I complain a lot about the rigid archtypes found in Japanese anime and games. I complain even more when I’m watching or playing said anime and games. I am playing the Switch JRPG Xenoblade Chronicles 2. I am about to complain.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one: A plucky young boy with a heart of gold meets a submissive, buxom women who enlists him and his friends in a quest against a nefarious gang of super warriors up to no good. That should sound familiar, if only because it’s the plot of any number of JRPGs and pretty much every Tales of… game. I have often wondered why plenty of games reuse the same archetypes with the same boring stories resulting in the same boring outcomes. I now realize how the two are linked. Rigid archetypes force the same type of story.
Story elements can be ranked along a scale of dynamism with most elements central to the plot changing while less important elements are held constant to avoid overwhelming the reader. The characters may grow as they face challenges, but the first town they visited will likely get no further attention once the plot moves on. The player is meant to invest in the characters as they change and not worry overmuch about extraneous details. The end result is a story that continually provides new ideas and experiences. The end result is a story that is more interesting.
JRPG’s such as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 hold central plot elements rigid resulting in a static and predictable story development. Elements that cannot grow continually perform the same actions as a result of a variety of stimuli. Rex, the hero, will always charge into a fight against all odds because his character is a static version of brave and noble. Rex will likely fight tens of times for the story and yet will have the same reaction each time because he cannot change. As a result, the player has a good idea of how each encounter will go and most conflicts resolved as soon as an enemy steps on screen.
Even worse is the fact that Rex’s static nature warps the story around him. Since Rex must be BRAVE and NOBLE, the story has to accommodate that, resulting in implausible scenarios to continually reward these traits. When Rex faces an empire’s best warrior, he has to win to continue to validate the BRAVE and NOBLE elements of his character. To fail to reward Rex’s traits would cause the reader to question their value and the developer would either have to allow Rex to adapt or face a questioning audience who wonders why he won’t. Rather than surmount that challenge, the developers take the easy way and create scenarios where being BRAVE and NOBLE is the solution. XC2 twists its story and world to ensure Rex retains his static nature rather than have him respond to it.
As a result, XC2 retells the same story that countless other games have told. By holding key elements still, XC2 lacks enough material to do anything new or interesting. The setting varies and the names change, but XC2 must follow the well-worn pattern of its predecessors because there aren’t enough mutable elements to allow for the difference. The end result is a boring outcome that is all too familiar to any JPRG fan or player of Japanese video games in general.