The Changing Dynamic Of Japanese RPG Hero & Villain Alignment’s

Having reemersed myself in Japanese RPG’s over the past couple of weeks and read up on some of the classics, there’s something I’ve notice about how the narrative of RPG Hero and Villain storylines have changed over the recent years.  If you follow the D&D Alignment Philosophy you will notice that with early games like Dragon Quest the narrative was typicall that Good versus Evil or the Y Axis of the grid.  Good heroes fought Evil villains and it was as simple as that.  However starting sometime in the mid 90’s you can notice a definite shift towards an X Axis style narrative of Chaotic Heroes versus Lawful Villains.  Whether they are Chaotic, Good, Neutral or Evil Heroes or Lawful, Good, Neutral or Evil Villains seems to vary.  What always seems to stay the same though is that games will invariably end with this prinicple I’ve described at the forefront.  Let’s look at it in a little more detail shall we?

Let’s start by looking at Final Fantasy (1987), an the early Y Axis style narrative.  Here the story was one of good vs evil.  Light symbolizing life and prosperity has been shrouded by darkness representing death and pestilence.  You the hero must carry the light of justice and defeat the evil fiends who seek to wreck havoc on the well being of the land.  Oddly enough this game had a narrative that is pretty much the exact opposite of what games are like now.  The game was about Lawful Good vs. Chaotic Evil.  Heck even the last boss itself was called Chaos.  These were the early days of Japanese RPG’s in the period of 1986-1991.  Well let’s look at the other FF games now.

FF2: Same deal.  3 young children and their Lawful good companions have to defeat the might Parmekian empire led by it’s Chaotic Evil Emperor’s who’s only goal seems to be destruction.

FF3: Things get a bit different now.  For the first time we have a Lawful Neutral (Light Warriors) team up with another Chaotic Neutral (Dark Warriors) to strike down the greater evil of Dark Cloud and it’s Chaotic Evil.  It’s not Light or Dark that is inherently evil anymore.  It’s still a story of Good vs. Evil, but the narrative has shifted ever so slightly.  It’s a sign of things to come with the next game in the series.

FF4: Holy crap there’s tons of different character alignments teaming up in this game.  We have Cecil and Rosa (Lawful Good), Kain (Chaotic Good), Edge (Neutral Good), and Rydia (Neutral Good) teaming up to take down Lawful Evil (Zeromus, a guy who had a clear plan to have his people settle on earth, but amoral way of carrying it out).  We’ve hit the transition point in this game.  This is the point in time where the narrative was juggled around.  It’s still not the chaos versus law that we have now, but for the first time we have seen a villain that isn’t inherently chaotic evil and has some purpose in their villainous ways.  Perhaps it’s fitting that this is one of the first J-RPGS to come out in the 90’s, thus signalling it as a decade of growth in the depth of J-RPG storytelling.  This variable style of character alignments would hold with FFV through to FFVI with two Chaotic Evil villains (Exodus and Kefka), one Chaotic Neutral villain (Sephiroth), another Lawful Evil villain (Ultemecia) until the advent of FF9, which I see as the beginning of the era of Chaos versus Law.  Let’s talk about it.

FF9:  Coming out in the year 2000 on the cusp of another new decade, FF9 seems to signal the end of the era of variable narratives in JRPG’s.  Here we have what appears to be Zidane the petty thief (Chaotic Good) versus the treacherous and amoral Kuja (Chaotic Evil) and a slight return to the original narrative of Good versus Evil, started with games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.  Everything looks like a throwback right up until the end when Necron (Lawful Neutral) pops out to try and reset the universe after you destroy it’s origin.  Suddenly Kuja is now seen as a sympathetic character and Necron’s the bad guy for being to much of a stiff to allow these Gaian’s with their free will to continue to exist in an unpredictable universe where life goes on as usual.  Where did this come from?  Also note that the one purely Lawful Good character in your party (Steiner) is portrayed as a fool and constantly upstaged by Zidane for being to set in his ways.  All the other characters are seen as various shades of Chaotic Good (Dagger, Vivi, Eiko, Freya), Chaotic Neutral (Amarant, Quina).  All the hero characters live life on the edge in their own way while it’s those that try to control them (Law is a form of control) that are seen as the bad guys.  This is your new narrative folks.

FF10:  By casting of the laws and codes that were set down to defeat Sin and chosing their own head on path of fighting the creature only then are the heroes able to put an end to it’s thousand year cycle of destruction and rebirth.  Plus once you finally fight the thing (or rather Yu Yevon)you discover what was once thought of as a Chaotic Evil destruction machine is actually a deliberate Lawful Neutral effort to keep the city of Zanarkand alive in a dream world and the outer shell is only a means of defending itself.

FF12:  Vayne Caradas Solidor, The Machievel.  A Lawful Evil villain who’s goal is to become the might Dynast King so he can have the power to free Ivalice from the clutches of the Lawful Good (Ocuria) who’s controlling ways he feel stifle the growth and independence of the human race.  To bad he’s just as villainous as they are in our heroes eyes.  Pretty much everybody in your party is either Chaotic Good to begin with, or eventually becomes as such.  Everybody who adheres to a strict code of law you end up fighting, I swear to god.  Even “Judges” are seen as oppressive bullies who use the Senate’s laws as a method of controlling and limiting people’s freedoms.  This is sort of the ultimate endpoint of the change in narrative and one of the ultimate examples of the new Chaos versus Law dynamic.  Why stop there though, let’s look at a few other games from the 80’s (Good vs Evil) 90’s (Whatever the heck) and 21st century (Chaos Versus Law)

Mother (1989): A boy named Ninten and his good natured friends must battle Gyiyg to protect Earth.  Giyig would ultimately manifest as the living embodiment of all evil in the universe and try to bring about the apocalypse in the games sequel Mother 2 (Earthbound).

Dragon Quest 2 (1987):  Your generically good hero must fight some generically evil wizard or something.  Did I ever mention I don’t like Dragon Quest.  Interesting story, because of Japan’s stubborn refusal to do anything new with the DQ series since it’s inception.  Dragon Quest remains pretty much the only anamoly to keep the good versus evil dynamic well into the 21st century.

Chrono Trigger (1995):  Through an extraordinary series of events, Chrono (Neutral Good) ends up teaming up with a hodgepodge of character alignments from different eras including no less than Marle (Chaotic Good), Lucca (Neutral Good) Frog (Lawful Good), Robo (Neutral), Ayla (Chaotic Neutral) Magus (Lawful Evil) to destroy the Lawful Neutral Lavos (A creature that can bring the prosperity of the human race or absolute destruction destruction of it on a whim based on it’s own precoded instincts for survival, which I take as a form of law and order).  What a mix up.

Valkyrie Profile (2000):  Taking place during the transition to Chaos versus Law.  Here you play as the Lawful Good Lenneth who has to collect the souls of deceased warriors to fight against the Lawful Evil Vanir (Place holders for the Frost Giants).  Now, the fake ending for this game says you playing this scenario out to it’s conclusion.  The REAL ending sees you rekindling Lenneth’s love with a human from when she was forced to live as a human for disobeying Odin (Can you tell where this is going).  Eventually you say screw it to Odin and cast of his chains of repression, take off on your own and become a Chaotic Neutral, let the Lawful Gods kill each other and act out Ragnorok on their own like good little prophecy followers and then step in to stop Loki from destroying everything by setting Yggdrasil on fire.  Wow!

Disgaea (2003):  Turns everything on it’s head by making you start as the Chaotic Evil Laharl, work your way up to Neutral evil thanks to Flonne, and then kill some angels (who are lawful good) for being spoil sports.

Almost Every Game Made By Eushully (21st century):  You start of believing all demons are inherently Chaotic Evil and meet your fair share of them, but then run across one that doesn’t fit that meld and usual falls into Chaotic Neutral.  It vary’s, but then you find out that the Lawful Good gods are not playing ball and still want to kill all demons.  Then you end up having to fight one of them as an end boss.  Sometimes they forgo this and just have you play as a Chaotic side and kill some angels near the end as you carve a path of destruction and Looooooooooooove makin.  Yeah H-RPG stories aren’t exactly the deepest.

And there you have it I hope folks.  I really think this is true what I’ve just layed out.  Read it and decide for yourselves, because I think it’s quite interesting how things have changed over the years.  Are we going to see another unexpected shift in Hero/Villain alignments in the future that feature something we have yet to consider.  I doubt it somehow, I think we’ve exhausted most options by now as J-RPG’s continue to stagnate in the current Japanese gaming market that demands homegeny, but we’ll see.


9 Responses to “The Changing Dynamic Of Japanese RPG Hero & Villain Alignment’s”

  1. 1 LHW March 3, 2008 at 10:03 am

    Very nice analysis there. Sometimes, its fun playing as the bad guy as you get a different perspective to the story.

  2. 2 FF March 3, 2008 at 10:07 am

    What do you make of Tactics Ogre’s “Lawful” route, where your main character Denim massacres a camp of slaves in order to frame the enemy and promote their own ideals? He also has no qualms about betraying and killing his liege because he is deemed to be incompetent, and becomes leader in his stead. Yet his ideals are undoubtedly “good.” How would you classify him?

  3. 3 kdp March 3, 2008 at 10:27 am

    This makes me wonder if there is some relationship between the game designs and societal changes in Japan. I’d guess that the collapse of Japan’s economy in the 90s affected the mindset of the game designers. As the economy collapsed, I’d suspect that it became easier to see alternate ways of winning other than as Lawful Good, since everyone was having to struggle to survive.

    Given the way politics is going worldwide, it’s gotten increasingly difficult to be a Lawful Good person, much less play one in an JRPG. Most of the authority figures both here and abroad seem to fall into the Lawful Neutral category, with a solid minority being in the Lawful Evil camp. Given how the laws are being written and interpreted these days, it’s not too much of a surprise to see our heroes being cast as Neutral Good, Chaotic Good, or even Chaotic Neutral. When the laws are a confusing mess, only those who can effectively break or bypass the laws can make positive changes.

    I’d guess the JRPGs are going to remain in flux until things settle down worldwide. Unfortunately, we’re more likely to see continuing breakdowns in our worldwide government institutions along with increasingly desperate and futile attempts to keep promises made that can no longer be kept. At some point we’ll be down to hoping for some Chaotic Good politicians who would be willing to destroy it all in order to build something new that works for the greater good.

    Only then can we get back to Lawful Good vs Chaotic Evil and not have it feel funny. 🙂

  4. 4 Kaioshin Sama March 3, 2008 at 6:31 pm

    @FF: Denim sounds like one of the variants. Lawful Neutral with Good and Evil tendencies.

    @KDP: The 90’s changes seem to be saying anyone can make a difference and not just holy knights or virtuous warriors, and the 2000 changes seem to be appealing to the sub-culture of Otaku who like to rebel against the norms of society with the whole “Follow your own path” kind of message.

  5. 5 Setsu March 4, 2008 at 3:43 am

    ^Let’s not forget the whole “fight against the racism” in most J-RPGs as of late. The Tales of series is especially notorious for having a message about discrimination in each of their games and some of the Nippon Ichi games (Disgaea included) fall under this category as well.

    Nice analysis, though.

  6. 6 Kaioshin Sama March 4, 2008 at 4:26 am

    Tales of also had a Lawful Good “villain” in Mithos. He abused his power to end a war and then created the ultimate law enforcers in the Angels to basically control everyone outside of Dherris Kharlan, keep the balance between two worlds so another war wouldn’t break out and so that he could have a new vessel for his beloved, but ultimately he was still a hero. It’s strange. Once again it’s up to our Chaotic Good heroes to break the tradition of collecting the 8 elements via a pilgrimage and make their own future free of repression from Celestial Beings (I had to cram that in there somewhere).

  7. 7 Free RPG March 17, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    With all of the RPG games that are being released as fast as the consumers can take them it is no wonder japan has had such a growth in this market. I think they will cont. to dominate it

  8. 8 Kaioshin Sama March 17, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    It can’t last unfortunately. I love J-RPG’s, but looking at the way the market is heading it reminds me too much of the early 80’s video game crash. While they aren’t flooding the market with pure shovel-ware and there are lots of good RPG’s released every year, they aren’t innovating as much, which is something that is desirable in the west more than it is in Japan. The Japanese market for J-RPG’s remains strong, but the American market for them is in danger. As for the Japanese market in general, used game stores are killing companies profits to the point where they are being forced to homogenize games more and more to reach the maximum number of gamers and stay afloat. That has downward spiral written all over it.

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