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Monday, July 25, 2016

Bi-Weekly JRPG Talk- Part 1: Story Progression

Since I have completed the story mode of Xenoblade Chronicles X (with an ungodly playtime of 147 hours), and since this is shaping up to be the year of the JRPG on 3DS, I will be writing a Bi-Weekly column on the nature of the genre. My experience? I have played an unhealthy variety of these games and would like to share my opinions and critique of some of the industry's recent entries.

The Japanese Role Playing Game is, for fans of fantasy, science fiction, stat crunching, or character building, an interactive love letter. It allows them not just to experience a lush setting and cast of characters, but to interact with the game world and sometimes alter or discover the plot in their own way. It enables them to choose from a variety of classes, stats, and party members to create devastating combinations that will ensure their victory- a victory that they would want to see. This genre has had different phases with different popular franchises, and new names emerge as the industry progresses and changes. But there are plenty of mediocre and downright bad entries, as well. I'll cite some of them soon, but I'd like to discuss a difficult trapping of these types of games.

As I mentioned before, I just recently finished the science-fiction epic Xenoblade Chronicles X, the sequel to the critically acclaimed Xenoblade Chronicles. While the first entry in this series (which may or may not continue) was story-focused, Its large environments and healthy amount of subquests allowed the player to divert their attention from the narrative in order to explore. However, the sequel emphasizes the idea of exploration and discovery with its narrative, encouraging players to complete sidequests in order to progress the story. While the first title had an impressive world (especially for the Wii), Xenoblade Chronicles X is absolutely massive, to the point where you still feel dwarfed by it while driving a Skell three times your size. This is a place ripe for exploration, and if the game's progression were centered around simply exploring, one could still sick upwards of 60-80 hours attempting to do so.

But XCX's critical flaw is that the busywork doesn't really feel all that rewarding. While some quests are simple enough in objective (and benefit from the enhanced fast-travel system) and others have deep plotlines that are engaging, bizarre, and enjoyable, the vast majority are insurmountable upon receipt because of their level requirements (or other prerequisites), or are just plain tedious. Now, this isn't a problem with most games in the genre- while some have quests that encourage the player to "slay x beasts" or "obtain x material," they are relatively scarce because of their dull nature. Others create subsystems to surmount rare drop hunts (XCX has a system itself, though it's entirely too reliant on the "soft online" features). But XCX is, well, as close to an MMORPG without actually being one as a JRPG could possibly get. While some noted the original Xenoblade possessed some of the same qualities, XCX has taken it to a greater degree, and while the game streamlines some of the clunkier aspects of its predecessor, it still manages to drag in other ways.

Which brings us to this week's subject- Story Progression. As mentioned before, XCX requires certain subquests or amounts of subquesting to be completed before the story can progress. This means both in the main narrative and side-plots, as well. While some of these requirements aren't very high, they cannot be completed without some amount of busywork being done. This is a major flaw, however, when a player wants to move forward, only to be gated by something they had no knowledge of having to complete beforehand. The game allows the player to see what they have done in preparation for the next chapter (granted, there's only one instance of this in XCX, but other franchises commit this sin a bit more often), but not for those even further down the road, which may require a completely different type of prerequisite. Now, this is a flaw of a quest-based JRPG, and XCX is a wrinkle on the foundations established in Xenoblade Chronicles, which was by no means perfect. But even that game had a better method of story progression than its predecessor, which is an upsetting thought.

This is merely one example, of course, but JRPGs have struggled with story progression ever since their inception. Whether it was the ambiguity that came with more simplistic hardware or the straightforwardness of quest markets, JRPGs are not perfect when it comes to balancing story and gameplay. Of course, when a genre relies so heavily on character progression, it is important to feel that a character has, well, progressed before tackling the next part of their journey. Yet, there is the idea of grinding in JRPGs, and all RPGs in general, that can so easily be leaned upon when approaching the story. Grinding originally applied to racking up experience from mobs, or enemy characters, in order to become strong enough to easily surmount the task at hand. But in this article, and in the future, we'll be referring to two different forms of grinding- organic and artificial. Organic grinding is the experience the game developers force you to accrue because of thoughtful game design, while artificial grinding is done in addition to this for no other reason than to lighten the burden on the player or subvert the difficulty spikes.

For example- organic grinding occurs when the developers design a dungeon filled with enemies before a boss, as well as bosses, minibosses, and any sort of scripted encounters. Organic grinding often goes hand-in-hand with story progression.

On the other hand, artificial grinding is going out into the field in order to boost experience with no other objective than character progression. However, developers can create optional content that requires artificial grinding, such as material hunts or monster capturing.

Wait a minute- that doesn't sound right. If a game developer makes you grind for materials in order to make a weapon that's required for story progression, is that organic or artificial? The objective is character progression necessary for story progression! Well, it might seem complicated, but that's because you're using the universal term rather than these two that we have established. Experience gained that is necessary for story progression is organic- experience that is not is artificial. But grinding for a random drop is, quite simply, not thoughtful game design. It is artificial by nature. Some people swear by the artificial grind of RPGs, and that is okay. As we'll be discussing in the future, if a grind is enjoyable enough, it won't actually feel that much like grinding. But when we talk about having to progress through a dungeon, getting to the end, and facing a boss- that is a conscious, planned effort to make the player gain experience while also exploring, learning more about the world, and ultimately progressing the narrative.

However, when there is no thought put into gaining experience, that is artificial. A better set of equipment might make your next boss battle easier to overcome, but it's not necessary. With certain types of JRPGs, you see artificial grinding taking the place of thoughtful game design. In the example of XCX, some of the quests I had to do required me to "kill x amount of monsters," as others required prerequisites, which would raise the amount of exploration I had done for an area. While those are potentially optional, the jump in difficulty between chapters requires grinding, which can be done via quests.

The main issue with XCX is the implementation of its fast-travel system, which was originally a precious gift in its predecessor. The reason for this was because it allowed players to easily return to places they had "pushed" towards, and given the linear design of the environments, the player was forced to fight enemies along the way. Thoughtful game design. However, exploration in XCX allows players to fast travel to many different places they have already seen. Thus, when a chapter begins in a place the player has already explored, they can simply warp straight to it- there is no progression to a point. If a player hasn't explored to that area, they might have an opportunity to do so. However, the emphasis on, and sometimes mandatory, exploration means that, more than likely, players will have explored to certain points, especially as they receive the tools that broaden their exploration capabilities. Likewise, with the fast-travel and quest systems, the player is given the incentive to quickly hop from one location to the next. This results in a disjointed experience that doesn't really help story progression.

The ideal circumstance is this- early in the game, the player is encouraged to meet Lao, AKA Space Dunban, at the entrance to Noctilum, the "canon" second region players should uncover. At this point, even attempting to traverse and map all of Primordia is a challenge, so meeting him here is a bit of an exciting moment- it's also the first time you "canonically" receive a fourth member for your party. The objective is to get about one-third through Noctilum to a certain objective. If the player hasn't explored this region yet, they are treated to new enemies, a claustrophobic, dense forest, and lovely visuals that they have never seen before, and are recommended to choose a fork in a path to get where they need to go. If the player has already explored this area, none of this has any impact on them. Indeed, as the story progresses, the missions drop players in a certain space where they await a boss, With the amount of item and exploration-base questing you do in XCX, it's likely you have discovered the areas in which you will have a story-based quest objective. While XCX does have several moments in which dungeon design is implemented, it's very few and far between, and it's often in caves, which rarely feature in story segments.

So what are some good examples of organic grinding? What are some bad examples? Well, that depends- there's some games that use grinding as content, but there ARE other forms of content in a JRPG, which we'll be discussing in the future. Things like dungeon design and boss design, for example. Also, this post is long enough, and it only contains TWO definitions for terminology we'll be using in the future. So let's leave off for now and come back in a bit, when we can answer that question a bit more thoroughly.

Also, there will be pictures next time.

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