JRPG vs. WRPG: Different priorities, and the reasons behind them
JRPGs (Japanese role-playing games) and WRPGs (Western role-playing games) are two different types of RPGs, or role-playing games. Think Pokémon or Final Fantasy (JRPGs) vs. Witcher 3 or Skyrim (WRPGs). JRPGs are role-playing games made in the Japanese style and WRPGs are role-playing games in the Western, and specifically the US, style. The audiences for both differ, and so do their priorities, which we will discuss.
Frankly, RPGs in general have a loose definition. Anything from MOBAs and first-person shooters to action and arcade games can end up falling in the RPG category. It’s the very nature of this genre. And some hate this – in fact there’s a whole camp of gamers who despise when their favorite games get tagged with RPG. But the important thing to keep in mind in these instances is that RPG is more of a supporting or secondary trait of the game, whereas the main genre still defines the primary category.
That being said, it must be pretty hard to further differentiate between subsets of RPGs. But comparing JRPGs with WRPGs is surprisingly easier. Here are some common traits:
- JRPGs are typically more storytelling-driven, while WRPGs usually focus on combat and having a complex story. There’s a lot of dialogue in JRPGs and an emphasis on character interaction and storytelling compared to WRPGs.
- WRPGs tend to be more action-oriented than JRPGs. They often have a focus on fighting monsters or solving puzzles – both of which require you to use your imagination and think outside the box to progress, or be stuck infinitely in a frustrating loop more often.
- Many JRPGs have turn-based combat systems. In contrast, most WRPGs use real-time combat systems that allow for fast-paced action sequences with tons of movement options for your characters.
In this article, we will be dissecting both genres and drawing comparisons. The goal is not to determine which one is better. Neither is better. The goal is to better understand both and why they have some priorities missing in the other – and hopefully, on this journey, we will all learn to appreciate both genres more. Here are the priorities we will tackle (JRPG vs. WRPG):
- Engagement: Storytelling vs. combat
- World setup: Slow-paced vs. immediate action
- Narrative: Episodes vs. ideas
- Combat: Organic vs. challenging
- Characters: Playing vs. making
- Immersion: Gameplay vs. worldbuilding
- And some burning questions:
- Have WRPGs dumbed things down?
- Do WRPGs have true freedom of choice?
- Are WRPGs becoming more and more like JRPGs?
Japanese-style RPGs are created mostly in Japan but also in the US. Similarly but more rarely, WRPGs can also be created in Japan. The terms are not ambiguous but the characteristics of games in both genres are quite loosely-defined. Let’s first talk about each in some more detail to better pin down what are we comparing today – before we get down to the meat of the discussion.
Feel free to skip if you feel confident with your current understanding of what both genres specifically mean.
What are JRPGs?
A JRPG is a type of video game with story-driven gameplay, where players take on the role of a character and explore a world, complete quests, and fight monsters and bosses to advance the plot. JRPGs are often similar to Western RPG games in terms of gameplay but differ significantly from them by their focus on story and characters over action.
Good examples of JRPGs include the Famicom games such as older Dragon Ball ones and a huge majority of Game Boy ones. More popularly, Pokémon, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Monster Hunter, Kingdom Hearts, Souls, Super Robot Wars, and Mario have been instrumental to the proliferation of the genre.
Major companies that specialize in the genre include Bandai Namco, Capcom, Nihon Falcom, Sega, Square Enix, Nintendo, Konami, etc. Unsurprisingly, these are all Japanese companies. You will recognize these names outside of Japan as well because most of them are multinational.
What are WRPGs?
WRPG (Western Role-Playing Game) is a genre that has been around since the 1980s when it was first popularized by Ultima Underworld. In WRPGs, you play as one or more heroes who must save the world from evil forces. You will go on quests, explore dungeons, fight enemies, find loot, and buy equipment along the way.
There are also many different types of WRPGs: action-oriented games like Diablo II or Skyrim; adventure games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or The Witcher 3; massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft; social simulators like SimCity; simulation games like Crusader Kings II or Civilization V; strategy games like Total War: Shogun 2; and the list goes on.
Engagement: Storytelling vs. combat
What defines engagement? More specifically, what determines whether or not you will be hooked in the first few hours of playing a game? For some, it’s the sheer hack-and-slash aspect, or technically combat. For most RPG lovers, it’s all about the storytelling.
The story and storytelling two different things. It’s not rare to have a wide quality gap between the two in the same game – meaning a great story with poor storytelling or a shallow story told beautifully.
Generally, JRPGs don’t offer much in terms of the story’s richness but rather focus on telling it better. So, are JRPGs shallower in writing?
This is somewhat valid. Instead of focusing on writing stimulating stories, many commonly-known JRPGs write a sufficiently gripping story and then focus on other things. In fact, many even borrow central ideas from each other. And within a franchise, new story arcs also start to become repetitive.
In terms of writing, WRPGs surely pack quite the punch. They are more memorable and have more replayability value due to their stories, not due to the storytelling.
Focus on storytelling and establishing characters (both traits of JRPGs) does not make for a better story.
Storytelling is not an isolated, singular entity. It’s a combination of many factors. It’s entirely possible for a game to have a great storyline but poor execution – for example, slow character development or plot progression, which can make things dull. To have good storytelling means to have the perfect balance between the narrative and characters.
If you are a sucker for storytelling then JRPGs are the way.
But understand that the overall story can still be pretty cliched. The adventure of the “lonely teenager from a small village” is a classic, and also a problem, as IGN writers Erik Brudvig and Ryan Clements wrote more than a decade ago in their infamous piece on the “Top 10 ways to fix JRPGs.” Avoiding cliched stories ranked #2 in their list.
Cliches are indeed very common in the story that even “teenagers who are secretly the One” give them a run for their money.
If you like rich stories more, then WRPGs are better for you. Even if you’ve played just a dozen WRPGs, you are sure to have fallen in love with characters, their backstories, and their relationships. That’s not true for someone who has only played a dozen of JRPGs and such fascination or love with the story happens less frequently for them.
World setup: Slow-paced vs. immediate action
JRPGs like to take their time to set up the world. More specifically, they explain more, demand more time, and sort of try to make sure you understand the basics before you begin. And the majority of this stuff is text-based. Consequently, it’s not uncommon to be bombarded with a ton of text even before you can take your first steps freely.
This is different from the initial in-game tutorial – which can be present in equal measures in both genres.
WRPGs try to get the player doing something as soon as possible. This is clear evidence of the difference in the attention span of the target audience. Arguably, it is also something that can be disconcerting when someone from one audience tries out a game from the other genre.
A JRPG game like Persona 5 is insanely good in terms of gameplay and writing. It also has an hour-long introduction without player control. This game, along with most other JRPGs, expects the player to first understand what’s up.
Introductions, character expositions, explanation of core mechanics, random walking around to learn stuff, etc. are luxuriously sprawled out in the beginning.
In stark comparison, a game like Witcher 3 (WRPG) gives you a sword after a few short cutscenes and you can already “hit stuff”. This allows players to live out their fantasies and sort of express their characteristics better as the game progresses. A WRPG world is “your world.”
Narrative: Episodes vs. ideas
Another quality inherent to JRPGs is the episodic treatment given to the plot. In many ways, it’s easy to see why people draw parallels between JRPGs and anime. The construct is simple. You are always given a safety net where you can ponder before you move on to the next level, dungeon, or more accurately, “episode.”
WRPGs do things a little differently. Instead of setting episodes or cut-up narratives, they offer key ideas or objectives. You can take your sweet time to fulfill said objectives. The pacing, thus, becomes quite different as it’s completely up to you to set it. And it’s possible that you will revisit certain aspects of the game repeatedly (a non-episodic treatment) in WRPGs. In not controlling you so inflexibly, WRPGs give you more control and freedom of decision-making.
This freedom can easily be just an illusion and the game might still be pretty linear in its progression, but the pacing is totally up to you.
Combat: Organic vs. challenging
JRPGs offer a somewhat casual experience. This doesn’t mean that their mechanics are always simple. In general, however, WRPGs offer you the choice to make your gameplay more challenging (without speedrunning or setting up a higher game difficulty).
This is not a victory on any part. It is once again a hint toward what each genre expects from its audience. JRPGs are not overly concerned about whether or not the game is impossibly difficult to play. They offer a remarkably more “organic” gameplay. WRPGs, on the other hand, offer a more challenging path or journey.
The “organic” combat in JRPGs is evident if you play recent JRPG games. For example, games like Bleach Brave Souls, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, and Naruto Shinobi Striker have something in common apart from being based on OG shonen anime, and that’s their focus on more organic gameplay. Check out the following video:
In contrast, any WRPG worth its salt in the last few years will have a more inorganic combat. This means that preparation and strategy are often more important than the actual combat, and sometimes the combat is very technical to the point you become tired repeating the same cycle of parry-roll-hit-disengage-repeat.
Characters: Playing vs. making
Historically, storytelling in Eastern cultures has been more about personalities. In the same vein, JRPGs give you characters with well-established personalities, relationships, and traits. In WRPGs, things are a little different.
To whatever extent feasible, almost all WRPGs worth their salt try to make you, the player, define the character. This is the classic case of playing a written (no matter how well-written) character and making a character as you go.
True, even if you feel like you are making your character, it’s still decided how things will pan out. In other words, you are making your character in a way that has already been dictated for you to make, to some extent, and with some choices. But at least it gives you the feeling that you are connected with the character, rather than exploring the life and quest of a pre-defined one.
Immersion: Gameplay vs. worldbuilding
This is the last distinction. The ultimate focus, if you will. Everything else is just a buildup to the battle between more immersive gameplay and more immersive worldbuilding, as we will find out.
Worldbuilding fiction has a special place in the West. Japan is more about light novels and manga based on ordinary life and ordinary quests – sort of enjoying the “now” vs. fantasizing about the “what if.” Literature forms the backbone of many RPGs and it sure influences what games work better in the West vs. East.
Consequently, JRPGs focus more on immersing players in the gameplay. Everything else ties in beautifully here. You cannot have immersive gameplay without well-established characters, powerful storytelling, and pre-defined personalities in an episodic narrative. They are the very ingredients that make compelling gameplay possible.
On the other hand, WRPGs focus more on worldbuilding. They don’t need as well-established characters because the world is totally new and different. It allows players to better express themselves and live out their fantasies, get in on the action as early as possible, and discover things at their own pace. More often than not, a comparatively shallower backstory and a larger quest are all you need.
This is the most important distinction and also one that categorically disproves the superiority or inferiority of any of the two genres. Both, immersive gameplay and immersive worldbuilding are beautiful when experienced the right way.
Answering the burning questions
Both sides have criticisms, much like all genres in existence. But when compared to each other, many claims and misinterpretations get thrown around. Let’s try to answer some burning hot questions.
Have WRPGs dumbed things down?
There is an argument that WRPGs often dumb things down or oversimplify the experience. But what is our reference point? Another older installment in the same series? Another WRPG? A JRPG?
Reducing the complexity of combat systems, inventory systems, and many components like alchemy, talent planning, trait development, etc. is common in WRPGs. This is by no means a signal that things are dumbing down.
See, it’s not just the difference in the audience that the game’s mechanics react to – it’s also “what’s going to work better this year.” And yes, game studios also make mistakes.
All in all, WRPGs are not dumbing down anything.
For an audience not brought up playing tabletop strategy games, it’s perfectly natural to expect a fewer number of variables and calculations while murdering monsters in a video game.
Do WRPGs have true freedom of choice?
This still cannot be asserted conclusively. WRPGs do have more tricks up their sleeves that offer more freedom, but so do JRPGs to some degree. It’s just a matter of which title you are playing.
It is a common myth that WRPGs always have true choice, varying consequences for your actions, and seriously different results depending on the player’s individual playthrough, while JRPGs always have a very preset formula.
The truth is it completely depends on which game you are playing and that game’s particular target audience or inspiration.
Are WRPGs becoming more and more like JRPGs?
The answer will differ depending on whom you ask. Generally, the more someone has played both genres, the more they tend to think that certain qualities of older WRPGs are dying out and getting gradually replaced with JRPG-like elements.
This is a problem for many but this is also scientific to some degree. The push of Japan’s soft power has been immense. There is no organization in the Western game development industry relative to what the Japanese have. More non-gamers now know the names of JRPGs while the names of older, same-time WRPGs will be completely alien to them.
Joel Haddock on Kotaku once wrote that this effect is further amplified by the fact the WRPGs are historically bad on consoles – which makes it easier for them to just fade away.
Each of these points need their own articles. But as a summary, this pretty much holds up for most of the games in the two genres. The line between JRPGs and WRPGs is fast blurring with games from both genres taking components from each other. But it’s worth talking about what truly is at the foundation of these differences.
Ultimately, it’s a combination of many things. As mentioned earlier, historically games in Japan and in the West have treated their audiences differently. This completely depends on how the video game development industry evolved over time in these places.
The alternative ways of living, cultural differences, differences in the worldview, etc. definitely supported these differences. Furthermore, ideologies and behavioral systems helped cement these differences to a point where these became stereotypes.
Is it about an artistic, imaginative worldview vs. a more pragmatic approach to seeing life? Or is it about the meaning behind being a human that drives these different systems?
More research is definitely needed in this difference before further globalization makes all RPGs homogeneous.
As much as we needed to celebrate these differences, we’d be remiss to not note the many similarities that the two genres have had historically.
For example, it’s largely futile to try and make a comparison between the game complexity of the two genres. Both genres have titles with very sophisticated combat systems, and titles with poorly thought-out ones.
Sophistication alone isn’t the keyword here. In fact, both genres have sophisticated combat systems that are overly complex and unnecessarily clunky.
The same goes for incessant grinding. That’s one thing you will stumble upon every once in a while regardless of which genre you are playing games in.
Ultimately, it is a more rewarding experience to play what you love and to explore new avenues with an open mind. After all, all RPGs have the power to stir emotions in a way no other genre can.
What do you think? Leave a comment.