Mar 07 2013
I had an interesting conversation with a grad student at Johns Hopkins yesterday. He called to interview me about the differences between Japanese and American video game culture, and I did my best to relay my limited knowledge to him for use in an upcoming paper.
We talked about many aspects of the dynamic, whether Japan was on the decline while western games are on the rise and such, but one moment at the end stood out to me.
He talked about how Japanese games tend to be designed around the characters, an “in-out” philosophy, while western games are designed around the world they live in, “out-in.”
It’s something I hadn’t really thought about before, but he’s right, and it’s rather fascinating to analyze the disparity.
Take a longstanding series like Final Fantasy, where with each new game you get to know and like (or dislike) a new team of characters. The world they live in is always cool and fantastical, but the focus is on the characters. The same goes for other long-running Japanese series like Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil and what have you. Nintendo is its own category, but over the years has created a stable of extremely iconic character which have had many smash hit games based around them.
Compare that to America. Sure, we also have recognizable characters, but as recently as this console generation, there’s far more emphasis put on the world they live in. We have the sprawling cities of Grand Theft Auto, the lush jungles of Just Cause and Far Cry. There are the deserts of Red Dead Redemption, the wastelands of Fallout, and the fantasy realm of Skyrim, which spans forests, mountains, swamps, deserts, trees and everything in between.
It’s not to say that these games don’t have characters or stories, even good ones, but the shift is noticeable. Even in games like Call of Duty or Battlefield, they may not be an open sandbox, but the focus is on the larger world at war, not on the character who is fighting in it. It’s hard to remember your own name most of the time, as you’re usually just a faceless, voiceless pair of arms.
Ramirez! Kill everyone!
I think Skyrim is the best example of this disparity. The game has one of the most expansive, best looking worlds in all of video game history. You can explore it for two hundred hours and STILL not find everything it has to offer.
But do me a favor. Name me five characters in the game, as quickly as you can. Go:
Alright, I’ll go.
The Dragonborn (duh)
Aela the Huntress
The Jarl of Whiterun who sits funny
That giant Nord girl I make follow me around and carry my stuff
Yeah, that’s really all I’ve got. Perhaps you got to five, but how many do you spend more than ten total minutes with in the game?
After two hundred hours, I really can’t remember much of anything that happened in Skyrim. It was an endless series of sidequests, most of which lasted no longer than twenty minutes and had no connection to anything else in the game. Simply put, Skyrim was too big to be meaningful in any emotional way. There were hundreds of characters in the game, but few felt like more than one-dimensional cutouts.
This can work the other way too, though. When you only care about assembling a team and neglect the world, you get Final Fantasy XIII: hallway simulator. Ideally, you’d like to strike a balance between both, but that’s something that few games have ever achieved.
I think Red Dead Redemption did a good job of creating a powerful hero and a beautiful world. I think Deus Ex did the same thing, even if it’s not as “sandboxy” as these other titles.
The best example of a blending of the two philosophies would be Mass Effect, in my opinion. Over three games it fashioned a cast that felt like family, something I was reminded about recently with this week’s Citadel DLC. I hadn’t played the game in a year, but as soon as a I booted it up, all those memories came flooding back. While I can’t tell you more than a handful of events that happened in 200 hours of Skyrim, I can probably relay the plot of every main and side mission in Mass Effect despite spending only half the amount of time with the game.
And again, though it’s not a sandbox, Mass Effect has a rich universe with practically more lore and detail than Star Wars. A ton of effort was put into making the world feel alive, even if that doesn’t mean you’re running around an open world planet doing whatever you want.
I think the way forward here is indeed balance, though if we have to pick one, I think the characters have to come first. It’s the reason we still talk about Cloud and Sephiroth, Snake and Raiden, Mario and Luigi to this day. These were iconic characters that were the central focus of their games. I don’t think that in 20 years anyone is going to look back and say “remember how good looking Skyrim was?”
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