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

As I wrote previously in this blog series, Suikoden 2 continuously expresses the strength of storytelling in the interactive medium of video games. However, I am specifically examining the strength of story telling in JRPGs, which are typically linear but built around that. Other games have stories of course, but when it comes to the sub-genre of JRPGs, portraying stories well is key. I'm going to continue my dive into Suikoden 2's story and the different narrative applications used throughout the game as an example of the strength of this genre, but from here on I'm going to be skipping around quite a bit. If you're unfamiliar with Suikoden 2 or this blog series check out my previous post! Needless to say....SPOILER ALERT

The three main characters from left to right, Jowy, Riou and Nanami

Through a series of events Riou finds his way back to his hometown with Jowy and we finally get to meet "Nanami", as mentioned in one of the first lines in the game. Nanami is Riou's step-sister, both adopted by their master. Throughout this entire game, Riou and Nanami have a ton of interactions relating to their closeness and their reliance on each other. One of the most interesting and foreshadowing of these is despite what you say to Nanami in multiple instances in the game, Nanami will force herself into your party. A bit later in the story, Jowy, Nanami and Riou find themselves in a small village where Jowy is reunited with a young girl named Pilika. It is revealed that Pilika was responsible for Jowy's survival from diving off the waterfall. Pilika refers to Jowy as "Uncle" and it is clear the two have bonded during Jowy's recovery time. The next few scenes are some of the most important in the game, in my opinion. Pilika's village, where Jowy resided was burned to the ground by Luca and his men. Pilika was the sole survivor of her entire village and watched her own parents murdered in front of her. To top that off, on their return to their fort, the 2 boys see Luca Blight's savagery in person. Luca Blight is personally razing another village in which he cuts down survivors with no mercy, laughing the entire time. He then proceeded to force a young woman, the last survivor of this village, to act like a pig for Luca's own amusement, just to be slaughtered anyway. This infuriates Jowy and he attempts to run in and intervene, only to be knocked out by Tsai, a wiser party member, to prevent Jowy's own death.

Luca Blight is preeeeety evil...

Up next in Luca's path of destruction was Viktor's Fort, where Riou recovered from the waterfall scene. Luca makes insanely short work of the fort, personally taking many lives. Pohl, a friend of Riou's and Pilika's gets killed in front of her. Riou and Jowy attempt to stop Luca and quickly realize this isn't a fight they are capable of winning. Luca gives a speech about power and strength, as he has a blade over Pillika's head. Luca's philosophy is similar to Darwinism and he believes only the strong can get what they want in this world. He speaks of how easy it is to kill the weak and Riou and Jowy are powerless to stop him. Luckily the building explodes and they are able to escape, but this is the second time Jowy and Riou were presented with a situation where they lacked the strength to change the course of events unfolding. This event is the beginning of Jowy's and Riou's seperate paths., and is foreshadowed incredibly well. Following this scene Riou and Jowy follow Pilika into a cave and find themselves with "2 runes of destiny." It's a bit strange and carries some weight between stories and never gets explained in a ton of depth. Jowy is bearer of the Black Sword rune, while Riou carries the Bright Shield Rune. A bit more on this later, but a huge overarching theme of not only Suikoden 2, but the entire series, is fate.    

A bit later in the story, Jowy and Riou have a run in with their former captain, and Jowy tells Riou to run while he deals with him. Riou flees and waits for Jowy's return with Nanami at the city gates. Eventually Jowy returns, but does not say much. Jowy exhibits strange behavior over the next few days, being very reserved and having mysterious meetings with people Riou and Nanami do not know. This escalates in a very powerful scene in which we see the "downfall" of Jowy. Riou and Nanami go to the town hall to meet with the Mayor of Muse only to see Jowy standing over her with a bloody knife. Jowy apologizes to Nanami and the main character and quickly flees, leaving Riou and Nanami with the blame for the murder. If it isn't obvious, Luca's words resonated with Jowy and he's off to create the world in his own image, by any means necessary.

The murder of Annabelle is the beginning of Jowy's transition.

By this point in the story, both the player and Riou, the player's character, have plenty of reasons to be invested in the rest of the story. Through the expert story crafting, Suikoden 2 allows you to be fueled by hatred towards Luca, by making him an absolute monster, and desperately wanting a reunion with Jowy to understand his actions. Jowy's betrayal and therefore removal from the party is another perfect example of "story telling through mechanics." This tool in story telling allows the player to not only feel the absence of Jowy emotionally, but to physically miss his presence in your party. Jowy was always an incredible party member, doing above average damage and capable of magic and devastating team attacks. I think that character deaths are always an incredible tool in JRPGs thanks to the typical party system. Games like Legend of Dragoon, FF7, etc, etc, utilize this to perfection. You feel it a bit less in Suikoden due to having 108 party members (haha), but it's still prominent.

It is no secret that JRPGs have a ton of dialogue, but in the best titles, almost all dialogue is pushing the story and character development right along. Suikoden 2 is a very long game, but almost everything matters, whether it be Jowy's story or even one of the many side characters. As far as dialogue goes, many games have suffered from bad translations, (All your base are belong to us!), but most games manage to make the transition well. In a game like Suikoden, and many other JRPGs with protagonists that do not speak for themselves, immersion is a bit simpler. Allowing the player to choose certain dialogue makes their choices have some weight and this system is present in Suikoden.

Skipping ahead a lot in the story, for time's sake. Jowy has become the King of Highland, thanks to Riou's defeat of Luca. (The Luca Blight boss fight is one of my favorites of all time!!) Jowy has taken Luca's words in Viktor's Fort to heart and has embraced absolute power and his destiny of the black sword rune. Throughout the story Riou and Jowy have come at odds, and they meet up in "The Rockaxe Castle Liberation". Jowy faces Nanami and Riou and the two boys are ready to battle when Nanami steps in and demands them to stop. The hallway is sieged by Highland soldiers and Nanmi manages to deflect multiple arrows, protecting both boys. Unfortunately an arrow slips through her defense and she is struck. . Jowy, Riou and Nanami have always been pretty close, and despite Jowy's newfound ambition he retaliates. Riou and Jowy defeat the enemy force. Jowy apologizes to Nanami but remains steadfast in his ambition, leaving a dying Nanami in Riou's arms. Based on the player's choices and completion level, Nanami will pass away, which is incredibly tragic. Throughout the game Nanami muscled her way into your party, like it or not, and is present in almost every main story plot. It's incredibly jarring to lose the main character's sister to a plot of war lead by your best friend. It's downright Shakespearean! 

I originally played Suikoden 2 when I was around 12 or 13, and I gotta say this scene really bothered me. At the time I was unaware of other endings, and I felt as powerless as Riou and Jowy did when facing down Luca.

The ending of Suikoden 2 is variable, as I have mentioned before, but you typically see first time players (NOT looking stuff up!) get ending 2, which is the ending I first saw that resonated with me to this day. After the final battle the player is presented with a decision to enter the banquet hall and end the game. Jowy has escaped from the final battle and you can choose not to pursue him. However, if you think back to the beginning of the game and the waterfall scene, it's obvious where Jowy is waiting. Sure enough, if you head to the waterfall Jowy is awaiting a final stand off. You will face a very weak Jowy is a duel and this is probably my favorite choice you have as a player. You may choose to simply defend against Jowy and never strike back which will warp your ending if you managed to recruit all 108 characters. However when I was a youngster I fought back. I think this moment is appropriately emotionally charged, especially by Nanami's death. If you choose to defend, Jowy can live if you met a certain criteria, if you chose to attack he will die, passing on the rune of the black sword to Riou, to run a newly united country. Another prime example of interactive storytelling.
Damn Jowy :(

Overall, this ending is considered the "bad" ending, but it's the one I got as a kid, and probably the most emotional one. The title's theme is destiny, and it really makes you question, is this Jowy's and Nanami's fate? Could I, as as the player in this interactive medium, have stopped this? I also do not believe Jowy is a bad person, he simply did what he saw was necessary. Even if Jowy had to die with the guilt of all the things he has done, ultimately the nation was united under the same flag, ushering in a time of peace. The story is incredible, and I feel like I simply cannot do it justice here. I implore you to explore this world and it's story even if you've read the spoilers, simply to experience them firsthand. Murayama used all sorts of tools, incredible pacing, death and even deeply philosophic themes like destiny and fate to create a benchmark in JRPG story telling. The best part is, this is just ONE game in the genre. Connor could tell you all about why Final Fantasy 9's story line has affected him emotionally as well. It's incredibly important to be able to tell a story and pace it properly in this genre, and when it is done properly it is unmatched.

Like I said, I just can't do this justice without writing an INSANE amount, but I hope I didn't disappoint any Suikoden fans. If there's more story significance and examples of incredible narration please let me know below! I left out a lot of the rune talk, but that's for obvious reasons. It's a very beloved game for me, and any more input or opinions would be awesome! Next up I'm going to be analyzing the importance of well written characters in JRPGs. I touched on it briefly throughout this story telling analysis, but there's even more to mention!

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