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 place holder 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 instalments 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 instalments of Final Fantasy in which there is no clear main character. The actions of the group supersede 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.