Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

JRPG Tropes I Love

(Theme song — sung to the tune of “The Daves I Know” by Kids in the Hall):
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love
These are the tropes I love, I love
These are the tropes I love

Welcome to the debut installment of The JRPG Tropes I Love, a series in which I celebrate my favorite recurring themes, elements, and outright cliches from Japanese role-playing games. Today’s trope:

Hi-Tech and Lo-Tech in Peaceful Coexistence

Before there even were Japanese role-playing video games, there was Dungeons and Dragons, and its worlds were decidedly lo-tech. Like the works of Tolkien which inspired it, the development level of D&D’s worlds was medieval at best. In the early days of computer adventure games, you had lo-tech King’s Quest and hi-tech Space Quest, but the two tech levels remained strictly segregated.

phantasy_star_boxAnd then Sega released Phantasy Star. An 8-bit masterpiece — soon to be re-released on the Nintendo Switch — the American box art made it seem the game was pure sword-and-sorcery. It sported heroes clad in medieval armor, brandishing swords, and fighting bats and skeletons and wizards. But turn the box over and read a little more about the game:

  • The story takes place across all three planets of a distant star system
  • Spaceships will take you between those worlds, and you’ll cruise over them in a futuristic SUV
  • You’ll be fighting robots and aliens along the way
  • And if you’d prefer to put down your ax, you can pick up a laser gun

Phantasy Star wasn’t the first story in the world to combine medieval fantasy and science fiction — see the John Carter stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs for a much earlier example — but it was one of the first JRPGs to do it. And after it paved the way, the floodgates were opened.

Phantasy Star II went all-in on hi-tech with a storyline featuring an artificial intelligence Big Bad. Final Fantasy VI broke with that series’s medieval traditions and featured a steampunk environment. The image of Final Fantasy VII‘s Cloud Strife armed with a giant Buster Sword and riding a motorcycle is practically an icon for this trope. And back in the analog realm, even the original RPG — Dungeons and Dragons — got in on the lo-tech/hi-tech marriage with 1989’s Spelljammer campaign.

My first fantasy novel, Yesterday’s Demons, is part of a trilogy I’ve often said is my love letter to JRPGs and their epic, unforgettable stories and characters. Yesterday’s Demons is set on the planet Verde, a world with a technology level and society much like that of the American Wild West. However, two hundred years before, it was a hi-tech wonderland only a few decades ahead of where we are now. Verde lost all of its technology in the Blackout, but some relics have been restored and repaired. Siv McCaig will need all of it he can find, plus a healthy dose of magic, to save Verde from destruction.

“Trope” doesn’t have to be a bad word. While there are certainly some that should never again see the light of day (I’m looking at you, women in refrigerators), others are like good friends whose presence never grows wearisome. I like Middle-Earth, and I like the Matrix. But give me both at the same time, and I’m in love.