Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
For this week's post, I had planned to go into some detail about why I like the novel series Sword Art Online, but after spending far too much time playing the new RPG Octopath Traveler this weekend, I decided to push that topic off a week and instead write about something much more interesting: jobs.
Of course, I'm not referring to forms of employment, but rather the style of character progression and customization common to role-playing games. Job systems (also known as class systems) are one of the oldest elements of role-playing games, originating in tabletop pen-and-paper games like Dungeons & Dragons. Job systems feature a set of character archetypes--jobs, or classes--which players may use to build characters. These jobs may include things like warriors, who use swords to fight, or clerics, who rely on divine magic to heal allies and ward off monsters, and each job has a different set of skills and statistics that determine what the equipped character can and cannot do. At its most basic level, this provides a set of play styles players can choose between and offers guidance and restrictions in character building. Over time, these mechanics worked their way into video games as well, with the most notable early examples being the Final Fantasy games, about half of which have a job system of some form. Even outside of Final Fantasy, Job systems are a common element of turn-based RPGs (and occasionally some other types of games), and the aim of this post is to explore why this mechanic has become so ubiquitous and what makes it so compelling.
The Influence of Tabletop Games
Tabletop role-playing games predate video game RPGs, and even today many games draw heavily from their pen-and-paper predecessors. This was especially true, however, in the early days of video games, when there was nothing comparable to imitate. The developers of games such as the original Final Fantasy had little to look to for inspiration (as far as role-playing games go) but the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. Many video games now have skill usage and stat progression tied to individual characters, with, for example, one being more magically-inclined while another might lean more towards physical attacks, but tabletop role-playing games by nature come with no such pre-built characters. Players create their own characters to use as they play through a campaign, and tabletop games need a system in place to structure the character creation process. Class systems work well for this as they are fairly easy to grasp: you select a job from a list of options, flip through your rule book to the pages for that job, and it tells you step-by-step what characters of your class can do. There is still a great degree of room to customize your character and to build around the base presented, but (for new players especially) building a character can be as simple as picking a class and jotting down a few notes from the game's handbook. For pen-and-paper games, where players are required to keep track of all of their abilities and numbers on their own, this sort of simplicity is a strong approach.
Class systems in early RPGs (and even some modern ones--see Etrian Odyssey) work much the same way. In the original Final Fantasy, the player creates a team of four characters from the game's six classes, and those four characters become the player's adventuring party. These characters are not given names--only referred to as "Warrior" or "Black Mage" or whatever the class is--meaning that, just like in a tabletop RPG, the class is essentially a container for the character the player creates. Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy III both operate in this way, calling upon the player to imagine personalities for their characters, much as a group of players might role-play their characters in a tabletop RPG. As storytelling in video games has grown more complex, that approach has become much rarer, but it still pops up every now and again, and even RPGs with clearly-defined character personalities sometimes have job systems.
The Introduction of Flexibility
Classes in tabletop role-playing games are generally fairly rigid things--once you define your character as a particular class, it's not possible to change jobs without making a new character entirely. Had video games widely adopted this same stance, I think it's likely that class selection mechanics would have fallen out of fashion over time as rigid character builds were replaced by the pre-built characters and novel-esque storytelling that characterized almost all RPGs from the early 90's until the popularization of open-world games about ten years ago. Fortunately for us, the Final Fantasy series has always been adventurous: some might say Final Fantasy has recently strayed too far from its roots, it's worth remembering that every main series entry except IX was in one way or another a radical departure from what came before. Final Fantasy III introduced the option to freely change classes throughout the game, giving the player the flexibility to mix and match teams and to adjust to individual challenges and fights. Final Fantasy III feels quite limited by today's standards, and it's another one of those games that shows how far RPGs have come, but for its time it offered a level of strategy and customization not normally seen in RPGs. In today's RPGs, requiring the player to adjust his or her tactics for difficult fights is commonplace, but before Final Fantasy III those sorts of options did not really exist.
In 1992, Final Fantasy V pushed this even further. Final Fantasy V is one of the least talked-about Final Fantasy games due to its less-than-memorable cast, its lighter tone, and its placement between the standouts Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, but if nothing else Final Fantasy V is notable for introducing the approach to the class system that was so influential it's been copied and reused with very little change for 26 years. Whatever else the game may or may not have done right, its character customization and progression was top-notch.
Final Fantasy V's key innovation was allowing players to mix and match abilities from different jobs. As characters spend time using different jobs, they gain "job points," which allow them to learn new abilities for that job. They are then able to set a certain number of those abilities and use them even when equipped with a different job, opening up a variety of interesting combinations and strategies that wouldn't be possible otherwise. An example of this would be the Summoner and Red Mage jobs. Summoners have access to powerful magic, and Red Mages get the ability to cast low-level magic twice in one turn. In a pre-Final Fantasy V job system, those abilities would be mutually exclusive, but in most post-Final Fantasy V job systems, you can use both of those abilities at once in order to cast powerful summoning spells twice in a single turn. This transforms classes from static progression lines to groups of tools players can combine in creative ways to find interesting solutions to the game's puzzles, and it's such a compelling system that the vast majority of later RPGs with class systems use something like it. Much as I like Dungeons & Dragons, this system's closest equivalent in that game, multiclassing, feels much more shallow and limited by comparison.
The Importance of Balance
Final Fantasy V's system, however, would not work if it were unrestricted. Just as restricting players to one class limits strategy and creativity, allowing players access to all abilities simultaneously can negate the necessity for smart party-building and can make all characters feel the same. Final Fantasy VIII does a lot right, but it suffers from this to a degree--the game does not have a job system, and all characters can have access to almost all abilities, which eliminates the need for customization and can make the game feel too easy. Shin Megami Tensei IV has a similar problem, as its customization is so open there's nothing to stop a player from just equipping all of the strongest abilities at once and calling it a day. Job systems solve this problem with the intrinsic limitations imposed by dividing things into classes, and Final Fantasy V's system strikes an excellent balance between flexibility and restriction.
In games like Final Fantasy V, characters can (generally) pair any two classes or abilities together, but players cannot apply all classes and abilities at once. Pairing two abilities that work exceptionally well offensively may come at the cost of not having any defensive options, for example. This opens an interesting series of trade-offs and decisions and also encourages experimentation. In these sorts of games, players learn to identify innate flaws in classes and look for other abilities that can offset those flaws or otherwise boost the main class's strengths. Much of the fun of these games lies in looking for creative or interesting ways to build characters, ranging from simple things like giving a healer access to offensive magic to more creative builds like giving what would normally be close-combat skills to a class that can strike from a distance.
While that may not sound exciting to those who have not played that sort of game before, it works quite well in execution, turning character progression into something like a puzzle. Job systems tend to be a highlight of the games in which they're featured, solidifying otherwise-strong games and propping up weaker offerings. It's certainly possible to do a job system wrong, but often even in games with poorly-designed job systems it can be quite fun to find methods of exploiting the system that the developers almost certainly didn't intend.
Class systems are not the be-all-end-all of RPGs, of course. There are plenty of RPGs with compelling customization mechanics the work completely differently--2014's Persona Q being a particularly exceptional example--but the class system as redefined by Final Fantasy V is such a fundamentally strong concept that it remains a fixture of turn-based games. Octopath Traveler's development team has created their own spin on the system, and it has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies that are fun to pick apart, but at its core the class system is essentially the same as all the others that have come before--and that's not at all a bad thing.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition