Sparse Landscapes: why are JRPGs so empty?

Is it just a cliche of the genre, or is there something more going on?

Critics often deplore the lack of narrative cohesion in games, but sometimes this is simply the result of not giving credit where it’s due. Attention to small details can be incredibly important, especially when some aspects of a game’s lore or setting are hidden in plain sight. That’s why it’s essential to ask questions, even if they might complicate or poke holes in a game. 

For instance: have you ever noticed how empty the worlds of Japanese roleplaying games seem to be?

In many JRPGs, it seems like population centers are either small villages or major cities with very little in between. You also have to wonder how the local weapon, armor, accessory, and consumables economy survives with a resident population of sometimes less than 15 people. These are all clichés that have been joked about since Western audiences first encountered the genre, and it should be acknowledged that much of this is an issue of technology: only a few RPGs have ever had the budgets, processing power or development time needed to create urban centers of “convincing” size and scale. When they do manage to capture an image of urban sprawl, it is usually by implying and reminding us of just how much exists outside of the frame, such as in Final Fantasy VII’s Midgar. We have to accept that certain inherent limitations will probably always affect the artistic or simulationist aspirations of a game, but we can still look at how some JRPGs address these constraints within their own fictional universes.

So why are a lot of JRPG worlds so sparsely populated? Think about it. Pathways between villages and major urban centers are often vastly underdeveloped in these games, if roads exist at all. Travel is usually prohibitively expensive to all but the richest members of society. If the poor do travel, it’s typically on foot or as stowaways: even Final Fantasy X’s Yuna, who is on an important religious pilgrimage, often has to rely on the hospitality of locals to get to where she and the rest of her party need to be. Most importantly, and oft-forgotten, the extant pathways between villages and cities are usually teeming with aggressive monsters, a point stated by countless town elders and ignored by countless players since the dawn of time.

It's so simple you forgot, right? We take these tropes for granted, but properly executed, they actually serve an important storytelling purpose.

Tales of Vesperia, for example, gets right to the point with this idea from its opening narration: its world is so dangerous, humans have set up magical barriers around each of their settlements. This in turn leaves residents completely isolated from the outside world. When player characters Yuri and Estelle are handed a map early in the game, it’s entirely blank save the immediate area around their city. 

From there, the question of how these small, local economies function becomes much simpler: weapon, armor, and item shops do well enough to stay open because the only people who travel have to cut down a wide swath of monsters to get from place to place. Typically airships are available, but these are almost always rare, limited only to merchants and those of wealth or social status. As a result, little care is taken to develop or maintain roads, because the people driving trade already have their own way of getting around.

Dragon Quest (1986) Dragon Quest (1986)

This sort of economic condition is rarely expounded upon in the classical JRPG, but it's always lying in the background. Understanding this not only answers our initial question about population density, it also helps us to understand the economics and social politics of a JRPG universe.

Take the ur-JRPG, Dragon QuestDragon Quest games are intended to take place in the medieval periods of their fictional universes, before the expansion of international trade. The first game is traversable entirely by foot but, barring the use of magic, that’s the only means of travel. In fact, the game's villain, the Dragonlord, is in part so dastardly because his castle is located on an island, separated from every other location by water. As the player, you have to build the actual bridge leading to the final dungeon.

The second and third Dragon Quest games reveal that the entire setting of  the first game is in fact only one continent in a larger world. In these sequels, the player has a boat to travel with, and by Dragon Quest III it appears that some form of global trade has begun, but the series never progresses anywhere towards early capitalism or the industrial revolution. Technology never appears to advance beyond the sailboat. This quaint fascination with the “simpler times” comes up a lot in this franchise, and it’s something I've written about at length elsewhere. The pseudo-European medieval settings in games like Dragon Quest are meant to evoke a certain nostalgia for Japan’s own pre-industrial period.

Furthermore, if Dragon Quest and its simple stories of heroism in a pre-industrial era are meant to be nostalgic, we can see Final Fantasy VII, with its grotesque industrial city and powerful megacorporation ShinRa, reflects a cynicism towards modern Japan. FFVII uses its arrangement of towns and people to tell its story through its environment. When we go to these places we learn about their relationship to the energy company ShinRa, how the economic forces that rule the major cities come to either dominate smaller towns, like Kalm, or all but eradicate them, like Old Corel and Goganga. It’s particularly important to note that ShinRa acts as an occupying force in Wutai, a culture it recently went to war with and one which is highly reminiscent of pre-modern Japan. The parallels with post-war Japan are clear. If Dragon Quest paints a nostalgic picture of the past, then FFVII shows us a much  harsher vision of the present.

Persona 5 (expected 2016) Persona 5 (expected 2016)

Of course, there are exceptions to this trope. The Shin Megami Tensei games and their spin-off Persona series, for example, usually take place in densely populated cities in our modern world. However, in a backwards way, they tend to illustrate my earlier point concerning technological limitations. These games are often incapable of finely rendering massive groups of people or realistically scaled cities, so instead they limit their scope to a few locations (and take a few shortcuts, like the recycled crowd models seen above). Games in other genres have turned this technical weakness into a strength by creating a viable context for what we see onscreen. It’s common knowledge, for example, that the fog effect in the early Silent Hill games was used to cover up the limited draw distance available for the environments, but it also heightened the game’s mood, making the player feel isolated in an uncertain, vast environment.

Even if future development makes it easier to render vast, densely populated fantasy worlds, many JRPGs will likely continue these impressionistic techniques, using compelling backstories and environmental details that reflect their roots in Japanese culture and history. By doing so, these games offer us roads to creative interpretations and enrich our experience with these games as fictions -- populating them with people, places, and conflicts that tell a fantasy story perhaps closer to real life than we might think.

(Special thanks to John Thyer and Becky Davnall, whose writings informed this article.)

Austin C. Howe is the host of Critical Switch. They have written for a number of outlets, including Memory Insufficient, ZEAL, The Ontological Geek, and Five out of Ten Magazine, as well as their blog, Haptic Feedback. You can find them on Twitter and support their independent work here.