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The Japanese (Dragon) Quest for Perfection

by James Charlton - August 5, 2010, 8:13 pm PDT
Total comments: 22

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.

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Talkback

EnnerAugust 05, 2010

Lovely article. This has given me much needed perspective on the game aspect of grinding. Mostly, it makes me think about how education in the USA relates to video game mechanics. I wonder what a thesis will equate to as I hear a thesis statement isn't common in the education cultures of Asia.

TurdFurgyAugust 05, 2010

How insightful.

SarailAugust 05, 2010

I may be an American citizen... but my god am I ever a Japanese gamer at heart.  And I always will be.

There's something about "westernized" gaming that I just can't stand -- I can't come to terms with it.  It bores me to tears.  When gamers here in America go nuts about games like Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, and Halo, I just wanna yell obscenities at the top of my lungs.  And this is why I will always be a Nintendo fan.  They are a Japanese gaming company, and they cater to my needs as a gamer.

I'm loving the new Dragon Quest game, too.  It's fantastic, and I'll waste away an hour in the field just grinding EXP battling random foes.  I love it.  Makes me feel accomplished.  And I spent hours in Final Fantasy XIII leveling up as high as I could to prepare myself for the final boss -- I was warned beforehand that it was incredibly hard to beat if you weren't careful.  By the time I got there, it was a cinch.  And yes, when I was younger, I "caught 'em all" in Pokemon, too.  Loved every minute of it.

I also think it's hilarious how western RPG devs make fun of Japanese RPGs. I find their games to be incredibly boring.  I don't know why, but I just do.

Sure, the new Wii game, The Last Story, is trying something new with it's battle system.  Am I excited by this? Absolutely.  Mainly because it looks like it's keeping in tune with generations of Japanese RPGs while trying out new battle mechanics... and hey, as long as I get to grind EXP, I'll have a grand time with the game.

So yeah, this was a very insightful article.  Thanks for posting it, famicomplicated! :)

E3 Hype Train EngineerAugust 05, 2010

Quote:

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.

Great article, but the ending should've been something like:

Quote:

Take your Prozac, go do something productive, and stop buying these archaic, pointless games. I mean, how old are you people?  What have you done with yourselves? GET A LIFE. THERE'S A WHOLE WORLD OUT THERE

AVAugust 06, 2010

so if dragon quest had a % counter and it never could go to 100% because of a glitch so it would be 99.99999%. Would the Japanese people will hate the developer for having an error not allowing them to be perfect. The glitch was on purpose to see if anyone would care and you could get the .1% if you just stand in a field for 15 hours and do nothing. Would the japanese people allow the game to be idle for 15 hours just to be perfect ?

Fascinating article. It's always interesting to read about how a people's history and culture informs their games, movies, etc. 
@ Bit.Trip.Rowsdower

lol, nice trolling.

stalepieAugust 06, 2010

I do think the Japanese culture and spirit plays into their video games style, of course, but at the same time I think of grinding and turn-based battles as essential to the genre (as old as D&D and wargaming, perhaps). I mention turn-based battles because they're often complained about in the same sentence as grinding and because they're kind of related. Let me explain.

Basically grinding is essential to RPGs because you need to reach points in the game where enemies are obviously tougher than you are. In fact, there should be parts where you seemingly cannot even enter a dungeon because the enemies outside are so difficult in comparison to another area of the map. This gives a sense of place and travel. It also tells the gamer that he has a lot of work to do to progress beyond the level of those monsters, and proves you can lose if you go ahead too far. But more importantly an RPG would be a smooth ride (no bumps in difficulty) without those spots where you need to grind. You would feel like you're taking a ride, or on an escalator, rather than climbing a tall, winding flight of stairs that has rotted wood and is missing guardrails. My point is that the difficulty would never seem to change and the enemies would seem interchangeable with each other because without grinding everything would be a smooth progression.

This plays into stats, though. Unlike action games that rely on skill and dexterity, in a roleplaying game even an expert player can't face off with the hardest enemies (or dungeons) right away without working his way up. Without stats, and turn-based battles, you take away this fundamental element. You are no longer role-playing (getting into character, such as that of a 16-year-old boy first striking out on his own) but are instead just playing an extension of yourself -- fighting games are the exact opposite of role-playing games because you don't identify with the character you play so much and everything rests on your skills (all the characters are designed to be balanced, usually, in their move sets). So you see, with out grinding you take away the sense of progression and growing stronger, which in turn is tied up with your self as playing a character who gets better outside of your talents as a video gamer. You can't do that without stats: in action games there's no good, detailed way to represent things like agility, strength, intelligence, etc. This has to be done with stats, with turn-based battles, and finally with grinding.

KDR_11kAugust 07, 2010

Grinding still feels stupid to me because I'm not using my own ability, I'm making the game develop ability for me. I can deliver slow/arced projectiles with pinpoint precision in FPS games but I didn't get there by repeatedly killing boring enemies, I got there by pushing myself to the limit of my ability (of course that's pretty hard these days since slow/arced projectiles have been phased out in favor of simpler point-click-boom hitscan weapons).

If I'm supposed to give it my all then I expect the game to do likewise.

If I'm supposed to fight huge numbers of enemies I expect them to be a threat and to require utmost precision from me, not just a ton of target dummies that I need to kill some arbitrary number of.

When dealing with RPG stats I'd rather play a game where I have to use the right moves at the right time rather than just grinding until I win. Of course in an RPG I play a role and that role has limitations but if it's too much about stats it forgets the whole playing aspect.

Yeah, I'm not big on western cRPGs either but that's mostly because of their obsession with consequences that throws game-deciding questions at you before you even know what day it is.

MoronSonOfBoronGarnet Red, Contributing WriterAugust 07, 2010

Maybe someone here should compile a list of Japanese games that require hardcore skill mastery, akin to the Gerudo horseback archery minigame mentioned in the article.

You know, the difference between hitting 100 Slimes in the face and hitting 100 Slimes exactly on the nose, consecutively, without missing, with less than three seconds between Slimes.

Great article, James. As far as I'm concerned, it's spot on.

broodwarsAugust 08, 2010

Fascinating article, much more than I expected when I originally posed that question.  ;)  I can understand and appreciate why the Japanese are the way they are, though that still doesn't make me feel any more tolerant of their love for archaic game designs (especially for a culture that prides itself on the storytelling in its most popular genre).  When I put in a game, I expect to be challenged but that the challenge is there to be overcome through a combination of cunning; determination; and growing skill.  I don't play games to run around in circles for hours repeating slaughtering critters I've already proven I can beat, just so I'm strong enough that the game will actually allow me to use my cunning; determination; and skill.  I want to prove I can defeat the challenge and then move on to the next challenge and the next chunk of story.  Stuff like this is why I've grown steadily less interested in Japanese games in general over the years (well, that and their growing interest in moe and their decreasing creativity), even though I was a huge JRPG fan in the SNES/N64/GameCube days.

TennindoAugust 08, 2010

great article man. I enjoyed it

famicomplicatedJames Charlton, Associate Editor (Japan)August 08, 2010

Thanks for the comments guys!


This editorial is a great example of what can be achieved with meaningful ideas and questions from our awesome forum-goers!

Mop it upAugust 08, 2010

Very insightful indeed. I knew that "grinding" in RPGs stemmed from a philosophy of doing something over and over until it's perfected, but I didn't know it ran so deep into Japanese culture and history.

Nice article bro. It certainly wasn't 中途半端 (chuu-to hanpa)!

balzzzyAugust 09, 2010

Very good article. I've definitely had my otaku moments in games. Some of the worst moments involved starting games over because I missed something, regardless of how long I had invested into the game. The most recent of these moments happened in the Metriod Prime Trilogy...stupid Ice Shriekbat.

TJ SpykeAugust 09, 2010

That was from Metroid Prime, right? I remember that enemy. You only encountered it once in the game and it flew by VERY fast, so if you didn't scan it quickly then you would never be able to complete your scan log.

broodwarsAugust 09, 2010

Quote from: TJ

That was from Metroid Prime, right? I remember that enemy. You only encountered it once in the game and it flew by VERY fast, so if you didn't scan it quickly then you would never be able to complete your scan log.


You're mostly right.  The Ice Shriekbat was only in one place in the game, and it was replaced by another enemy as soon as you beat a local boss.  Until you did, however, you could trigger those bats as many times as you liked.

A better example IMO is something like the Tentacle of the plant boss in Metroid Prime 1, which was a separate scan from the boss itself.  I missed that one my first time through because (silly me, I know) I was kind of busy dealing with the boss and didn't realize that separate body parts for bosses got their own Codex entry.

balzzzyAugust 09, 2010

Quote from: broodwars

Quote from: TJ

That was from Metroid Prime, right? I remember that enemy. You only encountered it once in the game and it flew by VERY fast, so if you didn't scan it quickly then you would never be able to complete your scan log.


You're mostly right.  The Ice Shriekbat was only in one place in the game, and it was replaced by another enemy as soon as you beat a local boss.  Until you did, however, you could trigger those bats as many times as you liked.

A better example IMO is something like the Tentacle of the plant boss in Metroid Prime 1, which was a separate scan from the boss itself.  I missed that one my first time through because (silly me, I know) I was kind of busy dealing with the boss and didn't realize that separate body parts for bosses got their own Codex entry.

Broodwars is right. You have time to scan the enemy but they are gone once you beat the local boss they are no longer there. Kinda funny how there are only 4 of them in the entire enemy population.

vuduAugust 26, 2010

Quote from: balzzzy

Broodwars is right. You have time to scan the enemy but they are gone once you beat the local boss they are no longer there. Kinda funny how there are only 4 of them in the entire enemy population.

In all fairness, any creature who flies into a wall and explodes at the first sign of another animal probably doesn't have to worry about overpopulation.

Great article, by the way.  Very insightful.

Great article, sir, but it doesn't make me hate grinding any less. LOL

Fatty The HuttJanuary 12, 2012

Quote from: KDR_11k

If I'm supposed to fight huge numbers of enemies I expect them to be a threat and to require utmost precision from me, not just a ton of target dummies that I need to kill some arbitrary number of.

When dealing with RPG stats I'd rather play a game where I have to use the right moves at the right time rather than just grinding until I win.


Skyward Sword welcomes you.

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