Japanese RPGs: what's with the children?
September 10, 2007 9:08 AM   Subscribe

What is it with "Japanese style" RPGs that have children as the protagonist? I'm looking for answers other than "the Japanese, they crazy!"

I've played a bunch of "Japanese Style" RPGs over the years: the Final Fantasy series, more recently: PoPoLoCrois , Enchanted Arms, Blue Dragon. And they all have something really, really (to my eyes) weird in common: the lead character (and his/her party) are just about always children.

And I don't mean "young adults", I mean children. In Blue Dragon the protagonist can not be more than 11. In PoPoLoCrois he is explicity TEN. You know this because the game starts on his 10th birthday. And while many of the Final Fantasy games have adolescents as characters, they're still obviously children. The divide between them and "the adults" is a chasm. The adolescents characters don't act like young adults, they look and act like old children.

Anyone know why this is? Is there research about it anywhere?

I haven't played most of the games in the genre because almost every time I find one that looks interesting, I see the screenshots with itty bitty kiddies, and I just can't bring myself to play it. Why aren't there any Japanese Style RPGs with more westernized themes? Or are there and I'm missing them? I like the mechanics, but I'm getting tired of stories where 12 year olds save the world and/or universe.
posted by jaded to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
In Blue Dragon, the manual says the Main Character is 16 years old. :(
posted by yeoz at 9:15 AM on September 10, 2007

Hmmmm.... Maybe it's mostly 12-year-olds playing these games?
posted by TeatimeGrommit at 9:20 AM on September 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Coming-of-age themes are fairly universal, and widely popular across cultures and media types. I'd imagine that the lengthy, detailed plots of RPGs, and the emphasis on leveling and growth and whatnot, make these kinds of themes even more prevalent in RPGs than in other kinds of video games.
posted by box at 9:23 AM on September 10, 2007

It's also what I've always called the Bilbo Baggins problem. How do you have a character who's grown up in this fantasy world not know anything about it? Bilbo came from some backwater called the Shire, so he could ask stupid questions that anyone should know already. Amnesia is overused for the same reason.
posted by Eddie Mars at 10:11 AM on September 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

I can't really answer the question, but I would like to point out that I do believe most of the Final Fantasy games feature characters that would be better referred to as "young adults," if not simply "adults." FF IX is the only one I can think of that features characters that largely *seem to be children, discounting the various child character here and there (i.e. Gao and Relm in FF VI, and perhaps Yuffie in FF VII).

With this in mind, perhaps you would be more inclined to give some of them a go.
posted by gaiamark at 10:20 AM on September 10, 2007

It goes well beyond standard "coming of age" themes. The Japan Society of New York had an exhibition in 2005 that covered the same idea, but w/r/t Japanese pop culture as a whole rather than just RPG's. The curator's argument is that it stems from a post-WWII culture of occupation in the shadow of the A-bomb.
posted by mkultra at 10:49 AM on September 10, 2007

You may be getting confused by the "chibi" esthetic. "Chibi" means "runt, dwarf, little" and it's used to refer to a particular caricaturization art style where characters are drawn with larger heads, smaller bodies, and more child-like body proportions. But to the Japanese it doesn't mean they've become children, or at least not usually. It means "cute, accessible, unthreatening". It's considered attractive, and entire anime series (e.g. Adventures of Mini-Goddess, Binchoutan) have been done with nothing but chibi characters.

An example from the anime series "Happy Lesson": normal, chibi

A lot of characters in video games are chibis. Partly it's because they're small on screen and this art style exaggerates the size of the head, permitting a recognizable face to be drawn in limited total pixels. Partly it's the chibi esthetic, I think. But if you're not used to it, you can interpret it as meaning "child", and that's not how the Japanese see it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:53 AM on September 10, 2007

From a full on American perspective- It's probably cultural. I belive (see first sentance ethno-centric disclaimer) that once you hit a certain age in Japan, its expected that you become a 'salary man' type of person- buisness suit, drink for entertainment, formal, good cog in a communal socicety type of Adult. And many late high school students are focused on the intense competitions for prestigious universities, involving study, study, and more study. (cog junior) So, the only real market for such things would be children and early teens.

I heard that the anime shows we (USA) all like and watch in high school-college (any Gundam series, Cowboy Beebop, anything not blatantly kiddie- Pokemon; or adult- Speed Grapher, Gantz, ect) are intended for grade and high school kids there. Stuff like Hamtaro and Pokemon is probably kindgergarten stuff there.

I have, however, noticed a few examples of salary-men trying to break out of the mold cropping up recently.. interesting thoughts.

And, of course, I'm posting from Texas, culture capital of the world.
posted by Jacen at 10:54 AM on September 10, 2007

I've always thought it to be a combination of certain factors... (again, also from an American perspective, and some of these were mentioned by others already)

1. If you're marketing to a younger generation, you make your characters younger just to be more relatable. This is common in a few American shows too, but not to the extent that it's ubiquitous. We do have a few plotlines where kids are not only the heroes, but they usually act without adult supervision. Teen Titans come to mind, as does Charlie Brown, or shows on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel...

2. Kids in Japan are raised to be pretty independent of their parents, from what I've heard and seen. It's pretty common for kids to make the trek from home to school on their own, partially owing to the country's low crime rate. They will also go out on their own in their free time. This is different from America where we think kids are helpless and need to be supervised and chaperoned at all times. So in a Japanese fantasy world where things are going on, kids running around taking matters into their own hands is sort of logical step to take.

3. That salary-man effect is also a part of it. The "Fruits" and Japanese street fashion phenomenon is a predominantly youth-dominated culture, which allows them to express themselves in ways we'd consider outlandish. It's probably a good way of "getting it out of their system" before being expected to don the suits and uniforms of the corporate or service machines they will become a part of when they become an adult. The kind of interesting characters you see in these RPG's are only possible with people who haven't entered a boring workforce, after all...
posted by lou at 11:47 AM on September 10, 2007

It's all about Legend of Zelda - Shigeru Miyamoto based a lot of its story on imaginary adventures he had as a child. From his Wikipedia page: The Legend of Zelda was inspired by Miyamoto's maze-like Japanese home; he'd often go exploring in the wilderness and caves.

Zelda was a pretty revolutionary game that pretty much made a genre, so it's not surprising that many of the games that came after it adopted its tropes, including that of the child's adventure into adulthood.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:25 PM on September 10, 2007

The chibi art style is also commonly referred to as super deformed. As RPG storytelling became more sophisticated in the 16-bit days developers needed a way to insert visual characterization using limited graphical resources, and so the style was adopted. By using highly exaggerated head and facial features characters could express a wider array of emotion and body language with a limited amount of pixels. The style was necessarily used for people of all ages -- the concept and in-game artwork for Final Fantasy VI clearly shows the characters as grown adults, for example.

As graphics evolved the style became unnecessary from a technical perspective, but certain developers still choose to hang on to it for aesthetic reasons.
posted by Smallpox at 2:37 PM on September 10, 2007

thanks folks, those are precisely the kinds of answers I was looking for. Now I have an idea of what terms (chibi) to look for in my quest for understanding.
posted by jaded at 2:46 PM on September 10, 2007

That was a great question that I would not have thought to ask. Thanks for the entertainment!
posted by mattholomew at 8:04 AM on September 11, 2007

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