We play video games for a number of reasons. Sometimes we need to kill time on the subway. Sometimes we want to pretend to be other people. Sometimes we crave that emotional gratification that you can only find in interactive entertainment.
And sometimes, we play video games to be bored.
Strange notion, right? "Boring" is an instant turnoff for many gamers, the type of word that, if uttered even once in a focus group, could immediately drive a twitchy publisher to axe an entire game. But without a few moments of boredom—those calm, mindless minutes during which you almost feel like you're playing in a trance—it's hard to really care about the environments and mechanics that grip us so tightly.
My favorite part of playing a game is getting lost in its world. And worlds are not constantly exciting. Sometimes they're tedious. Sometimes they're boring. To absorb us completely, a world needs peaks to its valleys, low lows to its high highs. Aimlessly wandering among the nooks and crannies of a dungeon or city can be just as valuable as shooting monsters or watching dramatic cut scenes. When you don't have a boring moment or two, something feels missing.
There's plenty of tedium in Tales of Graces F, the Namco Bandai-developed Japanese role-playing game that hit U.S. shores last week. You're granted the freedom to completely explore the cel-shaded cities and dungeons that populate the game's anime-styled world. Sometimes you have to backtrack, or take a few minutes to wander around a port or village before the game tells you what to do next. Many critics might lambast these moments, hammering them for feeling too obsolete or tedious, but I think that in the proper dosage, they're crucial components to a game's success.
On the flip side, look at BioWare's Mass Effect 3. Its maps and levels are packed to the core with non-stop action, to the point where you can only find respite in your personal spaceship, the Normandy. Even there, it's impossible to get away from the constant deluge of conversations and one-liners requiring your attention.
There's no time to wander. No time to contemplate. No time to be bored.
And when you visit other planets and space stations, all you see is a sliver of what they have to offer. The intricate backgrounds tease gigantic worlds and endless possibilities, but you're limited to narrow spaces and restrictive areas. Don't get me wrong, these areas are almost always exciting—shooting your way through Mass Effect's abandoned ruins and dark valleys can be a ton of fun—but they don't feel real. They don't feel like worlds.
Out of budget restrictions or a deep fear of boredom—probably both—most modern games don't give you access to sprawling worlds or massive cities. You're guided along tightly scripted paths and hallways that are almost always packed full of action. There's no time to wander. No time to contemplate. No time to be bored.
Many old JRPGs know how to do it right. Revered classics like Earthbound and Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI all throw you into the deep end of the pool and force you to tread water. They aren't afraid to make you take long walks around a world map or circle around a town until you figure out what event to trigger next. Their designers didn't feel the need to trim the fat or cut them down to non-stop excitement. They embrace the boredom.
Maybe that's why they evoke so many passionate memories. When a game knows how to administer just the right dose of boredom, when it lets you explore its world without worrying how much you're yawning, it winds up sticking with you. And even though I've played them both an equal amount of time over the past month, I certainly remember more about the cities in Graces than the worlds of Mass Effect 3. Boring ain't all that bad.
* Square Enix teases a new JRPG, possibly titled "Crystal Conquest."
* A group of translators is working on an English patch for the expanded PlayStation 3 port of Tales of Vesperia, which never made it over to North America.
* Ultros, one of Final Fantasy VI's goofball villains and everybody's favorite octopus, is making his way to Final Fantasy XIII-2 as part of a fan-coddling DLC pack that it'll be tough to resist buying.
* I haven't had the chance to check out the 16-bit iOS JRPG Fantasy Chronicle, but it looks pretty neat!
Something new: Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor 2, the strategy role-playing game that takes two methods of combat—grid-based and turn-based—and smashes them together like garlic and mashed potatoes. And it tastes damn good.
Something old: Final Fantasy VI, a masterpiece of a game that isn't afraid to embrace boredom.
Every week, I post several reader questions about JRPGs. Want to see your question featured in an edition of Random Encounters? Send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reader Mark Garcia writes:
I know that you have talked about Suikoden II as being a gem that was probably missed by many people, but well worth a play through if they can get their hands on it. Are there any other JRPGs that you feel did not receive their due when they were first released and are worth a look if people can procure them?
I've also cited last year's The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky as an underappreciated gem.
Another suggestion: Brave Fencer Musashi, an underappreciated action-RPG for the PlayStation that never quite received the hype it deserved. It's a really fun game. And it has like hundreds of food puns, so...
Garcia also writes:
Are their JRPGs that have been universally acclaimed by critics that you feel were overrated, or are there some that you think were panned, but that were really worthwhile? (I owned a Dreamcast, and while I enjoyed Skies or Arcadia, which most critics claimed was the pinnacle of RPGS on the Dreamcast, but I actually came away enjoying Grandia II so much more for its story and battle system).
You know, I also didn't fall in love with Skies of Arcadia, despite its critical acclaim. I'm also not a huge fan of the beloved Kingdom Hearts series. Mostly because it confuses the hell out of me. What about you guys? What critically acclaimed RPGs never hit the right notes for you?
Random Encounters is a weekly column dedicated to all things JRPG. It runs every Friday at 3pm ET.