The Perspective of Privilege

For the past month I’ve taken up the self-imposed challenge of playing nothing but JRPGs. There are few reasons for this but all of them can be traced back to “I like them.” In playing and replaying games in the genre I’ve noticed some patterns emerge. Initially, summarizing these patterns from over twenty years’ worth of games seemed like a daunting task. But, fortunately for me, Dutch developer SCF was able to condense much of the genre in his 2009 release, Exit Fate.

Developed using RPGmaker, Exit Fate borrows liberally from a variety of PS1 era games—particularly Suikoden II—and it’s been rather viciously criticised for the similarities it bears for past games. However, it never dresses its homages up as original content so that criticism isn’t entirely justified. The character portraits and combat models—all SFC’s own artwork—are unique and carefully crafted, and the game also features some strong writing and an interesting, if sometimes clichéd, cast and world. In essence, it’s a loving interpretation of the old blended with just enough newness to hit all the right notes. The game is available for free at SCF’s personal website, where prospective players are able to make a donation if they’d like. It stands tall enough on its own legs that one need not be intimately familiar with JRPGs to enjoy it, but the ideal audience is likely one with some experience in the genre.

Exit Fate tells the story of Daniel Vinyard, a colonel for the army of Kirgard, a superpower at war with the equally influential Zelmony. On the eve of Kirgard’s invasion, Daniel blacks out and wakes up surrounded by dead soldiers from the regiment he was to command. He flees deeper into Zelmony to figure out what happened and, eventually, attempts to bring about a nonviolent solution to the countries’ ancient feud.

Exit Fate's main character, Daniel, wearing a black trench coat with gold trim, his long white hair falls over his broad, smiling face

Exit Fate’s main character, Daniel, wearing a black trench coat with gold trim, his long white hair falls over his broad, smiling face

It’s functional as a game: it’s easy to learn and the buttons do what they’re supposed to. The story is compelling enough to see through even if it does some time to break into a comfortable stride. As mentioned, though, Exit Fate brings to mind a number of the questionable conventions that have clung to JRPGs (and games at large) over the years. Specifically, Exit Fate and the JRPGs that inspired it, are almost universally played from the perspective of privileged distance. JRPG protagonists are typically members of an aristocracy, or like Exit Fate’s Daniel, they’re respected officers of an effective military, or they’re townies in a pastoral countryside. In any case, A JRPG adventure follows the stripping and reacquisition of a lead character’s privilege.

Firstly—and this point has been raised several times before—RPGs are structured around the capitalist mythology: players begin at level 1 and they have nothing, by the time they work through the game they’re level 99 and they have everything the game could offer them. The means to improve can be taken for granted. If things become difficult, there are plenty of monsters they can gain resources from. The player will encounter enemies along their path, defeating enemies will earn experience and gold, the player will level up at determined intervals, higher levels will make the game easier and, if things are still too difficult, than the means to improve further are never far from reach. Again, this is nothing that hasn’t been said before, but it’s worth noting that this is the engine driving the genre.

Furthermore, JRPG heroes reinforce the mechanics of the games they live in. When they’re introduced they’re often characterized as naïve, disagreeable, lazy or wealthy. In any case, they’re propped up as someone with a good deal of independence. Even if they aren’t, it is assumed that there is a degree of opportunity in their reach. Returning to Exit Fate, the player meets Daniel in a palace. But on a more basic level, he’s employed, educated, young, able and respected. When Daniel is forced into enemy territory, he’s hardly treated any differently—a former enemy colonel would be happy addition to any defending military, so the worst he has to endure is a few dirty looks and double entendres.

Kirgard general, Jasper, a slender grimacing man with short, brown hair arresting Daniel with the aid of several soldiers

Kirgard general, Jasper, a slender grimacing man with short, brown hair arresting Daniel with the aid of several soldiers

Daniel’s defection may awaken his conscience and he may have less access to resources on the other side of the battlefield, but he’s still welcome in his former enemy’s country. He gets his old job back, he’s fed and clothed and—for the most part—trusted. He falls from grace only to land in slightly less grace. Then he quickly discovers and gains access to the means to fix the problems facing him.

Even in RPGs where the player is not an aristocrat or an officer, they still come from a background of privilege. Characters may not always live in a palace, but they almost certainly have a home; they aren’t always wealthy, but they’ll never be turned away from a storekeeper; they may come from a working class background but prices aren’t artificially inflated nor are wages suppressed to manipulate their living standards; they may not even be very well respected, but they can (and often do) depend on a small community for support. In these games the player and player-character can take opportunity for granted.

SCF's concept art for the characters Ljusalf and Ryan in a candlelit library. Ljusalf, wearing dull blue hooded robes, is standing over Ryan, an elderly man in a gold robe, who appears consternated.

SCF’s concept art for the characters Ljusalf and Ryan in a candlelit library. Ljusalf, wearing dull blue hooded robes, is standing over Ryan, an elderly man in a gold robe, who appears consternated.

How differently would Exit Fate look if Daniel weren’t a colonel, but a homeless man conscripted from debtors’ prison? What if being lost in enemy territory didn’t result in an invitation from his former enemies, but incarceration in a POW camp? What if he couldn’t enter a town anonymously seeking rest and sidequests because he could be visibly identified as “the enemy”? Imagine if Daniel wasn’t tasked with winning a noble war but was forced to survive one he didn’t give a damn about.

Many JRPGs (Exit Fate among them) directly deal with themes of oppression versus liberty, but almost never from the perspective of the oppressed. Players are promised results for certain behaviours and the game keeps its promise; characters aim to create a common good and they always have a chance to complete their goals. Even when these games do include underprivileged characters, someone closer to the top of the hierarchy intervenes and provides them with greater political power.

Providing a voice for the privileged while ignoring or silencing the oppressed is a criticism that could be levelled against games in any genre, but it’s particularly damning in a role-playing game where the emphasis is on the “role” the player has in influencing the game’s world. The potential roles are reduced to some permutation of privilege. Furthermore, JRPGs are celebrated for their rounded characters in deep worlds and, thematically, they’re often closely concerned with how groups and nations relate to one another. Compounding the genre’s reputation with its primary themes, limiting perspective to that of the privileged is even harder to excuse.

Exit Fate's starting characters lining up for a random encounter, Jovial, an armoured swordsman with a red cloak is at the top, Daniel, in his black trench coat stands in the centre, and Angel, in a white trench coat brandishes a longspear at the bottom

Exit Fate’s starting characters lining up for a random encounter, Jovial, an armoured swordsman with a red cloak is at the top; Daniel, in his black trench coat stands in the centre; and Angel, in a white trench coat brandishes a longspear at the bottom

Daniel is an admirable character: he sacrifices personal comfort so he can work toward a common good. But he’s the same lens through which almost every JRPG is played. Exit Fate is another instance of the genre withholding the oppression narrative from the oppressed. It isn’t even that there’s something inherent in JRPGs that prevents the perspective from broadening but it focuses exclusively on one angle of the dynamic.

So for all that Exit Fate fondly recalls from a type of game that so many fondly recall, it does bring with it a good deal of the baggage from the genre. It’s worth a play if you’ve got fond memories of Japanese RPGs from around the turn of the century. But as nice as it is to see the resurrection of old styles of design, it’s disappointing that it does not rise to the chance to offer change where it was perhaps most needed.

About Mark Filipowich

Mark Filipowich writes about older, obscure, overlooked and indie games that are great for people of low income trying to keep up with the very expensive hobby that is gaming. His writing has been featured in PopMatters, Unwinnable, Nightmare Mode, Medium Difficulty and elsewhere. He also has a personal blog at big-tall-words.
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24 Responses to The Perspective of Privilege

  1. Craig Stern says:

    I don’t see anything vicious about the criticism: the review points out that Exit Fate’s soundtrack and tiles consist entirely of assets stolen from other games, and it further points out that its plot tracks the plot of Suikoden II incredibly closely (which is not the same as criticizing a game for lifting generic scènes à faire common to the genre). There is nothing “vicious” or unjustified about pointing out indisputable, rampant copyright infringement.

    Beyond that bit of silliness, I find this piece interesting. Your observations dovetail nicely with some observations I made about the sRPG subgenre last week: http://www.gamefront.com/game-front-1-on-1-%E2%80%98telepath-tactics%E2%80%99-creator-craig-stern/2/

  2. marco says:

    That’s a pretty interesting look at things, and it is certainly rare to see it handled any differently.

    One of few titles I can think of that at all approaches any of that, is Chrono Trigger (most apparent when it comes to the future as well as the Mystics/Fiends in any timeline they appear in). Trying to think through other titles, it’s hard to do, but I know there is another that I played quite a bit of, and I feel as though it may be refreshing and intriguing to start a new playthrough of both of these games while keeping this perspective in mind.

    • Llamaentity says:

      What other game are you referring to (aside from Chrono Trigger)? I re-read a few times and I don’t think you mentioned it :’c

      • marco says:

        Oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t remember it at the time (well, still can’t, but I feel like I’m closer to remembering). When I do, I will definitely mention it though~.

  3. Matt says:

    How differently would Exit Fate look if Daniel weren’t a colonel, but a homeless man conscripted from debtors’ prison? What if being lost in enemy territory didn’t result in an invitation from his former enemies, but incarceration in a POW camp? What if he couldn’t enter a town anonymously seeking rest and sidequests because he could be visibly identified as “the enemy”? Imagine if Daniel wasn’t tasked with winning a noble war but was forced to survive one he didn’t give a damn about.

    I’m trying to imagine this, and the first stumbling block is: would the result even be playable as a game?

    Of course it would be, but how many of us want to “play a game” that basically spells the difference between losing and dying? I can’t help but think that, to ensure some manner of agency and reward and still actually have a human setting of some kind (and that setting could still be represented even if the game were nothing but abstract shapes, intentionally or not) at some point the player-avatar must be placed in some crucial position of power over the setting, whether with a big gun and lots of hitpoints, a place of command and authority (including some arbitrary “chosen one”/”last survivor” situation that prevents other characters from taking otherwise legitimate and obvious roles now filled by the player) or the ability to push blocks around.

    Take that away, and the part of the game where you do something and are rewarded based (at least ostensibly – insert CoD/RPG-grinding snark here) on your performance is either
    a) nonexistent, or
    b) for stakes that are extremely grim and bleak in comparison (final boss: now that you’ve fled the village and the guards have probably ceased their search after the usual 5 days, surreptitiously eat the bread you’ve stolen without getting killed by others trying to grab it from you).

    It would be like a survival horror game + Timothy Findley novel.

    …which potentially is a pretty awesome idea. o_o
    (As long as the developer manages to avoid the pressure to “ramp up” the stakes in a sequel and give the player character more power and setting-objective agency and thereby destroy the very thing that gave the original its narrative power, of course…)

    • Ari says:

      now that you’ve fled the village and the guards have probably ceased their search after the usual 5 days, surreptitiously eat the bread you’ve stolen without getting killed by others trying to grab it from you

      Get out of here, Stalker.

      In all all seriousness, though, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series come pretty close to that, at times. It makes pretty clear that the men who’ve wound up in the Zone are marginalized (criminals or homeless or young men unable to work elsewhere to feed themselves or their families), and considered at best expendable and at worst worthless by all of the powers that be in the area. The original novel does a decent job of that, too.

    • Christina Nordlander says:

      I don’t know about you, but I think what the quoted passage describes would make for a pretty interesting game.

      I mean, what’s the point in making the protagonist a refugee of war in the nation he’s been fighting if everyone’s friendly to him and lets him waltz in and out of shops?

  4. DJ says:

    Barkley Gaiden is interesting in this context. You play as Charles Barkley, who is IRL in position of privilege, but in this game he’s hated and reviled by nearly everyone, lives in a shitty tenement apartment, and the story does not return him to his former glory. You do level up as the game progresses, but the materialism aspect is more incidental than integral to completing the game. Upgrades are part of the plot, given to you by completing tasks, not buying them. As far as money and power go, there are not limitless resources and even the enemies by which you gain XP are finite in number and not randomly generated.

  5. Amsel says:

    While I think the reading of JRPG mechanics as an embodiment of capitalist ideology is totally valid, especially in the way work is always and incrementally rewarded I do think something that could be added to the analysis is a look at destiny. In most of the JRPGs I’ve played destiny has been an important theme and the gameplay has always felt like an attempt to model this while still making a game that doesn’t just play itself. I wouldn’t say that that excuses the lack of interest in exploring more than a narrow range of *character* situations in its story, as you point out, but I wonder if it does limit the ability of the game to model those situations in play: as having a destiny is in many ways an awesome privilege as it implies the necessary power to change one’s surroundings.

    • Matt says:

      How often has that supernaturally granted authoritative destiny been used to elevate the privilege and subjugate the oppressed… thank you for bringing that up.*

      Don’t forget, though, that that destiny to change the world is subject to being destined to change the world in a particular way – you don’t just get that power, you get it as just a particularly shiny cog in the machine. Sort of like RL privilege.

      So yeah, I think “super-privilege” really is the best way to describe it.

      *(The “thank you” was not originally intended to be read in the “great now I’m fucking depressed gee thanks buddy” sort of way but that works too!)

  6. Rakaziel says:

    While I do see your point I doubt many people would want to play that game – most people find their lives bad enough, and in play entering an environment that is even worse only has entertainment value as catharsis, when you can use that environment as an excuse to vent your frustrations and see the world burn.

    • DJ says:

      The idea that games are and can only serve as an “escape” from reality is a really reductive and backwards thinking and it’s that kind of rationale that keeps publishers from taking risks and continually pumping out Madden Infinity and Military Hero: Same Shit Different Disc. Especially if you add that a game can only put the player in a position worse than their own if it lets them destroy a simulated world like some dumb ape with aggression issues.

      That kind of thinking is only going to get us more generic bullshit.

      Luckily, I think people are coming to appreciate games in the same way that they appreciate books and movies, in that they don’t have to be mere flights of fancy and can deal with difficult and unpleasant themes.

      • MariEllen says:

        I see games (especially RPGs) as basically a film or book that I get to control. So I totally agree that games can be a medium to explore difficult and unpleasant themes. But for me personally, I tend to like to separate my “dealing with serious issues time” and my “relaxing entertainment time”.

        So the idea of spending 40-50 hours on a RPG that is entirely sad and depressing the whole way through, while it may be a fantastic game, doesn’t really appeal to me. That isn’t to say it wouldn’t appeal to someone else, just not me.

        I’d like to note, that I think tackling important issues is important and needs to be done. Hence blogs such as this and others, but I tend to like my entertainment on the lighter side.

        • DJ says:

          Yeah, I’m the sort to want mine to be compleximicated and give me tons to think about when I’m not playing it. But then, maybe I have more time to think than a lot of people.

      • Matt says:

        On the one hand, I think I see where you’re coming from re: “escape” being toxic.

        On the other, every game has to have some kind of meaningfully irrealistic element to it, something that keeps the intended player from thinking, ~well shit if I wanted to experience that I’d just go back to work~.

        What would you say is the crucial distinction between that and mere escape? What would be a good example of that distinction?

        • DJ says:

          It’s not escape per se that’s toxic; it’s the notion that games are merely a vehicle to forget all our troubles. I think there’s definitely places for games that do not challenge players in ways beyond skill and are just pleasurable activities to pass the time. It’s when we get to thinking that games can ONLY do this to be enjoyable or worthwhile that gets my ire up.

          As for a distinction between escape and irrealistic elements, I don’t think they are quite comparable. “Escape” is not so much in the design of the game as in the intent of the player. An player who only wants to “escape” is unlikely to appreciate a lot of games for what they do and are because they don’t satisfy the want to forget the real world for one made of Tetris bricks and goomba-stomping.

        • DJ says:

          Also, I have played games that actually are Being At Work and they were still fun. The difference between being at work and a game about being at work is not any irrealism, but the feedback loop. Real work tends to be a lot of grinding with the reward coming only every every two weeks and by then it doesn’t quite correlate mentally as the gains from the effort you put in.

  7. Ari says:

    Wait, how is it a “J”RPG if it’s by a Dutch developer?

    • Matt says:

      The same way the Boondocks cartoon is anime. :V

      It’s more of a genre or formula than a nationality: very strongly level-based, big epic plot, little if any player customization, distinct “battle mode” where everyone lines up and hits a bunch of options none of them involving LOS or terrain. It’s a really convenient shorthand for people who like that kind of play… or, like me, want to avoid it like the plague.

      • Ari says:

        Huh.

        So you’re one of those “Dark/Demon’s Souls” is a WRPG types.

        Well, I strongly disagree with using that kind of shorthand, but I see your point.

        • Matt says:

          I don’t use the terms symmetrically. :)

          A “W”RPG might be a roguelike or Baldur’s Gate or a first-person dungeon crawler… we’re not inundated with the same distinct formula over and over again like we are with the FF-alikes (which is the term I would use if left to my own devices, fwiw).

          If country of origin mattered, I’d call DS “an RPG from Japan” or something.

        • Doug S. says:

          They used to be called “console RPGs” and “computer RPGs” until computer-style RPGs started coming out for consoles…

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