Editorial: Where culture fits into games

  • by AJ Glasser
  • September 24, 2010 15:00 PM PT

The PlayStation 3's Valkyria Chronicles is one of my favorite games of all time -- but I don't love the sequel nearly as much. My reason? It's too Japanese.

Editorial: Where culture fits into games

Before you cry "racist!" hear me out. I love Japanese role-playing games, and I love Valkyria Chronicles. The original Valkyria Chronicles, however, is more European than Japanese because it's a deliberate (and very liberal) analogy of World War II. The characters, while drawn in the classic style of Japanese animation we call anime, are grounded in a Western background with German names and English military ranks. It's what some people call a Japanese role-playing game -- but only because the game was made in Japan, not because it's a role-playing game that relies on Japanese culture. Valkyria Chronicles 2, meanwhile, goes the other way. The entire game's structure centers on the Japanese school system, right down to the weather changes with each season. The characters all fall into archetypes specific to Japanese schools and made popular in anime shows about Japanese schools.

This turned me off -- not because I've got anything against Japan (I'll even cop to being a bit of an otaku), but because the developers at Sega took a game that feels like it was made for everyone and turned it into something only Japanese people or Japanophiles can fully enjoy.

Basically, I thought about Japan's four seasons and interlaced them with the main theme and the school theme. It's my way of saying, 'It would have been fun if my school life sounded like that!' [Laughs] --Hitoshi Sakimoto, Valkyria Chronicles 2 composer in an interview with Original Sound Version

My frustration with Valkyria Chronicles 2 can actually best be summed up by Tetsuya Nomura, a video-game director and character designer at Square Enix. Yes, the guy responsible for some of the most prominent JRPGs out there -- as well as all those belts and buckles from Final Fantasy X on through Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. In a roundtable interview conducted at E3, a European journalist asked Nomura's opinion on something BioWare's Daniel Erickson said in an interview with Strategy Informer -- something to the effect of JRPGs not being real RPGs.

Nomura seemed to get mad. In one of those excruciating lost-in-translation moments where the Japanese developer rants for 5 minutes and the translator comes back with a 5-second answer, he related that RPGs -- perhaps even all games -- shouldn't be categorized by nationality. His games shouldn't be called JRPGs: They should just be RPGs.

That resonated with me, so much so that 3 months later at the Tokyo Game Show, I felt the need to examine every role-playing game I played -- Valkyria Chronicles 3, Ninokuni, Tales of Graces F -- to determine what about it makes it Japanese. Where I could, I even questioned the developers on the subject and came back with some interesting answers.

I think American developers have a unique perspective and they make something that maybe can only be made in America. --Motohide Eshiro, Okamiden producer

For a game like Okamiden, the question seems silly -- of course it's a Japanese RPG; why would it want to be anything else? Neither it nor its 2006 predecessor would exist without Japanese culture to draw on for its mythology-based story, and the developer is proud of this.

"Maybe games shouldn't have a nationality," Producer Motohide Eshiro said, "but we felt that this is the type of game that is unique in its art style, and it's the type of art style I think can only be done by a Japanese developer. I think American developers have a unique perspective and they make something that maybe can only be made in America. And not to say that something can't be done in any country, but I think each country brings their own perspective to their games that they design."

Akihiro Suzuki, producer for Trinity: Souls of Zill O'll, has a slightly different perspective. His game, an RPG that serves as prequel to a different RPG that never came out in North America or Europe, takes place in a fantasy world and features a ninja as one of three main playable characters.

"For games like JRPGs, it's very hard to distinguish where the nationality factor comes from," he said. "It's not such an important factor when it comes to game making. I think that everyone should be equally able to enjoy the game; [culture] doesn't really matter. It shouldn't be forcefully separated into Japanese or Western."

After playing both Suzuki's game and Quantum Theory at the next kiosk over, I felt like I should agree. Quantum Theory -- another game published by Tecmo -- seems to be designed with a Western audience in mind. The game follows the Gears of War guidebook to game design, with big, burly men wielding guns, aliens, a stick-to cover system, and nonplayable characters yelling to one another during firefights. The game certainly didn't feel Japanese to me while I played it, but it didn't feel Western either.

To me, Gears of War is the quintessential American game -- so whenever I hear a game compared to it, I assume that either the game was made by an American developer or made by a developer desperately wanting to capture an American audience.

Both ways of thinking are good and probably necessary. --Shinji Mikami, Vanquish developer

So my next stop at TGS clearly had to be Vanquish -- the game people call "the Japanese Gears of War." This action-shooter appears to blend Japan's mild obsession with robots and heads-up display elements with America's lust for explosions almost perfectly. While playing it, I was distinctly aware that a Japanese developer made it (because all of Developer Shinji Mikami's games have that dynamic feel to them), but I didn't feel alienated or confused by the vague sensation of Japanese cultural influence the way I did with Valkyria Chronicles 2.

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Rebochan

Wow, what an insightful article. I can't believe after all the furor around BioWare's comments that nobody in the Western press really followed up on it with a Japanese developer - they just sort of encouraged flame wars. Actually, I'm kind of surprised this is the first I've heard of someone repeating the quote to Nomura. And of course he got upset - the original comments were surprisingly derogatory and I honestly expected better out of a professional like Erickson than I do out of, say, the average NeoGAF poster.

I think I understand your complaint with VCII - I had the identical reaction. While the first game had some plot elements and visual traits that I recognized from games made in Japan, I had no trouble buying this as a game set in an analog to 1940s Europe. VCII? I nearly threw it across the room because it felt like they took this really fascinating setting and suddenly transplanted it to a very generic high school anime.

I do recommend sticking with it - the plot does pick up to an extent, and the mechanics are much improved. I also get the impression from the preview of VCIII that they're ditching those parts of the plot to return to form - and looking at the Japanese sales of VCII, I think they realized that Japanese gamers didn't exactly go for the switch either.

Higgles

This was a great read! Very insightful; I haven't seen this addressed from anyone else. However, I disagree that 'an RPG is an RPG.' I think that's like saying, n'a strategy games is a strategy game.' Like most genres, there are variances significant enough to prevent all RPGs from being put under one, big genre label.

When I think of a JRPG vs. a western RPG, I don't necessarily think of culture; I think of fundamental design choices. I associate JRPGs with linear stories, linear character development (both mechanically and narratively), certain repeated themes in worldbuilding (crystals, airships), and very tactical combat. I don't mean for that to sound derogatory, because I enjoy the occasional JRPG, but I also agree with Erickson that JRPGs aren't "role-playing games."

JRPGs don't offer any decision-making -- the player doesn't have any agency over the avatar. You're playing the one role that the developers have provided for you. I don't see JRPGs being about role-playing any more than any other game because, technically, all games are role-playing games; you're pretending to be someone else, in another world.

I think this is a semantic issue more than anything. By my definition, any country could make a JRPG (there's nothing culturally Japanese about them).

I think FF13 and Mass Effect 2 are two prime examples of the RPG dichotomy. On one hand, there's a modern answer to JRPGs: FF13 is extremely linear, focuses on methodical combat and attempts to tell a very tightly-knit story. On the other, a modern answer to the WRPG: ME2 is very non-linear, features much faster combat and creates a narrative that's more of canvas for the player to paint his/her personal experience.

OK, I'm rambling because I really want to get back to Civ V, but I hope I'm making sense. I've also been turned off of VC2 because of its "Japanese-ness." I had those feelings about the future of the series ever since the inexplicable popularity of Eddy from the first.

mana

I feel I agree and disagree. I haven't played VC at all, but I definitely understand what you mean, and I think I udnerstand your point in general. Although I would ahve to argue against some things said.

There are definitely cases where the culture is a strong part of the game and it even benefits from it (any SMT game for instance), but I feel most of the games that suddenly come packed with culture sometimes benefit from that more than they wouldn't. I think it's more about the arts of the culture that get thrown in. I believe it was a Kotaku article that pointed out that basically all protagonists we've had this and last year are the exact same in Western games (and a couple of Japanese ones). We also have an over abundance of 'real is brown'. I think these are parts that are better left out, but there are parts to certain western devs that the games just couldn't do without.

One thing I have to point out though, was with the fighting games. I think at their core, it's not necessarily that they reach out to cultures in the usual sense, but kind of a lack of culture from them. I say this because really, most fighting games don't have that great of a diversity in culture, or at least certain characters aren't known in those games. If you're brown [African (American), Latin@, Middle Eastern, etc), your face might be missing from the roster. I think culture as in world culture is represented interesting in fighting games especially, but I don't think any video game broaches culture perfectly (except for the SMT games, even Strange Journey).

I think where the game is developed is so very relevant (lately at least), but in the end, you still have devs everywhere that are capable of making wonderful games with or without their culture influencing the game, and in the end, that is the main point, I agree~.

Rebochan

@mana In the case of Valkyria Chronicles, the original game had a very European setting and used a war epic as its narrative. The dichotomy in its sequel is that it's instead set in a military academy, stars a bunch of high school students, and replaces "epic war drama" with "high school hi-jinks with some war mixed in". It's not a problem for me when Persona does it - Persona is a game set in Japan, starring Japanese people. It is a problem when people who are ostensibly European act like Japanese teenagers.

Rezarecshun

I really liked the original and the sequel was surprisingly good if you ask me.

I'm not so sure I share the complaint that something is potentially "too Japanese", but to each their own...

fabiosir

I entirely agree. Perhaps not with the Castlevania thing (although it's because I haven't played it; I think that Castlevania has always had a distinctly european feel to it in its origins), but there are games that have a distinctly Japanese twang to them. I used to really enjoy it, but it gets very old very fast.

Just look at Bayonetta. Jesus. There is something about Japanese popculture that seems to ignore blatant excess, and ignore ridiculous teenager-esque expressions of sexuality, that really got too cliche for me and I really don't understand it anymore.

I suppose I can sympathize with the Castlevania thing with my brutal enjoyment of the Final Fantasy series. I really enjoyed Four through Eight, eight even, but then it just took off into some weird overtly cliche Japanese direction and I haven't been able to enjoy a Final Fantasy since.

I'm sure there are dozens of other examples, but I completely understand what you mean.

However, there are "Japanese" fighting games. Just look at Blaz-Blue or whatever.

Higgles

fabiosir wrote:

I entirely agree. Perhaps not with the Castlevania thing (although it's because I haven't played it; I think that Castlevania has always had a distinctly european feel to it in its origins), but there are games that have a distinctly Japanese twang to them. I used to really enjoy it, but it gets very old very fast.Just look at Bayonetta. Jesus. There is something about Japanese popculture that seems to ignore blatant excess, and ignore ridiculous teenager-esque expressions of sexuality, that really got too cliche for me and I really don't understand it anymore.

Bayonetta is at the top of my "too Japanese" list or, to be a little less exclusionary, just too outside of my frame of reference, culturally. Everything about that game was incomprehensible to me. I couldn't endure its aesthetic and narrative elements and just enjoy the mechanics of the game. The constant sense of bewilderment was too great a barrier to entry. What anybody sees in that game just goes over my head, but if it makes some kind of sense to them, then I guess it just isn't "for me." Personally, I'm fine with that.

I sympathize hugely with the complaint about VC2 because of the drastic shift. Even the first game was set in a very Japanese take on Europe, but VC2 feels like they should have just straight-up changed the setting to a fictional, Japan-esque country; as opposed to the fictional, Switzerland(?)-esque country of the first game.

AceFondu

I get why people are "turned off" by the "too Japanese" thing but I think it's a really stupid complaint. I'm no saint myself as I refuse to watch anime unless it has an English dub. I am supposed to enjoy the artwork too right? Anyway, I just personally hate most western RPG's. Their emphasis on giving the player "choices" (which usually results in nothing) and being able to create your own main character leaves the games feeling void of an actual good story.

Mass Effect is a prime example but all western RPG's do this. You start out and get a quest of some sort, it's usually very very basic like Kill Saren, or track down your dad in Fallout 3. Then the game forgets about its story entirely, only gives you 7-12 main quests and 40 meaningless side quests and that's the game. Oh, and the story pops up at the end for completions sake. Screw that.

Further I despise how most western RPG's or Bioware games go about "character development." It doesn't develop in the midst of an actual story, it doesn't come naturally, no your main character is forced to play a game of 100 questions and ask a lot of stupid things like "tell me your story," ugh are you kidding me, really? What's worse with Mass Effect is you are told you are a seasoned veteran of war who has been in many galactic battles, and the first 2 hours of the game you go around asking people about their different alien cultures and generally knowing ziltch about anything at all in the universe. So stupid lame. JRPG's are not without their faults, but I vastly prefer their faults as their games are generally more interesting and void of boring "MMO-esque" fetch quests that litter western RPGs.

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