1) Rinoa and Death at Nightmare Mode proposes (or at least leads me to consider) the idea that the assumption that scrolling through dialogue in a jRPG is very much the central component of the genre, and not some sort of break from the gameplay.
2) The linked essay, R.I.P J-RPG on Matthew Weise's blog proposes that jRPGs are a "grab bag of game design."
3) A half-remembered, and possibly apocryphal, story about someone who may or may not be Shigesato Itoi brings itself to mind, in which the person claims that the second that a player forces an NPC to repeat their dialogue in a game, that the game is broken. This is obviously wrong, for non-obvious reasons.
4) Cloud is presented, from the beginning, not as an amnesiac protagonist, with the tutorial bits in the gym in Sector 7 being the clearest indication of this. He instead could be most probably described as schizoid.
5) What might be considered the hallmark of jRPGs is the turn- and menu-based battle system. This can be seen most clearly in the way that any deviation from this mode is automatically and necessarily recognized as such.
6) Given (5), the defining mechanic (as opposed to thematic or aesthetic) of the jRPG as a genre can be said to be abstraction.
7) Given (1) & (6), we can now respond to (3) & (2); if the defining, and therefore driving, mechanic of the jRPG is abstraction, then the design must reflect this. The repetition of dialogue by NPCs is just such a reflection; what we are reading is not meant to be a representation of what they are saying as such, but an abstract distillation of the information they presumably impart when prompted.
8) Given (7), the fact that the player runs around, breaking into people's homes and harassing everyone in sight, is much less weird.
9) Working from my earlier definition of the affect of games, this abstraction functions as the central "frustration" of play. It is the simultaneous desire of and disappointment within the game, seen primarily in the way the player will run around talking to every NPC in sight, only to scroll agitatedly past their dialogue without reading it.
10) The jRPG is in fact nothing whatsoever like a novel, except perhaps (and this is a big perhaps) in its thematic elements.
11) From the earliest indication, just before planting the bomb inside the Mako reactor, to the dissociative episode in the brothel (in the Wall Market lead-up to the Don Cornelius episode), all the way through the discovery of Zack and Cloud's "true" backstory, (4) holds, despite the metaphorical and problematic implications of the psychologizing language. This is important because amnesia is a meta-narrative device, whereas the schizoid is a characterological device.
12) The claims in (11) are not meant to reflect whatsoever on the lived reality of the psychological phenomena they metaphorically deploy. If there are more precise terms to be used here, I am not aware of them; there do not exist many tools for describing the particular mixture of personality disorder, biological trauma, and mystical influence over a character that Final Fantasy VII's secondary world makes a material concern for its inhabitants, and the deployment of this psychologistic terminology is both (a) my best recourse, as I see it, and(b) meant to fit it into a specifically literary tradition of the rhetorical deployment of these psychologistic devices.
13) From (11) & (12), the claim can then be made that the character of Cloud is, as in the literary tradition if the schizoid character, also fundamentally an abstraction.
14) That is, Cloud, given the rhetorical device I'm referring to here as "schizoid," is fundamentally a character who is an abstraction of "character." This is in terms of both a) thematic, & b) mechanical content.
15) For grounding in (14b), see my review of Silent Hill: Revelation 3D in Strange Horizons. Specifically:
The assumption which is never, ever acknowledged, because it sounds too similar to what we know to be Bad Writing, is that a video game's protagonist is merely an object among objects, a cipher for the player to control, with no internal life of her own.
Because video games are an interactive form, and because the narrative arc tends to rely on making the player fully identify with the protagonist, a video game's protagonist cannot have their own robust interior life, which would only get in the way of the player's identification with them. The most obvious way this is done is with the amnesiac protagonist. This trope is so common precisely because it is such an elegant solution to the demands of video games, which need somehow to have a character who is the center of the story and yet is totally devoid of interiority; the amnesiac that we control is precisely that, an individual with a history that we can discover, but no memory.
16) Certain concepts in the quote within (15) need to be reworked, but for now it is hopefully enough to give sufficient context to (11) to proceed.
17) Given (11) (and its attendant theses (12) & (13)), & (15), (10) can now be elaborated upon.
18) The biggest issue with the quote in (15), as applied to Final Fantasy VII, then, is the use of the word "protagonist." While it seems that this is structurally justified, this is only on the narrative level; on the mechanical level, and the thematic level (by way of extrapolation of the mechanical), it is a dire choice of verbiage.
19) Which returns us to (10). When constructing arguments for the unique contribution of value that jRPGs bring to the form, most fans/apologists will invoke the novelistic or literary qualities that the subgenre provides. To be wildly reductive, these claims usually amount to arguing that jRPGs tell a story, whereas most games simply present one; Super Mario Bros., for instance, provides you with a story which serves to contextualize your actions, while Xenogears provides a world (with spatial, symbolic, and political aspects) to contextualize the story. Even something like Metal Gear Solid falls more along the lines of a Super Mario Bros. game than a Xenogears game, in this sense; the story is presented to you to contextualize the actions of your character, and the only difference is the amount of time it takes to do so.
20) A long time ago I wrote that the work of the novel can be subdivided into two clear categories; that of character, and that of style or prose. The obvious missing third is that of setting, or world, to use the parlance of the fantastic (although it should be noted how often authors are praised for collapsing setting into character, which occurs most often in genres where the setting is made primary, i.e. the road novel); when transpositing the function of auctoritas to the video game, however, where "designer" replaces "author," the subdivision is slightly altered.
21) Where the novelist produces "style," the designer produces both the distinct mechanical style ("gameplay") and aesthetic style ("style"); where the novelist produces "characters," the designer produces the quality of "immersiveness" and the quantity of "interactivity" (described in (15)). All of these terms (gameplay, style, immersiveness, and interactivity) should be seen not as aesthetic or technical quantities, but as labor.
22) From (21); the mode of labor that remains consistent between the novel and the video game is setting, or world. Since genre is primarily a machine for the reproduction of labor, this fact means that genre, insofar as it is porous between forms, can only be identified in terms of setting. All claims that a work's strength is derived, even in part, on its collapse of setting and character, into character (see: parenthetical to (20)) are, at least from the standpoint of genre criticism, necessarily both reductive and ideological.
23) (10) does not simply follow from (21); the reworked division of labor simply provides the groundwork. We are primarily concerned with the video game's division of "character," which details "immersiveness," a quality primarily available to the player in the construction of dialogue, and "interactivity," a quantity primarily available to the player in their capacity to project interiority into the vacuity of the player character (15).
24) A brief detour before we continue with the exegesis of (10); the genre of Final Fantasy VII is, to state the obvious, fantasy. This is seen, per (22), primarily in the world. From the idiomatic tropes (swords & sorcery, as it were) to the structuring of the world along the axes of both verticality vs. horizontality and nature vs. industry, and the ways those axes intersect, this is obviously the case. The game begins by rigorously identifying the vertical with the industrial, and the horizontal with the natural; see Midgar vs. the world map. As the narrative progresses, this identification is inverted; see the The Great Glacier and The Northern Crater, vertical nature, and Ultimate Weapon, horizontal industry. Of course, both of the latter examples are problematic, but this is another feature; the collapse of the axes precedes and persists through their inversion.
25) Since the setting is fantastical, it then follows, syllogistically, that the character -- more specifically, the protagonist -- develops along the lines of one identifiable character arc, ascribable to the Fantasy genre of fiction, right? Of course not; the subdivision of labor in the video game (which, here, we should take the time to note, is merely prescriptive, as we run the risk of recapitulating hierarchical models of art, with the video game subordinate to the novel; this is obviously bullshit. Anything resembling this High/Low split in form is merely an artefact of an attempt to remain clear while building upon established concepts, and all of it works, if it works at all, as a clear refutation of this hierarchy as such, in its own terms) makes clear the fact that "character" in a video game is a distinct and orthogonal labor practice to its counterpart in the novel.
26) One would think that Interactive Fiction would get brought up more in linking jRPGs to novels; this absence is telling.
27) Cloud as "schizoid," or a character whose fundamental premise is the abstraction of the quality of character, is simultaneously a critique and an instance of this unique subdivision of labor.
28) The critical aspect relies on familiarity with the amnesiac trope and its implementation as a solution to the concept of interactivity; Cloud can be said to be an amnesiac character, through the discovery of his stealing Zack's identity, but this doesn't happen until well within the story. What we get instead, from the beginning, are unattributed utterances, clearly speaking to Cloud, over a black background, and ghostly personality splits, as in the brothel section; these hint at the disordered mentality of the character while avoiding the common trope with which they are associated.
29) It is through a mixture of this hinting at, and its ultimate embrace of, this trope that the game also registers as an instance of it. That the resolution of the amnesiac trope is discovered only in a hidden sequence, unnecessary for completing the game, only compounds the ways in which the inversion of the assumed structure -- that of subversion, where a trope is established first as an instance and then, through that establishment, critiqued from within it -- functions to further the mechanical abstraction which is the primary design aspect of the game. Because of the pervasiveness of the amnesiac solution, its presence is always already felt; the narrative can completely forego its telling, and still reap its effects. It is only by incorporating it at the ludic level -- insofar as that can be opposed to the narratological level -- that the proper distancing effect can play out.
30) Cloud's presentation as literarily schizoid operates similarly; it is first interpreted as ambiguous (because of the structural overdetermination; in the specifics it is pushed pretty hard and unambiguously), and only after time and revelation can it be interpreted as a functional aspect of his character. Because of this meta-character development, which interacts obliquely with the mechanics, however, it remains abstracted.
31) Regarding (29), and its relation to (1); the jRPG, perhaps more than any other genre, is deeply problematic for the ludology/narratology split, in that, accepting that the driving aspect of game design for the genre is abstraction, the difference between the two is either minimally mechanical (the difference between clicking the [accept] button because you are done reading and actually reading) or it is maximally thematic (because all things which advance narrative are non-ludic, in which case the play of a jRPG is reduced to maybe a couple hours of engagement within an up to 100 hour long experience). While the latter is a position that people often inhabit to express their eventual dissatisfaction with the form (i.e. (2)), the former is much closer to being completely honest, in that it realizes the deeply inorganic split that these two ideas promote in the form.
32) The notion of "levels" has come up, in the sense of narrative versus mechanical versus thematic, and so on. This is a convenient metaphor, with inherent shortcomings; as far as arbitrary divisions go, it is intended to convey less the idea that the experience of a game is capable of being annexed into these particular abstracted notions, and more of a way of conveying how strong instances of engagement can be retroactively considered to have worked according to commonly-understood theories of how art works. Thus (one of) the provisions mentioned in (10).
33) Adam Ruch claimed in the article Romancing the Silicon Wafer that, on what he claims as the "ontological" level, a game character is, by definition, more "powerful" than a character in written fiction that takes the form of the novel. This is pretty intuitively wrong, for all the right reasons, I would hope. His given example is Ashley from Mass Effect, a character who accompanies Commander Shepard on their journey; Ashley, in any given playthrough of the game, may or may not fuck Shepard, depending on the choices Shepard (read: the player) makes in a series of dialogue trees relevant to unlocking the cinematic. To claim that this represents Ashley's "ontological power," here understood as an ability to choose, over and above, say, the choice of Juliet, is obviously bullshit. At best it is a parody of formalism gone completely awry, mistaking the exigencies present in one form over another for a pure ontological difference; more likely, given Ruch's claim that each playthrough of Mass Effect ought to be read, characterologically, as a completely different text, and his reading backwards the idea that character itself is simply a set of rules, not even qualitatively different than video game design, puts him in the position of arguing that material conditions simply do not exist in any way that effects arts/games creation or reception. Which I certainly hope he would agree is an absurd and indefensible position.
34) So, given (32) & (33), the relation this critique takes toward formalism is twofold; first, that it is not in a dictatorial relationship toward player experience, but does color retroactive reception/understanding in ways that are non-trivial, and must be engaged with; second, that it is absolutely necessary to view it as being in a dialectical relationship with material conditions at all points.
35) So, the "narrative level." Final Fantasy VII's most well known contribution to the narrative design of video games is in the moment generally referred to as the Death of Aeris, when one of the main characters in the party is killed (irrevocably) by the main antagonist. This breaks the rules of the world (dead characters are shown to be easily revived through use of a common item called a Phoenix Down), it breaks an implicit promise to the player (Aeris is heavily signposted as the player's romantic interest), and it marks the apotheosis of the thematic of the "bad vertical" more even than Midgar (Sephiroth, the antagonist, descends from the heights; Aeris' burial is into the depths of the water). Narratively, however, it is a straightforward example of that most time-honoured of all tropes: stuffing women in the refrigerator. So, in a game where the narrative is supposed to be paramount, why is this the defining moment? And more, why is it understood as a radical break?
36) Bryan Taylor's Kill Screen essay Save Aeris tracks early bulletin board responses to the death, in particular a hoax perpetrated in which a user said that there was a way to resurrect her. Aside from the bits where the author tries to psychoanalyse the fanbase or draw out belaboured lessons about the nature of grief or whatever, the article is well worth reading. What interests me in particular in this context however, is the levels at which the the fans considered it proper to respond.
37) The main, and most obvious, response of the fan communities was at the mechanical level. By building elaborate theories as to how to set the correct flags in place such that the event was either avoided or reversed, or even by navigating the source code of the game itself, many fans attempted (and still attempt) to reposition the other (narrative, thematic) levels of the game such that the mechanical level is primary, assuming that the proper manipulation of the given rule system must necessarily result in the fulfillment of their wish. The second, and slightly less obvious, method fans used was a series of petitions and complaints and threats to boycott the developer or publisher; these actions are fans' attempts to engage on the narrative level. Subsequent fanfiction or mods that reinstate Aeris into the canon engage on the same level, albeit with a different relationship to the primary text; where the petitioners could claim that their cause was the reinstatement of the original intent, fanfiction or mods have a relationship much more analogous to a piece of criticism than an act of fidelity. The question, then: why did fan response not occur at the thematic level?
38) Here is the other provision to (10), and how jRPGs are simultaneously the most and not at all familiar to novels as a form. To appropriate Ruch's misuse, the thematic level is the closest thing to an ontology that a video game has; it is the true stuff of the game, the Real, which exists independently of the creators and the players. Here, incidentally, is why Moss's article that Ruch attempted to critique is a much stronger piece of video game criticism than Ruch's; what Moss actually identifies is an issue with the thematic formulation of the game, and its complicity with material conditions of capitalism and patriarchy. Moss identifies the material and its effects; Ruch drags it back into a form of idealism and claims no effective action is there to be taken.
39) The jRPG is like a novel in that its themes are accessed primarily through linguistic or graphematic abstraction, which often takes the shape of narrative but is identifiable as both fractal instances and negative consequences of the narrative, in addition to other designed elements of mechanics and so on; it is totally unlike a novel in that the theme of a novel is absolutely never misrecognized as its ontology. Which is to say, the formal elements of the novel, and their relation to the work of the novel, as discussed in (20), are incommensurable with the formal elements of the video game, even in its jRPG iteration, and the work thereof.
40) This, of course, is just overstretching the claim/praise of the jRPG; no one claims it is a novel, just the closest to one that a video game can achieve. The point in (26) still stands, however; Interactive Fiction (or text adventures, or Choose Your Own Adventure Games) clearly remains closer. So why the absence of these kinds of games from the discussion?
41) The obvious answer is popularity; for a long time, the jRPG was one of the most popular genres of video games, while text adventures were distant memories. On top of that, text adventures also have a more equivocal claim to the status of game than jRPGs do. What is most important about this, though, is that the claim is both common and easily disproved, even in reference to the canon of the form in which the claim is taking place. Even if a gamer doesn't like them, or has never played one, everyone is aware of the existence of text adventures, and it doesn't take first-hand familiarity to get that they undermine the claim of the jRPG being the closest thing video games have to the novel. What this illustrates is that the claim was never a formal claim to begin with; it is not, that is to say, a claim that relies on the form to which it refers to be true. Instead it is a claim about the manipulation of formal elements, primarily by way of privileging certain frames; and this is why (10) calls out explicitly the thematic level, the privileging of which in the novel is inversely related to its privileging in the jRPG, as related to critique. Thus, it is ultimately nothing whatsoever alike.
42) Which returns us to (22), and the claims about the thematic metaphorization of setting in Final Fantasy VII as vertical/horizontal, and its centrality to genre-identification. All the elaboration here has failed to tie (6) to the thematic level; and so, assuming that the major design aesthetic of the jRPG is abstraction, and the thematic level is the privileged level of the jRPG, the theory at present has one huge hole in it. Unless the thematic is always already a form of abstraction, of course; but that would be really a very dull way to think about it.
43) So far, here are the claims about abstraction: a) the battles, being turn-based and menu-based, are abstractions of combat. b) the dialogue, being (theoretically) endlessly replicable, is an abstraction of conversation. c) the protagonist, being a character who falls within the tradition of literary representations that have been referred to herein as schizoid, in contravention of established tropes, is an abstraction of character. d) (a) & (b), composing the entirety of the play of the game, indicate that the games mechanical level is designed as a mode of navigating through abstraction. e) the narrative of the game, via (c) & (d), that is, the protagonist as abstraction of character and the games navigation through the means of abstraction, is therefore founded on the "character" "moving" through -- well, is it the world, or the "world"?
44) The claims of (24) & (22) can be seen on one level already as dealing with the thematic level as abstraction, of course, by extrapolating recurring motifs within the game (as in the setting of Midgar vs the world map as being establishments of, simultaneously, themes of verticality vs horizontality and industry vs. nature, and the conflation of the two and their subsequent splitting) and the further abstraction inherent in this by way of instrumentalizing these extrapolated ideas into the meta-thematic construction of genre as a whole. These do not describe the way that the game itself is designed with abstraction in mind, however, which is the point of thesis (6), however, so much as the way that we can subsequently abstract them. So, does the thematic level sit outside the bounds of design, as the Aeris article seems to suggest fans think, or is this just the point at which Final Fantasy VII fails in its design mission?
45) In the first visit to the Gold Saucer, Cloud and his friends are implicated in a series of murders and thrown into Corel Prison, in a bit of story which hides the allegorical core of the first part of the game in the shell of developing Barrett's character. You first visit North Corel, where Barrett is met with an ugly reception. Just before ascending to Gold Saucer, Barrett explains that he was instrumental in transforming Corel from a town that produced coal to a town that mined "Mako energy," a power source monopolized by the Shinra Corporation who you began the game fighting and which is derived from the "life energy" of the planet. You then ascend to the Gold Saucer, which is a place of intensively technologized capital investments, a sort of hybrid arcade/theme park where the only workers are service workers and the only activities are a variety of diversions on which you can spend a localized currency (GP, as opposed to gil, the universal currency of the world) in return for playing games to net you more of the localized currency or prizes. From here, the game throws you into the Corel Prison, site of the former Corel, situated in the middle of a vast desert, which is accessed by dropping you below the Gold Saucer. Corel was laid to waste by the failed Mako Factory, and the residents of the prison all appear to be former members of the working class, displaced by the economic shift and unnecessary to the operations of capital above them.
46) The Gold Saucer/Corel Prison moment is the games strongest intensification of the Bad/Industrial/Vertical thematic, and its Good/Natural/Horizontal corollary. Because of this intensification, however, it is also the moment at which the clean break between these two constellations becomes fraught. Gold Saucer is not industrial, but post-industrial, quite literally rising above the ashes of the industrial town below, which is also post-industrial, at least in that it was a place where there was industry, but no more. The Gold Saucer is also much more fun to play in, which necessarily troubles the Good/Bad split. Unlike in Midgar, the player does not have to trudge their way up; there is a convenient mode of conveyance by a shuttle attached to a rope, and within the park there are little themed holes to instantaneously transport you from one part to the other. On the other hand, Corel Prison is a small space fraught with incessant random battles with enemies who, even if they don't kill you, will almost certainly steal some of your shit; the surrounding vast desert will almost certainly kill anyone who enters it naively unless they luck into a random appearance by a Chocobo Cart, and the reward for beating the place is to watch Barrett's closest friend and the father of his adopted daughter commit suicide. By way of intensifying the thematics -- that is, by pushing them past their pedagogical use and insisting on a fidelity to the themes themselves -- their strictly-delimited equivalencies begin to become unmoored, and their slow movement towards inversion (discussed in (24)) begins. This unmooring then begins to drive the narrative tension of the game as well, creating a backdrop of displacement which is expressed in the development of characters (Yuffie's arc, as we learn that her thieving is a consequence of her difficult upbringing in a wartorn region; Red XIII's arc, as he reconciles with his family and his status as the last of his species) and the overall movement of the narrative, in which Cloud discovers his factual past and overcomes the threat Sephiroth poses to the planet.
47) This recombinatory approach to the thematics is both of and against the Fantasy genre. I've touched on the idea of genre as a machine for its own reproduction elsewhere, but only ever elliptically; what I mean by this, on at least one level, is to push against the understanding of genre as neutral and taxonomical, and to propose a definition which equally accounts for the critical and marketing and productive categories it is deployed by. Genre, when it becomes identifiable in a collection of texts, is the establishment of sufficient means of production such that it itself may be infinitely reproducible. The means themselves differ depending on the utterers structural position; for the marketer, the means are a buying audience, for the critic, an identifiable set of tropes, for the producer, a constellation of things tied sufficiently to an extrinsic meaning.
48) This definition from (47) presents a possible refutation of the claim in (22) that genre is of the setting, specifically with reference to the marketers usage. However, this is a problem with the rhetoric more than the respective claims; it must, therefore, be clarified that the point of proposing this synthesizing move is also in part to undermine any clear distinction between the levels; because the point of all the usages is ultimately the reproduction of the term, the specific metric by which it is deemed reproducible is not central to the term itself.
49) To return to the first sentence of (47), then. It is of Fantasy in that it follows the general trajectory of the Fantasy novel, which establishes a close relationship between the themes and the world at the outset, and then to create narrative tension often relies on the disruption of this relationship; it is against it in that it, until the bullshit final scene of the final cinematic, does not resolve that tension with a return to the initial closeness, but a continuing sense of disjuncture abated by the employment of the "hero saves the world from certain destruction and barely escapes with his life" trope. Again, this quasi-subversion does nothing to undermine the genre as such, because it is completely capable of being more grist for the mill.
50) One could reasonably claim, given this set of critical tools, that genre fiction, and especially Fantasy, provides the least-bloated form of aesthetic economy available to literature. That is kind of beside the point here though, so I'll kind of just let it dangle.
51) It is the dual establishment of this definition of genre and this understanding of genre, and especially Fantasy, as world-as-thematic that lays the groundwork by which we can analyze the first Gold Saucer/Corel Prison sequence to reveal the ways in which the overarching design philosophy of the jRPG applies to the thematic level as well.
52) The easiest way to make the point I will be attempting to prove for the rest of this essay is to simply say two words: "world map." Readers of a certain inclination can, if they feel comprehension, stop here and lose nothing in what follows.
53) By constructing a world, as seen through the thematic intensification of the Gold Saucer/Corel Prison microcosm, along the lines of thematic identifications, Final Fantasy VII operates according to the reproductive economy of the fantastic, positioning itself not simply as an hermetic text capable of being interrogated for messages but complete unto itself, but also as a text which partakes of and comments critically upon an established tradition. This is the case, of course, in any non-idealized text; it is important insofar as it offers, by the means of this particular economy, an opening by which to analyze its management of scarcity.
54) The desert around Corel Prison, divided as it is into discrete identical areas, is itself an obvious abstraction, created by both generic and technological limitations, which posits the desert as both iterative and boundless; moving from within an area to the boundaries repositions the player into an identical environment, a difference which is the same. This is also the case, albeit in a very different way, and towards very different ends, with the various video games available in the Gold Saucer, but especially the theme park ride available in the Speed Zone. By creating a space defined from within as unable to be exited except according to its own logic of the exception -- the end of the ride as reaching its beginning; the random appearance of a Chocobo-driven carriage in the desert -- the truth of the world-as-"world" can be made explicit in a non-didactic move.
55) Insofar as the abstract is merely a relative expression of the non-concrete, and the category of real abstractions is the bridge which connects the binary by way of material effects, the final claim can be made: the privileged status of the thematic falls not within the category of ontology, but of being the real abstraction, the bridge by which the various abstract mechanics of the genre, and its reproductive economy, communicates with the concrete expressions which the game itself codifies.