I'm absurdly pleased today to bring you yet another engrossing and thoughtful rant from the esteemed Humza! As you all are by now well aware, Humza has brought guest rants in such quantity and quality to this blog over the years that I'm relatively sure one could very safely argue that he's done a hell of a lot more for the intellectual integrity of Thinking Inside the Box than I have. Today's another fine set of musings and observations by the good fellow; check it out below! As ever, thank you for reading and ranting, Humza!
Disclaimer: I don't own Humza's writing, but rather post it here with his gracious permission. I also don't necessarily agree or disagree with his opinions and observations here. But I think it's safe to say that I do think they're pretty rad, or I wouldn't have been so eager to share them with you all!
Cyclical Time in Japanese RPGs
November 6, 2019
"But time flows like a river… and history repeats..." - Secret of Mana*
The idea that time is cyclical, that events are fated to repeat themselves endlessly, is a pretty common one across different RPGs, and especially in Japanese ones (although the idea occasionally finds expression in Western RPGs, too°°°). It's also a general idea that is/was pretty prominent in various cultures around the world**, so chances are that it's a bit more recognisable to us when we see it than other ideas rooted in Japanese culture/tradition.
With most RPGs (aside from time travel ones like Radiant Historia and Chrono Trigger), time isn't treated as a very notable concept: you have your basic past, present, future, and that's it. This is an appealing view, too, because it allows for a strong version of human will. In Stocke's words, "My fate is mine to carve". And there's the possibility of a happier ending, in which the future is implied to be better than the past, not just for the cast, but for humanity as a whole.
In contrast, RPGs conforming to cyclical time might have difficulty in constructing as satisfying a journey or ending because the future necessarily reflects the past. What our heroes have done, will be done again (and were also done by others prior to them). The future will be just as happy and just as sad as the past. Individuals may lead better lives at some point, but the same cannot be said for people collectively (at least not in a way that avoids qualifying the improvement by its temporary quality). These reasons and others may explain partly why modern stories in general (and RPGs in particular) don't often implement the idea (or at least don't do so thoroughly).
From my observation, RPGs tend to use cyclical time in two*** ways: either the cycle is implied to repeat endlessly (like Terranigma and probably Secret of Mana if the epigraph is any indication) or the cycle is broken by the protagonist and his/her friends (like Terranigma**** and Energy Breaker). These subcategories may perhaps come with different intended messages.
The intention with the former seems to be to make it as if the protagonist is "enlightened" by the end, having grasped a profound truth about the world (and so it might be a way of promoting the writer's beliefs). A limited view of human will (permitted by the cyclical view of history), in which one has the ability to change their lives to some extent while lacking significant influence beyond that, seems to describe the situation many of us live in today, having little choice but to spend five days a week working. The routines many of us have in our day-to-day lives certainly give the impression that (in most cases) each day is similar to the last.
With the latter, those previous comments about how appealing the "standard" view of time apply, because revealing the cycle to be false, to be breakable with enough will, there's hope that the future will be better than it currently is (although it may invite from some people a pessimism that the future will be worse, as some currently anticipate with climate change). Above all else, it would change how people think about the world because the removal of a constraint previously thought of as impossible to overcome would lead to people imagining the removal of other constraints, questioning their inherited knowledge and becoming more ambitious in their future aspirations (because who's to say what really is and isn't possible to achieve?).
The ubiquity of the general idea makes it easier for people who, like myself, haven't studied Japanese culture to recognize and understand (although, assuming the RPG we're playing invokes them, some details unique to this specific conception of the idea will still be lost on us), but some other ideas commonly invoked in Japanese RPGs unfortunately don't fare as well when Anglophones play them, like the correlation between one's character and the temperature of their hands*****.
That's it - the main point of this post was to point to a concept used in quite a few RPGs and slightly push to learn more about cultures outside of our own. The RPGenius already read a book about Buddhism for beginners, so he probably doesn't need this encouragement (I might need it more than him), but other readers might find it a useful suggestion.
* From the game's opening, after the name entry screen. I haven't actually finished the game (and don't plan to), so I have no idea how relevant this line is to the story. (Maybe the protagonist's journey is one of many cycles in which a particular event involving the Mana Tree/Sword is done?)
°°° The RPGenius Says: War. War never changes.
** Cyclical time is an important part of Hinduism and Buddhism (both having their origins in India and the latter later becoming an integral part of Japanese culture), and has historically been a part (albeit a less important and more widely contested part) of the Western and Middle Eastern cultures (see Ecclesiastes 1:9 for an example applying to both, Oswald Spengler for one mostly confined to the former and Ibn Khaldun for one originating in the latter). Needless to say, there are significant differences between each of these (and putting all of them under a single category might seem a bit questionable to some).
*** Actually three if you count those games where it's part of the game's setting but seems to have little relevance.
**** I've listed Terranigma in both categories because (*SPOILER ALERT*) the game actually invokes both. For example, at one point in the game, Ark is told "Human fate is a fixed loop. What one seeks is not always found. You are different. You exist outside the loop of fate." and yet, at the end, Elle tells Ark "if we are bound by fate, we will meet again in time, somewhere." So Ark apparently has the power to break the loop of fate and is part of it. (My memory tells me that there's a more significant contradiction with Terranigma's cycles, but it's been more than five years since I last finished that game, so that's not too reliable.)
***** For example, see http://wwwthinkinginsidethebox.blogspot.com/2018/02/general-rpgs-characters-preoccupation.html, which expresses the confusion most of us must feel. There's almost certainly a reason for the trope's existence, whether good or bad, and it might be wise to suspend judgement until hearing it. We might even view it as an invitation to learn more about the region the game we're playing comes from, and this last point of course applies to RPGs we play outside of Japan, too.******
****** It's a common position taken in blogs and interviews about localizing games and other media that the team should strive to make the original text sound natural in their own language, obscuring and eliminating the need for foreign concepts. This might increase the target audience's enjoyment (and it shouldn't be forgotten that the profitability of a translated work somewhat depends on this), but it also lessens the motivation/opportunity to learn. Rudolf Pannwitz (quoted in Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator") makes a compelling case for learning through translated works:
"Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works. The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. ... He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language."