From humble beginnings to distant worlds: How JRPGs changed my life

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Indecision. Anguish. Betrayal. These are just some of the feelings that surface when someone asks about your favourite film, game, or band.

How can you choose between God of War and Animal Crossing? How could you forget about Suikoden II? Yet, ask me what my favourite genre of video game is and I will tell you without hesitation: JRPGs.

You couldn’t tell lately, though. I’ve yet to play the likes of Fire Emblem: Three Houses or Dragon Quest XI. Both Nier: Automata and Octopath Traveller didn’t grab me the way I had hoped. The two exceptions are Persona 5 and Final Fantasy XV – the latter bearing more resemblance in setting and combat to a Western RPG.

It’s a testament to the influence of JRPGs on my formative years, despite the fact it’s no longer my go-to. Whilst Sonic, Rayman, and Crash Bandicoot were engaging introductions to the potential of the medium, it wasn’t until Final Fantasy VIII released in 1999 that my interest in video games truly transformed.

After Saturday morning football, I wandered down to Blockbuster to rent a game for the weekend. I would scour the shelves for the latest releases before lingering on Final Fantasy VIII. The red and orange design of the two main characters embracing, sketched in the centre of a white background with the title’s formal font stamped atop the design. In fact, I still remember the sun baking one side of my body through the main window because I had stood in one place examining the back of the case.

Final Fantasy VIII – the journey of a lifetime,” I told the boys I was with at the time. “I’ve heard good things about it.”

In fact, I hadn’t, but perhaps that was my insecurity talking. Nobody else seemed fussed. Could games be more than FIFA and platformers?

“Realistic, detailed characters and background graphics enhanced by a breathtaking musical score,” the back of the box pledged. Despite Squall’s face looking like it might be held together with barbed wire, it delivered on that promise.

The combat system allowed for the kind of simplicity that enabled ten-year-old me to bash my way through the game with all the subtlety of Barrett Wallace, whom I’d later encounter in Final Fantasy VII, chasing miscreants out of a train cart with his machine-gun arm. Yet, upon returning to these games, you discover they offer the type of precision and customisation which shaved hours off my potion spamming, summon-reliant playtime.

“Nothing worth fighting for was ever won without sacrifice.”

JRPGs were my gateway to experiencing storytelling in video games, particularly in the so-called ”Golden Generation” of Final Fantasy. You interact with and control diverse casts of characters across myriad settings and time periods. It opened my mind at a young age to a number of philosophical concepts that feel even more pertinent today.

For instance, FFVI‘s environmental struggle led to questions. What are the limits of eco-activism and what are the acceptable casualties? Meanwhile, Star Ocean 2 dabbled with colonialism. What happens when an advanced civilisation interferes with one in its infancy? Xenogears, among many other things, questioned the value of bloodlines.

As someone who is environmentally conscious, has had to reconcile with the privilege granted by the British Empire’s past and has no love for our country’s royal family – it’s clear these notions resonated.

What helps to make some of those concepts digestible for a ten-year-old? Serenading them with some of the most revered soundtracks in gaming.

The success of the early JRPG soundtracks – specifically Nobuo Uematsu’s work – helped break down the barriers into mainstream classical music. The popularity of his work has seen the concert ‘Distant Worlds: Music from Final Fantasy,’ tour for over thirteen years. Orchestral performances of video game music are now commonplace, with music from the likes of Nier, Halo, Kingdom Hearts, The Legend of Zelda and Assassin’s Creed all following in Uetmatsu’s footsteps.

Uematsu’s tracks followed me from Walkman to Winamp in my early teens. It was during this time that I befriended someone through an MMORPG, reaching out over a common interest of JRPGs. Whilst this friendship remained in the online realms for years, we’ve since been to several Distant Worlds concerts together. One of my closest confidants – a friendship which has helped me through all manner of strife – can be traced back to renting a video game.

The genre also encouraged me to learn about Japan and, in particular, the media that it produced. Naturally, this led me to Studio Ghibli movies. It’s a pilgrimage that many have taken, stopping at the likes of Akira and Ghost in the Shell along the way. It opened my mind to different cultures at an early age. It dispelled an irrational fear of subtitles, encouraging exploration into the architecture and sculptures found in the likes of Wutai.

“This is so typical. Adults always reminisce on what they couldn’t do or wouldn’t do.”

Similar to the branching narrative games I’m more accustomed to playing these days, had I shelved Final Fantasy VIII all those years ago, I wonder how different things might be. Existing exclusively in the hyper-masculine world of football would have changed my sensibilities. Would I have forged the same friendships? Probably not. What might that mean for me as a person?

It’s not possible to answer these questions. In life, there is no reloading a save file and choosing a different path. However, what Cloud and Squall helped convey in those early years was that tenderness and masculinity weren’t mutually exclusive, that it’s okay to shed the façade society expects you to wear.

Whilst my love of JRPGs began with the games, the personal growth they helped to unlock and the experiences tied to that will always make them my favourite genre. The combat, the music, the characters – they form a package which lures you in with levity before exposing you to the profound. Much like Squall’s transformation from insular teen to compassionate leader, opening up to media from different territories and cultures will only help broaden our understanding, empathy, and horizons.