Due to cultural differences between game developers, historically different inspirations and origins, distinct target audiences, and hardware with dissimilar capabilities, two main trends or "families" of electronic role-playing games (RPGs) exist: the Western RPG
(also known as the Computer RPG
) and Eastern RPG
(also known as the Console RPG
). Each follows a general pattern in terms of art style, storyline, and game mechanics.
Western RPGs (WRPGs) are usually released first on Western personal computer
platforms, and only in recent times has it become common to port them to consoles
. For this reason, they are often referred to as "Computer RPGs".
The Western family of digital RPGs frequently employs dark and serious fantasy
or Science Fiction settings, and open-ended, nonlinear plot structures. The personalities of the characters are usually more subdued than those of their Japanese counterparts, with fewer cackling villains and comic relief characters. Stories often deal with ancient struggles for power that rarely end with a total victory for any given faction. The races
featured in most Western RPGs are often based on those popularized by the writings of British novelist J. R. R. Tolkien
, such as dwarves, orcs, and elves. In a game like Baldur's Gate
, it is possible to orient the main character along varying degrees of "good" and "evil".
Western RPGs are often based more on consequential choices than their Eastern RPG counterparts, and there is often ambiguity seen in the motivations and intentions of characters, rather than the polar opposites of good and evil. This moral ambiguity can sometimes be extended to the player, allowing for multiple branching dialogue and story paths; Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and its sequel The Sith Lords, for example, allow the player to pursue good, evil, or neutral pathways, each which significantly impact the game's storyline, the abilities the player has access to, and how NPCs treat the player.
Many WRPG mechanics are based directly on the rules and settings of pen and paper game systems (Dungeons and Dragons
being the most common), often showing die rolls and other game mechanics
normally hidden from players' eyes. Level advancement systems in Western RPGs also tend to feature lower level limits and slower progression rates than in Eastern RPGs. Many western games also incorporate skill-based character progression on top of a level-based system. Within a skill-based progression system, players invest experience
or some other progression points into specific skills and abilities in order to specialize their characters for a particular style of play. Other skill-based systems will instead make the character level dependent on skill usage, as seen in The Elder Scrolls
Because video game consoles are most prevalent in East Asia, most East Asian RPGs (also called Eastern RPGs, Japanese RPGs, or JRPGs, after their place of origin), are made for consoles. Thus, they are often referred to as "Console RPGs."
The themes of Eastern RPGs
vary, with some games bright and colorful in appearance, such as the Lunar
series; others with dark themes and settings, such as those in the Megami Tensei
series; while others have a combination of both, such as Final Fantasy VI
, Final Fantasy VII
or Chrono Cross
. Console RPGs games often employ settings that are a fusion of Asian history
with European folklore and literature
, and modern Japanese comics (manga
) and animation (anime
and science fiction
hybrid settings are very common in Eastern RPGs, including the popular Final Fantasy
series; while others such as Dragon Quest
are mostly fantasy. The character designs in these games are usually in the anime style and occasionally may carry light-hearted tones. The storyline in these games usually involves an epic, ultimate battle between the forces of good and evil, with the player's characters fighting for the good cause. Character races tend to be limited to humans; when the player is given a choice, Eastern RPGs tend to use races specific to the game's setting.
An Eastern RPG's plot is usually crafted in an intricate fashion into a highly dramatic, strictly directed and linear construct, relying on the viewer to experience most of its twists and turns at predetermined specific times in certain ways. In this sense, an Eastern RPG's execution is quite akin to that of a movie or a novel, with gameplay frequently interrupted by scripted cut scenes. Few games in the genre offer branching plots, though some titles such as Shin Megami Tensei and Tales of Symphonia do feature alternate storylines depending on the player's conversational choices to characters in the party. Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross and the Star Ocean series were notable for offering a multitude of decidedly different endings during a period when very few console RPGs offered multiple endings.
A slight variation of this family exists in mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, and other neighboring countries. These games use a different, Chinese-influenced art style and the storyline is told with a Wuxia style inspired by novels. One famous example is Sword of Xuan Yuan.
Eastern developers tend to create new (but similar) systems for every new game rather than implementing existing role-playing game systems
. For example, every new Final Fantasy
game always features a different battle system
from previous games in the series. Character development rules are also often oriented towards combat abilities.
A fundamental difference between Western RPGs and Eastern RPGs is the way the games’ stories are structured. Western RPGs often allow the player to make moral and/or strategic choices when solving many problems relevant to the whole story, thus making them less linear
. This often means that player-created characters start with unknown motivations and vague background stories; these are usually left for the player to decide, which can be considered either an advantage or drawback. Eastern RPGs are usually more tightly scripted, which allows for more detailed characterization and highly dramatic events to unfold as in a book or a movie. However, since the progress of the plot has been predetermined, the player's choices usually have little or no effect on the direction of the game.
- Both families commonly feature a variety of status effects that may affect characters during battles. These usually come into play when special powers and abilities (such as spells) are used. Some of these provide a character an advantage (boosted attributes, defensive barriers, regeneration) and are commonly referred to as buffs. Others hinder the character (decreased attributes, incapacitation, gradual loss of health) and are called debuffs.
- Combat is typically heavily abstracted, with characters often not depicted dodging or blocking.
- Player character death is trivialized to some extent in both genres. Death is usually no obstacle to a character and easily cured. If player characters or allies permanently die, it is often during scripted scenes as a part of the game's plot. An exception to this rule, are the games in the Fire Emblem series; once any character other than the key character(s) die, they are gone forever.
- Final bosses typically are magical or divine entities, or characters empowered by these forces. Death is often the final solution employed by the protagonists to prevent the antagonist from achieving his or her goals.
- Music plays a strong role in the creation of atmosphere.
- While the base humanoid races in a game setting may differ, the magical or fantastic creatures that are fought and summoned in both Western and Eastern RPGs are often drawn from international lore (European, Asian, Native American, etc) and coexist in one reality of the game's world.
- Both Western and Eastern RPGs usually place a strong (though different) emphasis on plot in comparison to other genres like FPS or RTS. Because of this, RPGs are frequently compared to the adventure genre.
- The main characters in modern Western RPGs tend to be exclusively composed of adults or occasionally young adults. In contrast, modern Eastern RPGs more often feature young adults and teenagers, and sometimes even children. Some main characters in Eastern RPGs start the story as children and finish the story as adults. It is not uncommon for a Western RPG to allow the player to create their own avatar for a hero from a variety of premade choices, or with a number of customization options, similar to Elder Scrolls or Mass Effect.
- Although Western RPGs allow for significant customization, male characters are typically seen as strong, powerful, and masculine. Male main characters in Eastern RPGs may be statistically powerful as well, but visually appear younger and more lithe (since they are also usually younger); in addition, these main characters almost never have facial hair and are built upon the "beautiful boy" model to a degree that may be almost effeminate. Eastern RPGs may have male or female leads although there is sometimes also an element of rescuing the damsel in distress.
- Cut scenes, scripted sequences used to advance the plot, are more frequently found in Eastern RPGs.
- The characters in Eastern RPGs tend to be more talkative than in Western RPGs. The major reason for this is that in many Western RPGs, NPCs may not end up accompanying or even meeting the player character for various reasons:
- Eastern RPGs follow story-driven development of events, requiring more control over when NPCs and PCs are present. Most allies are introduced by the main storyline. On the other hand, Western RPGs focus on a goal-driven development of events and less on character development. This allows more flexibility, as the player's actions affect where the story will go, but at the expense of crafting the story around personal development of the main cast. Some characters in Western RPGs are not even found except through heavy exploration.
- Many Western RPGs allow the player to attack NPCs at will, or even accidentally in the case of area-effect attacks. Some Western RPGs even allow for the player character to attack important quest-giving and plot-related characters. In Western RPGs, characters may permanently die in non-scripted events. Most Eastern RPGs limit combat to enemies only and prevent permanent non-scripted death, short of a "game over" situation.
- In most Western RPGs, players are able to recruit and dismiss party members. These NPCs generally remain in a certain location until they rejoin the party, and cannot participate in combat or story events while not in the party. Most Eastern RPGs allow the player to select a party, but some may force the player to include certain PCs in the party at certain times for story reasons. Some games have all PC allies travel as a group, meaning any PC can participate in any scene; the party is only used for combat.
- In Eastern RPGs, it is common for lead characters of the opposite sex who are seen interacting early on to end up romantically involved or implied to be so in the future. Western games tend to cause the characters to fall in love or drift apart based on the player's actions. Western RPGs rarely feature such dramatic relationships between main characters, although there are some other notable exceptions such as Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
- Western RPGs often contain unique pantheons of deities from which priest characters receive their (often specialized) powers and spells; Eastern RPGs instead tend to either not elaborate the means by which priests receive spells (as in the Dragon Quest series), or else simply avoid deities completely by allowing normal magic-users to cast healing magic (white magic in the Final Fantasy series, for example).
- RPGs inspired by the Dungeons and Dragons pen-and-paper-RPGs typically allow the player to generate and customize a character, whereas Eastern RPGs typically force the player to use a predefined character and background to complete the game. Character progression in Western RPGs is typically a long, involved process requiring a careful selection of attribute, spell, ability, and/or skill advances from among many choices, which could have serious long-term effects on the success of the character. In many traditional Eastern RPGs, character development was less strenuous and more limited with different players playing the same game often ending up with the same character abilities. (However, this should not be overemphasized as games where "level-building" was common tended to be the norm during the 1990s.) Because of this difference in customization, abilities and spells unique to a given character are more commonly seen in Eastern RPGs. Recent character development systems in Eastern RPGs are more complex and flexible, such as the License Board system in Final Fantasy XII, which allows the player to develop each character's abilities however he or she chooses.
- The main hero in most Eastern RPGs is often a male warrior wielding a sword, though there are always exceptions such as Final Fantasy VI, Suikoden, Wild Arms 3, Shadow Hearts, Chrono Cross and Xenosaga. In most Western RPGs and a number of earlier Eastern RPGs, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest III, character creation allows players to choose their main hero(es)’s class/primary skill set, weapons, and sometimes gender, resulting in more variety.
- Western RPGs, in part due to their ability to have more complicated keyboard-driven interfaces, frequently have deeper levels of character and environment based interaction in both skills and spells. Characters in roguelike games like ADOM or NetHack can often swim or break through walls. In many Western RPGs it is possible to cast spells outside of battle, to unlock a door for example, while in Eastern RPGs this is rarely possible, other than for healing.
- In many Eastern RPGs, the four classical elements of fire, earth, air and water are incorporated into the game's setting, and additional “elements” or "energy types" are often introduced as well, such as lightning, light, darkness, and “para-elements” such as poison. Any spell, item, or creature may be associated with one or more of these elements. Finding and exploiting an enemy’s weakness against a certain element is often crucial (and sometimes the only way) to defeat an opponent in battle. The magic system in many western RPGs is based on schools of magic, often incorporating schools of magic such as evocation, transmutation, or illusion.
- Summon spells, which call forth a supernatural or magical entity to assist the characters, are usually powerful one-time direct-damage spells in Eastern RPGs (although sometimes a summoned creature may fight in the place of the party, such as in Final Fantasy X). In Western RPGs, a "summon" spell usually conjures the presence of a persistent, usually autonomous ally that attacks for many turns alongside the caster rather than disappearing after a single powerful attack.
- Typical methods of item acquisition differ between Western and Eastern RPGs.
- In Western RPGs, the quality of weapons and armor offered at shops tend to vary more with the characters' level than with their location, since Western RPGs tend to be less linear, and players often visit the same towns repeatedly. Eastern RPGs generally present players with shops where weapons and armor can be obtained in each town; since Eastern RPGs generally have a linear storyline, the next town in sequence often holds the most powerful weapons and armor available to the players at that time.
- In Western RPGs, the most powerful weapons, spells, or techniques are usually obtained through making key decisions or expansive exploration. In Eastern RPGs, these items and techniques are usually obtained through minigames or self-contained events that have no impact on the events of the game.
- Western RPGs often allow players to steal items and gold from NPCs. Theft is nearly always a crime, and players are punished if caught. Eastern RPGs almost never allow players to steal items from NPCs (although there is commonly a pickpocket skill that allows a character to attempt to steal items from enemies during battle). If a player finds an item or treasure in a house, it is generally expected that the player will take it. There is no punishment for "stealing" such items, and NPCs generally do not even acknowledge that the player has stolen anything from them.
- Eastern RPGs tend to implement random battles, where the player characters are whisked off to a "battle arena" screen without warning via a probability-based system. This is a holdover from the days when consoles and computers did not have enough power to render enemies on screen before a fight, and later became a genre staple. It is rare in modern Western RPGs, although it was quite common in the 1980s and to a lesser degree in the early 1990s. Some Eastern RPGs, however, have abandoned this battle system, notable examples including Lunar and Chrono Trigger (in which battles take place in the "normal" world).
- Combat in traditional Western and Eastern RPGs tends to be very different. Movement and position is more emphasized in Western RPGs due in part to their wargaming roots. Other realistic tactical features like friendly fire and area of effect spells are also more prevalent in Western RPGs than Eastern RPGs. Tactical RPGs tend to be more popular in the East.