I play a lot of JRPGs, and I mean a LOT of them. While admittedly not as many as some people, the actual number could still make people think I'm a little nuts. State of my mind aside, though, the genre has provided me with many hours of interesting stories, creative characters, and all around enjoyment.
And frustration. A VERY good deal of frustration.
See, JRPGs are not without their problems (some may say that problem one is being a JRPG, but I disagree and digress). Most of them require a hefty time commitment, as well as a willingness to go along with certain foibles and elements you may not enjoy in order to get to the parts you will. Put these two things together, and you can imagine why game overs are both something I have hated, and something I have not thought much about.
Elsewhere, autosaves, quicksaves and checkpoints have alleviated the problem of losing, and even besides that, death usually isn't that bad in other genres. When you die in a fps, it's usually not that far back to where you were and you can take on the situation in a new way. When you die in a platformer you have found out about the layout and are likely to take things a bit slower now. Even most western RPGs have incorporated some way of keeping a track of your progress so not much is lost should you kick the bucket.
Yet, dying in a JRPG is often quite harsh. Many games in the genre tend to hand losing in one of two ways:
A: You are forced to reload your last save, or
B: You are sent back to a town, inn, or healing device of some sort, usually missing money, experience, health, or all three.
These deaths are, quite simply, infuriating. This is made worse by the fact that most JRPGs handle saving either through scarcely placed points or though saving the game so slowly that it becomes a hassle to save, leading to people not doing so as much as they should. And although B is a better consequence than A, neither leaves you with a good taste in your mouth. In fact, there are many times when death will cause a player to just put the game down and never come back, and the reason is simple. Or, rather, the reasons are simple.
Reason 1: Lost Effort
One of the main pulls of a JRPG (and indeed RPGs in general), besides story (If you happen to like those stories) is the concept of accruing strength, resources, and progress. Gaining experience to level up, gain abilities, and tackle things you couldn't before, and making your way past challenges to the end of a difficult dungeon are so key to the experience that the very idea of losing these things becomes an almost traumatic experience.
And, of course, losing these things is exactly what happens when you die. You wind up having to do everything you've already done, gain the levels you've already gotten, hit story beats you've already seen, open boxes you already know the contents of all over again, and again, and again...
And this is made worse by...
Reason 2: Lost Time
JRPGs usually take a while to get through, largely due to combat taking forever, dungeons taking forever, and story parts taking forever (so, all in all, everything). This is why, when you've already put in a large amount of time to complete a task, or get through a dungeon, the last thing you want to do is be told "Whoops, sorry bout that, go and do it all again".
Where as other games usually have you redoing minutes of gameplay, JRPGs can force you to redo HOURS. This is why the sentiment of "I already did this, I don't want to do it again" is more common here than anywhere else. Some games have, admittedly, tried to soften this blow, but it not usually addressed outright, or at least not that I've seen.
And then there's
Reason 3: The Above Two in Conjunction
I... I don't have a reason three. I felt like I should though, rule of three and all that. Just... Suffice to say that the above two are bad.
Now at this point, you may be wondering "Hey, you just detailed how much you hate these things, why are you saying you didn't realize this was a problem in the title?" If so, good on you. If not, then think that, so I can answer it.
See, it's like I said before: there are foibles in these games that you put up with, things that you don't necessarily like that you deal with so that you can keep playing. Now, it might also mean bad voice acting, or a dull combat system, but how these games handled death was just so commonplace that I never thought much about it. It's like saying "Hey, why does it have to rain? Rain sucks, so lets get rid of it". That's just plain silly, and it's not the sort of thing that bears much though.
But Shin Megami Tensei IV has stopped the rain.
(and don't go digging too deep into the long-term effects topping the rain would have on the world. It's a silly thought, not an uneducated statement)
Shin Megami Tensei IV
Let me preface this bit by saying that this game is tough. Quite tough. Quite "I am level thirty now, but these level eight guys can still pose a threat and kill me" tough, and yes that has happened to me once. As such, death is a constant companion in these games (in the metaphorical sense, he's not actually a companion, though I do enjoy the fact that I have to clarify this). That's why it pleases me that the game has handled dying so well, striking the perfect balance between being something that isn't just a slap on the wrist, and being something that will make you quit the game.
Early on, when you die (Not if, when. This game is, as stated, tough, and casting the wrong thing at the wrong guy can and will kill you) you are taken to the after life, where you meet a rather grumpy old fellow by the name of Charon. Everybody Say Hi to Charon!
This guy is the person in charge of getting people across the river to the actual afterlife. Problem is, there's a line. A long line. This means he is a busy man, far too busy to put up with your shenanigans. Thus, he offers an ultimatum: Give him some money (or, as I take advantage of, playcoins) and he will bring you back to life, saving him some extra paperwork, and you, er, your life. Accept and you will be brought back to right before you got into the deadly fight. Deny, and it's an actual game over.
Now, his prices aren't cheap: early on at least the financial cost of coming back can take almost everything you have, and playcoins don't pile up that quickly for them to always be an option (and you might want to use them elsewhere), and that's what makes this such a clever solution.
You see, not only does it fit in with the feel of the game, but it provides people a choice: are you willing to pay the price in order to keep the progress from the last time you saved, or have you done so recently enough that you are fine with going back and trying from a save point? This choice, though simple, is actually quite clever (at least, I feel so, though I admit I am simple and not clever).
While the most obvious effect of this is just getting a second chance in combat, it also gives you a second chance to save (You know, that thing you should do more often), as this game does allow for saving anywhere. If you do save and die soon after, you can just reload, keeping your hard earned money out of Charon's
grubby kind hands. It almost feels like the game is chastising you for not saving enough, but still gives you a chance to make up for it, something so many other games don't do.
Even if a player doesn't decide to come back and instead decides to fight back from their last save point, simply by giving the player this choice lets them feel like they're still in control. The game didn't MAKE you redo everything, you CHOSE to do so. You had a choice to come back, but you wanted to do it the other way and for as small a thing that is, it can make the world of difference in whether or not you keep going. Few things can make a player mad like forcing them into something they don't want to do. In these cases, even the illusion of choice can make things better, so an actual choice is practically a godsend.
Somehow, SMT IV manages to take the worst part of many JRPGs and, while keeping the fear of it occurring alive, manages to relieve the frustration associated with it, and now that I'm used to it, it could be difficult going back to games where dying means redoing several hours of my life. Still, awareness is good. I mean, just because something isn't always at the forefront of your mind doesn't mean it isn't a problem. And you can't fix something if you don't know it's there. And knowledge is valuable under any circumstances.
I could keep going with pithy phrases and sayings, but it really all just boils down to the fact that, in a genre that is often accused of being stagnant, and having some very deeply rooted problems, finding a solution to such a frustrating thing is just plain great.