Sunday, May 9, 2010

Love stories: The Japanese do them best

Vast generalisations being the point of this post, I want to say one thing: love stories in games fail.  Out of all of my favourite games, only Revenant has had love as a major plot point.  For the others, it's been present, but optional.  You can choose to care about Deionarra if you want to.  You can tell Aerie to get over having her wings cut off, or cultivate her self-pity.  Many of them don't include love at all - unless you're counting Andrew Ryan or Dagoth Ur, most games don't have romance as their backbone.  It's a fun, frilly extra, like icing, or cable television.

Japanese games are the exception to this rule.  In a Western game, if there's romance, it darn well better be about the player.  In a Japanese game (RPGs especially, of course), the player character is not the only character.  They're usually one of a party, and one of a party that either existed before the hero arrived, or formed of people who knew of each other before now.  Unlike Dragon Age, which dumps a bunch of strangers together, JRPGs tend to make them friends first.

There are many reasons why I think this works.  It's one of the failings of D&D groups - why is your party together in the first place?  If the reason is 'just because', you're going to have a lot of trouble with group dynamics.  Previous relationships, and previously defined relationships, help provide structure and a code of conduct.  So the player is supposed to know the Chantry looks poorly on people claiming Andraste destroyed the Elven homelands.  How, exactly?  Better to have another character ask in the player's stead, or make an aside, than let the player make a social faux pas in a society they know nothing about.

The other thing that I find exceptionally sweet and incredibly different in the romantic sphere is that Japanese games tend toward this 'farm boy fell in love with the princess when he was a child, but has kept it secret because he knows he's got no chance' idea.  It's based on social constraints, yes, which are more valid in some countries than others.  But often the farm boy triumphs and wins the princess' heart, once she remembers him as the boy she had always been looking for.  It may be because I'm not a particular connoisseur of the romance genre, but I can't think of a single Western game that has your childhood sweetheart make an appearance.  They just don't expect us to care.

Maybe that's why the farm boy is usually a secondary character, having a romance with another party member.  That's so much easier to believe than to convince us, the player, that we're in love with Rosalind, and have been our entire lives.  Obviously, that isn't the case.  But letting two separate characters find each other, and watching their love grow - isn't that reward enough for the time it takes to sit through the cutscenes involved?

I guess not.  Western games are so player-centric that it sometimes becomes ridiculous.  Oh, am I really the only one who can clean the rats out of your cellar?  Am I the only one who can kill the giant polka-dotted wilderbeest?  How many prophecies am I in, anyway?

And I suppose that's another big part of JRPG culture, too.  The hero may be fated to succeed, but more often their success is attributed to traits that are of benefit to society - being helpful, friendly, putting yourself out for others and generally making people's lives better.  You grow such strong Pokemon because you shower them with so much love and affection.  You get married in Rune Factory 2 because you pay attention to a particular girl's likes and dislikes and talk to her every day.  You're just an ordinary person who goes the extra mile.  And I don't know about you, but I feel pretty good about myself after playing those games.  There's only so much you can be told you're lovely, friendly, helpful and wonderful before you start acting that way to make sure it's still true.

It sounds like social conditioning.  Perhaps it is.  I know I'd rather live in a society populated by people who excelled at raising their Pokemon to be happy than one where the majority of people revelled in Kratos' numerous decisions to kill innocent bystanders.  In those Japanese games, the farm boy doesn't fall for the princess because she's the princess.  They're too young to understand.  They fall for her because yes, she's pretty, but she's also kind.  She's nice to them, when maybe no one else is.  If you don't believe me, watch Reservoir Chronicle Tsubasa.  We can genuinely believe Syaoran is in love with Sakura.  I haven't seen anything in the Western world that even comes close to creating such a believable and long-lasting bond between two characters.  If they do, they've usually been separated for years, gone their separate ways, and somehow wound up together again under fortuitous circumstances.  In JRPGs, the characters in love go on an adventure together.  I think that's much more true to life.

The downside of it is that Japanese romances tend to end in tragedy, or at least threaten to.  When Syaoran asks for a way to save Sakura from dying, he's told the price is that she will never remember him if he does save her.  He agrees.  He figures it's better for her to be alive, and him to still love her, than for her to die in full knowledge of his love.  Tidus and Yuna are another example.  Shuyin does everything he can to bring Lenne back, even if he only gets to hold her for a moment.  Serah gets turned into crystal for completing her focus and Snow spends the rest of the game trying to free her from her prison.

We Westerners give up far too easily.  We see the princess, and say "Not for me", or can only have her if we meet her before she know who she is.  The Prince & Me, The Princess Diaries, The Phantom Menace - no one can love a princess if they know who she is.  Arguably in JRPGs the character doesn't know she's the princess when they fall in love, but they keep loving her, even once they find out, and even once they know they don't have a chance.  Sometimes they get that chance, and sometimes they don't.  But they never give up, and they never stop loving her.  I think Western games could learn a lot from that.

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