Japanese RPGs and I have a strange history. For a long time they were the only thing that I played. While I had an NES and played most of the classics, Super Mario Bros, Double Dragon, etc., video games weren’t really a consuming passion until I got a Super NES and in one summer finished Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and The Secret of Mana. From that point on up until my last couple of years of college I played basically any JRPG I could get my hands on.
Things are very different now. At this point I don’t know if someone could pay me to play through the newest Square-Enix release. I recently started playing through the wonderful fan translation of Mother 3, and while I can appreciate the quirkiness and care with which the game was put together, I find it hard to bear the the long non-interactive sequences and archaic feeling of the battle system (even with a bit of rhythm-action thrown in).
At the heart of the problem is that I feel like while I was growing up, JRPGs decided not to grow up with me. I don’t mean that I wish they were addressing ‘serious topics’ or had characters ‘I can relate to’. The problem with JRPGs is not that their stories haven’t matured (no video game really lives up to that standard); it’s that at the end of the day the game design was, and remains, lazy.
Here’s a few rules-of-thumb for JRPGs that I learned as a young man and have served me well ever since:
- 1. When in battle, have all your characters concentrate on one enemy with their strongest attacks.
- 2. If a character is hurt have the character that is doing the least amount of damage heal them.
- 3. If you lose even while doing the above two things, then you’re going to need to spend some time grinding.
While this is an over-generalization, it describes pretty well my memories of the JRPGs I played growing up.
The ludologist Espen Aarseth has suggested that what makes games unique is that they demand ‘non-trivial’ effort in order to be experienced. This is different from books, which simply require eye movement and flipping pages, or film, which only asks the audience to stay awake (and quiet).
At this point JRPGs feel about as close as you can get to flipping pages while still having enough interactivity to be called a game.
Still, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and memories of my investment in the stories of the classic JRPGs, no matter how maudlin they seem now, have always stuck with me. Even as I’ve become a much more of a formalist when it comes to game design I’ve never lost interest in the narrative potential of games. A potential that I first started believing in while navigating emotive little sprites around pixellated dungeons. In other words, my standards have gotten higher, but my ideals have stayed relatively the same.
It’s ironic then that the game that’s come closest to my ideals is a translated port of a decade old, 16-bit, Japanese Roguelike called Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer.
I’ve spent more time in the past several months playing, thinking, and talking about Shiren the Wanderer than I have about any other game, and at this point I’m convinced that it’s one of the best examples of truly interactive narrative I’ve ever encountered.
ROUND AND ROUND
The story of Shiren the Wanderer is pretty simple. You play Shiren, who is a ‘Wanderer’, a person who roams the land without a home and typically without companions, in search of things like buried treasure and forgotten cities. On this adventure you are trying to climb Tabletop Mountain, home of the fabled Golden Condor. You start your journey in the tiny town of Canyon Hamlet with nothing more than a donated riceball to keep you from starving.
That’s about it.
Shiren’s background and the game’s exposition are kept mercifully simple, which is typical of most Roguelikes. This style of RPG is known to be particularly difficult and spare. Dying at any point in the game and you’ll find yourself restarting back on the first floor of the dungeon (in Shiren’s case the first town), with all your possessions gone and your character set back to level 1. The goal in Roguelikes is not just to progress through content and see new things, but to master the underlying system.
That system is a little more involved than in most traditional JRPGs. Roguelikes eschew the almost colonial style battles of heroes on one side and enemies on the other. Instead, the turn-based fighting takes place on the field, with both the players and the NPCs and enemies each getting one move per turn. Add to this that most monsters have unique abilities and behaviors and that Shiren can carry a variety of items that have different effects on the world and you have an RPG where each floor of a dungeon is a little strategy game unto itself.
Where Shiren the Wanderer builds on the regular formulae of Roguelikes is with its world. While the player’s character follows the normal rules of the genre, starting from square one with every failure, Shiren’s world does not. Instead, aspects about the different villages that Shiren visits will stay persistent and indeed progress with each run.
In one village a master potter angrily experiments, trying to create a truly revolutionary ‘jar’ (an important kind of item in the game). Each run where the player visits the village the potter will get a little closer to his goal. One village has a couple who has lost their daughter. Even before talking to her parents the player can randomly encounter the young girl in a dungeon and escort her safely home. The grateful family will then open a warehouse in their village (a place where items can be stored between runs).
What’s interesting about this approach is that it turns the traditional model of progression found in JRPGs completely on its head. Instead of the player growing more powerful and the world staying relatively static, in Shiren the player is always basically in the same place while the world around them grows and changes.
GAME OF THE YEARS
I have to confess that the first time I played Shiren the Wanderer I didn’t like it.
Having never played a Roguelike before, I wasn’t prepared for the level of randomness that is a vital part of the experience, and more often than not I felt cheated when I would fail. When I did fail it bothered me that I woke up back at the first village, with basically everything set back to square one. Without retaining the weapons and items I had found or the levels I had earned, I had no sense of progress. I missed the opiate of constantly accumulating experience points and I wasn’t used to getting punished by my JRPGs.
There’s a good chance I would have given up if everyone that I knew, people whose taste in games I truly respected, weren’t all devoted Shiren.
One afternoon I did a little field research, trying to figure out what I was missing. I had a friend of mine who had been playing the game for a while sit down and start an adventure while I watched over her shoulder. As she fought through the massive dungeon that Shiren takes place in, she explained what she was thinking moment-to-moment.
It was only after this that I really appreciated the genius of Shiren. The reason it took away your trinkets and levels every time you failed was because the goal wasn’t to hoard virtual goods or hurdle virtual barriers, but to simply get better at the game. There wasn’t some secret item that was going to make the game easier, the secret was to learn the behaviors of enemies and the different strategies available to you in the mix of equipment you gathered on your trip. Maybe you gave up experience points but what replaced them was actual experience.
My friend ended up getting much farther than I had not because she had discovered some way to grind levels or because she got lucky and found a great sword. She was better at the game than I was because she knew more about it, and had learned how to approach and survive the different situations the game threw at her.
From then on I didn’t just play Shiren, I studied it. I learned what monsters tended to appear on what floors and the best way to defeat them. I learned how best to baby-sit my AI companions so that they could take hits and deal damage while I remained at a safe distance. I figured out how best to prepare early on for the hardships of the journey I hadn’t figured out how to avoid.
Now, after having sunk nearly fifty hours into Shiren I’ve only become more amazed at the depth and multi-faceted nature of the game. Completing the main quest opens additional dungeons, each with their own twist on the core ruleset. Each requiring the player to approach the game in a new way.
Shiren the Wanderer is one of those rare video games that has enough to it that exploring all its possibilities would keep a person occupied not just for a few months, but maybe a few years.
THE NEVER ENDING STORY
I grew up playing games that told me stories. That had characters that shot through plot arcs and developed in ways that I had no real control over. The only thing I really had control over was the pace at which these things happened. My only job was to turn the page.
Most modern, narrative-based video games are a lot like musicals. Just like a musical switches between talking and singing, walking and dancing (often without even a nod to its inherent strangeness), games parcel out their story and their play in very discrete chunks. Defeat a wave of enemies, get a cut-scene about the kingdom you’ve saved; find a buried treasure, get dialogue sequence about its mystical importance.
Shiren the Wanderer is a little closer to opera, the lines of game and story run parallel. Its story affects not just ‘why’ you’re playing the game, but ‘how’. Shiren has its share of cut-scenes and dialogue sequences, some of them superfluous. More often than not however, a villager will have valuable bit of information about an enemy’s habits, and encouraging an insecure blacksmith’s apprentice will lead to earning a super powerful sword.
These little bits of dialogue and in-game sequences aren’t the real story of Shiren, of course. Finally reaching the Golden Condor gives a true sense of apprehension and accomplishment because you got there on your wits and luck alone. In large part the most interesting thing about your journey, the thing that other people will want to hear about, is not that you completed it, but way in which you completed it.
What Shiren proves beyond a shadow of the doubt is that at the end of the day the most interesting story in a game should be your own. Why care about the reaction of Nico Bellic to the violence of his world when there are much more interesting questions about your own reaction to the virtual violence with which you’re complicit? Why should it matter if your avatar and his girlfriend aren’t getting along if you couldn’t figure out how to get a key out of a pit even if they were?
It’s not that I think games can’t tell stories that could rival novels or film in their pathos, humor, or poignancy. There are plenty of musicals that can be very moving without explaining why the characters keep breaking out into song and dance.
The problem is that those wouldn’t be the stories that games tell best, and they wouldn’t be truly interactive narratives. If that’s really what we want, and it would be something genuinely new and exciting, then we should be prepared for it to develop in even in the most obscure and unexpected places, or for it to have already happened and simply gone unrecognized.
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is a real interactive narrative. To experience its story takes more than flipping pages. To appreciate its story takes work, because the story it tells is your own, and it’s only ever as good as you are.
Author’s Note: Though I’ve already said my piece on it, I should mention I think Valve’s “Left 4 Dead” is also a huge step forward for narrative in games, bringing us one step closer to ‘interactive drama’ than anything since “Facade”. For a great description of “L4D’s” importance check out Dan Kline’s write up here.