Out of all video game genres, I admire JRPGs the most, despite not having played many. While the tradition of random encounters and grindy turn-based action have stopped me from becoming an RPG aficcionado, there is one characteristic that I feel works best in these games than in any other genre: the sense of journey.
JRPGs have a way of making you feel like going on a real trip.
You wake up in your bed and then do some chores. Soon, duty calls, and you have to leave the comfort of your village. The forest ahead introduces you to the dangers looming over the world and the problem at large. When you finally arrive in another town, there's safety and comfort again, but nothing is the same anymore. At this point you realize that every next step will introduce you to new people and new ideas that will help you continue your journey, eventually bringing new meaning into it.
The classic divide between urban and wilderness is crucial to these games. Each town acts as an outpost to do basic maintenance, gather some info and maybe stay the night. The many NPCs always have something to share: a gameplay tip, a commentary on the state of things or a hint at a local point of interest.
Then, as the game progresses, you will meet the somber town, the bustling commercial center, the ghost town, the casino town, the idyllic coastal village, the welcoming settlement, the village in the woods, the castle preparing for war, the volcano tribe, the floating island.
The variety of places, people and ideas may look like set dressing, but is at the very heart of the experience.
Of course, open world blockbusters like Red Dead Redemption 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost of Tsushima, and especially Elden Ring as of late, all offer a sense of journey to some extent. But I feel like they lack the semi-linearity, the push-forward nature of JRPGs. When you’re always popping back and forth across the whole map and fast travelling kilometers apart just to pick up a collectible, it may be difficult to feel like you're actually making the trip.
More than 20 years later, I can more or less remember the route I took through Pokémon Red, Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI, and I remember them much like actual travels.
Sure, I can also spell my route through Elden Ring, but it would be a gross simplification of the actual path I took - dotted with fast travelling and coming back to previous areas to scour for challenges. In traditional open world games, the actual path would look less like a line and more like abstract expressionism.
If western open worlds were Man of Steel or Avengers: Endgame, with people coming and going as they please and always arriving in time for the action, JRPGs would be Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, where despite the lack of epicness, the travel matters and every step of the journey feels earned.
Don't get me wrong: this is not a critique of fast travel, nor an ode to linearity. I love my time with Elden Ring. It's just that, whereas the tradition of open world games is focused on wanderlust, the tradition of JRPGs is more about purpose and growth. While coming back to Valentine in RDR2 is pretty usual even in the back half of the game, coming back to Pallet Town in Pokémon feels awkward, as if you had outgrown the town and there was nothing left for you there.
But every rule has its exceptions, and that's why Assassin's Creed, of all things, is referenced in the story title.
A journey through Egypt
After years of dwindling quality and the perception of staleness settling in the once-innovative series, Ubisoft went for a reboot with 2017's Assassin's Creed Origins.
Several things changed, the biggest of which being a mechanical shift towards combat as opposed to stealth, and a renewed focus on leveling up and collecting equipment to face harder and harder enemies. But I feel like the quest structure was what I liked the most, and what kept me playing to the end.
Origins puts a lot of weight in the main character's travel and growth, while also using the series' familiarity with urban centers to present cities that are fun to visit and explore. From the Siwa Oasis to Alexandria, to Memphis past the pyramids, then Krokodilopolis and Cyrene, each region is its own microcosm of themes and problems.
In one, it's the class politics of the Roman presence in Egypt during the Ptolemaic era. In another, it's religion being used to control the townspeople. Another hosts an arena that dictates the routine of locals. One is presented in classical Greek-style architecture, one is built on a swamp, one on an island that you can only reach by boat, and one rests in the verdant pastures of a valley. Several villages sprinkle the map around these major points of interest.
Then culture, faith, philosophy, labour, war, class and race, all become entangled in these pockets of interest and conflict, but each in a cohesive, contained manner. Side quests mostly revolve around ramifications of each town's central issue and environment, letting the player get familiar with the area, while main quests prompt the player to hit the road and take the next big step in their journey.
Arriving at each new town offers a feeling of doing actual tourism: spending a few days, getting to know the people, visiting the neighboring landmarks, and eventually leaving when the time is over. The sense of purpose and direction is always present to some extent, both in the micro and macro scale.
It sounds like a pretty obvious structure once you see it working. And yet, that's not normal in the tradition of open world games.
In Horizon Zero Dawn, I spent several in-game days doing the trek to the capital, picking up side quests on my way there. But once I reached the city, I had people sending me off to fetch stuff in every corner of the map, including the place I'd initially come from. Not in an epic, "we have to go back" kind of way, but as if they casually asked me to pass the butter.
Ghost of Tsushima had an NPC tip me on a group of assailants bothering locals near the bridge. But it turned out that said bridge was miles away, past forests, farms and a settlement full of people that didn’t know the last thing about a bridge. I understand that it’s made that way to nudge people into quests even from far away, acting like a funnel towards sites of interest — but it ultimately undermines the game’s sense of presence.
When anything can be anywhere, it’s hard to feel like you’re truly reaching or leaving any place during your journey.
And so, as much as I enjoy open world games and have a hard time playing JRPGs, I feel like I'm missing out on the great journeys the latter provide, while hoping that the former take more clues from the Assassin's Creed reboot and let me experience the feeling of an actual trip more often.
Recipe for a journey
To sum it up, I'd say these are the elements that make for a good sense of journey, either in a JRPG or otherwise. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but rather, a few pointers:
- A sense of purpose, direction and growth that propels the player forward;
- A good divide between urban and wilderness, with each focusing on a different dynamic (tension and mechanical buildup versus respite and narrative buildup);
- A quest structure that reinforces the sense of presence, treating each main location more like a self-contained hub instead of a spring point to the entire map;
- A clear visual distinction between each location you visit, creating thematic novelty and rewarding the player’s curiosity;
- NPCs with something relevant to say about their place, your journey, and the general state of affairs;
- A semi-linear progression that still allows for organic discovery and returning to places already visited to tie loose ends — it's a travel through an open map, not a sequence of closed levels.
Do you remember any other features that make a game feel like going on a trip? Share your thoughts with us on Twitter (@superjumpmag). Here's to journey games, in any genre they happen to be!
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