Japanese games aren’t gibberish – just different
Last week, Assassin's Creed III creative director Alex Hutchinson accused western game journalists of "subtle racism" by giving bad Japanese games an easy ride. Our story drew plenty of comments, and one in particular caught our eye. We asked Slaktus – real name Erlend Grefsrud, co-founder of London studio Strongman Games – to expand his comments to a full piece. What follows, then, is not solely a rebuttal to Hutchinson's surprising views, but a fine example of the value of leaving good comments.
“Man, Japan is over,” sighed Keiji Inafune, surprising no-one. He was, after all, merely reflecting the prevailing narrative in the western games press: Japanese developers were struggling, their technologically surpassed, their design philosophy stagnant. Propelled by the finest in American and German engineering, western games have inched their way towards a mythical tipping point: a level of photorealism and world simulation fidelity that, when reached, would reveal the medium’s potential for human drama and unrestrained immersion.
This engineering and reengineering approach to game design, coupled with the development community’s obsession with quantitative metrics – heatmaps and biometrics charting a route to the promised land – have led to a certain homogenity in the resulting works. Games are constantly iterated on, growing ever more streamlined as more and more nuance is abstracted away.
What’s emerging is a one-size-fits-all kinaesthetic, the dual-stick-and-triggers control scheme now hegemonic, even partially automated: Clever algorithms send procedurally animated avatars clambering over obstacles, jumping gaps and hugging walls, requiring no more from the player than an expression of intent.
Assassin’s Creed, Enslaved and Uncharted are pioneers of this friction-free aesthetic, their accessibility derived from familiarity rather than ingenuity. Anodyne engines of empowerment, satisfied with abstracting kinaesthetics away from the player’s scope and mode of agency, making well-established cinematic and storytelling tropes the primary signifierof the player experience.
Japanese games, by not aping this particular model of aesthetic progress, are assumed to be inferior. Not photorealistic, but whimsy, cutesy, exaggeratedly cartoonish. Not “living, breathing worlds” or “ecosystems of play” but sluggish, complex, old-fashioned “gibberish”, as Assassin's Creed III's creative director put it. Japanese games, it seems, are guilty of failure to emulate western consumption spheres, the way LA Noire is to a retro cop show as FIFA 12 is to televised football.
This cultural chauvinism has reached the point where western game designers feel the need to pontificate about the apparently objective failure of Japanese game developers to design games and tell stories. Nonsense: Japanese game design is valid in entirely the same way as Japanese storytelling and visual art tradition is valid, founded on a very separate range of aesthetic ideals that share few parallels with the Western cultural traditions.
Consider the “design flaws” of the first Resident Evil games: unhelpful and often claustrophobic camera angles that obscured critical information from the player complemented by sluggish controls and limited agency. Cumbersome control schemes make combat a source of stress rather than relief, while lock-and-key puzzles impart a sense of being at the mercy of an environment governed by absurd logic. This is what conjures the oppressive atmosphere of survival horror: the form of the system corresponds with the content suggested by the surface metaphor. This gives a sense of meaning, of purpose, to the system itself, which I believe is the true strength of interactivity. The design of the system reinforces and provides nuance to the theme expressed by the fiction.
Dead Space fails as a horror game for precisely this reason. All of its central mechanics are empowering, from the little meta-game of monster amputation to its time-warping and gravity manipulation puzzle-solving. By striving for streamlined empowerment, the system leaves the task of conjuring compelling horror to the tropes in its fiction.