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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Bi-Weekly JRPG Talk- Part 3: The Overworld

Welcome to another installment in a continued discussion of JRPGs. Today, we'll take a look at the design of another core element of the genre- the Overworld. There is a specific definition that stems from a user-generated source which I would like to immediately identify- found here, of all places. To reiterate much of this definition, an Overworld is meant to interconnect specific locations and primarily function as a means for travel. But there are many questions the idea of an Overworld presents, and many concepts of game design that must be addressed. In discussing the subject, we might actually end up coining some new terminology. While many of the terms and concepts in these articles may be applied to WRPGs as well, our discussion will mainly focus and reference JRPGs. Let's review our ever-growing glossary of terms:

Organic grinding- the experience (EXP) the game developers force you to accrue because of thoughtful game design.
Artificial grinding- the experience accrued for no other reason than to lighten the burden on the player or subvert the difficulty spikes.
Motif- A fundamental mechanic of a core environment in an RPG, such as a dungeon, or the overworld. Motifs encompass reoccurring mechanics.
Gimmick- An area-specific mechanic of a core environment. Usually a puzzle or gameplay element exclusive to an area.
Aesthetic- The artistic design of a core environment. This artistic element can contribute to gimmick mechanics.

Dragon Quest features a traditional
Overworld in its purest form. Basic,
but possessing terrain obstacles.
Notice, I have expanded the idea of motif, gimmick, and aesthetic to a greater scale, now encompassing "core environments" rather than dungeons alone. Why is this? Well, we see these design aspects prevalent in Overworld construction, as well. However, the Overworld is often meant to be a calmer environment- likely possessing an encounter rate, certainly, but a general reprieve from the more intense areas of combat and storytelling. However, as game mechanics have evolved, so have Overworlds, and in some cases, the line between dungeon, town, and Overworld have become blurred.
We see all kinds of Overworlds reoccurring in JRPGs, but let's identify them in the simplest terms: Our "traditional" Overworld is a large space with miniature representations of towns and dungeons located on the map. Although the JRPG has evolved quite a bit over the years and there are more and more "unconventional" examples in the medium, the traditional design is something that has remained persistent, appearing in classics such as the original Dragon Quest titles, then appearing again in SquareSoft's Final Fantasy series, even up through the fifth generation installments. Games from Bandai Namco's Tales of series also use this design, and it's not hard to understand why. The objective of an RPG is to immerse the player in a fully-realized world, but that's no easy task. It also mitigated the need for different sprites and art assets for the different environments of the game.

The traditional elements of the Overworld
continued into the fifth and sixth
generations, albeit with the inclusion
 of a minimap for convenience's sake.
Games that feature a traditional Overworld tend to keep interactive elements at a minimum- we see in many examples that it primarily exists as a place to perform artificial grinding and traverse to new locations, although some titles use various elements of the terrain to impede the player and cause their grind to be more organic. As the genre developed, examples of special events, such as roaming monsters, have appeared in traditional Overworlds, but for the most part, the complexities have remained in the design of terrain alone. The best examples of terrain-obstacles are those with specific rewards at the end of them, though again, hidden items are rarely a mechanic found in this format.

This aspect is then expounded upon with the usage of fast-traversal systems, such as the mount, the boat, and the airship. This cycle is so prevalent, it is hard to separate it from the traditional definition of the JRPG (in fact, we might as well coin the phrase "travel cycle"), though mounts are sometimes missing from the equation. It is not unheard of to liken a traditional Overworld to a dungeon, seeing as it usually features some sort of terrain gimmick, but the travel cycle appears to surmount these and by the end of the game, there is rarely any sort of impediment to crossing vast space.

We could delve deeper into the many examples of unconventional Overworlds, but there are so many variations, it can be difficult to define the unconventional. However, we can take the same ideas of motif, gimmick, and aesthetic in order to define them.

Ni No Kuni uses many traditional elements, including the travel
cycle. However, it also uses three-dimensional aspects and terrain
obstacles successfully, all paired with a sweeping soundtrack..
Some examples include, however:
List-based- a map with various locales that can be selected via a menu.
Connected room- a series of large environments connected to one another that form a larger, more cohesive world. These often possess multiple paths in order to create less-circular formats.
Open-worlds- an expanse map with locations that are scaled properly with the player avatar. These often attempt to encourage exploration.

A final conversation regarding the implementation of the Overworld is perhaps its decreased emphasis in more modern games. While there are certainly modern JRPGs that utilize this aspect and indeed emulate the traditional model, many games that feature an unconventional design tend to shy away from keeping the Overworld important. However, as stated before, an optimist may be led to believe that an Overworld is meant to fully immerse the player in the world. On the other hand, the prevalence of high encounter rates coupled with traditional design elements usually meant that completing a JRPG would end up feeling like a long journey, likely one worth its high asking price. In more recent games, Overworlds are not as great a focus because other aspects, such as dungeon design, combat, and story are given greater importance and tighter design, whereas Overworlds themselves tend to add little to the experience beyond a sense of traversal. They can also build upon the feeling of progression, especially when coupled with the travel cycle, but the argument is certainly debatable.

With the the sixth and seventh generation, unconventional,
interconnected open-world JRPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles
 and Final Fantasy XII allowed for more fully realized worlds.
As many modern games strive to focus on more specific aspects of their design, the Overworld seems to have become a neglected mechanic. This is not always the case- both Xenoblade titles pride themselves on using exploration of their worlds as a vehicle for character progression, and titles like Ni No Kuni successfully mix the best aspects of traditional Overworld terrain design. The argument that Overworlds increase immersion is certainly the driving force behind Final Fantasy XV's design, as well as the latest installment in the Zelda franchise (although that is admittedly not a JRPG). The question then becomes: when is the implementation of an Overworld necessary, and what benefits will it bring to the design of the JRPG? While many titles featured this environment in the past, it did not always present a substantial or even important addition to the gameplay already featured.

A stellar example of the proper implementation would be Chrono Trigger's usage of the Overworld, in which the player is given the opportunity to interact with different locales based upon their persistent location throughout Time. Alternatively, the usage of several Overworld maps are used in order to depict the passage of Time, creating an example where the environment is a key element of the story, and contributes to gameplay based on a novel gimmick. It is further justified because of its lack of any random encounters, therefore simply acting as a welcome reprieve from combat. While travel still exists, it is less harrowing and more beneficial to the mood.

As JRPGs refined themselves, Connected-
room and list-based Overworlds allowed
greater focus on game-specific strengths.
Perhaps this is why many developers tend to stray from the Overworld in modern games, as they cannot find a particularly beneficial implementation, or see no reason to include it because of a linear narrative. After gathering some feedback, I found a surprisingly large amount of JRPG enthusiasts to be quite negative regarding Overworlds. Others claim to love them for many of the aforementioned reasons. I believe that the reasons for both reactions stem from the fundamental design of the Overworld, and what it contributes to the game in question.

Next time, we'll move away from the world-building aspects of the genre and instead focus on character mechanics- in specific, we'll be talking about one of the core aspects of JRPG design, which is the battle system itself. I hope you have enjoyed reading, and that you look forward to the next installment.

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