Posted on July 3rd 2018
Allow us to talk a bit about another collaborative project of ours, the JRPG Generator. It started out as humorous riff and commentary on one of our favorite video game genres - Japanese Role Playing Games - but has grown into also being useful random idea-sparker and as a fun coding sandbox. We've done a lot of work on the Generator through the years, and we'd like to share our thoughts about the process of building it, the funny things that happened during its development and testing, and the things we learned about the common narratives of JRPGs - and why they're often so stale.
Because we keep updating the Generator with new ideas all the time, this page is a perpetual work in progress, and more will be added to talk about our newest developments.
The spark behind the first version of the JRPG Generator was Rosy noticing how most of the titles of the games of this genre are irrelevant mashes of certain highfalutin words. Final Fantasy, Fire Emblem, Eternal Sonata, then culminating in complete jumbled nonsense like Infinite Undiscovery... Just get one fantasy-sounding word and couple it with a mystical-sounding adjective, and there's your title. That's what the original focus of the generator was at the time. Pulling from two lists of title words, the generator would mash them together to make up a title. And yes, most of the generated titles sounded plausible. Some even turned out to be actual titles of games that Rosy didn't know yet.
At the time, the generator also featured a one-line plot blurb, the joke being that the plot is always the story of a hero who saves a victim from a villain. The possible randomized word combinations for this blurb weren't that many, so it would always generate the same repetitive junk. Which was the point.
One of the silliest titles that came up at this time happened by a happy accident. "Online" was a possibility in the list of the first title words, so that the generator would make things like Online Adventure, and also in the list of second title words, to allow for things like Fantasy Online. Rosy forgot to consider that both could come up together, leading to the award-winning Online Online. Wonderful!
The beefing up
A few years later, Rosy and Denise thought that we could touch the JRPG Generator again and make the blurb more fun. We wanted to bring the joke further and make the blurb sound like an advertisement for the game rather than an actual summary. Denise started making up an example off the top of her head, using a booming commercial-announcer voice, something like: "Embark on a digital journey to save your country from impending doom!" Rosy's first reaction was that was much too silly, and she wanted this to sound like a real advertisement, not a joke. Denise then challenged her to take any video game box off our shelf and read it. She picked Baten Kaitos. To be honest, Denise was not expecting her idea to be so fully vindicated in that moment.
Embark upon an emotional journey across a richly imagined world and detailed character development spanning over 60 hours of gameplay.
Rosy admitted that, actually, our Generator so far was making too much sense and wasn't cheesy enough compared to Baten Kaitos. She then picked up our boxes of Skies of Arcadia, Eternal Sonata, Twilight Princess, and noticed that they were all just as cheesy.
Following these examples, the first thing we added were several full-length blurbs, still mostly focusing on who was setting out on their journey to save whatever from the villain. We went back and substantially beefed up the word lists for the blurbs.
We also remade the layout to make more of an over-the-top presentation for the generated game. For the title, Rosy found the font Cinzel Decorative by Natanael Gama which, while not originally intended for this purpose, turned out to give the perfect fantasy vibe to this project. It also has so many wonderful ligatures. We love it whenever words like "Moon" come up in the title, and the font links the Os, and the title looks so legit and like it was designed that way (and not generated for shits and giggles).
As for the background, the title screen of most JRPGs features a shot of something natural, most importantly clouds. So, Rosy painted three cloud backgrounds that the generator uses in rotation, made using palettes from actual anime backgrounds. It was a fun project, and the clouds ended up looking great.
Friendly monsters and evil paladins
Originally, the list of stereotypical enemy characters, which included monsters, evil queens, and sorcerers, was separate from the list of stereotypical allied characters, which included warriors, princesses, and puppies. We then considered that there is the common trope of having one of the heroes being originally from the enemy side, and also the common trope of having the characters that seemed to be good turn out to be bad. So we merged the two lists and allowed enemy-type characters and ally-type characters to just show up without distinction whenever a character is needed in the blurb.
The result was amazing. We'd get blurbs about a hero who is a basilisk, a bat saving his mother from the vampire hunters, fighting nuns, playable snake characters... The original idea behind the JRPG Generator was to poke fun at how stale and boring the plots of these games are, but adding just an afternoon's worth of ideas and mixing them together generated so many innovative plots that we wished would be real games. So we're still making the same point, but in the opposite direction.
We've learned some things about the vast unexplored terrains of these game concepts:
- Any time a dwarf shows up doing anything besides digging or smithing, we're interested in this character. We've seen necromancer dwarves, dwarves with wind powers, flying dwarves, holy dwarves, skateboarder dwarves, pirate dwarves, and there's really nothing too incredible to any of these, just highlighting that we're starved to see a dwarf do anything that's not quite so limitedly dwarfy.
- Magical characters using a weapon that is notably non-magical are always hilarious. We always love it when the Generator makes up a sorceress with a gun, or a high elf with brass knuckles.
- The Generator would often mix genres and lead to ogres who are sheriffs and androids who are knights. This is wonderful, and why can't it happen in games more often?
Also, you may have noticed already if you have messed with the Generator enough, but there are two Easter egg characters that can be scrambled: the strange talking banana and the death metal vocalist. No particular reason, but imagine a game involving either or both.
Unlimited villains and unlimited names
Ever since we had merged the heroes and the villains, we felt like something was missing with the villains. So we also added abstract villains, which are things like The Dark Death and The Evil Curse. These can also draw from the character list and make up The Dark Queen or The Monstrous Gnome. One of the first phrases that we added to appear in this category was "The Other", which leads to things like The Other Queen. This leads to so many implications. Just saying that there is the other queen says so many things about the world of this fictional game.
Similarly, not bothering to limit genders for names. We were wondering if we should create separate lists of names so that the gender of a character's name would match the gender of their title, and we'd avoid things like King Jessica. But even looking at actual JRPGs, characters with unusual names are somewhat common. For example, Agarest features a female Ellis and a female Noah. And why limit ourselves when we can be inclusive? So, we let King Jessica happen. We then saw how just letting this happen opens up worlds of potential interpretations, just like with The Other Queen. Just by saying that there is a King Jessica, the reader is making up their own headcanons about this character and the reason for their name.
Speaking of names, the initial set of names came out of the most common names in Denise's massive work-in-progress game gender survey. Apparently in JRPGs everyone is named some variation of Vincent, Leon, Zero, Lucia, Rose or Alice.
Another thing that we added relatively early was a little description of the character, drawing from common tropes. So, we decided that a character could be described as something in disguise, or made of an element like fire, or raised by something like wolves or whatever. Result: ninjas who are actually pirates in disguise, a sorcerer who was raised by androids, and while we intended this to be really trope-y, just letting everything interact with the entire list ended up being innovative. Normally, the most you get is the human raised by a dwarf or the queen in disguise as a normal girl. Why can't we have more creative things in games?
McGuffins and game features
We also created a way for McGuffins to be generated and made them an important and likely part of most of the possible blurbs. It's very uncommon to get one without. After all, can you think of a JRPG that doesn't have a mystical item that gets a definite article? Just off the tops of our heads, Baten Kaitos has three; Fire Emblem has The Fire Emblem (even when it doesn't matter); Agarest has the fucking legendary hammer that hilariously never actually gets made; The Legend of Zelda has the Triforce and the Master Sword; Eternal Sonata has The Glowing Agogos and The Astras, whatever they are; Tales of Symphonia has The Cruxis Crystals and The Keycrests and The Sword of the Game and on and on. So, the Generator makes up a McGuffin by combining a weapon or magical item with a bunch of adjectives, and putting the word The in front. This leads to things like The Mystical Crystal, or The Time Chain, or The Elven Sword. But also The Holy Corkboard Whip and The Dragon Blood Machine Gun.
Sometimes, the heroes have to collect a number of scattered pieces of a certain McGuffin (like the eight pieces of the Triforce) or many of a certain McGuffin (the six Chaos Emeralds). The Generator doesn't quite know which objects could be sliced or not, but that's okay. It's funny to visualize the Dark Violin divided in five slices.
The places that the characters will visit in their journey are generated in much of the same way as the McGuffin. It's great how a blurb can mention inverted lakes and demonic skies and it gives such a wonderful and clear image of what this game looks like. We'd recommend using these prompts to create your own magical environments.
Another thing that we couldn't pass up on was a bombastic advertisement for the game's featured features. So we coupled an exciting adjective (notably including "epic") with common game features such as "turn-based action", "puzzles", "anime cutscenes", and so on. So, the generated game can be touted as having epic puzzles or exclusive characters. Often it touts features that are completely unimpressive or that sound way overinflated to point out, such as "amazing writing" or "digital sprites". And often, it makes up silly things that leave us wondering about what this game can possibly be like. Together with the exciting adjectives, we also have a few game-related adjectives such as "high-resolution" and "Rogue-like", which has led to the concept of Rogue-like voice acting.
Because we have "procedurally-generated" as an adjective and "back of the box" as a feature, we have seen the Generator break the fourth wall and make up a procedurally-generated back of the box.
As it's common in most boxes, we also made up a number of hours that the generated game spans. Ranging anywhere from 10 to 900. In the beginning, it was way too common to get 900-hour games, so we toned that down, regardless of how true it might be, because the idea of a 900-hour game gave us anxiety. ✽
Another thing that was simple to add but that amused us way too much was the possibility of the blurb mentioning that this game is from the studio that brought you an award-winning other game, which has another generated title. Sometimes the two titles have something in common. Sometimes they don't. Just as it would happen with real games.
Much later, we decided to expand the blurbs again, adding mentions of a prophecy of some sort, because those are in every game (with lazy writing). In one possibility, we heavily riffed on the "Long, long ago..." from the opening of Baten Kaitos. Another possibility is a mystical-sounding list of your party members and the alignment of celestial objects. The alignment of celestial objects itself is often bullshit (Ursa Minor aligned with Orion), but we think that just adds.
We also added another blurb to poke at the prophecy from Revelation Lugia, which, even though is not a JRPG, and even though the prophecy was mostly 4Kids' fault, sounds like a quintessential video-game-esque prophecy. Our favorite thing about that one is that the generator picks three elements whose balance is being disrupted, leading to some interesting thoughts about the balance of skin, steel wool, and fire, and it is up to you to decide what exactly these elements have to do with each other. Also, when the balance is disrupted, some place turns into (usually) yet another element, which is often a funny non-sequitur and leads to some possibilities that are terrible, or other that are... not so terrible. For instance, Heaven becoming darkness, okay, that's probably bad. But Russia becoming harmony? Wouldn't that be good? Texas becoming grass? Isn't that already true?
In one of the prophecies, the character who can wield the mystical McGuffin is described. Hilariously, this description often comes out so specific that we can hear the other party members saying things like, "Come on Madame Venom, of course the prophecy is talking about you; how many slimes have only one wing anyway?". Or, alternatively, it mentions that the hero is "a werewolf who is actually a woodcutter". Does this lead to a society where all werewolves are encouraged to become woodcutters in hopes of fulfilling the prophecy?
When a random generator can make better video game concepts than the ones that people were paid to make, it's time for video game writers to do better. Like, a lot. And many of these generated plots would be perfectly economically viable, if you want to think of the practicalities of working with them. It's not even that groundbreaking to have a sorcerer raised by androids. It would just be cool. Don't people who work on games want to make something cool and not just dwarves doing the same thing over and over?
- Denise hides her copy of Pokémon LeafGreen.