Originality is overrated! and other thoughts on JRPG plots

I enjoy daydreaming about ~the perfect JRPG plot. Come to think of it, it’s something I’ve been doing since the 1990s, when I first played a JRPG. It’s a videogame genre that I find particularly appealing and even inspiring. I believe these games just give me a sense of fun, of adventure, freedom and discovery that others don’t necessarily give me. They are usually really long, they are about journeys and are full of interesting, diverse characters. (I don’t mean diverse in the modern US marketing speech sense, just that any decent JRPG party will feature characters with different skills, personalities and backgrounds. This is just more interesting than a cast of characters who all have the same age and the same approximate background and job … looking at you, Final Fantasy VIII.)

Anyway, what is the perfect JRPG plot? Or rather, what makes a JRPG plot great? I believe that it’s easy to overestimate the importance of complexity, realism and especially originality. These things are not actually that important. In fact, they can get in the way and destroy your gaming experience. Because that’s what a good videogame plot is: an experience.

Simplicity >>> complexity

OK, I don’t mean that complex stories suck and have no place in videogames. But complex stories should be told in simple ways, they must be easy to follow. The point of complexity isn’t to overwhelm the player, but to get them engaged with the world and the characters. If the player can’t follow the plot anymore, when they don’t understand the characters’ motivations or why  they are doing what they’re doing … that’s dumb and bad writing.

Satisfaction >>> realism

There are a number of JRPG conventions/tropes that seem perfectly natural for a seasoned player, but are technically unrealistic, bizarre nonsense. Like being able to walk into any house and take clothes out of other people’s wardrobes without getting arrested. Like being able to revive characters except when the story says no. It’s fun to inject some realism into a game, because it shakes things up and feels new and exciting. But there has to be a balance. Certain ideas may be realistic, but kind of spoil the actual gameplay. I … can’t think of an example right now. XD But anyway, some things are common tropes for a reason: they work.

Accessibility >>> originality

Well, this is what I actually want to talk about. XD

One game that is frequently cited as having an excellent story is Chrono Trigger. The story and world of Chrono Trigger is praised for its complexity and depth. What’s really interesting here is that the game relies very heavily on a huge number of familiar science-fiction and fantasy archetypes!

The apocalypse in the year 1999; the post-apocalyptic future; evil computers; a lost advanced civilisation; an evil wizard; a legendary sword, princesses in distress … and much more.

Taken by themselves, none of these aspects is all that unique. What Chrono Trigger does, however, is to draw connections between them and create a single coherent (hi)story. The end result is pretty complex and exciting, but it’s still simple, easy to understand and pleasantly familiar. Chrono Trigger is this fun adventure where a trio of teenagers get to play out all these classic pulpy adventures!

One other useful effect of this reliance on tropes is that you don’t actually have to explain so much in the game. The dialogue can be kept brief. What happens is that we hear “valiant knight seeking legendary sword” and we fill in the blanks. We have associations with this trope and project them onto the game. It’s a minimalist style of storytelling, very useful for an old game that had to deal with filesize limitations, and also super effective if done right.

I believe that it’s always a good choice to keep any dialogue brief and to the point. No useless waffling that neither fleshes out the character nor the story or the world. (Hello, Golden Sun.) I actually have a high tolerance for text and even info-dumping, but I know that there are many players who have less patience – and they’re not wrong. Dialogue and exposition should be naturally integrated into the game, without disrupting its flow and without taking control from the palyer for longer than necessary. So any trick to reduce text and explanations is a good thing. And you should always be able to understand at least the gist of the plot without too much effort.

Come to think of it, I’ve seen a couple of articles written by people who only recently played Chrono Trigger for the first time, and were disappointed with how sparse the writing actually is, and how much of the character development “isn’t really there” (it’s still there, it’s just mostly in your imagination, as it should be!) … So this approach obviously doesn’t work for everybody. Or maybe it just isn’t modern anymore, now that we have practically no technological limitations anymore (I exaggerate, but you get my meaning) and new game mechanics have replaced old ones.

But I still think that embracing tropes, cleverly using archetypes in order to draw on the player’s memories and imagination, is the way to go when you want to create a story that is emotionally resonant and memorable, without getting overwrought and melodramatic.

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