There were just a few more thoughts I had on Agarest: Generations of War that are a little too disorganized to pitch anywhere so I’ll just spill them here and see what happens. First, as I’ve written already, it reminds me of a number of great games (“An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games.” The Border House. Nov 4 2013.) and it could have been a great game itself if it didn’t rely so heavily on the underdog narrative (“A Colonist’s Fantasy: The Problem with the Fair Fight.” PopMatters. Nov 12 2013.). The main problem I have with positioning the player against the odds is that you can’t empower the player through RPG mechanics (fight rats at level 1 until you slay dragons at level 30) while at the same time telling them how desperate they are. It doesn’t work on a logical level but more importantly, the structure of the genre has a number of negative implications given Agarest‘s interest in oppression, especially ethnic oppression.
Video games in general borrow their story devices from epic literature (“Video games as epic poetry.” A Poet’s Den. Oct 3 2013) but I don’t think any genre relies more on the tropes and conventions of epic poetry and theatre than Japanese RPGs. For me the distinguishing quality of a JRPG isn’t whether it is developed in Japan or if it aligns with my (limited) understanding of Japanese culture, a JRPG is a game that openly uses as many epic conventions as possible in a tabletop-inspired game world. Using a broader definition of “epic” than is academically accepted—that is, ignoring the work’s country of origin, language and rhythmic structure—a list of ten classic JRPGs would look well at home next to a list of ten classic epic tales.
Both begin in medias res, both are about universal themes that are usually stated outright, often they take place during or set around some kind of war and its large cast of characters (often initially differentiated by their choice of weapon) include demi-Gods and ideological champions. Epics and JRPGs include elaborate descriptions of flamboyant clothing that reflect the wearer’s personality, they follow a long string of episodic but not entirely connected adventures leading to a triumphant conclusion, characters stop in battle to muse about love or royalty or some other aspect of the human condition, death comes with a soliloquy, emotions are overpowering and unsubtle, themes are hammered home in every image and in every line. Epics and JRPGs both directly speak to their audiences through a chorus or muse, both have monsters and nameless grunts fall by the thousand, whole cities are cursed or plagued and armies are as likely to swoon or flee or break down into tears as they are to rally and fight to the last after an inspiring speech.
I’m not sure if my criteria for defining JRPGs is sufficient or even necessary in understanding the genre as most others do, but there are many commonalities between JRPGs and epics and the relationship continues to interest me and further my enjoyment of the genre. This doesn’t make JRPGs any better or worse than any other type of game, but the tropes cross over well from one form of storytelling to the next. To say nothing of how it tends to improve my enjoyment of even a disappointing game like Agarest. And while JRPG structure creates an aesthetic and reinforces narratives that I personally value, there are just some things the form isn’t any good for.
The thing about epics (and JRPGs) is that they aren’t great about dealing with complex social issues. The Trojan War, as discussed by Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Chaucer, Shakespeare and whoever else wants a crack at it, is a war between two more or less equally matched superpowers. Authors bias toward one or the other for a number of reasons, but in most tellings Troy’s and Greece’s armies are at a standstill so long as they engage with one another directly. The tragedy of the war in how the Trojans ignored the signs of their doom and in how the Achaeans overstepped their victory.
The war isn’t really the point of any of the stories based around it; at a given time either side stands a chance to win it. What makes these stories interesting is the character and relationship studies emerging from the heroes and royalty on both fronts. Each side has their heroes and their victories and their catastrophes to deal with, the war is just an excuse to put a bunch of humans together and get them to act unabashedly human. Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Achilles, Vikram and Arthur all speak with their enemies in the same language, they worship the same gods and they look more or less the same, often they’re actually extended family. That’s more or less the point, everybody is burdened by the same sufferings of family, love, mortality, freedom and on and on; these stories approach themes that affect all of us. But who gets to be included in “us” is not simple.
When a game like Agarest establishes a race-based narrative and then puts the bad guys and good guys on basically equal footing it’s harmful because in reality the oppressed aren’t losing some open war because they defied this or that god or ignored a prophecy or disrespected their champion. Samson’s mistake was revealing the secret of his magic hair, Delilah’s mistake was being a woman and needing money. The oppressed aren’t losing a war they had an honest shot at, they’re losing because of internal, invisible cultural forces. The oppressors themselves don’t even actively fight to uphold their victory, the system they benefit from does the work for them. Oppression comes from a system that distinguishes and penalizes those that are recognizably outside the ruling class, it does not chronicle a march against an identical society just over that hill. JRPGs can’t really recognize that important difference because they’re based in equal relationships between heroes.
Agarest wants to up the stakes by putting the player on the losing side and asking them to beat the odds. But the losers the game pits the player alongside are invariably the working class rioting for better wages or a tribal society at the fringes of an empire. The losing side can be distinguished from the winners by noting the different skin tone or facial features or speech patterns of Imperial and underclass armies. That’s a major problem because the structure of JRPGs and epics places equal power on each side of a conflict and in actual history Imperial forces never give indigenous or plebian peoples a fair defence. Most never realized they are under attack before being wiped out or forcibly evacuated: that’s what Imperialism does, it chases its enemies out at level 1. Finally, the defenders in the different lands of Agarest don’t ever stand a chance at winning until a virtuous agent from their oppressors comes and leads them to glorious victory. After all that, it reinforces the innate superiority of the invader.
Agarest is not a very good game, even if I’ve seen some positives in it. But it highlights just how problematic it is to frame certain narratives within certain conventions. A narrative focused on oppression isn’t something to just do. The epic conventions of, say, the JRPG directly conflict with any thesis a game is trying to argue. Games have been around long enough that conventions have crystallized, by now developers should be aware of what they are and how to work within them. The medium is the message.
Further reading: Ligman, Kris. Review: Records of Agarest War Zero. PopMatters. Jul 26 2011.
Schiller, Mike. Review: Records of Agarest War. PopMatters. Jun 17 2010.