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We Are One: JRPGs, the Group Journey, and the Mechanics of Cooperation
by Mark Filipowich on 04/04/13 01:25:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Somewhere during the first third of Final Fantasy VII, as the party grows and events begin coalescing, the protagonist, Cloud, complains that he’s turning into a “three-ring circus.” This is a cute bit of meta-humor as the game followed the then common convention of having party members travel around inside the body of the main character. Whenever secondary characters were needed in a scene, they would emerge from Cloud’s body, and when the scene concluded, they’d approach him again and disappear, as though waiting in his pocket until they were next needed. Cloud’s joke is cute because it acknowledges an absurd and—at that point unnecessary—RPG staple.

Compacting the party into one body was a residual custom from the tabletop or low-bit count RPGs that reduced the number of moving parts at play when only one active character was needed. Outside of combat and scripted scenes, the player moves the leader and the leader moves the party; they are all one. Extending the logic of the party fitting into one body, it actually resonates well with the kind of themes JRPGs tend to cover. One of the core mechanics of JRPGs is party management, which has interesting implications for how the game conveys the journey of a cohesive group over that of an individual.
In the JRPG, the player doesn’t control a single character. They’re in control of the whole party all at once. Combat flows only when the player gives each member of the party an order. Each character is only under the player’s control for a second, and even then, only indirectly. Instead, the player instructs them to carry out an action by selecting a command from a menu, not from actually directing them through the motions of that command. Furthermore, the player issues orders based on what the rest of the party will be doing.  In other words, every command is given in the context of other commands. They depend on one another. A “turn” is a coordinated effort by multiple characters controlled by the single entity that is the player. Conflicts aren’t met by a lone hero, nor by a faceless army, but by a tight group of characters under the unified direction of a player.

Outside of battle, the player ensures that equipment and abilities are constantly updated so that each individual in the group is maximally prepared to fill a niche in battle. Everybody has a part to play and the player—acting as the group, not as a member of it—optimizes group efficiency. In an RPG, the player is not the hero, nor are they a distant commander; the player is the collective.

Contrast this with RPGs from the West, such as the Elder Scrolls series or The Witcher. In these games, the player is a rugged individual combing the wilderness, totally isolated from society and left to solve the world’s problems their own way, alone. In an MMORPG, players are also independent in some way from one another, planning strategies from separate consciousnesses with each one’s own disparate goals and motives defining their individual actions. Any friendly characters that appear in the WRPG are more minor allies awaiting command than vital organs of a social organism.

The JRPG protagonist is just a convenient placeholder for a dynamic group of resolute individuals who are greater than the sum of their parts. The player isn’t controlling one hero with several non-playable sidekicks. They’re guiding the whole. As each member of a party gains levels and becomes stronger, each character’s role in combat solidifies, and they specialize in a given class, while the story brings the characters closer together as people.

Granted, in most installments in the Final Fantasy series, such as the aforementioned seventh, there is a primary character. Supporting characters may have their own motivations and arcs, but there’s never any question that Cecil, Cloud, Vaan, or Lightning are the central figures in their games. Even so, it’s the party’s involvement in the hero’s life that allows the narrative to be able to flow, answering questions about why characters are able to grow and why their goals have any weight.

Frankly, though, many JRPGs are able to carry on successfully without a “main” character. Take, for instance, Breath of Fire 4, Wild Arms 3, Phantasy Star, Dragon Quest 8, Chrono Trigger, or even the fourth and sixth installments of Final Fantasy in which there is no clear main character. The actions of the group supercede those of any one member of it. These games don’t establish who is in charge, rather they provide a destination and flesh out each individuals’ purpose for being there. The (often silent) protagonist isn’t there to keep conflicting personalities in check. They’re just an excuse to bring them together. They’re a body to hold the adventurers in while they adventure. In these games, the player doesn’t have a virtual surrogate through which they experience the world; the player is the group. All control that the player has over the game is blanketed across the whole party. Cooperation is build into every layer of these games.

JRPGs make group functions central to the experience in a way that other genres seldom investigate. It’d be redundant to say those good ol’ Japanese RPGs ain’t what they used to be, but one of the things that gets lost in complaints about the longer cutscenes and their overuse of clichés is that there is less emphasis on the group. Control is drifting more and more toward a single entity assisted by discrete NPCs. 

There’s no reason to believe that the methods of “being” a party through control and careful stat building can’t be demonstrated in another genre. But in the last several years there has been limited interest in the journey of the group. Paired with the coinciding disinterest in the genre that best illustrated the mechanics of cooperation, it seems unlikely that the best instances of its use are long behind us.

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Daniel Bishop
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I am currently making a JRPG, I will keep in mind the significance of a journey of a group as opposed to an individual.

Maybe you could provide some input- my game has a party of 3 who participate in the journey and story, but combat is handles by summoned minions (in a similar setup to Pokemon). Do you think the group being absent from combat will have a big impact on the way the game feels? Will it make it less immersive?

Christian Nutt
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Immersive is such an imprecise term and it's thrown around so casually. I find Pokemon to be plenty immersive -- because the gameplay is engrossing. It's not the kind of game that usually gets tagged as "immersive" though. The triple-A guys like to reserve that for their big audiovisual spectacles.

Toby Grierson
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Now I don't know what your party of three does but they don't necessarily need to be fighters. There's no law. That's not a creative constant of any sort at all. Recall that in many of these games the battle rules are wholly divorced from the fantasy of the game. You see Sephiroth blow up the sun repeatedly; you see them stabbed and shot repeatedly; you see them light each other on fire. But when you imagine the world they're in, that's not quite what's happening. The sun is there. And people are OK with that.

In any case I'd second Nutt here. You need to be engaging. Immersion, however... It's not clear to me what you even mean by that.

I'd advise you to just put the game in front of people and watch them play and see how they really react.

Michael Stevens
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Having the field party and battle party be completely seperate can feel a bit dissociative, particularly if you have a lot of plot, but it's something a lot of games have worked around.
Your solution is going to be rooted in how the minions fit into the world you're building. In the Persona series it doesn't make sense to have the summoned minions follow you around town in the way it does in their cousins, the Devil Summoner games.

The Pokemon games start battles with a shot of your trainer sending out your first Pokemon, bridging the two modes visually in a way that isn't necessary when you directly control story characters. I feel like the over the shoulder perspective helps individualize the player's pokemon as well. I might see a hundred enemy Magikarp but I never see them from the angle I see *my* Magikarp, which builds that Pokemon into my Trainer's story.
The Pokemon games are also very good about showing the monters in everyday non-battle situations, which goes even further towards keeping everything in the same context.

Daniel Bishop
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Originally I had my lead character physically in the battle the whole time without playing an actual mechanical role, but that took up too much screen space, so now I just have their portrait in the top left corner, where I can hopefully add some very basic facial animation so it doesn't look too static.

You can see an early mock-up of the battles here if anyone is interested-

Zack Wood
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I thought it was really nice how in Chrono Trigger the field map and battle area are the same thing, and the characters just run into position and start fighting. On Michael Stevens point, maybe you could combine that with a Pokemon approach, where they throw out/summon the units, and then it zooms into battle mode, or something like that? Since it uses summoned units who are not the player character, I think it makes sense that battles happen in a separate space. It's like the summoned creatures' special little battle world.

Luis Guimaraes
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You can make them pop in and out of the screen in first plane, the way some fighting games highlight their special moves.

Todd Boyd
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I really liked this article. Thank you for posting!

Paul Marzagalli
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I am currently Lead Narrative Designer on a Kickstarter-funded JRPG, and we have taken our inspiration for those JRPGs which treat their characters as an ensemble - FF5, FF6, the Suikoden series (props on a screenshot from Sui2, btw), Wild ARMS, etc. We don't have all the money in the world, but where we can, we try to write sequences and mechanics that allow each character to take center stage and advance their individual arcs.

A lovely article to start the day with, and all I can say in summation is: Solidarity! :-D

Thanks for writing it!

Allan Munyika
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"..we try to write sequences and mechanics that allow each character to take center stage and advance their individual arcs."

I've always been a fan of the party system in JRPGs and some WRPGs (Dragon Age etc) but I've often found that it's used in a limited way in most games. The whole point of being a party is to divide labour and allow goals to be achieved faster yet I've never come across any game which encourages players to break up their parties into smaller sub-parties so that one sub-party can go to location X while another goes to location Y. I think this approach can bring so much more to a game, it offers an opportunity to flesh out the archs of individual characters, open up the game world and to introduce handicaps which can spice up the combat a bit.

Daneel Filimonov
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I think a good example of what Paul is talking about is "The Last Remnant", though the mechanics aren't totally the same, the mechanic of "unions" (separate sub0groups within your party) is quite similar and works quite well within the game.

Alfa Etizado
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I think the ideal JRPG party should be like a bogus personality reading, a collection of broad statements anyone can relate to, split into multiple characters. The idea is that each character needs traits, good or bad, any player can relate to. At the same time each should have a trait the player aspires to have. I noticed that in some of my favorite JRPG casts.

I know that sounds kind of bad. Like intentional pandering and creating mini mary sues. But remember what's mentioned in the article, how every character comes out of Cloud, how the player controls everyone as a unit. The idea is that the entire cast put together should be an individual, and each character a chance to explore different traits of an individual. A chance for the player to explore what could be good or bad about him/her.

Some games didn't really do that, that doesn't mean they had a bad cast, just that they designed the cast differently.

Mark Filipowich
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That's a really good point that I hadn't considered. Sometimes it feels like the characters of some games are just one personality type (or disorder) taken to an extreme but it comes off as charming because of the cast around them. It doesn't always work, but when it does it creates another interesting group dynamic.

Jonathan Lin
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I think this is part of the main appeal for many JRPG fans. Having defined characters is simply more memorable than blank slates - compare, say, Final Fantasy VI to Icewind Dale (or for that matter, Bioware's Baldur's Gate to Icewind Dale). Every character, JRPG or otherwise, is going to follow a certain archetype/trope - the devil is in the details. A well done cast ensemble has many flawed characters who become "complete" when together, and I think many classic JRPGs have done this better than those other genres.

The downward spiral in the JRPG genre isn't just the game mechanics focusing away from the group, it's also weaker characterization.

Ian Snyder
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Really enjoyed the article; I've thought about why it is that I seem to enjoy RPGs with a cast like Chrono Trigger, and there are definitely superficial reasons I've thought of, but this seems to hit at a deeper core. Well done!

John Flush
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"In the JRPG, the player doesn’t control a single character. They’re in control of the whole party all at once."

That is probably the best reason why JRPG's are struggling. These days you only control one person again, mainly because it is action based, and the rest of the characters try to do the best they can using the AI (that is always poor compared to full control old JRPG's had)

"or even the fourth and sixth installments of Final Fantasy in which there is no clear main character"

Did you mean 5th and 6th with this? FF IV is Cecil start to end. VI splits you into groups often enough that I agree there isn't a main character.

"one of the things that gets lost in complaints about the longer cutscenes and their overuse of clichés is that there is less emphasis on the group. Control is drifting more and more toward a single entity assisted by discrete NPCs"

I'm pretty sure I agree here, you mean that you spend more time managing your one single player rather than the rest of the group as a whole right?

Regardless, good piece. Some of my fondest memories are of JRPG's - unfortunately so many have lost their way it seems from this core mechanic while keeping the cliche's I never liked in the first place.

Mark Filipowich
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Yes, I meant Final Fantasy 5, not 4. 4 is definitely a case of one main character with a cast of supporting characters where 5 focuses on its primary 5 characters with a microscope. Thanks for catching that.

William Kus
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Yes good article.

As far as immersion, I would suggest great story/plot, great characters/personalities, great art, and great gameplay. If you want real immersion, make sure the game is intuitive (easy to play the first time), and that there are no bugs that take away from the intended experience. I would also suggest some sort of Johnny Mnemonic/Matrix style brain-jack, or maybe some 3-d glasses, imagine that, making games in true 3-d!

I did enjoy explanation of the group dynamics in JRPG. I assume this has to do with the collective type of spirit that Asian culture has, opposed to the more individualistic culture that America seems to personify.

I've always enjoyed having a large assortment of characters to choose from and not being constrained by a single character or even a single set of characters. I remember often leaving out certain characters from the leveling treadmill because I did not like their abilities or character design. But that was the good part about those games, was that you had choices. Although the story was the same (but sometimes different) the game play would be original depending on which characters you chose to play.

I liked the part in the article about the different skill sets being unique, but combining to offset weaknesses of other players. Always the typical RPG party. Warrior, mage, archer, etc. Sort of like a rock/paper/scissors type thing.

But story was important. Liking the characters and hating the enemies was important. Feeling emotions like when you read a good book or watch a good movie. I don't feel that as much anymore. It sometimes gets lost within the bells and whistles.

Anyways, I'm glad to be a part of the video game industry again through the use of Gamasutra. I'm inspired to get back into the industry now that it seems possible that I can, even its its by making my own games and not making any money. I love games and feel I have a lot to offer.

Zack Wood
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Great article! That's one of the things I love about JRPGs- building a strong group to work together. I just can't get into or care about some lone wolf who wanders through a world like Skyrim or similar Western games.