JRPGs vs. WRPGs seems to be a hot topic as of late, thanks to comments from a Bioware employee that Final Fantasy XIII is not an RPG. This is the stuff fanboys crave, which, in political terms, is called “red meat”. It stirs up a nice frenzy and everyone pontificates on what an RPG is exactly, but nothing ever gets accomplished. Just like Congress.
Well, I’m here to take a small look at the differences between the way Bioware and Square Enix approach their respective video game franchises. These two, I think it is safe to say, are the biggest RPG powerhouses on either side of the Pacific, so it turns out the little controversial comments mentioned above were a perfect jumping off point for me.
Bioware was founded in 1995 by Ray Muzyka, Greg Zeschuk, and Augustine Yip, all fans of Dungeons & Dragons and other pen-and-paper role playing games. Notwithstanding their first game, Shattered Steel, which was a MechWarrior-clone, Bioware has mainly focused on RPGs, starting with Baldur’s Gate for the PC and Mac. Now, back in those prehistoric days, people didn’t have time to worry about adding “J”‘s or “W”‘s to “RPG”. No, they were too busy playing the freaking things to worry about details like that.
Bioware’s approach to video game RPGs is a direct result of their heritage. In pen-and-paper RPGs, like D&D, the main focus is creating a world and a character and making decisions based on what you think that character would do. It’s mainly about imagination and storytelling. Sure, there is a gameplay mechanic involving a funky-looking die and some stats, but they pale in importance compared to making you, the player, feel as if you are another person, adventuring in some fantasy world with other would-be heroes.
Bioware’s games reflect this lineage. Eschewing their PC/Mac games, let’s take a look at some of their console games, starting with Knights of the Old Republic for the Xbox. KoToR, as it has come to be known, disguises itself as an Star Wars RPG with a hint of action and real-time combat, but under the hood (and very obvious if you know how to read), lies the gameplay mechanic, which is directly from their D&D PC games.
You would never know from just looking at it, but all the combat and special powers are being decided by dice rolls, invisible to the player and executed much faster than any human Dungeon Master is capable of (even Tycho and Gabe). While later Bioware games refined this system and, in Mass Effect 2’s case, did away with it entirely, it is indicative of the kind of experience that Bioware is striving for.
What Bioware concerns themselves with is the decision making aspect of the game. Think of almost any Bioware game and what you will likely picture first is one person’s head talking to another person’s head, with a dialogue tree at the bottom. They focus on building relationships with your party members and revealing the world through dialogue, although some of the dialogue is little more than a glorified infodump, but at least they go through the trouble of trying to make it a little more immersive and they leave it up to you how much you want to know from the other characters.
Square Enix on the other hand, started off making console RPGs, which they have been doing since 1987, starting with the original Final Fantasy. The creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, didn’t believe he was capable of making a good action game, but thought he could tell a good story. It’s hard to believe, but back in 1987, Final Fantasy’ was considered one of the best examples story-telling in games, especially for the NES. Even though, unlike Bioware, your characters had no choices to make that would affect the story, the main purpose of it all was to tell a good story.
And it does, but in a vastly different way from the kind that Bioware focuses on. I hate to use such a trite analogy, but Bioware RPGs are like Choose Your Own Adventure books, while Square Enix RPGs are more like reading a regular novel. In Square Enix games, you are given a pre-rolled character and have very little freedom to affect the plot in major ways. This can be irritating at times, as your characters will make bone-headed decisions that you would not do, if you were given the choice. In Bioware games, you have choices to make and quests you can choose to do or ignore and some of the consequences of your decisions can have either a large effect or a small one on the overall game. For example, in KoToR, whether you choose to be Light or Dark side, at the end of the game, you will fight the same final boss, but the difference lies in your powers and the ending you receive.
In Final Fantasy, your choices are limited because the developers have crafted a story and created characters that have to act a certain way in that story. If Cloud suddenly starts mouthing off to Tifa and flirting with Barrett, that would change the whole dynamic of the game, since all these characters are intimately involved in the story. In KoTor or Dragon Age, some of the characters, like Morrigan, are more important than others, like HK-47, who, while being the most entertaining character, is largely superfluous to the game’s plot, so much so that you don’t even have to recruit him (this being an example of a player making a decision). But whether you do or not doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, although I would strongly suggest you do so. Because he’s awesome. Likewise, as Eddy mentioned in the podcast, if you do something that angers a key party member, you might find yourself without a mage or a tank. This is only really an issue in Dragon Age, I believe, as previous games didn’t have such a feature, but it something Bioware should be wary of in the future.
The gameplay in Final Fantasy games obviously evolved from the limitations imposed by the NES, both from a processing power and a controller standpoint. With only two buttons to work with, Square Enix focused on creating a streamlined combat system, which they would expand with later generations and more processing power. But since many console gamers were, at the time, unfamiliar with RPGs, they set about making a system that is pretty easy to understand. If you want to fight, select FIGHT from the menu, hit the button and watch the action take place. Some people, naturally, were turned off by this lack of direct control, but for others who lacked the reflexes of twitch gaming, it was a revelation. And for those like me, who enjoy both, it was still pretty cool.
Bioware makes a different style of RPG than Square Enix does, but that doesn’t mean one is an RPG and the other isn’t. Square Enix was making RPGs before Bioware ever existed, but that has little bearing on the matter, either. Neither side is the one true arbiter of RPGs and I think there is plenty of room in the world for both styles, as I enjoy them quite a bit. I don’t think the comment from Bioware was made out of arrogance (okay, it was, a little), but rather that it stems from the different viewpoints these two companies have when it comes to RPGs.
In essence, Bioware’s method and syle of RPGs works for them and Square Enix’s works for them. While I am all for experimenting with new styles, it would have to be a conscious effort one their parts to try and mimic the other’s style. Personally, I would love to see a Final Fantasy with more choices and decisions that have consequences, just as I would love to see Bioware try their hand at crafting a story that limits your choices, but is well-written, with strong motivations for the characters. That’s just my viewpoint, though.
And as a wise man once said, “You’ll find that many of truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” So Bioware and Square Enix, live long and prosper and give us our precious RPGs, whether they have a W or a J in front of them or not.