In Defense of The Random Battle

No Apologies

To describe me as an “apologist” for the random battle would imply that I have any regrets over extolling their many, many virtues. The fact of the matter is that while replacements for the random battle have created countless problems, both in terms of practical design, and from a rhetorical and thematic standpoint, the random battle remains not only the most practical and elegant manner in which to create combat encounters in the JRPG, it is also a choice that is integral to how the JRPG engages the idea of play as labor.

The Random Battle Itself

First off, we should note that Random Battles are a separate subject of discourse than battle systems. I am not here to debate the merits of turn-based systems vs. action-RPGs. For the purposes of this piece, a Random Battle is defined as a mechanic within a game wherein player characters who are traversing a space are interrupted by enemies and forced into combat, either by way of the player characters being taken to a separate “battle screen,” (Dragon Quest) the enemies suddenly appearing on screen (Kingdom Hearts), or a combination of the two (Final Fantasy XIII-2). The key component here is that the enemies to be fought are not to be found onscreen until the moment battle is intended to occur.

Practical Design Concerns

JRPGs, as a result of being RPGs, require characters to level to gain strength, and as a result, require characters to be thrown into combat. In some sense, the random battle acts as both reminder and impetus. It tells you “you should probably fight these folks right now, you need the money and experience” and it gladly delivers who or what you need to fight right in front of you so that you can do it right then. 
 Games without random battles tend to resolve the issue by placing enemies onscreen and letting you avoid them when you please, but this creates a huge number of issues in terms of designing a resistance curve: how do you, as a designer, ensure that players are willing to go and fight the enemies you put in front of them, especially when, by appearance, they may seem difficult? The easy answer is to make sure combat is designed to be very fun, and thus give players incentive to instigate combat on their own terms, but this creates a rhetorical and thematic problem I’ll come back to.
 There are other, more practical solutions. The games could also reward passive playstyles by, for example, offering a lump sum of experience when you enter a new town as a “discovery” bonus, or even reward you just for talking to people to learn things about your environs. The solution to this “problem” of random battles then is not to move away from the random battle, but to remove the battle itself from the center of the experience.

The Essential Qualities of Valor and Reluctance in The Hero

To adventure is to struggle. The oft-cited “Hero’s Journey” has both a “call to action” and a “denial of the call” because this is the case. We also know that in the context of action pop media that to adventure is ultimately to fight, and to kill. Reluctance shows through there, especially in Japanese pop media, not just because of a hero’s reluctance to fight, but especially their reluctance to kill. Somewhat paradoxically, this is the essential characteristic of an action hero: someone who doesn’t want to kill, but will if they have to. This is also the moral basis of the action genre: the audience is here because possibly-lethal combat is an exciting spectacle, but not something that we want to see for it’s own sake. This is why action films spend so much time on character motivations, and why wrestling bookers make sure that you have a reason to root for one guy over the other, regardless of whether those motivations are rooted in tired cliché or not. This is also why works like the recent Kung Fury come off so shallow, because they are. They have no soul, no investment in the emotional core of what makes a good action story so compelling to an audience willing to suspend their disbelief. The point of the action genre is a sort of romanticism. Some things are so sacred that they are worth fighting, killing, or even dying for: one’s honor, one’s home, one’s beloved. This is part of why JRPGs are almost always about groups of people, and why they so frequently enforce the importance of friendship. As a result, even when a JRPG features someone who may not be so noble, (Shadow from FFVI comes to mind, as do Vashyron and Zephyr from Resonance of Fate,) we can at least assume that they are willing to fight for their friends. That is a noble value.

That is denied when you start off with a character who has no reservations about ending another life, because, quite simply, it ceases to be something that is “special” to them. This is not an exception they make, it is their normal, thus, those who hurt or kill without reservation are almost inherently without love, without honor, and without loyalty to home. And those without love, without honor, without loyalty? Those people are the villains of action stories, focused typically on selfish gains. Hans Gruber in Die Hard, pretty much any James Bond villain, the examples are endless. (Final Fantasy VII was partially such a subversion because it starts with the premise: “What if our main character was someone who was hired as a combatant, as someone willing to kill just for money? And who would he end up associating with?”) When they subvert this, they are then the type of villain more common to JRPGs: those with an understandable (Sephiroth) or even noble (Dhaos) motives whose methods are unconscionable.

It’s worthy of note that this is traditionally a quite masculine romanticism as well, since combat itself has been pigeonholed as a masculine activity, (particularly through, for example, the gender exclusivity of military drafts in the middle of the 20th century,) and aggression as a masculine personality trait. In some ways, action media is a masculine way of expressing one’s devotion to something or someone or someplace, by expressing that feeling through one’s willingness to put themselves or others through incredible suffering to preserve it.

Thus, combat is presented in a JRPG as a representation of the lengths that virtuous people will go to uphold what they consider sacred.

Heroism As Labor

The hero is always a reluctant soul, bound by duty so some higher cause, but the higher cause typically requires a lot of repetitive, technical labor.

- Brendan Vance, in a recent private conversation

I noted the “refusal of the call” earlier because the other element of reluctance that comes into play in a hero’s journey (not that all action stories follow that structure, but it is an element of the hero’s journey that recurs across stories that both employ and subvert that template) is that heroism is understood to be arduous and terrifying. Think of the extremely mundane things that don’t scare you as a gamer that surely must be cause for concern for the characters in a JRPG. Just to name one example: open fields that stretch for miles and miles between nodes of civilization, such that they’re often forced to take refuge in cheap tents and sleep in the open air on cold nights. Another example: being attacked by fierce monsters, and forced to fight them, which is physically and mentally exhausting. (This is something abstracted in JRPGs through the use of systems like Health Points.)

JRPGs tend to have a very laborious idea of heroism, a vision of heroism that centers the hardship of overcoming these extremely difficult tasks, and celebrating the value of a hero as someone who endures this kind of suffering and overcomes. This is, in part, a reflection of traditional Japanese values about work, according to Yuji Hori, creator of the Dragon Quest games (the most grind-centric of all JRPGs):

In the real world, there are so many difficulties people are facing. Sometimes, there are no rewards . . . at least in the game, we want to make sure they will be rewarded for working hard . . . that’s a very traditional thing for us.

This may be a stretch, but it may also be a reflection of a contemporary Japanese mindset which is beset by constant trauma that often comes in the form of very real loss of life and destruction of home: the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the economic “Lost Decade,” which itself contained the Tokyo subway sarin attacks, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Entire articles could be written on how JRPGs have reflected these traumas alone, (and Cameron Kunzelman has done just that relating FFIX to the nuclear attacks on Japan,) but suffice to say, the way the JRPG centers heroism as a type of labor reflects the very real need, in Japanese life, not for military heroes, or crime-fighting superheroes, but for those who are willing to do dull, repetitive work, and the need for even regular people to be able to have the strength to live dull, repetitive lives in the face of such constant agony, which is especially noteworthy given how many JRPG villains focus on the idea of death as a release from suffering, and how many heroes are thus forced to emphasize the value of living despite suffering, such as in Final Fantasy IX, a game which very strongly emphasizes constant trauma and terror in its plot.

In short: a lot of JRPGs are about doing things you don’t want to do, but have to do anyway, and they make fantasy and drama out of it to create a satisfying, emotional message that applies to the real and mundane. The Chocobos are just sugar-coating.

Value of Sapient Life

I talked earlier about the value of human life that is asserted in the subtext of much action media. JRPGs tend to employ non-sapient monsters as enemies precisely because they do not perform the essential qualities of life that makes human life valuable. Obviously some JRPGs have other sapient races (like the Burmecians in FFIX,) who also achieve “equal to human” status by performing those essential qualities as well, and are thus equally valuable. JRPGs rarely put characters into combat with other humanized characters unless they are villains and ideological opponents, servants of a villain, (such as a military infantryman, the Galbadian Army, Shinra, etc,) or, on increasingly rare occasion, roving bandits or thugs.
 It’s important that not only do the mundane enemies of most combat encounters in a JRPG take place against non-sapient enemies, but also against enemies who are naturally aggressive towards the playable characters, largely because this means that the game does not need to create any melodrama out of these regular encounters. They are merely acts of self-defense, whereas to kill a sapient person requires, in the eyes of the audience (as understood by the creators) not just a performance of self-defense, but also a demonstrable ideological need for this life, for this sacred, valuable person, to die. Most “random” battles do not fall under this, falling under the more predictable and inevitable category: event battles, or boss battles. By contrast, many games without random encounters resort to more passive creatures, which means that, in many combat encounters, the player characters are simply hunting for material gain, which is, at least in my opinion, significantly less noble.

To Synthesize, and In Conclusion . . .

How do we combine these values? How do we represent our heroes as reluctant, but willing to fight? How do we present combat as a part of a larger whole of heroism that includes many arduous and frankly boring tasks? How do we present that sort of combat as being morally justified? And how do we present it in a way that would convince this audience that conveys the at-least mild terror that this sort of encounter would definitely provoke in people?

How about if we presented most combat encounters as being situations in which the party is attacked by aggressive creatures? What if they attacked seemingly out of nowhere? And what if we made it a repetitive process that was necessary to participate in for your characters to be strong enough to face down the stronger ideological opponents who await in the inevitable climactic encounters?
Thus, I present to you: The Random Battle.

If you like what you read, you can support my work here. Funding from my Patreon also supports the various podcasts I do. A special thanks to Brendan Vance for his critical contribution to the ideas presented here. From Columbia, MD, Play is Labor.

— Austin C. Howe, 2016