Oh wow, looks like I should have checked back on this one sooner, wasn't really expecting a well thought out response. :D
Where do I start? First off, when it comes to storytelling, games aren't even in the same realm as film or literature and I'd argue that JRPGs are pretty low on the totem pole compared to some of the better games out there. Why? It's because they try to be movies.
Expand on what you mean by this. By "trying to be movies" do you mean blindly attempting to incorporate the storytelling structure of a movie into a completely different format without thought of the fundamental differences between the different formats, or simply the act of telling a linear story where the player has no real control over what takes place? If it's the former, well I can't really say anything beyond that a simple analysis of the storytelling structure in games such as Xenogears and other JRPGs (the ones I've played at least, I won't claim to speak for every single game within the genre) will quite adequately demonstrate that the developers do structure the story in a manner that fits the format, i.e. all of the revelations, points of significance, turning points, climaxes etc. are all placed into the format appropriately. A cutscene in Xenogears will not suddenly come to a close in the very midst of a build up to the story for example, it will end when appropriate; it will not begin right in the middle of a turning point, but at an introductory phase. If its the latter, it appears that you fail to recognise the video game medium's unique properties in telling a linear
storyline - yes, I know a lot of people would find such an idea absurd but I've put a lot of thought into this and am somewhat of a storyteller myself, and I can quite safely say that a videogame does not have to grant the player direct control over what takes place for it to tell a story in a way that any other medium can't. Put simply, in a linear videogame storyline, despite what people may believe, there is no inherent barrier between story and gameplay. The story provides context for the gameplay, and the gameplay acts out aspects of the story. There's an interdependent relationship. When you play through Xenogears, let's say fighting through a dungeon, the story provides a purpose for what you are doing. You are there for a reason from the perspective of the story, and as such a sensation is created where, as you're playing the game, you are essentially acting out part of the story and taking your character through part of his journey; this is especially the case with very optional components of the gameplay, such as buying items from a shop, exploring a dungeon and finding all of the treasure chests, spending a night at the inn etc.. - it all involves fleshing out the "journey" that your character takes in a very choice driven fashion that helps place the player into the role of the character. There's also the fact that the setting acts as a significant component of storyline and the gameplay often has the player exploring the setting in ways that the story doesn't. The simple storyline-->gameplay-->storyline-->gameplay-->storyline structure of a linear storyline offers something entirely different than, let's say, the storyline-->storyline structure of a movie, in the form of a sensation that helps you escape into the storyline in a manner that a movie or any other such medium can't achieve. That's also not addressing the fact that even in the most quintessential of JRPGs, the storyline is never
entirely linear; even if the main components of the storyline are completely linear there is still a sense of choice involving the sheer timing and order behind when, or even if at all, you choose to undertake certain optional aspects of the story, such as entering a town and speaking to all of the NPCs contained within - a component of the story that could only fulfil its purpose in the way it does inside a videogame - the purpose being to help flesh out the atmosphere of the story and give the player a sense of the "norm" behind the setting; the reason why that purpose can only truly be pulled off in a videogame is because of the, in most parts, sheer insignificance and irrelevance of what it means to the main story - the reason it works in a video game is because you can control the timing and order behind when you explore this component of the story, if you do so at all - its presented to you at your own pace under your control; if it was forced on you such as it would have to be in a movie, the sheer insignificance and irrelevance of it could completely nullify its impact and purpose and destabilise the pacing of the film. The point being, its a storytelling component that really helps flesh out the norm and atmosphere of the setting, and it can only truly be pulled off effectively if there is some level of player control, regardless of whether you have any control over the real story that the game offers.
Just as film initially tried to be theatre, people didn't know how to use the medium to its fullest extent right off the bat and therefore imitated its most similar predecessor. In games, this is even more true and makes for poorer storytelling elements because games, unlike cinema or theatre, are offering an entirely new element: interactivity. Some people consider this a plus but when it comes to conventional storytelling, it is absolutely a negative (and JRPGs play to the strictest storytelling conventions). If a game tries to tell a story like a movie, it falls to pieces. Pacing is destroyed by the added interactivity. Say you're coming fresh off a cutscene (ugh, cutscenes)... the next ten minutes may involve you not understanding your next objective and wandering around aimlessly.
This again appears to be ignorant of the gameplay function's role in shaping the story; sure you may be wondering around aimlessly if you're not aware of exactly what you're supposed to do, but this in itself can partially mirror the character's own difficulty in what he's supposed to do as part of his journey; if the story wouldn't realistically present such difficulties than it would ideally be handled by the story making it painfully clear what exactly you have to do, in which case you may be wandering around aimlessly but that will have more to do with you not understanding the story. Of course, the moment you actually start going down the correct gameplay path, not only will this act as a reminder to you the player of what your character is essentially doing as part of the story, but it creates a sensation where you as the player are simply playing out this component of the story that the previous cutscene would have introduced, and what the current gameplay segment is playing out. In other words, you watch a cutscene and you escape into the storyline, the cutscene ends and you go through a gameplay segment which essentially plays out the next component of the storyline. The story would have provided the context for the gameplay and you as the player will be feeling a similar sensation to the character, i.e. the sense of difficulty, the sense of a journey etc.., and you'll ultimately be sharing the same objective as a player as the character would be as part of the story. Anyway the gameplay segment would then end with another cutscene, where again you fully escape into the story, that the previous gameplay segment would have provided the basis for by playing out that segment of the story and then leading into this cutscene. The point being, interactivity does not automatically harm the pacing of a linear storyline. The pacing of a story is structured around the format that the story appears within and is founded upon the psychology behind the manner in which an individual is engaged by a storyline; obviously as I mentioned earlier if the structure of a movie were to be blindly adopted into a videogame in a manner that ignores the difference in format, then the pacing would undoubtedly be upset by the breaks in the cutscenes and the gameplay segments, but a competent video game storyteller will structure the story in a manner that fits the gameplay, and it's something that storytellers have done effectively with games like Xenogears and every other JRPG I've played (which is a lot of them).
In doing so, you've destroyed the main story and its pacing. Say you do a minor side quest that does nothing other than gives you a new sword... same thing. Pacing destroyed.
Again, such side quests would be effectively incorporated in the storytelling format by a competent storyteller, i.e. not bang in the middle of a significant storytelling segment where the story would realistically deny such a thing. In the middle of what you could call a "gap" to different storytelling segments, where time would progress as part of the story in a manner that would allow such "normal" aspects of the story to be realised? That would be an example in which it would work.
On top of that, different regions of the brain handle viewing versus interaction. Jolting the player out of one scenario and into another (and going back and forth repeatedly) ruins the emotional experience felt within the player after a story element has completed. In the end, it turns into a mess where story is packed into 2 hours out of a 30 hour experience, with the player/viewer spending the vast majority of their time doing completely non-story portions of the game. Under the static premise of linear storytelling, this combination of player passive time versus participation time will ALWAYS hinder games and make them an inferior method of storytelling to film, theatre, and literature.
Again, you seem to be ignorant of the manner in which the gameplay can shape the story, and how a story will be structured into a format in a manner to accommodate the fluctuating methods in which a story is told and experienced. As I was saying earlier, a cutscene will be structured in a way that it reaches a sort of "climax" by its end and will then go on to introduce another aspect of the story which will be realised by its gameplay. A cutscene will not abruptly end in a manner where the emotional impact of the scene is suddenly lost.
As for Xeno touching on all those philosophical ideas, that's just rubbish. If anything, that HURTS the game's storytelling. Did Shakespeare throw 14 major themes into Hamlet? No, because it creates a giant mess where no theme is explored in detail (contrary to what you may believe) and leaves the audience wondering "what the fuck is going on here?" and not in a good way.
A fundamental component you're ignoring being that of how much storyline content there is within which the different themes are explored. Was Hamlet a story of comparable scope in its content to Xenogears? Don't be ridiculous. Xenogears detailed a story that was at the very least something like 40 hours long, which is more than enough time to explore the number of themes that it did, whilst doing so in detail and without losing focus. Perhaps if such a number of themes were explored in say, a two hour movie than it probably would have been a bit of a mess, but Xenogears presents a grand story within which there was more than enough content to effectively accommodate such a number of themes.
How on Earth is it a plus that Xeno spent time touching on themes from five different philosophers who have very different world outlooks? What kind of consistency can be found in that mess? It's a major a problem I see with many anime and JRPGs and I call it "let's throw everything at the wall and see what sticks". Instead of attacking one major theme, the developers muddy the water by loosely touching on several themes and the piece comes out feeling like a contradictory, convoluted pile of shit. BioShock, while definitely a flawed story and game, did a far better job of directly going after Objectivism and working a lack of choice into its gameplay than most JRPGs I've seen. And don't take that as praise for BioShock because I think it's still a bloody mess for its own reasons.
Exploring contradictory principles (not that the ones explored in Xenogears actually were) would only be a problem if Xenogears operated on some kind of internal logic that assumed the same contradictory principles in a manner where they formed the basis for its thematic meaning and significance as a story... which it didn't. I'm not really sure what you even think your point here is supposed to be, but exploring such themes means just that: exploring them; it has nothing to do with the very foundations that Xenogears lies upon as a story being of a contradictory nature.
Games will never rival other forms of media in linear storytelling because of their interactivity. The future of game storytelling lies in overarching emotional bonds to characters and the environment, not in trying to compete with film on a narrative basis. An example of where games may be going is Mass Effect 2. I've talked to about a dozen people who I consider to be reasonably intelligent about how they felt during Mass Effect 2. Invariably, they end up talking about the characters. Which ones they loved and took on missions, which ones they left out, and how they felt if that character died. Almost NO ONE mentioned the story elements of the game, which I found incredibly fascinating. If more developers start taking this kind of approach, we could see games rival other media on an emotional basis but the "storytelling" will use games' strengthes as an advantage instead of trying to be a movie and failing. One of the side effects of this form of storytelling is that conventional quest-based stories will lessen in importance in favor of broad-sweeping emotional involvement of the player as he or she makes choices that define their game world. Which takes them FARTHER from JRPGs and shows just how foolish it is that Japanese developers have continued to toil under this form of movie-inspired storytelling when the medium just doesn't work well under those limitations. (Disclaimer: Mass Effect 2 is still a flawed game and has weaknesses that bother me, such as the "white versus black" dialogue choices but the game shows real potential about where the medium can go in the future.)
Well firstly, character is
an element of story, and regardless of whether or not choice driven non linear story driven games better utilises the unique components of a videogame than a linear story driven game, the fact remains that linear storytelling still has a unique place within the video game format, and judging them as stories rather than as games, and non linear storytelling can be analysed to be very ineffective as a form of storytelling. For one, it filters the creativity, time, effort, vision, and ambition of the storytellers into multiple different storyline scenarios, and as such the quality of any single given scenario is not being maximised to the full potential of the storytellers (this can also warrant the use of multiple storytellers which can create inconsistencies as far as creative design, vision, ambition, style and content are concerned). It also removes a lot of the artistry and meaning behind storytelling because events don't necessarily occur because they are thematically and stylistically meant to in accordance with the vision and design of the storyteller, but simply because that was the particular variable path chosen by the player. What it can do to aid the art of storytelling is to allow the audience a level of influence over the storyline, but is that really a good thing? The entire purpose of storytelling is to escape into the storyteller's imagination. Adding your own influence over it only detracts from that.
With that said, there are still many JRPGs I play and enjoy, I just realize that they're quickly becoming a relic of gaming's juvenile past. Of course, there's always time for a developer to step in and do something completely different with the genre and modernize it. You guys didn't really think I'd be able to leave this thread alone, did you?
I'd say blindly adapting table top role playing game storytelling into a format where it nowhere nearly has the same effectiveness would better fit the description of juvenile in the sense that it displays poor levels of thought. Any non linearity that a video game possesses is always going to be painfully limited; there are simply too many variables to program into the software, and in the case of games like Mass Effect and other Bioware games, its a limitation that completely nullifies the approach that the developers were aiming for: creating the sensation that the player is truly in control of the character - the limitations are far to severe to allow for it. Linear storytelling on the other hand can be effectively analysed as being the inherent superior approach to storytelling there is when looking at what a story really is (non linear storytelling on the other hand lacking a sense of thematic and stylistic vision to the story, filtering the tools of the storyteller, and granting an influence over the story to the audience in a manner that detracts from the storyteller's influence, when the entire purpose of storytelling is to escape into the storyteller's imagination), it does
have a unique place within the video game format (as does non linear storytelling), and isn't exposed to the limitations of video gaming (whereas non linear storytelling is in the sense that it cannot adequately reflect real life choice given that the quantity of real life variables can not even nearly be adapted into a video game).