Emil Lundedal Hammar: (J)RPGs, Orientalism, and the Usefulness of Theory

Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix, 2009) promotional CG render. Credits: Square Enix.
The JRPG Discourse

In March 2023, the so-called ‘online discourse’ on English-speaking games social media had a relatively wide discussion of the ‘genre’ Japanese Role-Playing Game (for short, JRPG[i]), both as a term and as a historical scrutiny. This object of the discourse was prompted by the marketing campaign of the upcoming Final Fantasy XVI, where the game’s executive producer Naoki Yoshida commented on how they felt that:

“[…] it was like a discriminatory term […] As though we were being made fun of for creating these games, and so for some developers, the term JRPG can be something that will maybe trigger bad feelings because of what it was in the past. “It wasn’t a compliment to a lot of developers in Japan. We understand that recently, JRPG has better connotations and it’s being used as a positive, but we still remember the time when it was used as a negative.” (Zwiesen, 2023.)

On one hand, to Japanese game developers’, the style of RPGs made in Japan are called RPGs for obvious reasons (for a great brief treatment of this, see Pelletier-Gagnon and Hutchinson, 2022, 4) labelling it as a textual discursive formation), but on the other hand, Yoshida also points out how there was a negative association with their RPGs being branded as a ‘JRPG’, as if the genre necessarily had essential characteristics that were always negatively received by dominant Western consumers and media outlets.

Addressing past transgressions

This quote was shared widely and made a lot of people reflect on the 2000s that they recalled as the time in which Japanese games were stereotyped and boxed into something that was not ‘cool’. The focus on this topic also motivated some people to excavate some damning footage of racist media coverage of Japanese games in, for instance, the edgy US television show ‘Attack of the Show’, where racist stereotypes and cultural ridicule of Japan proliferated to such an extent that one of the hosts stated that Japan became a real country after the US bombed them with nuclear weapons.

In those years, the dominant tentpole videogame releases by dominantly North American game companies represented men as overly buff and tough masculinity as seen in games such as Gears of War (Epic Games, 2006) that perhaps best exemplified the late 2000s further reliance on a certain type of masculinity. In the meantime, prominent and highly marketed Japanese games such as the Final Fantasy (Squaresoft, 1987-) series or specifically Metal Gear Solid 2 (Konami, 2001) that featured softer, smaller, lighter and – for us in the Western markets – more ‘effeminate’ male protagonists. In various Anglophonic online fora and even media outlets, these games were in turn ridiculed or dismissed because they weren’t the proper ‘masculinity’ that the games industry and its marketing arm had constructed as being the dominant and ‘correct’ type of male character, even though Japanese game companies were also marginalizing female protagonists and ensuring their notion of masculinity as the dominant gender.

In this sense, this statement by Yoshida prompted many people on social media to reflect more critically about how questions of nationality, race, culture, genre, and gender came into play in the transnational flow of commodified cultures in the case of video games between the Western countries and the Japanese cultural industries.

Western perceptions and the usefulness of theory

Of course, this reminded me about my own occasional skirting into so-called Japanese RPGs in the 2000s. I’ve tried my hand with the much-lauded Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997) and later Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006) in my teenage years, but once my characters were losing to an overpowered small cactus, I just felt the most popular examples of the genre were simply too ridiculous to take seriously and I just disregarded such ‘silly’ experiences. But as the model target audience as a white man in my early 20s with disposable income, I was exposed to trailers from game conferences such as E3, where I was captivated by the dazzling pre-rendered concept trailer of Final Fantasy XIII (Square Enix, 2009), despite never really getting into the series or the genre. After a long time of many development problems – which was symptomatic of how larger Japanese game companies were struggling at the time with scaling their productions for larger productions to accommodate the technical requirements for highly detailed assets and rendering, while the game consumer markets at home and abroad were diverging in terms of console versus handheld and mobile – Final Fantasy XIII was released in 2009 in Japan and 2010 in the Western markets. However, despite the game finally releasing after years of blood, sweat and tears by the workers at Square Enix, the reception in the West was muted. I especially remember online criticisms highlighting that the game’s virtual landscape was severely constricted for players to move around in and considered as an incredibly ‘linear’ game. By linear, the usual video game language is referring to how players experience the virtual maps or worlds in which they move their in-game character around in. Here, Final Fantasy XIII was very restrictive and straightforward with how the player progressed the game’s levels and story to such an extent that it was called a long hallway or corridor to go through.

Fig 1. A topographical view of a level in Final Fantasy XIII. Credits: Final Fantasy XIII Ultimania Omega guide book.

I was reminded of this criticism of level linearity in Final Fantasy XIII and perhaps JRPGs more broadly when I read Dr. Joleen Blom’s excellent research article called ‘Challenging Linearity – Microstructures and Meaning-Making in Trails of Cold Steel III’ in the anthology ‘Japanese Role-playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG’. The article is an interesting showcase of how understandings of certain game characteristics fall into the trap of reducing complex cultural objects like video games into misguided notions of – in this case – linearity. Blom cleverly points out that the dominant value ascription in Anglophonic video game discourse is that the more freedom a player is provided by a game, the better the game is. In this view, RPGs made in the West are marketed as providing ‘choices and consequences’ for the actions a player undertakes and are therefore regarded as more ‘valuable’ and ‘better’ than games that ‘force’ players into pre-defined paths. However, Blom correctly states that such understandings of games:

“does not acknowledge a player’s own experience of creating meaning from texts like JRPGs, […] the ecology in which JRPGs are produced, and it perpetuates the archaic dichotomy between Japanese and Western cultural products.” (78)

In opposition to such limited views on for instance linearity, Blom instead turns to explore questions of linearity and agency in the narrative structure of video games, such as those labelled JRPGs. Through a textual analysis of the game Trails of Cold Steel III (Nihon Falcom, 2017), Blom uses a reader-response approach of her own playthrough(s) of the game and applies the theory of ‘narrative consumption’ and the notion of ‘scriptons’ to argue that so-called linearity in JRPG narratives is not as straightforward as people might usually think. Blom accurately shows how the stories of the game’s characters are told through a so-called ‘character profile slot mechanic’ that makes it impossible for two players to get the same information about the game’s characters in two different playthroughs. Blom states that this form of narrative characteristic via ‘character consumption’ facilitates an ‘additive comprehension’ that complicates conventional notions of linearity as it’s otherwise used in usual Anglophonic video game discourses to exoticize JRPGs. This is one example of how ‘linearity’ is not simply providing players with larger maps to navigate their character around in but is also complicated by other instances of narrative mechanics and forms of storytelling that explicates the complex experience of playing a videogame. Blom’s article is therefore an important intervention against the dominant understandings of linearity that– in Blom’s own words – “perpetuates the Othering of Japanese RPGs to restrict them to a static identity as having limited narrative choice” (91).

This, I think, is a good example of how even abstract concepts and theory can be useful and applied in everyday discourses on, for instance, JRPGs. So when I was reminded of the demarcation of the ‘JRPG’ by Western game consumers with the recent statement by Naoki Yoshida about how he and his colleagues felt about the term and the negative associations that Western consumers and media outlets gave it in the 2000s, and the harsh reception of Final Fantasy XIII as being overly linear, I think Blom’s article is a very useful optic to understand the complexities of video games that pushes against orientalist siloing. Abstract theories and concepts are not useless or detached from the world but can instead serve as an illuminating light that more accurately account for our everyday experiences to also contest dominant understandings of cultures.

The transnational and imperial relations between West and Japan

The cultural contestations over terms and meanings especially regarding the globally dominant Western countries against those who are usually othered or racialized is important, especially in reference to the tech industry’s primarily US-based companies who dominate the world. This is also one of the reasons why we should be vigilant against orientalist demarcations and denigration of cultural products originating from outside the West, where Western game companies have an interest in taking over markets and becoming dominant players. Here, Japan’s economic boom in the 80s was seen as a threat to Western economic dominance (hence the yellow peril scare in 80s sci-fi genres such as cyberpunk) and with regard to games, US companies such as Microsoft saw themselves as trying to overthrow the Japanese companies like Nintendo and Sony in the games market, where for instance, the team behind Microsoft’s graphical API DirectX nicknamed their tech project ‘The Manhattan project’ after the development of the nuclear bomb because, according to Alex St. John who led the DirectX team, “[…] strategically it was an effort to displace Japanese game consoles with PCs and ultimately the Xbox.” (Craddock, 2007) This is also why the DirectX team back in the 90s even had a glowing radiation logo that would later turn towards the iconic X symbol that was then used for the Xbox console and branding.

Fig. 2 & 3. The evolution of the DirectX logos. Credits: Microsoft + the story behind the logo by Alex St. John. Credits: Twitter user @HokutoAndy on March 3, 2023.

Thus, as Pelletier and Hutchinson state in their introduction to the anthology on JRPGs:

“emphasis on the national in the context of the globalization of videogames as a cultural commodity begs for a reassessment of how knowledge on games and genre has been structured in game culture broadly, but also for a reflection on the function and effects of discursive categories” (Pelletier-Gagnon and Hutchinson, 2022, 4).

Put differently, dealing with the demarcated term ‘JRPG’ and the example of the now old Final Fantasy XIII from the vantage point of a Western perspective such as this blog post, and Blom’s approach to understanding cultural products such as videogames, are one such reflection on how the transnational flow of cultural commodities and discursive effects prompt a reflection of our understanding of each other and ourselves.


I would like to thank Dr. Joleen Blom for valuable feedback and prompting this blog post with her excellent book chapter on linearity.

Author bio and contact info:

Emil Lundedal Hammar (PhD) is a postdoctoral researcher at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts with previous employment at the Game Research Lab and at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies at Tampere University. His research expertise intersects between game studies, political economy, critical race theory, and cultural memory studies, where his doctoral thesis addressed how digital games, race, colonialism, and political economy intertwine to reinforce dominant hegemonic understandings of the past. His current research focuses on resilience, work conditions, and DEI initiatives in the European game industries.

Contact: eham@kglakademi.dk

Emil Lundedal Hammar. Credits: Author.

Blom, Joleen. 2022. “Challenging Linearity – Microstructures and Meaning-Making in Trails of Cold Steel III’.” In Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG, edited by Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon and Rachel Hutchinson, 77–95. Rowman & Littlefield.

Craddock, David. 2007. “Alex St John Interview.” Shacknews. March 28, 2007. https://www.shacknews.com/article/46338/alex-st-john-interview.

Hutchinson, Rachael. 2019. Japanese Culture through Videogames. Routledge.

Pelletier-Gagnon, Jérémie, and Rachael Hutchinson. 2022. “Introduction.” In Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG, edited by Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon and Rachael Hutchinson, 1–15. Rowman & Littlefield.

Zwiesen, Zack. 2023. “Final Fantasy XVI Producer Doesn’t Seem To Love The Term ‘JRPG.’” Kotaku. February 28, 2023. https://kotaku.com/ff16-yoshi-p-jrpg-square-enix-yoshida-previews-ps5-1850169822.

[i] It should be noted that I do not want to begin any definition of what a RPG is, nor try to properly outline the necessary and sufficient criteria for when an RPG is ‘Japanese’, as I believe the clear genre demarcations and classifications are the most futile (and Orientalist) endeavors to undertake. There are some historical treatments out there, see for example (Hutchinson 2019; Blom 2022, 79).