Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
There are certain words, in a video gaming context, that get my antennas immediately up, and my idiosyncratic saliva glands metaphorically flowing. (Actual drooling is a bad habit to mix with gaming; it tends to short the controllers out.) These topics all speak to my particular obsessions: Words like “time loop,” and “detective game,” and “no swimming, please.” But one of these regular obsessions has dimmed a bit, of late, sullied by a steady tide of lackluster execution. Which leads me to ask: Why is a good job system in video games suddenly so hard to find?
For the uninitiated: Job systems in role-playing games (which date back, roughly, to the Japanese Final Fantasy III, published back in 1990) refer, not to ways of picking up digital part-time work, but to a specific sort of character customization that tends to emphasize on-the-fly flexibility. Once you’ve picked a “job”—knight, wizard, dancer, “homeless guy”—for your character, you switch to its associated costume, build up skills related to its general ethos, and then, typically, swap in a new job in order to mix-and-match these unlocked abilities. (The most basic example would be a black mage who can also cast healing magic after spending some time as a healer class, but a good job system allows you to chain together some frankly crazy shit.) Games that do this well—1997’s Final Fantasy Tactics being at the forefront of that list—deploy these systems in incredibly empowering ways, encouraging players to analyze the abilities at their disposal, and then hunt for synergies and combinations that will crack the games’ challenge curve completely open.
Said balance-breaking joy, though, might also explain why the apex example of this idea dates back 24 long years at this point. (Although Atlus’ Etrian Odyssey games do take at least a token run at the crown.) Because while role-playing games—the most recent Dragon Quests, latter-day Final Fantasys, and Square Enix’s just-sequeled Bravely Default franchise—continue to traffic in these tropes, the resulting employment histories rarely result in exhilaration. Instead, we find developers who have carefully clipped the more excessive elements of even the most interesting jobs, curtailing the ability to create game-destroying combos in favor of that old enemy of fun, “balance.” The worst offender—and not just in the sense that it’s where we pulled “homeless guy” from in the list of examples up above—is the recent Yakuza: Like A Dragon, which teases huge possibilities for setting characters up in modern day jobs like cabaret hostess or construction guy… And then saddles each class with extremely similar skills, and no real way to synergize unlocked abilities. Even Bravely Default 2, building on the legacy of its earlier incarnations, tends to flinch away from letting really stupid stuff happen; after all, if the players can exploit the system to make the game’s difficulty trivial, isn’t that bad design?
Screw that, we say: Give us the Calculators of old. This is a drumbeat I’ve tapped before, but balance—outside of games that are explicitly designed for multiplayer competition—is an idea that should be thoroughly opt-in for players. (Take that, Sid Meier.) Gaming is as pure a dose of self-expression as an artistic medium can get for its consumers. If I want that self-expression to involve dropping 99,999 damage on some poor goblin’s head with a set of abilities I slapped together over hours of careful planning, well: Why the hell not? It’s not like playing these things is my goddamn job.