games moves on just as coldly. and so it just seems, in the end, like the church for a lot of very damaged, lost people.” – liz ryerson, i’m leaving games

There’s no response or argument or opened discussion: that’s the truth, the coldest and the clearest, about the wide junkie sect of gamer culture. I think Liz is also damning me and critics like me, those who wish to treasure and trace out their childhood. Maybe the work that I and others are doing is not enough, maybe it will never be enough. I wonder how central that is, if it really pertains to videogames, or if it’s a symptom of the largest cultures. I’m projecting and lamenting, but if I am damaged, if I am lost, will there be healing somewhere else? Is this behaviour exclusive to videogames? Can it be said that videogames are the worst? The practiced iteration, the memorization, the requisite for literacy, that isn’t exclusive to videogames. I’ve spent a teenaged life on the (internet) discourse in the music scene and found there to be the same symptoms. I can also say the symptoms are visibly, even obviously, worse and excessive in games culture, so this comparison is vain. There’s a physicality to videogame performance, there always is. The practiced iteration, the memorization, the basest of physical literacy, it becomes a mantra, and it becomes a sacrament. Push button, que endorphins, minimize stress, feel whole.

Role-playing games have always been the most realized for such a simple pleasure. It needs to be called a simple pleasure, because it can quickly slide into something hideous. A lazy dispatch of all conflict, struggle, and problems. Systems that are made to be learned, memorized, and exploited. The process of pressing buttons and receiving validation is the most liquid with role-playing games, to the point where some argue that’s all there is to them.

I’ve been trying not to think about this polemic, experimental essay maps, because I relate to it and simultaneously reject it. It’s not what’s appealing to me about jrpgs. I say, it isn’t what draws me to videogames. I must say that, over and over again. I must keep saying that.

Because, when your life turns to shit and people let you down, or when you study hard but still flunk your exams regardless, or when you work your ass off and your boss doesn’t notice…. Or, or even if he does but is too preoccupied with his own quests to congratulate you… I mean, that’s sort of a broken system. It certainly feels that way. That’s just not how things should be. JRPGs counter all that disappointment and unfairness with dependable justice. They reward you for your efforts with empirical, unflinching fairness. Work hard and you level up. Take the path that’s opened to you and persevere with it and you can save the world. You can fix the things that break…

Role-playing games are a poison, but they are intoxicating. In a role-playing game, I’m quantifiably right. Everything hostile is determined evil. It is a moral imperative, and an ethical binary, to kill. These creatures are called monsters, it’s authored and determined for me what the interpretation of a monster is. A jrpg is so often intimately political and yet clearly destructive to nuanced politics of the interpersonal. And so I’ll tell myself, these monsters are abstractions, they’re trials, they measure a personal struggle. I’ll tell myself, if it was so willed to be, maybe the divinely right can exist. Divinity is captured, it’s real, in the fiber of a jrpg. Divinity is a tool of oppression, it always has been, and I’m not sure it can even be tentatively reclaimed.

There is a reflection there, a darker one I can cast on history. It’s an ideal or an idyllic model, because it’s one borne of a collective unconsciousness. Role-playing systems are replicated and preserved because they work so well at portraying war, and not just any kind of war, but a specific one. A war where the individual matters, and where the individual can always win. Of course I’ll cast it on history, because there are patterns there. What does it say about me? To be implicit in these patterns ever still? These plots, these mechanizations, they come from a wide history, and a stable desire. I know what the power fantasy is, I know what to put into it, and what to get from it. See Ulysses, see Beowulf, see these desires replicated forever. See the role-playing game become consumed before it ever existed to communicate its individuality, consumed by violent masculinity as heroism, as the war of the individual, as blood and sex borne of nothing but ego…

it is interesting to see the reactions to a game such as Undertale, (if i may be forgiven for being topical, but it has genuinely affected me) a game which subverts the deep-seated ideologies of RPG systems which typically glorify conquest and internalize fascist ideas about the world being against you and the necessity of massacre. those deeply attached to these genres have often rejected or dismissed it, which is interesting considering it carries many of the same ludic devices point for point. rather, it is dismissed for denying the underlining ideology which, in popular videogames culture, has become synonymous with genre. it is such a simple thing too: the game still has a ‘you’, stats, an inventory, static environments, and characters who are not you. it merely rejects the idea of the ‘enemy’, and this rejection is reflected in the fiber of the game’s code.” – lulu blue, untitled; oct. 9th 2015

Role-playing games are a poison, but poison doesn’t have to be used on the self. It can be directed at that which destroys.

“There’s input (maybe in the form of some kind of labour, like writing out code) and output (when all the code is correctly written, it will compile into a game). It’s not surprising then that the games which are usually produced this way reflect the systematic thinking of their creators. Games have a tendency to espouse an ideology of productivity rooted in capitalist thinking. But, contextualized as art, games are also kind of useless. I look forward to more games embracing their very uselessness as much as possible.” Lana Polansky, The Eroticism of Uselessness in Videogames

***

I wonder if there is actually a poison present in the vacuum of the role-playing game. The systems, the numbers, the programming, are they toxic on their own? They were created to reflect a puerile naivety, an ideology of wish fulfillment, and they’re dressed around inseparable images of traditional fantasy. That is the poison distilled. I think it’s also exclusive to the the more well-known, defining role-playing videogames. The role-playing game’s origins in so-called high fantasy, in western christian mythology, and in upholding medieval castes and representations, is inseparable from its utility. The systems were made to reflect class and social ability in a binary way.

These systems have been broken and retraced in the alternative jrpg. This jrpg alternative is where the systems, the interactive language which was programmed into the fiber of the game, is boldly useless. An alternative jrpg models conflict for the sake of an introspective ideology, or in wider terms ‘for its own sake’, before being representative of a fuller context. This was demonstrated by Mother in 1989 (or even arguably Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei in 1987). There is a long tradition of abstract in this genre of abstraction. Abandoning overt literalism and the need to represent a simulation, alternative jrpgs can wax poetic, they can express an array of feelings, thoughts, and philosophies, that appear meaningless, and inasmuch support a depth that is reflexive. The alternative jrpg is aware its systems cannot fully capture people, or ideas, so it converts people into ideas, and presents a nethering inbetween.

The ludics, so the numbers, the stats, the consumables, everything that dresses the interaction and relationships with conflict, is not lifted from the most commonly understood iteration. An alternative jrpg does not mindlessly replicate harmful narratives or constructions, it knows that rules themselves are concepts, that rules are also culture. An alternative jrpg is conscious of its concept, its ebbs and flows of drama, that its so-called gameplay will texture and affect resoundingly throughout the work. An alternative jrpg, at every moment, every seam, every placement, has authored intentions and meanings that go beyond hedonism, because while it values pleasure, it offers connections to others, beyond insular, self-gratification.

An alternative jrpg is challenges preconceptions, it closes up the gaping patches of the rpg’s continuing legacy, and it enables healing.

healing

***

I mean to also replace the poison with nectar. I still think there’s poison in my blood and my identity, but I want to believe that I am healing. I want to believe in my own self-respect, though my constitution is a bit more reserved. I don’t believe the poison is my fault. I don’t think it’ll go away because the aftertaste has always been there, but I am confident in new interpretations. It’s my turn to be naive and instill my own ideology to the manuals I write for these games and that requires, completely, a confidence in my own approach. A self-respect, in this, is to respect what I draw from videogames, to respect what I reflect from videogames, and always to respect what I reject from videogames.

A traditional jrpg can be nectar if it’s treated as moments. There’s a naturalism to hostile space. A traditional jrpg might be conquest in the end, per erasure, but I think it is also all of the times the party falls. It’s all of the times a monster captivates me and I wonder what I’m doing, in all contexts of that expression. Whenever antagonism is sympathetic, then these seemingly straightforward concepts become a debate. A flash, and a moment, and a struggle of ideology. The nectar of a traditional jrpg is when I’m not sure I want to succeed in conquest, if I even want to be victorious. There are moments that the worst concoction is bold, and fresh, and sweet. It may be a tainted feeling, it may be just a silver lining, it may stem from my own unconscious desires, but I feel that has a worth which is reflective, infinitely accommodating, and relatable to the cultural circumstances I exist in.

I was borne of poison, but I will produce light.

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4 thoughts on “Tracing the Alternative JRPG

  1. Great articles. You may have played it already, but I would recommend Devil Summoner 2 as an RPG that very much converses with the player and makes them question their own experience. I think it’s definitely one of the more resonant RPGs, anyhow. Thanks for writing! I look forward to reading your backlog 🙂

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