After yesterdays rather peculiar announcement by Square-Enix about Final Fantasy XIII-2 stars dressing up in Prada’s Spring/Summer ’12 Mens Collection for Arena Homme+, it got me thinking about JRPGs and their general appeal to a western audience.
Over the years the JRPG has slowly wained outside of Japan, with Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest really being the only big sellers. This isn’t to do with the genre itself worsening, nor a lack of titles available for consumers to pick up. On the contrary there have been more and more fantastic JRPGs emerging over the years, and thanks to the likes of Atlus, Namco Bandai, NIS America, Ghostlight etc we’re getting more and more JRPGs making their way across the oceans to consumers. What’s causing this problem of diminishing returns is the rise of the western RPG. The Western RPG – such as Skyrim, Fable, Dragon Age, Mass Effect etc – appeal to Western audiences over JRPGs because of their instant action approach, slick menu presentation and quickly progressing plots that largely do away with waffle. Just like JRPG’s are made to appeal to the Japanese, these Western RPGs are tailored so they cause maximum impact on a rather easily influenced western audience.
However, what has Final Fantasy done to secure it’s success outside of Japan? When you take a look at XIII and XIII-2 you can see that Square-Enix have followed those western paradigms. Menus are streamlined, almost flashy; gameplay is much more action oriented, so there is a lot to see happening – despite it still doing the same maths under the hood. Square-Enix have however realised that linear gameplay isn’t something that players anywhere around the world want from an RPG (we’re looking at you XIII).
What Square-Enix have done with Final Fantasy XIII-2 though is genius. By introducing downloadable costume packs – based on westerners’ favourite series – they have ensured players keep returning for more. People want to see recognisable features in their games – things they can relate to – it’s why cultural references are changed when a game is moved to another territory. Square-Enix’s latest move – the aforementioned Prada crossover – was an absolute stroke of brilliance. Here people from all around the globe can relate to fashion, and a label like Prada has worldwide appeal – and honestly, the cast of Final Fantasy XIII-2 have never looked better.
How would the world react if the next JRPG that came out had these designer clothes, or just more realism in each characters clothing. Whilst it might be a turn-on for Japanese gamers to have teenage protagonists and people dressed to the knives with belts, buckles and leather, the same cannot be said for the west. Here we apparently want a ‘macho man’ in the lead role, and we want to feel like the sole hero – as opposed to usual Japanese team effort. I for one will be the first person to put my hand up and say that, that idea sucks; give me a whiney teen protagonist in buckles any day over a meathead saving the world – however I’d quite like something a bit more relatable in terms of aesthetics. Ditch the high fantasy looks and bring me something more realistic; however, make sure it fits with the context.
In a world like Final Fantasy IX or XII shoving Zidane or Vaan into Prada or Louis Vuitton would just seem absurd, the style just doesn’t fit the universe. However – as the Arena Homme+ article shows – in more industrial and modern universes – like those of VIII, XIII and XIII-2 - it can work wonders. Characters seem more realistic, more relatable, and honestly a lot less ridiculous. Whilst Lightning was a great lead protagonist for XIII, and largely did away with the image of a female in a JRPG (a role which Vanille filled perfectly), it was very hard to believe she was a soldier when she was gallivanting about in an absurdly short skirt; as was it equally hard to imagine anybody could go around wearing beachwear and saving time in XIII-2.
Whilst I’m not proclaiming that JRPGs need to go changing their stories and settings to make them more relatable, I do think that the outlandish and impractical costumes should be given the heave-ho. After all if we’re investing our time in the characters, it’ll boil down to how they are as people – not what they look like – in how we judge them. Someone doesn’t need to be covered with straps and chains to be considered ‘cool’, instead it’s their demeanour that matters. Why was Cloud Strife so damn cool in Final Fantasy VII? He was essentially wearing a purple jumpsuit and a belt, yet he’s badass; the same can be said for Barret Wallace and his vest and pants combo – granted the gun-hand did help him there. Commander Shepard from Mass Effect wears the same damn suit of armour the entire time, yet she (or he) is loved by many, as are the rest of the crew, despite the practically identical clothing.
Square-Enix’s long awaited Final Fantasy Versus XIII however has gotten my hopes up for the JRPG. Whilst it’s gameplay will be different from the turn based nature of many JRPGs, and like Final Fantasy XIII and Kingdom Hearts the combat will be more action based, it’s the games aesthetics that have me interested. Set in a universe that outwardly appears ‘realistic’, the characters clothing mirrors this realism. The games main protagonist, Noctis Lucis Caelum, wears sedate clothing and – without knowing anything much about him – his demeanour in the gameplay trailers portray him as a ‘cool’ lead character.
Maybe it’s time to have a meeting of both the West and the East, and start creating JRPGs that can transcend the cultural divide completely. Deliver the looks that grab the East, along with the fantastic gameplay JRPGs offer, and bring forth the realism that the west craves. Whilst the more ‘obsessed’ – and probably largely male – audience might be miffed by the covering up of virtual female flesh in the sake of realism, hopefully the Prada crossover was the first step towards this effort. Currently all we have are the Yakuza series of games to bring us that level or realism, however they are so drenched in Japanese culture they fails to capture Western audiences in any meaningful way. So Square-Enix, after this collaboration, what’ll your next move be?