Is it Better to Design a Game Around a Gorgeous World or Great Characters?

skyrim new new1

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.

final fantasy

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.

mass effect team

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?”

Similar Posts


  1. Nice article. I wouldn’t want to say one approach is better than the other. Skyrim is an amazing game despite the lack of good characters, other games rely more on characters than the world. I think as games get more advanced we’ll see both come together well, like only Mass Effect does now (at least as far as I can remember). I think that’s the next step Bethesda has to take with Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, to add great characters.

  2. I don’t want to generalize, but I think the difference between Western games and Japanese games in terms of character development vs world building stems from some of the core differences in our cultures.

    There was an interesting book I read years back (just found it, check it out here that brings up the idea of how Western culture defines reality compared to Eastern culture. It talks about the idea that Western culture is obsessed by defining each and every piece of reality in and of itself…this is a rock, this is a tree, this is my arm, all of these things existing even in a vacuum. Whereas East culture seems to place more emphasis on defining by relation…the identity of something being based on how it effects it surroundings, a more abstract way of thinking IMO. Not saying one is better than the other.

    As a westerner myself, I do often find myself intrigued by the idea of the massive, detailed open worlds that WRPG’s such as Skyrim allow us to explore if only for the sake of exploring. It provides us with a means of categorizing and defining the various physical components. There are hard borders between various areas, measured distances, a slew of weapons, armors and trinkets to collect. So much emphasis is placed on balanced and tested gameplay to go along with top-notch graphics that there just isn’t enough room sometimes to make the characters and plot important or memorable. There isn’t enough room for the abstract.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the JRPG. These worlds tend to be much more linear…guiding you along a set path for the majority of the game before eventually opening it up to you. For the most part, graphics tend to be less realistic and more stylized…afore mentioned borders and measured distances less important. Yes, a selection of weapons, armors and various collectible-based side quests still play a part but it is never the focus of the game. The focus always tends to be on the characters themselves and how they affect the world they are in. The heavy-handed, overwrought melodrama of JRPGs can sometimes seem corny and badly written to us westerners…but the point is that so much of the JRPG’s content is based on the abstract…the undefinable…emotions and high concepts, philosophy.

  3. This is why I’m excited for Dragon Age III: Inquisition. They noted that they are taking a page from Skyrim and based on the concept art, it seems they might be implementing a sandbox element to the game. So imagine, BioWare’s characterization marries Bethesda’s open world. This produces a bangin’ offspring. Can’t wait for a trailer to see if I am right, so I can pre-order this thing right away. Not much of a fantasy fan, but I liked this game. Can’t wait to have BioWare implement this in their next Mass Effect game.

    I just want to add that the Fallout series never really appealed to me so I was wary to try Skyrim. However, I gave it a go and I was satisfied but yeah you are right it’s hard to remember a lot of plot points and characters. My best memory would probably be hunting animals.

  4. I’m in the middle of Far Cry 3 right now, and I’d say they have done a great job with the character on top of the amazing world. In most FPS games your character barely even talks or react to the changes in the story. Jason Brody has a complete change of personality the further the game goes as he becomes less “preppy rich kid” into full on tribal member. It’s a great experience to watch him evolve into this killer instead of just starting off as one.

  5. Well done. I had actually never thought about this topic or noticed that cultural difference between American and Japanese games. But America is catching up on the character front. Final Fantasy’s characters have mostly devolved into a collection of dull cliches over the years and we’ve got awesomeness like Rockstar and Bioware changing the face of storytelling in gaming. Personally, as a rabid consumer of fiction in all it’s forms my opinion is that everything starts with the characters. If they don’t work, the story doesn’t work and even if the story itself is weak, great characters can save it. But not all video games have to be great fictional narratives either so it’s really just a matter of preference.

  6. Try Xenoblade Chronicles. Oddly, it seems to do well at both, while at the same time blending a lot of other features. Great characters with a stunning world (even if it isn’t in HD). Plays like a MMORPG, comes from Japan, good music, complex but not hard to understand story line. The Wii takes a lot of flack, but this game proved that the system was more than capable of matching up with the XBox 360 and the PS3 for JRPGs, and gives the Wii U (with a game announced that appears to be a spiritual successor to Xenoblade) hope for continuing to prove that Nintendo can still be the home to great JRPGs, even ones that appeal to western audiences.

  7. I think, for me, the difference comes down to : In asian games I talk with my friends about the amazing game maker’s story, but in most western games I talk with my friends about MY story. I enjoy both.

  8. I think the characters were far mroe front and centre in RDR then the world was. The world had a couple of breathtaking moments (entering Mexico for example) But the best bits of the game was almost always about the characters.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.