Hope for tomorrow in Ys: The Oath in Felghana
“Historically, we see a lot of really hopeful, almost twee fantasy in times of economic hardship. And boy, are we ever in a time of economic hardship “ -Rae Carson
Seven years ago, when the game was first made, unleashing a title like Ys: Oath in Felghana on Western PC audiences would have been commercial suicide for Xseed Games. The company, which releases primarily Japanese imports, wouldn’t even have considered it. The Japanese RPG was dying, already dead, or in a slow decomposition, depending on your perspective, and outside of two awkward ports of Final Fantasy titles and some off-beat Western homages the platform had never shown a lot of support to the genre.
And yet we’re barely a month removed from a successful launch of one of Japan’s most popular RPG franchises (behind only Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) on the PC marketplace. We PC gamers will offer dozens of reasons why this is so: that the PC is superior to console toys, that we love supporting different kinds of games, that’s we’re connoisseurs compared to other platform’s plebeian status.
There’s a different reason, though, one I find more convincing: we’re starved for heroism. We’re starved for nostalgia.
Die-hard adherents would no doubt point out a lot of genre titles came out last year, as well, but they’re changing platforms. Last year saw about as many big-budget home console titles as this year has in four months. We’re flush with them this year, and it’s not a coincidence.
More than most, the JRPG is the genre of nostalgia, up there with the old-school PC adventure game (now it’s own genre) in terms of bringing back good memories. Even Xenoblade, a title with truckloads of innovations, wouldn’t be as popular if it had kept its original name, Monado: Beginning of the World. Its name was changed to play up on its JRPG status, its nostalgia, and that it was another game from Xenogears‘ creator Tetsuya Takahashi. Even a game prized for its novelty resorts to nostalgia to get the sale.
So why are we looking for simple plots like Ys’ about ancient evils, one-dimensional governmental villains, and overpowered heroes? Why are we doing this at the same time as we eat thing up like Deus Ex: Human Revolution’s gritty story of espionage and betrayal?
Three or four years ago, when these games were being conceived, the entire planet was in the weeds. Israel had invaded the Gaza strip. A major country’s banking system collapsed, part of a global financial crisis. Swine flu was rampant. To us, three years later, these sound pretty minor: we’ve grown benumbed to the concept of global financial panic, to natural disaster, to war. At the time, though, this was tough.
This was the atmosphere these console games (which usually have two to four year development cycles) were conceived in: panic, fear, and terror. We feared for the future of the human race. We feared for our lives, for our children’s lives, and for the future. Looking back at the last time of great economic and social turmoil, we can see distinct parallels in terms of artistic expression. If they had video games during the Great Depression, they would have made Tales games and Deus Ex.
The 1930’s gave rise to a number of different forms of cultural expression, many of which were rooted either in conscious desires for heroism or in nostalgia. We saw the rise of folk music as a mainstream form of popular expression, as well as the rise of super hero comics and hard-boiled detectives. Each of these represented the strains of the consumers: they wanted to remember old times, when they were younger and better, or they wanted to imagine a world where just one person had the power to change everything, to fight evil and corruption. They wanted art to give them hope.
And if the JRPG is one thing, it is nostalgic and hopeful. It’s stories typically involve heroes searching for macguffins, defeating one dimensional evils. Ys fits this to a T: Adol Christin, an adventurer, sets off to faraway lands literally for the heck of it. He finds a great, unimaginable evil, and he destroys it. It’s the kind of fantasy we imagine ourselves living: free to do what we please and able to conquer anything that stands against us.
These super hero stories and folk music stand in stark constrast to the “serious” works of the time, such as Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. These were not escapist works, and we can see parallel activities even in video games. On the fringes we have serious, necessary stories like Unmanned being told by individuals. While these stories are few, remember that video games are a nascent medium, similar to film in the 1930’s. We’re seeing the sort of clamor that film faced in the 1930’s in recent discussions about how video games need to appeal to the social consciousness, and these are the kind of progressive ideas that led to groundbreaking works like Citizen Kane in the 1940’s.
But let’s not invalidate the humble JRPG. They feed our desire for humble nostalgia, the early comic books to our attempts at Faulknerian obtuseness. Rather than decry their twee narratives as absurd, we should welcome them. Because these are the stories we need to be told in the scariest, coldest nights: the stories of our own heroic emergence from the shackles of the past.