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What is the Difference Between Western and Eastern RPGs?

The history of RPGs and their ways of storytelling

If we needed to divide RPGs into two broad categories, those would be Western and Eastern RPGs (or CRPGs and JRPGs), but not because they’re made in different corners of the planet, but because they correspond to two different game design traditions that value different things in tabletop RPGs.

In The Beginning

The year was 1974 and the work that emerged was Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). From now on, everything else is uncertain as to when exactly the first RPG electronic game appeared — and not just Adventure with RPG elements — but it was sometime in the second half of the 1970s. I refer to titles remembered by Felipe Pepe in his work on the history of CRPGs, such as pedit5 (1975), dnd (1975), Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), Future War (1977), Avatar (1979). We could still remember Akalabeth: World of Doom (1979), sometimes considered the first RPG with more elaborate graphics, and the precursor to the influential Ultima series.

But aside from the fact that all these games have typical adventure elements — like Colossal Cave (1976) and Zork (1977) — plus D&D inspired tabletop RPG mechanics, there’s something else in common to all of them: they all are Computer Role-Playing Games(CRPGs), or simply “RPGs made for computer”.

Be that as it may, we can say that at the origin of RPGs there are certain elements in common to all of them that have become emblematic for the definition of the RPG genre. For the purposes of this text, it is worth dwelling on this point.

Unlike genres like Action and Puzzle, which have reasonably precise and simple definitions, the RPG genre is not easy to define. In a more vague and didactic way, it can be said that it is an Adventure added to a relevant set of mechanics that go back to Dungeons & Dragons.

So, from an Adventure point of view, we’re saying that RPGs often involve exploration and dialogue tree choices to play a role in a story. On the other hand, from Dungeons & Dragons RPGs — unlike adventure games — inherited things like turn-based battles, combat party interaction, building builds for character classes and their skills, equipment, etc. Successive and gradual increases in level and various types of permanent and constant upgrades for the evolution of one or more characters in a given story are also hallmarks.

Dungeons & Dragons (books). Source: BBC.

In summary, we can say, a little more precisely, that an electronic game is of the RPG genre (a Role-Playing Video Game) when it emphasizes the control and internal economy of an evolving character or group of characters (a party), in some world designed for narrative and exploration purposes.

Note that, by the definition above, “action RPG” is also allowed. That is an RPG that also involves physical challenge (action) — such as motor coordination and reaction time — in real-time battles. However, an Action game (FPS, TPS, HnS, etc.) needs, in order to be an action RPG, to also emphasize many of the RPG features we have discussed. These include but are not limited to level increase with repercussions on status variables and various upgrades (as incremental evolution) and abilities, acquisition of equipment, build, etc.

So far we know that the origin story of CRPGs and RPGs is confused. Not by chance, the first RPGs as defined were originally made for the computer. Initially for computers from the PLATO series (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) and then for other types.

But where do JRPGs fit into this story? How did they come about? How did they differ from CRPGs? And does it still make sense to differentiate them from CRPGs? We will try to answer these questions in the topics that follow this introduction.

JRPGs

The origin of Japanese RPGs (JRPGs) goes back to the 1980s when some CRPGs became influential in the Land of the Rising Sun. Among those, we can highlight Wizardry (1981) and the first titles in the Ultima series. Inspired by Ultima was The Dragon and Princess (1982) — considered by some to be the first JRPG (but actually today it would be classified as Adventure) — and later the “grandfather of the JRPGs”, Dragon Quest (1986). This was the first JRPG as we know it today, mixing Wizardry battles with NPCs and the open world of Ultima with a kind of console-accessible interface (in this case, the Famicom), thus creating the RPG format in Japan with a number of features that would become typical in JRPGs. More of this period between 1982–1987, about the origin of JRPGs on PCs to the Famicom, can be seen in another text by Felipe Pepe.

But what popularized and innovated the typical mechanics of JRPGs until the present day was Dragon Quest III (1988), which brought a class system (job system) for the characters (hero, sage, mage, priest, warrior, etc.), day-night cycles, group combat dynamics (party) and various other things. This title has influenced not only other JRPGs and huge series to date, such as Final Fantasy but also inspired in 1990 the first tactical JRPG, Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon and the Blade of Light. Developed by Intelligent Systems, this game united elements of the Dragon Quest series with movement dynamics from TBT (Turn-based Tactics), a strategy subgenre that had among its precursors the Famicom Wars (1988) game from the same company.

1991’s Final Fantasy IV was also important to redefine the narrative format of JRPGs and to spread variations of the turn-based battle system. Specifically, this means the Active Time Battle(ATB), which allows each distinct party member to have a differentiated waiting time to execute its action, which varies according to its attributes and its class. This system was used in the Final Fantasy series through IX and inspired many other turn-based combat system variations in and out of the series.

Furthermore, Final Fantasy IV also has a narrative type where party members are not fixed (as was the case earlier in the series and in Dragon Quest). The protagonist meets party members alternating between a linear thread for the story and free exploration of the world, especially when the player has vehicles (something already common in JRPGs) to explore previously inaccessible parts of the map. This kind of narrative streak has forever marked the style in the series and has also inspired that of many other JRPG titles and franchises.

Even when it comes to variations of narrative formats and gameplay, we can remember Digital Devil Story: Megami Tensei I and II, both for PC, from 1987 and 1990. The latter is best known in its reworked version that generated the great series (and subseries), Shin Megami Tensei, 1992. These titles were of great importance to the basis of the dungeon-crawler-style JRPGs. Specifically, Japanese RPGs focused on exploration in large, labyrinthine dungeons full of traps, puzzles, passages secrets, chests, creatures, etc.

Megami Tensei series also replaced the good-bad alignment duality with “order”, “chaos” and “neutral” alignment that result in different endings, and invested in a conversation mechanic with demons. This allowed them to be persuaded to join the player’s party, even fusing with them to give life to more powerful creatures. This idea of “collecting demons”, leveling up, and managing your abilities was already a harbinger of the most famous JRPG franchise, Pokémon, whose first titles date back to 1996.

Finally, I think it’s worth remembering the action-JRPGs, whose origins go back to titles like 1987’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Dragon Slayer (1984) which is generally considered the first action RPG (in general, and not just in Japan). But another game worth remembering is 1993’s Secret of Mana, which invented stamina (then “power bar”), another very common element in action-JRPGs.

In the following topic, we’ll see how JRPGs (such as the classic Fire Emblem series, Shin Megami Tensei, Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and Pokémon) tend to differ from CRPGs (such as the classic Ultima series, Baldur’s Gate, Diablo, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls).

CRPG / WRPG vs JRPG / ERPG

Since JRPGs started to be designed for Japanese consoles — and these started to sell significantly in the West — we can discuss this as being the difference between Western role-playing video games(WRPGs) — specifically made in the US and Europe, and Eastern role-playing video games(ERPGs), specifically from Japan, but increasingly also from South Korea and China.

Initially, because Westerners originated and developed almost exclusively for computers, these RPGs were called CRPGs. Interestingly, JRPGs were not called “console RPGs”, as they also originated from PCs and some titles were still popular on computer platforms in the 1980s, especially the dungeon-crawler style.

Perhaps what stands out the most in a quick comparison between these two types of RPG are the visuals. Typically JRPGs tend to have strokes that resemble manga or Japanese animations, while Western RPGs tend to use more realistic strokes for their characters and settings. However, this duality of design style can be misleading these days, as there are Japanese RPGs like the games of developer From Software (and others before it) that employ more realistic art. Similarly, a lot of RPGs made in the West feature typically anime graphics, even at an amateur level, through some software from the RPG Maker series.

So, in addition to the visuals, among the most discussed points, and in order not to go too far in this matter, we highlight two of the main ones:

  • Relationship between narrative and dialogue trees
  • Protagonism
RPG Maker MZ. Source: RPG Maker Web.

Two different narrative formats

RPGs in general, as they are related to the adventure genre, tend to have a significant focus on narrative and role-playing characters during the plot that unfolds in the game. The main artifice for this is, as in adventures, through dialogue trees. These are nothing more than a mechanic that gives the player the possibility to choose between different alternatives in dialogue, for example, different responses to questions asked by another character to the protagonist.

Typically, these dialogue trees are expected to reflect changes in the narrative flow, allowing for variations in actions, combat, scenes, scenarios, access to different cutscenes, eventually decisions on the fate of certain characters, and even alternative endings. This does not always happen however and the alternatives sometimes just end up in reactions that are slightly different from the interlocutors’ characters; reactions that change little or nothing in the plot or gameplay.

In general, although JRPGs use dialogue trees, they have a more linear narrative where the main scenes, most or all of the cutscenes, and the deaths of important characters are usually unique and unavoidable, in addition to the plot almost always culminating in a single ending. This happens, for example, in practically all Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest video games.

Final Fantasy XII: Zodiac Age. Source: Destructoid.

Of course, there are exceptions. In Romancing SaGa the titles have fragmented and novelistic plots in separate protagonists with independent stories, which inspired greater narrative freedom in later Eastern and Western games. The Tactical RPG(TRPG) Tactics Ogre and Fire Emblem series are more flexible in narrative terms as well. In the first case, for dealing with moral alignments; in the second, mainly because it is typically not possible to resurrect units defeated in combat, and this influences lines of dialogue and scenes.

Another good example is the Shin Megami Tensei series, whose titles usually have multiple endings. Of course, I must include Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, the latter being one of the most complex JRPGs in terms of scene, character, and ending variations, mainly because it involves different possible choices in time or dimension travel.

In contrast, CRPGs often have highly non-linear narratives. Firstly, this translates into denser dialog trees, that is, both more options for interacting or not with objects in the scene (classically via text box options) as well as more actual dialog options, often involving persuading NPCs. Some of the more refined titles at this point are the 1999 classic Planescape: Torment — made with a modified version of the Infinity Engine used in Baldur’s Gate — and more recently (2019) the highly acclaimed Disco Elysium.

From left to Right: Disco Elysium; Chrono Cross.

Two different forms of protagonism

This investment in dialogue trees is no accident. The plot of many CRPGs tends to be highly non-linear, allowing various characters to die or not to join the player’s party over the course of their story. In addition, there are often more side quests in CRPGs (and sometimes even “tertiary” events, more basic algorithmically generated quests), as well as more optional scenes and scenarios to visit, and often a pretty significant number of alternate endings.

A great example in this regard is the action-CRPG Fallout 3. At the time of its release in 2008, Todd Howard even claimed that the game would have around 200 endings. In practice, there were not so many “endings”, (at least that brought significant changes), but it can already be inferred from this how much CRPGs tend to value this type of narrative structure.

However, as with the commented trend of JRPGs, there are also exceptions. The classic Diablo series, for example, debuted in 1996 and was inspired by Hack and Slash tabletop RPGs with a focus on combat. This series is usually a linear campaign action-CRPG (even more than the average JRPG) whose flexibility in gameplay is summed up in the dynamics of dungeon-crawlers with procedural scenarios. This is also seen mainly in its management mechanics of the character’s internal economy (consumables, equipment, refinement, level, skill tree, attributes, class system, etc.).

Diablo. Source: GOG.

Allied to this dichotomy of trends in two distinct ways of storytelling, there are also two distinct trends in protagonism.

In general, JRPGs usually deliver to the player a protagonist with well-defined characteristics. The player is hardly given customization options such as race, base attributes, and appearance details. At most, there is the option to opt for predefined male/female models as in some Fire Emblem games and Persona 3 Portable — or some specific types of hair, eyes, etc., as in some Pokémon games. And one of the few that still retains the possibility of changing the protagonist’s name (hero) is the Dragon Quest series.

The fact is that, for the most part, even the protagonist’s clothing is not changeable with the different outfits swapped. This choice fits with the narrative design option of JRPGs, as they are often carefully designed to build unique stories, with memorable moments and characters for different people who play it, regardless of the slight variations of choice they might make.

This, combined with a unique visual design and a well-defined personality in the plot, is something that makes characters like Red (Pokémon Trainer), Crono, Cloud, Sephiroth, Vincent, Squall, Vivi, Sora, Roxas, 2B and so many others in JRPGs become so outstanding in the experience of dressing up their roles (or playing with ready-made chips, to make an analogy to table RPG).

Main characters from the Persona series. Source: Game Informer.

On the other hand, CRPGs tend to give the player many more possibilities to characterize and insert their protagonist (as an “avatar”) in the middle of a defined fictional world. Classically many types of customization are possible in The Elders Scrolls, Fallout, and other series, from race and class to attribute points and skills, sometimes even taking different starting points in the game world.

Some even inherit from one game to another the chosen and developed characteristics, as in the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises. Of course, as with JRPGs, there are exceptions. Some CRPGs or Action-CRPGs like The Witcher 3 have better-defined protagonists and not by chance tend to become relatively more memorable for the public.

Protagonist Customization in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Source: Venture Beat.

Two ways of telling stories in RPGs

First of all, it is necessary to be clear why both JRPGs and CRPGs are essentially RPGs. Although action-JRPGs (like traditional JRPGs) tend to be more linear and their protagonists less customizable, they cannot be confused with action-adventure games like Shadow of the Colossus or Okami. On the other hand, CRPGs cannot be confused with adventure games. Some text-adventure titles, like Zork, have great freedom of choice in the narrative, but they don’t have more solid RPG mechanics.

This is for the following reason: What defines both types of RPGs, from more battle-focused ones like Diablo to more narrative-focused ones like Planescape: Torment, is a solid set of RPG mechanics (experience, level, equipment etc.) which, compared to the other elements of the respective game, are clearly shown to be the focus of its gameplay.

Finally, there are quest narratives that are typical of RPGs and involve a number of short stories that, strung together, form (to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the RPG) a unique arc for each player. This is what Grant Tavinor, in his book The Art of Videogames, calls an “emergent narrative”.

But there are two different ways to experience role-playing narratives (or two different ways of storytelling in RPGs).

From left to right: Mass Effect; Disgaea PC.

From an immersion point of view, CRPGs tend to provide a more “first-person” experience in a story where you constantly control and decide the fate of a protagonist. This is true whether you are yourself, your avatar in that fictional world, or a protagonist with characteristics so general that it’s easy for you to step into it and fill the personality void.

On the other hand, from a more projective point of view, JRPGs often provide a kind of “third-person” experience, but with interventions. It is an experience of projecting yourself in the place of a protagonist who is already well defined in his personality, trying to understand them and, thus, empathize with their main pre-defined purposes.

In this proposal, the idea is to live with the protagonist so that both can make choices; some will depend entirely on him, others will depend on the player, and others will be a mere result of past choices. At the end (and for most of the course) this results in a journey that will be its own and, at the same time, analogous to that of other players, as they will go through the same key moments living with the same protagonist in that fictional world.

In the current era of globalization permeated by market interdependence and cultural influences at the speed of light, it may no longer make sense to differentiate between RPGs based on platforms (like PC or console) or based on geographic spaces like West and East. But the two differing story trajectories we’ve examined have led to a consolidation of two different ways of storytelling in RPGs, which should still remain for many turns and throws of the dice. Differentiating between CRPGs and JRPGs is important to help gamers find the style they gravitate more towards, but it is clear that there is something in each style for all admirers of the overarching RPG genre.

This text was originally published in Nintendo Blast (Portuguese)

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Vítor M. Costa

Vítor M. Costa

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Brazilian historian and philosopher. Nintendo Blast (PT), SUPERJUMP (EN) writer. Here, I write gaming essays about what video games are and what they can do.