As Final Fantasy 16 boss Naoki Yoshida calls it “discrimination”, is it time to ditch the term “JRPG”?

Probably the most interesting thing to come out of Final Fantasy 16 yesterday’s announcements had nothing to do with the game. It was a single, spontaneous remark from the game’s producer, Naoki Yoshida – a comment inspired by a single word from an interviewer that sparked an intense debate online.

From one spark the earth will ignite. A new shadow rises and falls upon the Dominants, painting their destiny black as night.

Naoki Yoshida and Clive from Final Fantasy 16

Naoki Yoshida (left) and Final Fantasy 16 protagonist Clive (right).

Yoshida dislikes the term “JRPG”, meaning a Japanese role-playing game – and explains that when he first heard it, he felt it was a “discriminatory term”.

The comments were made by Yoshida, now one of the most prominent and important Japanese creators, in an interview that is part of the excellent preview of FF16 on YouTuber SkillUp. The comments were received in text form by RPG Site and quickly became a hot topic of conversation.

Yoshida’s comments were inspired by a question from SkillUp, which asked him and the best creative team in FF16 if they thought the “JRPG genre” hadn’t developed in the same way that action games have in recent times. I can imagine what Yoshida looked like at this point – I’ve interviewed him more than 10 times and he winces as he always does when he doesn’t like questions.

So he probably pulled that face, spoke Japanese for a while, and then the lead western translator for both FF14 and FF16 Michael Christopher Koji Fox, as translator, offered the following:

“One thing he wants to convey is that when we make games, we don’t go into them thinking we’re making JRPGs, we’re just making RPGs. The term JRPG is used by Western media, not by users and media in Japan.

“It will depend on who you ask, but there was a time when this term first came up 15 years ago, and for us developers when we first heard it, it was a discriminatory term. It’s like we’re making fun of making these games, so for some developers, the term JRPG can be something that can evoke bad feelings for what it’s been in the past. It wasn’t a compliment to many developers in Japan.”

“We understand that recently JRPG has better connotations and is used as positive, but we still remember the time when it was used as negative.”

Final Fantasy 16 takes place in the world of Valistea.

Yoshida also notes that the definition of JRPG is often something that basically describes Final Fantasy 7 – placing this sub-genre in compartmentalized constraints that, in his opinion, simply don’t make sense.

“We wanted to make an RPG, but they found it discriminatory to divide them into compartments,” Fox explains about Yoshida’s comments.

Interesting comment, right? It’s food for thought, and as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to categorize and explain the differences between many types of role-playing games for discovery purposes, it really does give me food for thought.

I totally understand where Yoshida comes from. People of a certain age will remember a time when there was a really nasty streak in Western gaming and media over Japanese games that you could easily argue was racist.

I remember it perfectly, having a website dedicated to the RPG genre. Of course, we covered Mass Effect and Skryim and the like, but a huge part of the coverage on this site was still dedicated to non-Japanese RPGs. And it was a tough time for the genre.

With this difficult time came the JRPG designation, which was derisively used by Western gamers and even developers. It certainly existed before that period – we used “JRPG” to categorize games on the RPG site in its founding year in 2006 – but about five years later the way the word was used took a negative turn.

A role-playing game, developed anywhere in the world, is a role-playing game.

This was the era of many Japanese developers, especially in the RPG space, struggling with the transition to HD. It’s an era of breathtaking commentary in interviews about how “HD cities are hard” and then how cities people loved in older games are, um, “boring” to explain their absence in newer games. It was an era full of cancellations, delays and rebuilds of games into completely different titles. This brutally coincided with the dominance of the modern Western RPG with the mega-successes of the likes of Bethesda, BioWare, and CD Projekt RED, to name a few.

“Your games just suck,” said Fez creator Phil Fish to some poor, unsuspecting Japanese developer who asked him what he thought of modern Japanese games at the GDC panel.

Fish’s comments probably became the vehicle for the whole attitude as he doubled up on Twitter. “The games in your country today are terrible,” he commented. Jonathan Blow, a man almost moved to tears by the notion that people don’t see any deeper meaning in his navel-looking platformer, has joined in calling Japanese games “helpless scales.” Fish later apologized.

It was, frankly, very bad. I remember during this period on forums such as NeoGAF and GameFAQs, as well as in some corners of gaming media, “JRPG” was used derisively and sometimes with racist undertones. “Oh, you like JRPGs, games with femboy main characters?” Such a tone. Back then on RPG Site we got it all the time. So I understand and I know.

I haven’t thought about those times in years, but Yoshida’s comments reminded me of that era. Considering this now, it’s no surprise that the attitude has left a scar and remains a touchy topic, especially at Square Enix, the company that has undoubtedly suffered the biggest losses at the time.

Final Fantasy 16 party.

But – wow, this “but” has been brewing for a few paragraphs already, right? – but, but, but… I still use the term JRPG. For me, it became a useful abbreviation – and I think that’s the primary way it’s used today. Yoshida seems to understand this at least in part from his comments on the term, which is now more positive.

For me now, in the year of our master 2023, JRPG has long not meant “Japanese RPG”. The term has evolved and the shitty xenophobic context is now just etymology. I use the term “JRPG” to refer to a subset of distinctive design and styling features that were bred in Japan in the 80s and 90s.

Almost all RPGs – East or West – are descendants of Dungeons & Dragons. But East and West have gone in different directions. West on PC arguably stayed more true to the origins of D&D; leads to things like Ultima, Wizardry, and from there you can trace the lineage of everything from Starfield to Diablo. The Japanese mainly worked on consoles, and their RPGs changed accordingly; simpler input and greater separation of combat, exploration, and story scenes as required by the hardware.

Both sides have developed their own tropes and traditions, and that’s what I mean by JRPG. Today’s world is so international that cross-contamination is natural. We’ve seen this often in Japanese RPGs taking significant cues from popular titles in the West. In fact, FF16 is an example of this, but it also went the other way.

Undertale was born in the mind of a Westerner, but it wouldn’t exist without Earthbound either. South Park: The Stick of Truth absolutely owes its combat to Paper Mario – and fandom franchise creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who had an overall golden age of Japanese SNES RPGs. Chained Echoes was recently helmed by Chrono Trigger. Ubisoft Child of Light owes a lot to Final Fantasy and even Grandia. These games are everywhere, though often as indie games. If you ask me what kind of games these are, I would describe them as JRPGs.

For the same reason, I wouldn’t describe Final Fantasy 16 as JRPG. I wouldn’t describe any of the Souls games that way either. Elden Ring certainly feels like a throwback to the past: it has more in common with traditional Dungeons & Dragons than the years of “JRPG” evolution that came after. It doesn’t contain tropes, so it’s not a JRPG… even if it’s an RPG made in Japan.

Basically, I treated the term as “CRPG”, “TRPG” or “ARPG” – a descriptor that helps to narrow down the exact type and style of play within a very, very broad genre.

Summons have long been a staple of Final Fantasy games. Does that mean they’re a “JRPG” trope?

If I say CRPG (Computer RPG), you probably know what I mean. Isometric view, lots of text boxes and choices, looting and managing a sizable squad – things defined by games that came when they were only available on PC, hence the name. If I say ARPG (Action RPG), you know I’m talking about real-time hacking, slashing, maybe shooting, and character development, which includes a much improved RPG progression system than in those fuller, thicker CRPGs. We can even point to a series like Fallout that started life as a CRPG and turned into an ARPG when Bethesda took possession of it.

So it follows that if I say JRPG, I think most of you do You know what I mean. I never minded holding J, which originally stood for the Japanese language as it was a tribute to where these stylistic elements flourished. But I am also a Westerner; so what do i know?

The term is everywhere now. Listings of the best JRPG games can be found in many major game stores, the PlayStation Store offers JRPG sales, the official Xbox blog classifies all posts about games of a certain type as “JRPG” … Nintendo does it too. it’s a thing.

Terms that make programmers uncomfortable or evoke negative memories aren’t good either – so maybe we need a new word. I think it’s safe to say that video games have been stretching and growing out of old definitions of the genre for some time now. That’s why we got really shoddy genre descriptors like Soulsborne and Metroidvania. Maybe we should add “JRPG” to this list, now all JRPG games are no longer made in Japan.

I thought it was fine, but… the thoughts of a real Japanese programmer stopped me. Yoshida’s comments are really thought-provoking – but I just don’t know the answer yet.

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