We can do better.
This morning saw the lifting of a preview embargo for the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, and with it a bunch of quotes from producer Naoki Yoshida that are being both praised and dunked on in equal measure depending on which interview you happen to be reading. One such interview that stood out to me came from a great video by critic SkillUp whose first question asking to clarify some earlier statements about the evolution of the JRPG genre elicited this response:
One thing he wants to get across is that when we create games, we don't go into them thinking we are creating JRPGs. We are just creating RPGs. The term JRPG is used by Western media rather than users and media in Japan. This is going to depend on who you ask but there was a time when this term first appeared fifteen years ago, and for us as developers the first time we heard it — it was like a discriminatory¹ term — as though we were being made fun of for creating these games.
And so for some developers the term JRPG can be something that will maybe trigger bad feelings because of what was in the past. It wasn't a compliment to a lot of developers in Japan. We understand that recently JRPG has better connotations, and it's being used as a positive, but we still remember the time when it was being used as a negative. I remember seeing something fifteen years ago which was basically a definition of what a JRPG was versus a western RPG.
It's kind of like Final Fantasy VII, and it has this type of graphics, this length of story — and compartmentalizing what we were creating into a JRPG box. And I took offense to that because that's not how we go into creating. We were going in to create an RPG, but to be compartmentalized we thought that was discriminatory.
I've been a bit hesitant to use the term JRPG over the past few months, as I started to question it myself around the release of Elden Ring. I'd seen some discussion online referring to the game as a JRPG despite not containing any of the mechanic elements I usually attribute to the genre. I asked myself why we use JRPG against other terms like ARPG (action role playing game) or SRPG (strategy role playing game) where the first word in the acronym describes how the player will interact with a game's systems². How is the word "Japanese" really helpful as a mechanic descriptor compared to "action" or "strategy?"
As a genre definition, most people attribute it to games containing turn-based combat, games made in Japan, or maybe some combination of both. Yet in the year 2023 we're far enough removed from the early days of Pokémon and Dragon Quest to be blessed with new titles inspired by those franchises and created by developers all over the globe. 2022's incredible Chained Echoes contains all of the trappings of the JRPG genre, but was created by a small team out of Germany. The upcoming Sea of Stars — similarly inspired by Chrono Trigger — is from a studio based in Quebec. Forum-arguers on the internet would likely disqualify both of these titles from the genre, despite allowing a franchise like Kingdom Hearts — which lacks turn-based combat in favor of real-time action. What this means in our current vernacular is that most would argue an RPG is the "default" terminology... unless it's made in Japan... and that seems like a super incorrect way to consider or classify genre.
He's right, it's weird we keep using this term for things that don't really apply beyond being Japanese and not using it for things that would apply (RPGs made in Japan) because it doesn't fit what our brain thinks of as JRPGs. https://t.co/tUcZ3Vcn9h— Imran Khan (@imranzomg) February 28, 2023
In light of these comments from Yoshida³ about JRPG possibly being read as discriminatory, along with its definition being so broadly applied as to become almost amorphic, it seems like the term needs a rethink. In my eyes, it's not too much of a leap given the other RPG sub-genres already in use to say that "turn based RPG" is what most people mean when they say JRPG. Going forward, that's probably what I'll be using to describe games like Dragon Quest alongside the more general "RPG."
That said, all terms used to describe genre can and should be malleable. They should grow, evolve, or dissolve with the times. The most interesting and forward-thinking RPGs of today bear small resemblances to the games that defined the genre, but can be classified as RPGs all the same. What we considered to be a Metroidvania ten years ago looks very different than it does today, and I've gone as far as claiming a Sudoku app can be a roguelike so I'll always be the first to tell you to rethink the vocabulary used to describe creative works.
¹ There's also the entire bit about the lack of diversity in FF16 and Yoshida's disappointing response. His obviously horrible and close-minded take about a made up fantasy setting only having room for white people doesn't discount his very valid feelings about JRPG as a descriptor.
² Next up we'll need to figure out a new one for CRPG considering a lot of those games are available on an Xbox, which is kind of like a computer... but not exactly.
³ None of this really gets into Yoshida's larger point about finding genre trappings in general to be creative constraints he wants to break free from, and that leads into why people are dunking on him relentlessly for saying blitzball doesn't fit into the world of Final Fantasy which he envisions as a dark and gritty and Game of Thrones-adjacent world instead of one capable of containing small joys in the face of great darkness. I sympathize with wanting to chart your own path — especially when it comes to a franchise like Final Fantasy which was built on a foundation of innovation — but to do so while ignoring the legacy and successes of the past titles will only serve to anger the very people you're hoping to win over.