What Makes a Great JRPG? - Part 2 - Storytelling & Immersion - (1 of 2)

As I said in Part 1, for the next few days I'm going to be exploring what makes a JRPG great. In Part 1 I did my best to describe how I think JRPGs should be categorized so if you haven't, and you're interested, check that out! When somebody says "RPG" I think one of the first concepts or major design cornerstones is "they have good stories" and that's absolutely correct! In the case of JRPGs they primarily utilize storytelling to create a sense of immersion, due to their unique style of combat. When games are linear this is pretty challenging! To best portray the importance of good storytelling in the formula I'll be using my favorite JRPG of all time as an example, Suikoden 2!  

Suikoden 2 is a JRPG published by Konami in 1999 as a Playstation exclusive. 

When I decided to start writing this series I interviewed multiple regulars, friends and family about JRPGs. I'll get into that a bit more but I'm happy to say multiple people said that not only was Suikoden 2 their personal favorite, but was one of the very best JRPGs of all time. Xifaxan, LML regular, stated Suikoden 2 was his favorite JRPG due to solid game mechanics and "a story that is never as simple as good vs evil." He went on to say Suikoden 2 has incredible depth and layers to it's main plot, and I feel this is a solid summary. That being said, Suikoden 2 is an incredibly long game with countless side missions and characters. In fact, Suikoden 2 has 108 "party"(not all of them are usable in combat but assist in other ways) members, a series staple, and a good majority of them have back stories that get explored in the game. I cannot possibly touch on everything in a blog post, although I'd love to. I'm not sure I would even be capable of doing the game justice with only words. I will however touch on major points in the narrative and their ability to create intense immersion through simple story crafting. Suikoden 2 utilizes foreshadowing, interactive storytelling, storytelling through mechanics, symbolism and even metaphors to create this beautiful piece of art that is far greater then it's 1999 presentation. I also chose Suikoden 2 due to it's incredibly potent intro scenes, and how important that is in a JRPG. Some JRPGs suffer heavily from having terrible intros and openings, not investing the player for hours, and that is not the best way to tell a story.  Before I start I'd like to touch on a few very important points -

SPOILER ALERT  - I will obviously be touching on some key points in Suikoden 2's main plot. I would tell you to consider playing the game before you even read this if you planned to, if not, you have been warned! I'll be giving a very thorough analysis of the introduction in the game, and touching on a few others as well.

Suikoden 2 has 3 possible endings and each one is significantly different. Now, I believe that Suikoden 2 is developed in such a way where the 2nd ending is most likely to happen if you are a new player. There are very very specific things that need to happen to have ending 1 and 3 occur, and I will touch on the options. Ending 2 was my first experience with Suikoden 2, like most players and is the most memorable to me, but I have since seen all of them. I will touch on areas where the player's decision directly effects what happens in the plot, but ending 2...oh man.

Lastly, I'd like to note the graphic style of Suikoden 2. Suikoden 2 is best described as a dark war epic set in a world of political ruin and violence. Riddled with despair and absolute betrayal, Suikoden 2 is incredibly dark, no way to argue that....SO let's take a look at some of our main characters -

Suikoden as a series is renowned for it's incredible cast of characters

Suikoden 2 does not have any cutscenes, the story is told and played out with these sprite models. I've never been a huge stickler when it comes to graphics, and I know many JRPG players aren't either. However, it is definitely worth mentioning that Yoshitaka Murayama, the game's lead director, producer and writer, was able to tell such an incredible tale with these models. Even the latest JRPGs with top notch graphics tend to fall short compared to Suikoden 2, and that's a huge ode to storytelling and it's strength. Okay, let's dive right in!

The Intro
Suikoden 2's tale starts off with an immediate camera pan in the woods. You can clearly see multiple men in the same clothing scattered about an encampment. Sharpening weapons, sitting over a fire and loafing about, it is very clear this is a military encampment. The first character to speak is a young man named "Jowy" and he is addressing the player character (the player character can be renamed, however his default is Riou). After a short conversation you can easily tell Jowy and Riou are good friends and this is their last day in the encampment before being sent home. Jowy immediately mentions "Nanami", and that Riou is her only family. Right off the bat you already have a character you haven't even met that is relying on you. Jowy goes on to confirm this world is in a time of war. After this conversation the player has the option of exploring the camp a bit with Jowy or immediately going to bed to prepare for their homecoming in the morning. Having the freedom of choice is not uncommon in JRPGs but Suikoden 2 delivers this particular one in a way that I love. It's such a simple decision and yet it is yours to make, and Jowy will abide no matter what you choose. Within 5 minutes of the game the player is aware they will have to make decisions regarding this world, and there are characters relying on him. This is called Interactive Storytelling and it's essential in letting the player immerse themselves in the story being told, even if it's in a tiny way. Interactive Storytelling is what makes video games such an incredible medium, since it is unique to this medium. Exploring the camp is a great way to get some information about your surroundings, such as learning Jowy and Riou are members of the Unicorn Brigade (youth division) of the Highland Army. Ultimately Riou and Jowy go to bed, excited for their next day. A few hours later Riou and Jowy hear a lot of noise outside of their tent. Awakened by shouts of "surprise attack!" the player character and Jowy step outside to see their camp is burning. The young boys' unit commander, Captain Rowd, orders all living soldiers to flee to the east path, stating that the city-state has broken the treaty. Following their superior officer's orders, Riou and Jowy run to the east. This is a good scene to set the stage for the state of turmoil these characters are dealing with. As Riou and Jowy run there are dozens of injured and slaughtered men crying out for assistance and guidance, with many of them passing away shortly after. It is clear from this point on Suikoden 2 does not pull any punches when it comes to the tragedy of war. As they are moving through the forest Jowy suddenly comes to the realization that the direction they are escaping the woods is the only clear path out, and a very good tactical choke point. This is another great scene of foreshadowing. As the player, you are unaware of your geography and are simply following the orders of your superior, but Jowy was very aware that something wasn't right about this situation. Jowy identified a problem and was willing to go against what was expected off him, for whatever reasons. Compared to Riou, to put it simply, Jowy is more experienced and deals with problems a bit differently. Jowy decides to run back and tell their Captain of their flawed escape plan and Riou follows suit. When they arrive at their encampment there is virtually nothing left. The entire area has been absolutely devastated. Riou and Jowy notice their own Captain standing amidst the rubble addressing a man with the title of Prince. Through some dialogue it is vaguely given away that this was all a terrible plot of war. The Unicorn Brigade has become a pawn in a mechanism of total war, being sacrificed by their own Prince to become Martyr's to insight a break in the peace treaty. Prince Luca, the Prince of Highland, was behind it all.


While this is all being revealed and the player is reading and piecing it together, Jowy is already backing up, immediately piecing together the tragedy that is taking place. This is another representation of Jowy being a little more aware of this world and the way things work, demonstrating his experience over Riou once again. The amount of foreshadowing in this entire introduction sequence is not only subtle but extremely potent, especially on a second playthrough. Jowy immediately comes up with a plan to run to the north in a desperate attempt to escape slaughter at the hands of their own military. After a bit of running they arrive at the cliff of a waterfall with no where else to run. As soon as the two boys take a breather, Jowy seems jarred by the fact that Rowd would go along with Luca's plan. Rowd shows up and makes it very clear he has no intention of letting the 2 escape, inciting a battle. After dispatching Rowd's unit, which is a surprisingly difficult battle, Rowd scurries off to get reinforcements. Jowy identifies there is now way the 2 can continue to combat the Highland military and their only chance is to take a leap of faith and jump into the waterfall. No matter what decision Riou makes here, you are locked into jumping from the waterfall. Suikoden 2 has a huge overbearing theme of "fate" and what that entails, but it kicks off at the waterfall scene. Jowy grabs a knife and carves a slash into a nearby rock and states, "If we make it...but...somehow get seperated...let's return to this spot. That way we will be reunited." Jowy asks Riou to promise, Riou complies and slashes the rock as well, creating an "X". Then both boys jump off the waterfall, leaving their lives into the hands of fate. 

This scene has become pretty popular in the Suikoden fandem, entitled "Waterfall Scene"

And THAT is the introduction to Suikoden 2. The waterfall scene is followed by the introductory credits rolling with a chronicle of Riou and Jowy's upbringing in the backround. Playing together at a young age, training under the same master and joining the military together, it is clear Jowy and Riou are incredibly close, without seeing any dialogue. As far as JRPGs go, there are relatively famous for having very slow starts with a lot of hand holding to get a grasp on the world and combat. I love Suikoden 2's approach of an introduction by establishing the world you live in an incredibly jarring look at the violence and corruption first hand, and forcing you to adapt to the combat quickly, allowing you to be immersed in the storyline easier. Establishing so much core story in such a short amount of time without sacrificing gameplay is an incredibly challenging feat and I personally feel like Murayama couldn't have done it in any better way. These truths of JRPGs and storytelling ring out throughout many titles in a ton of different ways but they all have the same goal in mind; Immersion through storytelling.

PHEW my hands hurt. I'm going to break this particular analysis of JRPGs in half due to length. In my next post I'm going to discuss the rest of the game (in less detail!) and the structure Suikoden 2's storytelling takes, as well as other JRPGs. Storytelling is the absolute cornerstone of JRPGs and there's so many amazing and interactive ways of immersing the player in these long adventures and I feel Suikoden 2 does a good job of showcasing these techniques.

What JRPG is your personal favorite and why? What is your favorite introduction for a JRPG? Let us know in the comments below and stay tuned for "What Makes a Great JRPG - Part 2 - Storytelling & Immersion (2 of 2)"!


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