What role does genre play in our understanding of video games? How can different categorizations of stories equip us with a shorthand to compare and contrast our experiences in different games—and how might these categories impact our ability to read and interpret the language of individual games on their own terms?
We invite you to join us this Labor Day Weekend at PAX West 2023 to probe these questions through a new presentation by With a Terrible Fate: “Is Pokémon a JRPG?” Read on for the panel details and a special sneak preview of what to expect.
Is Pokémon a JRPG?
When: Sunday, September 3 at 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM PT
Where: Blue Morpho Theatre
What: Pokémon is a global phenomenon that’s entranced fans of all ages for decades. It’s also a game series made in Japan that puts players in roles, guiding them to overcome a range of challenges and ultimately learn something. Yet the burning, perennially controversial question remains: do the Pokémon games count as JRPGs? Join the game analysts of With a Terrible Fate—one of whom is publishing a podcast retrospective on the entire Pokémon series, and the other of whom is streaming playthroughs of the entire Namco Tales JRPG series—in a debate over what makes a JRPG and what makes a Pokémon game. With any luck, we’ll end up with a new perspective on what makes our favorite games tick!
The question of whether Pokémon qualifies as a Japanese role-playing game, a JRPG, is sometimes seen as a long-running joke among gamers, but it’s also a provocative topic for testing our intuitions about how we define genres of video games and what those genres can illuminate or obscure about particular games. If reading Pokémon as a JRPG sounds a little like fitting a square peg into a round hole despite the substantial overlap between the game’s characteristics and more “traditional” JRPGs, then why is that the case—and what can it teach us about both the storytelling of Pokémon and the definition of ‘JRPG’?
With a Terrible Fate’s PAX West presentation will be structured as a friendly mock argument between Dan Hughes, who’s been developing a new view on the narrative language of Pokémon in his Pokémon Rose audio series, and Aaron Suduiko, who’s been analyzing the storytelling structure of the Namco Tales JRPGs through the Tales of Praxis series of game streams and articles. Aaron will try to convince Dan that Pokémon is just another generic JRPG, while Dan will try to explain the reasons why the Pokémon stories don’t reduce to a paint-by-numbers genre formula. With any luck, we’ll arrive at some new insights not only about the Pokémon series, but also about how we can better articulate the more finely-grained distinctions that make more “obvious” JRPG series, like Tales or Final Fantasy, worthy of exploring in their own unique contexts. After interpreting Pokémon, we might even test out our new method with some live interpretations of Final Fantasy XVI and Tales of Arise!
The subject matter of this presentation sits at the intersection of many of With a Terrible Fate’s central concerns in the theory of video-game storytelling:
- Pokémon epitomizes how dramatically interactive stories can shape the lives and identities of individuals, catalyzing new global cultures like “Pokémania.”
- The notion of a JRPG demonstrates that video-game narrative is sufficiently sophisticated to require classification by genre.
- The difficulty in evenly applying a classification like ‘JRPG’ to a wide range of narrative experiences speaks to the challenge—and the promise—of squaring a communal understanding of particular storytelling methods with the deeply personal nature of our individual playthroughs and interpretations of the video games that shape our lives.
All of these topics and more will be up for discussion throughout the PAX West panel; more so than definitively answering the question of whether Pokémon qualifies as a JRPG, our goal will be to sketch, test, and refine some new and useful ways for everyone to situate the storytelling of their favorite games within the broader trajectory of gaming as an art form.
We’ll be lecturing for the full hour of the panel, but if you’re able to stick around afterward, meet up with us outside the theater and we’ll gladly chat with you about Pokémon, JRPGs, and video-game storytelling for as long as you like: those conversations are consistently our favorite part of PAX! While it’s looking like the panel this year won’t be streamed, we’ll also do our best to get a recording to share online for those unable to attend in person, and we’d be delighted to keep the conversation going online as well.
If you’d like to pregame the panel with related content, you’re in luck! With a Terrible Fate features a wealth of multimedia studies about both Pokémon and JRPG storytelling. Here are some options for getting started:
- Pokémon Rose: A Nostalgic Look Back, by Dan Hughes: a retrospective audio series studying the narrative arc and cultural impact of Pokémon from Red and Blue onward
- “Does Pokémon Red Belong in the Video Game Canon?”, by Dan Hughes: an analysis of the first Pokémon game’s influence on the trajectory of video-game storytelling as a whole
- “The Price of Victory in Pokémon,” by Skylar Cohen: an analysis of the concept and applications of meritocracy in the Pokémon series
- Tales of Praxis, by Aaron Suduiko: a series of written analyses and streamed Twitch playthroughs studying the storytelling of Namco’s Tales series
- “We Need to Talk about Xenoblade Chronicles,” Aaron Suduiko: a lecture at PAX East 2023 studying how the storytelling of the Xenoblade Chronicles series trains its player to act philosophically
- “Does Final Fantasy VII Belong in the Video Game Canon?”, by Dan Hughes: an analysis of Final Fantasy VII’s influence on the trajectory of video-game storytelling as a whole
- “The Horror of Code Vein is You,” by Aaron Suduiko: an application of the concepts of JRPG, genre, vampire story, and Dark Souls gameplay
- “Understanding Xemnas in Kingdom Hearts II,” by Dan Hughes: a character study of Xemnas as a microcosm of Kingdom Hearts II’s story and the plight of the NPC
- The Legacy of Final Fantasy VII Remake: an article series offering close analyses and deconstructions of the narrative mechanics of Final Fantasy VII Remake, featuring publications by Adam Bierstedt, Dan Hughes, and Aaron Suduiko
- “Forms of Life: Reading Xenoblade Chronicles 3 through Wittgenstein,” by Aaron Suduiko: a book-length study interpreting the entirety of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 through the life and philosophies of Ludwig Wittgenstein
- “We Need to Talk about Final Fantasy VII,” Dan Hughes & Aaron Suduiko: a lecture at PAX West 2022 analyzing what thematically unifies the Final Fantasy VII series as a single work of storytelling
Our range of work on JRPGs, in particular, stretches well beyond this sampling: go ahead and explore the “Games” tab of With a Terrible Fate if you’re looking to read a study of any particular JRPG or series, from Final Fantasy to Ni no Kuni to Kingdom Hearts to NieR to Scarlet Nexus. You can also check out a range of more specific JRPG studies included in Dan’s article series, “Now Loading… The Video Game Canon!”, which explores the impact of specific games on the broader history of video-game storytelling—including Chrono Trigger, The Legend of Dragoon, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, and many more. And stay tuned for new contributions to Pokémon Rose and Tales of Praxis in the weeks between now and PAX West 2023!
Game on, Seattle: we can’t wait to see you!