It’s a bit hard to swallow, but I’ll just make it clear: I absolutely admit that I am in love with JRPGs (for the uninitiated, that stands for Japanese Role Playing Games). They’re like my guilty pleasure, my summertime kitschy romance novel. Yes, I understand the stories are often pseudo-philosophical ramblings with juvenile solutions to non-problems. Yes, I understand that the style of art can either be considered childish or overtly paedophilic. Yes, I understand that at their core, every JRPG is essentially the same. Still, I collect them, play them, and love them. I blame my childhood introduction to the NES hit Final Fantasy as the start of this dark path.
One game I recently became enraptured with was Namco Bandai’s Eternal Sonata. I remember fondly the warm memories of me rushing to hide it from my friend Jeff when he unexpectedly stopped by my house. I knew that if he saw the big-eyed lead character “Polka” on screen, he would be relentless in his mockery. And why is this? Why should I be embarrassed that I am enjoying a game with an art style that may not fit the American cultural norm? While the art style can be considered juvenile in games like this, the stories are often very much adult.
Let’s look at the story for a moment. Never in my life did I think I would play a video game based on the comatose dreams of a dying Frédéric Chopin. My children played the game with me, and they learned more about classical music and 19th century European history than any other 4th and 5th graders I’ve met. They connected with Chopin, taking newfound pride in their Polish heritage, and discovered a fondness for piano. Yes, the lead character looks ridiculously cute and goofy, but she is a terminally ill heroine on a quest to find meaning in her tragically shortened life. I admit that the story gets a little too crazy in the end, and degenerates into the kind of stuff that provides conversational fodder for nerdy 15 year old girls who hang out in coffeeshops; but still, there is validity and fulfillment to be found even for a modern gentleman like myself.
I recently reviewed Valkyria Chronicles and that got me thinking. I was extremely happy with the game, and I consider it one of the better games I’ve ever played, but the juvenile attempts at romance and humor were slightly embarrassing. There are cutscenes involving a winged pig that the antagonist and his team pick up on their travels that are downright silly and awkward to watch. At the same time, there are story elements and characters that only adults would be able to comprehend, so the question must be asked: Who is this written for? My kids lost interest in the story almost immediately because it was a bit too complicated; yet they giggled and enjoyed the pig scenes and the simple love story.
It’s things of that sort that lead me to believe that ultimately, it’s a cultural thing I’ll never grasp. After all, Japanese pop culture is liberally sprinkled with “cute”, from advertising to retail product branding and everything in between. It even has a name, and is a fundamental part of modern Japanese culture. Whereas to westerners, Kawaii may seem juvenile or off-putting, we still smirk and snicker at the cuteness factor and realize that, maybe because of Anime and video games, it is becoming a small part of our culture too. After all, we could all do with a bit more positive energy in our lives, right? I’m not saying that most JRPGs are Kawaii, but there is definitely some in almost every JRPG I’ve ever played (usually in the form of an animal, or comic relief). Think “Mog” from Final Fantasy VI. This game had one of the most psychotic, evil villains in video game history, but there was Mog to lighten things up for us.
Let’s turn the tables for a minute. Take a look at western game characters. They’re all overblown, oversexed paragons of masculinity/femininity. The male heroes are huge musclebound tough guys with a gruff demeanor, sarcastic smartass attitudes, and big guns. The female leads are all minxes, with outfits that you’d only see at fetish shows, and they all kick ass and take names. Try, for a moment, to put yourself in the Japanese mindset. As a mental exercise, take yourself out of the picture, forget your culture, and see western video game characters with new eyes—perhaps they are a tad ridiculous as well?
I can appreciate the fact that playing the game as an anime character brings the “game” back into the game. Video games are a form of escape; most of the time, I don’t necessarily want a super-realistic experience. If I do, I can always pop in an NHL game, or Ghost Recon, or Call of Duty. Those are fantasies in their own right (not many of us can join special ops, or become professional athletes), but sometimes you just want to leave this world behind entirely. When you want that, I’d rather go past the uncanny valley of realistic people in fantastic situations; I’d rather have fantastic people in fantastic situations. When I want to let go and just immerse myself in cuteness, or kitsch, or a juvenile storyline, I have to tell myself “It’s okay to play as a 13 year old girl. It’s okay to be a cute little animal with a sword. It’s okay to cry when Aeris dies.”