In March last year, at a screening for “Indie Game: The Movie”, a panel was arranged containing two of the stars of the documentary. One was Jonathan Blow, developer of Braid, and the other was Phil Fish, developer of the unreleased (at the time) Fez. During the Q&A session, an unnamed Japanese developer asked the panel what they thought of modern Japanese video games. Fish’s response was about as blunt as they come:
Predictably, the comment caused a small out roar amongst the gaming press. Many sites seemed set to demonize Fish, despite his unapologetic yet semi-explanatory comments later on Twitter, where he clarified that he wasn’t a racist, didn’t judge the Japanese as a race or culture, but disliked their games, or at least, their modern games. It was a sentiment shared by fellow panelist Jonathan Blow, who described most modern Japanese games as “joyless husks”.
I don’t wish to get too far into old news; whilst people have pondered on whether sales and reception of Fez were tarnished due to the comments, most have forgotten this event. But the sentiment Blow and Fish expressed is not uncommon. Increasingly, the western audience finds itself drawn to games made closer to home, whilst series from the east are increasingly shunned; an odd reversal, considering it was Japanese hardware manufacturers and developers who drove the production of video games out of the vast chasm of the North American Video Game Crash of 1985. Unless you lived to see and play the Atari 2600 or the ColecoVision, there’s a good chance you grew up with Sonic, Mario, Castlevania and Metroid as your earliest gaming memories. Even later on, into the era of the Super Nintendo and The Sega MegaDrive/Genesis, the Japanese first-party titles dominated over the largely overlooked western equivalents.
So what happened? Why has a stigma grown amongst us western gamers? My guess is a big part of it has to do with how the advancement of graphical and audio technology has highlighted the vast differences between western and eastern culture. Despite early efforts by Nintendo and Sega to make their characters easily recognizable to those only familiar with existing western culture (did you know that Sonic the Hedgehog was designed with elements of Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton?) such efforts are only too transparent to us today in an era of voice actors, high definition and a demand for more developed narrative from the western audience.
Take narrative, for example. Narrative has become increasingly important to the success of single-player games. One need only look at the likes of Bioshock and Borderlands 2 for their writing, or even The Walking Dead or the Mass Effect trilogy for their unique ways of handling narrative to simulate a changeable fate to see how things have quickly changed. By comparison, look to Metal Gear Solid 4, and notice the differences. Despite Hideo Kojima’s (lead developer of the Metal Gear series)great love of Hollywood and western culture, his efforts at storytelling can come across to those who didn’t grow up with Metal Gear Solid as manic, overdone, and slightly (if not massively) incoherent. Whilst Borderlands 2 merely aims to entertain with a humorous narrative filled with quirky but likeable characters right down to the antagonist, Metal Gear Solid 4 relies on the player not only having played the previous Metal Gear Solid games, but having a near encyclopedic knowledge of the actions and motivations of every single character you come across, and even those you don’t. It expects the player to keep up with the ever-changing loyalties, and for us to accept that a major plot point that the series had established as fact was in fact nonsense. Then, of course, there are the heavy anime influences. Ninjas and giant robots have a large part to play in the series, which is of course named after the aforementioned giant robots. To the average gamer not interested in anime or Japanese cinema, these are themes that don’t present themselves as often, or at least, not in the same manner as in western media. Like many examples of anime, Metal Gear Solid also shares a penchant for heavy exposition, which goes a long way to describing why my personal experience with the game led to me playing the game for three hours, but watching for nine further hours. Characters will gladly spill their life story whilst they and the protagonist stand at gun point on top of a building-sized robot capable of destroying all life on the planet through on board nuclear weapons. Whilst this over-exposition is not something completely absent from western games or lost on western audiences, it is not something we are always familiar or comfortable with within our video games. Gears of War will grant a thirty second cut scene to set the scene, and then we’re back into the war against the locust. Compare that to the upwards of twenty minutes exposition between Snake and Liquid Ocelot at Guns of the Patriot’s conclusion, and you begin to see just how different western and eastern philosophies can be.
Of course, not all Japanese games are like Metal Gear Solid, which is itself an anomaly which enjoys popularity worldwide. Noticeably, however, it is the younger generation of gamers who will most vocally complain about such games. Perhaps this is down to how they have been spoon fed a torrent of western games since the launch of the Xbox and Halo in 2001, which both proved that once again, a western developed console and its first party hardware can succeed in what was a Japanese dominated market. Perhaps it’s the vast difference in the presentation, the gameplay elements and the themes within these games which has shaped what younger or even older western gamers now perceive as “better”.
So what do us in the west think of when we think of Japanese developed games? Off the top of my head, I think Final Fantasy, Dynasty Warriors, Dark Souls, Devil May Cry (1-4), or at a stretch, Persona and Phoenix Wright. A list such as this conjures up several points which may alienate the western gamer:
- Representation of women: Games such as Final Fantasy and Devil May Cry will often present women as overtly physically attractive and almost always young. Whilst western games are often guilty of this as well, there have been efforts to rectify this imbalance. See: Trish in Devil May Cry, Mia in Phoenix Wright, or any female character in Final Fantasy XIII & XIII-2
- Inaccessibility: Part of the culture of Japanese games demands a focus on challenge. Score attack modes and extra hard difficulty within games is generally seen as the norm. Many in the west would prefer a much easier time with their games, preferring to immerse themselves in a fantasy or sci-fi world rather than be sucked out by constant challenge and repetition through death. See: Dynasty Warriors, Dark Souls, Devil May Cry.
- Poor localization: All too often, translation of Japanese voice over work to English is often poor to the point where it is humorous. Also, lines that seem fine in Japanese will often come across as cheesy when translated. See: Final Fantasy, Devil May Cry 1-3, and especially Dynasty Warriors, Shenmue.
- Heavy use of stereotypes and archetypes: It is all too common to play as the androgynous young man on a quest to defeat his old mentor, to run into the foolish old shopkeeper, the sexy aloof female love interest, or the mysterious side character who knows more than they’re letting on who eventually sacrifices themselves only to reveal their dark secret with their last breath. See: All the above probably.
Whether the four points above are true of all Japanese games is irrelevant; this is the game that western gamers unfamiliar or over familiar with Japanese games will imagine if asked to. This is the game that Phil Fish likely played before setting down his controller and vowing “never again”. It is these qualities which, whilst not completely unique to Japanese development philosophy, differentiate themselves from their western competition, especially via their execution.
Let it be known, however, that I do not mean to judge any Japanese developers for these differences. It is commendable that developers such as Atlus, From Software, Capcom and Square Enix know their audience in the east. Regularly, Famitsu will dish out top marks for games which take a beating from western critics (Final Fantasy XIII springs to mind), and the game will sell momentous amounts in Japan. Even the PSP still enjoys high sales with its brand of what we would consider quirky and niche titles for their eastern audience.
It is also not to say that we should judge Japanese developers for how they depict women, LBGT characters or ethnic minorities. Immigration and sensitivity to other peoples creeds and faiths is not something which they have had to adjust to quite so quickly as us in Europe and the U.S, and perhaps their approach to the representation of women is a little behind the times if one were to judge purely video games, manga and anime, but it is progressing. Women wield power and responsibility within many eastern games, and it is perhaps their overtly “sexually attractive” appearance and misguided localization efforts which alienates those of us in the west who are more conscientious of how women as a whole should be represented more often. Yosuke Hayashi of Dead or Alive/Team Ninja fame would openly admit that:
“We are a Japanese developer, and we’re making the female characters with our common sense and our creative sense. When you take that to countries outside of Japan, it tends to be very misinterpreted in some cases, people considering it sexist or derogatory, etc.”
Let it be known also that Japan is well aware of this predicament. Sony itself would likely now name either Killzone or Uncharted as its flagship series, both of which are western developed games developed for western audiences. Additionally, one should also take into account the PC market, a market which is practically non-existent in Japan. With Capcom and Square Enix being two of the few eastern publishers to port their games to the PC, it was a surprise earlier this year when From Software made an unprecedented effort to port the highly popular Dark Souls to the PC. The game showed signs that the developer was not overly familiar with the platform, but it shows how some Japanese developers appreciate the extra attention from the petition which caused the move.
Meanwhile, a technical director at Square Enix, Yoshihisa Hashimoto, in an interview with 4Gamer which is translated here by Edge , said:
“I believe Japan is capable of producing interesting games, but looking at the influence, we are being pushed around by western games without a doubt”.
Despite all this, however, the gap between east and west is largely irrelevant to the average consumer. I am not suggesting that Japanese developers must make an effort to blend in with western culture or die, nor am I suggesting that western gamers should make efforts to alter their taste to save them. Rather, perhaps Japanese developers should look to their kinsmen for inspiration. After all, many Japanese games can enjoy great success despite lower sales numbers. Demon Souls and No More Heroes were profitable despite comparatively low sales numbers to western counterparts which would have development costs many times higher. Nintendo, despite never truly changing their philosophies, continue to enjoy widespread admiration and a dedicated following by continuing to do what they have been doing for years; a success which now potentially hinges on the success of the Wii U. Meanwhile, fighting games remain popular in the west despite primarily being of Japanese origin, whilst games such as Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and the works of Suda 51 (who let it be known, could not possibly make a more obviously Japanese game if he tried) enjoy a cult following in Europe and the U.S.A. Perhaps, when all is said and done, with just some clever marketing, some fresh narrative ideas and characters, and a willingness to make a universally fun game, the east can win back the hearts of western gamers.