Or why you have to grind in Japanese RPGs.
I was asked in our "Ask the NWR Japan Crew" forum thread about why certain Japanese games tend to emphasise monotonous game elements such as grinding and fetch quests.
This got me thinking that a lot of people might be interested in why that is the case and because I've lived in Japan long enough, I think I can take a shot at giving everyone a decent answer.
As with lots of things based around Japanese culture, customs, and belief, it stems from history. For example, do you know why the Japanese drive (and walk) on the left-hand side? it's because the Samurai used to carry their Katana on the left hip and wouldn't want to accidentally maim anyone they walk next to or pass by in the street. The tradition continues to this day, despite the lack of swords being carried around modern day Tokyo, people will instinctively move to the left on an escalator.
You may not realise it, but level grinding in Dragon Quest (et al) is very similar to what the actions of a real Edo-period Samurai master were.
Let me explain. The incredible swordsmanship and deadly bow accuracy of the Samurai was not an accident or some natural born talent, it was in fact due to extraordinary determination and monotonous daily repetition of their arts.
This wasn't like learning some martial arts at your local gym every Saturday afternoon. We're talking intensive training every day without fail, until you could hit that straw target in the centre, on horseback, at 40mph - every single time. (Have you ever got 2000 points in the archery target range in Ocarine of Time? A Samurai would have)
The same thing applies to all other arts (martial or otherwise), from dancing to throwing someone over your shoulder and punching them in the face. Everyone wants to master their art, be the absolute best at what they do.
Doing something by halves is called being "Chuto-Hanpa" in Japanese and has quite a derogatory meaning. It's not something you'd want said about you or your work. That's why the Japanese make sure everything they do is not the least bit Chuto-Hanpa, effort above all else is celebrated in Japan.
Follow this train of thought and maybe now you'll start to see the repetitious parts of games like Pokemon and Dragon Quest in a different light. When Ash vows to be the best Pokemon trainer, he's actually continuing the tradition of the Samurai and other professions. If you tell a kid to master trigonometry or algebra, they might not take fondly to it. Give them some cuddly monsters to train and, heck, they'll take up that challenge any day of the week.
In RPGs like Pokemon, Dragon Quest, and Final Fantasy, how you go about mastering your “art” is by levelling up all your characters to level 100, a momentous task considering how long it takes to do this. Multiply this across different weapons, upgrades, and side-characters and it might start to feel like a second job.
But in Japan, the idea of repeating something until perfected is taught at a very young age, a look at the writing system shows proof of that. I've been studying Kanji (on and off) for about 5 years now and I've yet to even reach the proficiency of a Junior High School student, because my way of studying is more of the “do it when you feel like it” approach as apposed to the systematic way that is taught in Japanese schools from the start. I've seen teachers make kids rewrite an entire page of Kanji drills because the curly bit at the top of the character was slightly curved inwards instead of outwards. When that kind of process is drilled into you at an elementary level, it's easy to see why there are fewer complaints about repeating boring tasks in Japanese culture as a whole, when compared to other countries.
Japan has a huge hobby culture, everyone has something they do passionately. For kids it tends to be things like collecting bugs and insects, something that manifests itself in games like Animal Crossing or Zelda: Twilight Princess. More universal are things like collecting trading cards or figures. I'm sure many of you reading this have had a huge collection of something at one point or another, but even collecting gets taken to another level in Japan, sometimes bordering on the excessive.
This is where this noble belief has its downsides, when someone turns the quest for perfection into an obsession. There are people in all cultures that have compulsive or obsessive personalities, but possibly due to the reasons I mentioned earlier, it seems like Japan has more than its fair share.
The word geek is often translated to "otaku", but the actual meaning of otaku is more close to "obsessed geek", something rather different than someone who just reads comic books from time to time. Do a web search for otaku and I'm sure it wont be long until you find a photograph of someone's tiny bedroom filled to the ceiling with figures and toys. I think that the otaku collecting culture stems from this “quest for perfection” that is so integral in Japanese society, it is this very culture that feeds back into the gaming scene. I'm sure if you ask many Japanese developers if they were an otaku when they were younger, the answer will be mostly "hai" (a Japanese phrase meaning yes/OK"). Suda 51, creator of the No More Heroes games, fully admits that he still is one - no surprises there.
I'm not suggesting that all RPG developers and RPG players are obsessive nerds that feed off each other in some kind of circle of nerdom, I'm just saying that the influences are there and most probably do affect how those games are made on some level. This could help explain the gameplay elements, and the fact that the very nature of RPGs makes it so that they require more dedication than most other genres.
People who play RPGs in Japan have a certain expectation that they will be given a traditional story, usually revolving around the idea of a young boy/girl leaving their village on a long arduous task to defeat some evildoer. This is because, like most of us, the Japanese can relate this kind of story to their own lives: leaving their home (village), increasing their knowledge and perfecting their skills at college,(levelling up their character), working hard to please/defeat their boss (enemy) for ultimate fortune and success until you retire (and think about replaying the best bits). The struggles that they (and indeed all of us) have to go through in life are worth it because they know that their hard work will pay off in the end and they will get the ending that they deserve.
This is true in both the virtual and real life, hard work pays off, whether it's schoolwork or monster battling - your efforts will be ultimately rewarded by how much time you put in. As this is such a core belief in Japan, I'm pretty sure that this will exist in Japanese videogames in some way or another for a good while.
I just hope that I've given some explanation, so that at least now you can understand that there is not always something malicious behind level grinding and fetch quests, it's just the Japanese developers letting players have the chance of mastering their character in a way that requires complete dedication so as to separate the “half doers” from the Samurai masters.
If that gives you a feeling of triumph and pride when you reach your goals, and your friends recognise your outstanding achievements and bow to your awesomeness, what's wrong with that? If that means hitting slimes in the face for 100 hours, then so be it, because you know that you'll do it anyway - the reward will be so worth it.