For the past month I’ve taken up the self-imposed challenge of playing nothing but JRPGs. There are few reasons for this but all of them can be traced back to “I like them.” In playing and replaying games in the genre I’ve noticed some patterns emerge. Initially, summarizing these patterns from over twenty years’ worth of games seemed like a daunting task. But, fortunately for me, Dutch developer SCF was able to condense much of the genre in his 2009 release, Exit Fate.
Developed using RPGmaker, Exit Fate borrows liberally from a variety of PS1 era games—particularly Suikoden II—and it’s been rather viciously criticised for the similarities it bears for past games. However, it never dresses its homages up as original content so that criticism isn’t entirely justified. The character portraits and combat models—all SFC’s own artwork—are unique and carefully crafted, and the game also features some strong writing and an interesting, if sometimes clichéd, cast and world. In essence, it’s a loving interpretation of the old blended with just enough newness to hit all the right notes. The game is available for free at SCF’s personal website, where prospective players are able to make a donation if they’d like. It stands tall enough on its own legs that one need not be intimately familiar with JRPGs to enjoy it, but the ideal audience is likely one with some experience in the genre.
Exit Fate tells the story of Daniel Vinyard, a colonel for the army of Kirgard, a superpower at war with the equally influential Zelmony. On the eve of Kirgard’s invasion, Daniel blacks out and wakes up surrounded by dead soldiers from the regiment he was to command. He flees deeper into Zelmony to figure out what happened and, eventually, attempts to bring about a nonviolent solution to the countries’ ancient feud.
It’s functional as a game: it’s easy to learn and the buttons do what they’re supposed to. The story is compelling enough to see through even if it does some time to break into a comfortable stride. As mentioned, though, Exit Fate brings to mind a number of the questionable conventions that have clung to JRPGs (and games at large) over the years. Specifically, Exit Fate and the JRPGs that inspired it, are almost universally played from the perspective of privileged distance. JRPG protagonists are typically members of an aristocracy, or like Exit Fate’s Daniel, they’re respected officers of an effective military, or they’re townies in a pastoral countryside. In any case, A JRPG adventure follows the stripping and reacquisition of a lead character’s privilege.
Firstly—and this point has been raised several times before—RPGs are structured around the capitalist mythology: players begin at level 1 and they have nothing, by the time they work through the game they’re level 99 and they have everything the game could offer them. The means to improve can be taken for granted. If things become difficult, there are plenty of monsters they can gain resources from. The player will encounter enemies along their path, defeating enemies will earn experience and gold, the player will level up at determined intervals, higher levels will make the game easier and, if things are still too difficult, than the means to improve further are never far from reach. Again, this is nothing that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth noting that this is the engine driving the genre.
Furthermore, JRPG heroes reinforce the mechanics of the games they live in. When they’re introduced they’re often characterized as naïve, disagreeable, lazy or wealthy. In any case, they’re propped up as someone with a good deal of independence. Even if they aren’t, it is assumed that there is a degree of opportunity in their reach. Returning to Exit Fate, the player meets Daniel in a palace. But on a more basic level, he’s employed, educated, young, able and respected. When Daniel is forced into enemy territory, he’s hardly treated any differently—a former enemy colonel would be happy addition to any defending military, so the worst he has to endure is a few dirty looks and double entendres.
Daniel’s defection may awaken his conscience and he may have less access to resources on the other side of the battlefield, but he’s still welcome in his former enemy’s country. He gets his old job back, he’s fed and clothed and—for the most part—trusted. He falls from grace only to land in slightly less grace. Then he quickly discovers and gains access to the means to fix the problems facing him.
Even in RPGs where the player is not an aristocrat or an officer, they still come from a background of privilege. Characters may not always live in a palace, but they almost certainly have a home; they aren’t always wealthy, but they’ll never be turned away from a storekeeper; they may come from a working class background but prices aren’t artificially inflated nor are wages suppressed to manipulate their living standards; they may not even be very well respected, but they can (and often do) depend on a small community for support. In these games the player and player-character can take opportunity for granted.
How differently would Exit Fate look if Daniel weren’t a colonel, but a homeless man conscripted from debtors’ prison? What if being lost in enemy territory didn’t result in an invitation from his former enemies, but incarceration in a POW camp? What if he couldn’t enter a town anonymously seeking rest and sidequests because he could be visibly identified as “the enemy”? Imagine if Daniel wasn’t tasked with winning a noble war but was forced to survive one he didn’t give a damn about.
Many JRPGs (Exit Fate among them) directly deal with themes of oppression versus liberty, but almost never from the perspective of the oppressed. Players are promised results for certain behaviours and the game keeps its promise; characters aim to create a common good and they always have a chance to complete their goals. Even when these games do include underprivileged characters, someone closer to the top of the hierarchy intervenes and provides them with greater political power.
Providing a voice for the privileged while ignoring or silencing the oppressed is a criticism that could be levelled against games in any genre, but it’s particularly damning in a role-playing game where the emphasis is on the “role” the player has in influencing the game’s world. The potential roles are reduced to some permutation of privilege. Furthermore, JRPGs are celebrated for their rounded characters in deep worlds and, thematically, they’re often closely concerned with how groups and nations relate to one another. Compounding the genre’s reputation with its primary themes, limiting perspective to that of the privileged is even harder to excuse.
Daniel is an admirable character: he sacrifices personal comfort so he can work toward a common good. But he’s the same lens through which almost every JRPG is played. Exit Fate is another instance of the genre withholding the oppression narrative from the oppressed. It isn’t even that there’s something inherent in JRPGs that prevents the perspective from broadening but it focuses exclusively on one angle of the dynamic.
So for all that Exit Fate fondly recalls from a type of game that so many fondly recall, it does bring with it a good deal of the baggage from the genre. It’s worth a play if you’ve got fond memories of Japanese RPGs from around the turn of the century. But as nice as it is to see the resurrection of old styles of design, it’s disappointing that it does not rise to the chance to offer change where it was perhaps most needed.