Saturday, February 21, 2015

Critical Switch: Party Size in the JRPG

My close friend and peer Zolani Stewart and I have started a new project called Critical Switch that will be doing experiments with audio and video criticism, and this is my first episode! If you like it, I'd really appreciate it if you supported us on Patreon.

You can read the transcript here if you'd like too: 

Party Size in the Japanese Role-Playing Game

Y'know, it's actually been a decade or so since the last time anyone asked me about the size of a party in a JRPG. When I was a little kid, like 5 or 6, I remember one of my reasons for liking Final Fantasy IX better than FFVII or FFVIII because it allowed you to have more characters, which in particular meant that when you added Eiko to the party you could have two healers instead of one. That really carried me back in the day. Other people I knew had similar reasoning.

But since then it's been a non-topic. Some games have three, some games have four, it's not really anything to care about. But then I remembered something about FFIX: it doesn't really have a “main” character. Now granted, you control Zidane most of the time, and he ends up being the most important character in the endgame since the story of his creation also ties in with Kuja's creation and thus he is arguably the character with the closest ties to the villain, but you could also make a strong argument for Vivi.

Point being, not that this is new to people or anything, that Final Fantasy IX has mostly an ensemble cast where everyone gets to be under the spotlight at some point, which was one of the reasons it sat in stark contrast to Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII which unarguably center on their main characters, Cloud and Squall respectively.

What this means to me when we consider the party size is that, especially in comparison to the previous two games, party sized is used to enforce . . . not so much the “themes” or even “motifs” of a narrative, but to more strongly emphasize the tropes at play. FFIX doesn't use it's 4-member party to communicate anything in particular about it's ensemble cast, but it does use it's 4-member party to communicate that it has an ensemble cast, rather than a story focused on a main character. This is consistent with how FFVI approaches the 4-member party, more on that in a bit.

Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII by comparison use the three-person party to achieve the opposite effect: by throwing the main character into the center of the party, those games communicate how those characters are also at the center of the story.

In the cinematic composition of the battles, Cloud and Squall are centered between the other two party members because the attention is on them, and this is consistent with both the story and the battle systems, wherein the traditional roles of “tank” and “damage per second” tend to be focused into the same character with the other two characters being placed in support roles for a mage/utility character and a healer.

This goes back to Final Fantasy IV, which had a five-member party, but placed Cecil, the obvious main character and primary damage dealer, at center.

This is fairly consistent in other Square RPGs of that era as well, such as the vastly-underrated Chrono Cross as well as in Xenogears where Serge and Fei respectively stand at center, do a lot of the big damage, and are at the centers of the stories of their respective games.

FFIX disallows this and separates the roles to where each of the four party members you will be controlling will play a key role in battle. To name one example: Steiner is a tank, Vivi is a mage character and Dagger is a healer, with Zidane, the closest thing to a main character, oddly enough acting as a thief, a utility role, and secondary physical attacker.

This is not new to IX of course, which was very intentionally a pastiche of elements from classic games in the series, but is structurally most similar to Final Fantasy VI, especially in this regard. VI also has no main character, has a four-member party, and like IX often switches perspectives between different small groups for much of the early game, decentralizing the focus from any single character either mechanically or narratively.

Techniques vary wildly outside of Final Fantasy of course.

Breath of Fire IV has a three-person party, but it also allows you to have three people in the back to substitute folks in and out a la Final Fantasy X, and outside of combat it often puts Nina in your control rather than Ryu, the series designated protagonist, in an effort to emphasize that the main story really doesn't revolve around Ryu.

FFX by comparison, makes the serious mistake of diegetically emphasizing that “This Is My Story” when it could not be more apparent that that story is about Yuna, and on top of this, the game will always allow you take either of those characters out of the party . . . before immediately putting you back in the control of Tidus on the field. Oh and did I mention that Tidus, the main character, Mr. “This Is My Story”? You can name him whatever you want, and nobody ever even says his name out loud.

So here we have Breath of Fire IV decentralizing the focus around the assumed protagonist, and FFX using similar systems in a way that undermines it's supposed narrative.

There are some games that use the three-person party in conjunction with a small ensemble cast, the two that immediately come to mind being the under-loved Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter and it's philosophical bastard descendant, the equally under-loved End of Eternity (Resonance of Fate in the US). Both games employ three-person parties, but the cinematic framing that would center any given party member dissolve as battles get moving, given the balance and equal functionality of each party member performing very specific roles: no single member of the party in Dragon Quarter is more important than the others, especially since each have the possibility of strong damage output and none are designated healer. Most of End of Eternity outright requires precise execution of team-based tactics where everyone is of inherently equal measure.

The Tales series (Tales of Symphonia, The Abyss, Xillia) conversely uses a four-member party, but they each feature a strong DPS/Tank as the main character, which focuses those characters mechanically, and the camera always follows that character closely, focusing them in the narrative as well.

Suikoden features absolutely massive parties, not to mention a silent protagonist, mechanically defocusing the main character and also making that main character more of a window into the lives of others.

Tactics Ogre, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Disgaea also have the sort of large battle parties that, for turn-based RPGs, would work to decentralize particular characters, but instead focuses the primary characters by having gamers fill out their parties with hired grunts to fill the ranks and the space of massive battlefields.

Before I wrap this up I'd like to note: JRPGs very rarely explore the narrative possibilities created by the rare two-person party.

FFVIII is one of the only games I can think of that has done this, pairing Squall at first with Quistis as a teacher in the early game, then Irvine during the assassination mission in Galbadia to develop his relationship with a character very unlike him, and then with Rinoa aboard the Ragnarok to emphasize their newly realized closeness and to put it to something of a stress before their relaxed, romantic scene on the bridge. The camera even seems to place these characters more at the 2 and 4 of a 5 block line rather than the first 2 or last 2 of a 3 block line, if that makes sense. Those scenes emphasize pairings over the individual.

Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, the only JRPG I can think of that enforces a two-person party across the entire game, totally whiffs on the possibility of meanings it can communicate by removing the second character from player control.

There's still a lot of narrative possibilities to be explored with just the two-person party, and I hope more games explore it in the future.

I guess I'm rambling a little, so my point is thus:
There's still a lot about the presentation and narrative content of the much maligned JRPG battle, especially the turn-based battle that remains yet to be considered. JRPGs, especially some of the more established series, have shown strong itentionality to how they use both the amount of party members and in general how they frame the action of their battles to convey narrative ideas. This, I think, is one of those things to decode that will help us better understand how the JRPG battle of yore, a tradition most seem to want to throw out the window in favor of conventional action playability, functions not as design for it's own sake, but a form of design that intends to communicate ideas, and this is a topic I'll be exploring more in the future.