Bravely Default begins exactly the way I was afraid it would, with an overly-long cutscene of characters I don’t know or care about doing things that don’t make any sense to me, and doing it in a way I find mostly annoying. Vaguely infantilized women speak in high-pitched voices, an annoying, amnesiac lothario woos some girls who fawn over him for reasons that, given a thousand years and the processing power of a million minds, I could not possibly fathom, and some sheep fall into a giant hole. Also, there is a kid. I think, actually, the kid is the important part, not the sheep.
This is not starting well for my effort to break through on a genre that has long-since seemed impenetrable at best and childishly silly and self-involved at worst. I am not what they would call a "fan" of JRPGs.
Actually, I’m not a fan of most games out of Japan. There must be some kind of filters you have to clear from your mind to be able to respond positively to these games in their intended form, and those filters are just lodged stubbornly in place for me. The list of historically revered games from across the Pacific that I either haven’t played or haven't enjoyed is a fully fleshed indictment on me as a semi-professional games blogger. These are games that others talk about in terms of sacred texts. I’ll avoid detailing the exhaustive list and simply put this here, and live with the consequences.
I once tried to play a Zelda game; I didn’t care for it.
Well, that should run just about everyone off effectively. I can almost hear you hitting the ol' Ctrl+w. I never would have guessed that people could make a keystroke sound like pure contempt, and yet, there it is.
It's not that I've always disliked these games, though I’ve never been a true fan, and would never position myself as any kind of connoisseur. Still, I was once able to find a soft spot for JRPGs. I don’t have a poster of Cloud Strife on my wall or any-such, but there’s a lot about the genre that should and has appealed to me. I’ve always been a fan of progression games, where there is a tangible and measurable difference between what your character is capable of accomplishing in the beginning and where they end up.
And, for whatever other complaints I can levy against these games, there’s no denying that they strive for a sense of epic wonder. Almost to a fault, these games bestow upon your character the burden of glorious purpose. By the end, I almost wouldn’t be surprised if I was called upon to fight a planet or a god. Subtlety does not appear to be in the lexicon of the JRPG, though cliché and trope certainly are.
But, this isn’t about Zelda. This isn’t even about JRPGs, at least not directly. This is about me coming to terms with the almost troubling realization that I kinda like Bravely Default.
I’ll never finish Bravely Default. Heck, I’ll be pretty happy (and surprised) if I get in the ballpark of halfway through. I feel like a penny spinning on its edge — I’ve got a lot of momentum right now, but I’m already sensing that tiny bit of friction that is slowly diminishing my energy. It’s only so long until I start to wobble and fall to gravity, air-resistance and fate.
But at least I’m enjoying the spin. I can’t really say why that’s the case, though. In general the story is the same kind of story that usually annoys me in JRPGs: a bunch of metaphysical nonsense wrapped in a candy-coated shell of vapid small talk and people whose primary form of communicating is through the clever uses of ellipses. Paper-thin motivations and one-dimensional characterizations run typically rampant through the crux of the story, at least in the first few hours. It’s exactly the sort of thing that should make the game inescapably unapproachable in my eyes.
But, if I’m honest, for reasons that I can’t explain, in this case there is an endearing innocence to the delivery that is tenuously connecting to me, just a thread of a connection like two balloons with their strings tied together by a six-year-old who just learned how to make a knot. The whole thing could come unraveled at any moment — just the wrong tone set at the wrong time and I’ll fly off, captured by some eddy of wind, and sent spiraling and untethered in a different direction.
But for now the game is walking an impressive balance, delivering a combat system that is just interesting enough, a progression system that is just unique enough, a flexibility in game systems that is just conciliatory enough, and a story that is just interesting enough for me to stay attached.
I’ve always suspected that my alienation from these games probably says more about me and my slowly crumbling sense of innocence and wonder than it does about the games themselves. I play games like these, and I wonder why I can’t overcome my own sense of disconnect, though honestly I probably need to stop worrying so much about things like that.
Still, not only am I enjoying my time with Bravely Default, it makes me happy to be doing so. I want to learn to enjoy things that I don’t usually enjoy. I want to see through the eyes of other people whose experiences, prejudices and interests are different than mine. And even if I know it won’t last, even though I know that the me that isn’t sustained by these kinds of games will come crashing down on this parade in time, it will have been consolation enough having broken through and seen a game like this with slightly different eyes for just a little while.
Because, for a short time, for a few days, I get it.