Sponsored By

Characters and Worldbuilding: Analyzing the Strength of Japanese Games

Zack Wood studied game design in Japan, and here shares the philosophies that inform the rich, appealing worlds and characters of games developed in that country -- a new way of looking at building your worlds and creating their inhabitants.

Zack Wood, Blogger

May 31, 2013

20 Min Read

From April 2010 to May 2011, I had the opportunity to study manga (Japanese comics) and video game design at one of Japan's leading art schools, Kyoto Seika University. In total, I lived, worked, and studied in Japan for about four years. Here, I would like to share what I learned there about game design.

It all started in high school when a friend introduced me to anime (Japanese animation) through Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke. The characters and creatures were unlike anything I'd seen before, and soon I was borrowing more. From there I started playing Japanese video games, especially Super Nintendo-era role-playing games (RPGs).

The first one I played, chosen at random, was the curiously titled Chrono Trigger.  Little did I know I was picking up one of the most revered games of all time, and, of course, I was hooked. Similar to my interest in Studio Ghibli's animated movies, I was enchanted by the level of imagination that I saw in Japanese RPGs.

An Overlooked Treasure

Eventually I stumbled upon Paladin's Quest, one of the lesser-known Super Nintendo RPGs, released in the US in 1993. I almost skipped the game entirely, however, due to its generic name. I don't know how the translators settled on Paladin's Quest, since the game has nothing to do with paladins; in Japan, it goes by the exciting and mysterious Lennus: Memory of the Ancient Machine.

Paladin's Quest turned out to be, in my opinion, the most original and memorable game in an era that was already brimming with innovation. The pastel color scheme and simple visual style turned off many players, but their novelty only added to the appeal for me; the haunting music, alien plant-life, and unusual control scheme came together to create a unique and very engaging experience.

"The Magic School," first area of Paladin's Quest

For the Love of the Game

When I found out that Paladin's Quest had a sequel, Lennus II: The Apostles of the Seals, I was eager to play; however, the game had never been released in English, and with zero knowledge of Japanese, I couldn't even make my way out of the first area.

That's why, in freshman year of college, I enrolled in an "Intensive Japanese" class that culminated in a four-week trip to Kyoto Seika University. At the time, Kyoto Seika had just made news for being the first school in Japan to offer a major in manga.

I had a great time there, which led me to transfer to Stanford University to major in East Asian Studies and continue studying Japanese. As soon as I graduated, I moved to Japan to teach English with the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program.

That was when I discovered the blog of Hidenori Shibao, the director of the Lennus series, who also worked on Legend of Legaia, a PlayStation RPG. After double-checking my grammar with a Japanese friend, I sent him a message, and we ended up exchanging a number of emails about the Lennus games and game design in general.

Back To Kyoto Seika

After two years with JET, I wanted to return to what drew me to Japan in the first place: popular culture like video games and anime. I had always loved drawing, and I remembered Kyoto Seika and its manga program from my study abroad trip. That's how I ended up going back in 2010 as a research student in the Story Manga Department. (As a "research student" I took classes like a regular student, but without any grades or diploma upon completion.)

Although Japanese schools tend to be strict about taking classes outside your department, I was able to attend some lectures in a game design class with Kenichi Nishi, the director of the cult-hit Chibi-Robo! (He was, coincidentally, a designer on Chrono Trigger.) Nishi walked us through development from idea to execution, and students formed groups to create their own games over the course of the semester.

Through all of this, I learned a lot about the Japanese approach to creating popular culture like manga and video games, and here I would like to share what I learned, focusing on two points: Japanese-style characters and their function in video games, and sekaikan, a term used frequently in reference to video games and other media.

Japanese Characters: More than Just "Cute"

Anyone who's been to Japan can tell you that characters appear everywhere: billboards, TV, clothes, trains, food (and not just the packaging, but often the food inside, too) -- anywhere you can imagine.

You can even find them in situations that in America might be considered slightly inappropriate, such as a flyer I saw that proclaimed something along the lines of "Let's reduce the number of suicides!" with a boy and cute green creature raising their fists in smiling determination.

In America, Japanese characters like Mario, Hello Kitty, and the various Pokémon are, while popular, sometimes put down for being child-like or simplistic. Personally, I have always had a soft spot for them, but I didn't think they were reflective of anything more than an aesthetic that I happened to like. Little did I know that characters in Japan wield great power, both in terms of money and as an important element in popular media like video games.

The huge demand for and production of characters constitutes what is essentially a character industry; video game, anime, manga, and merchandise companies work together in close coordination to create spin-offs, crossovers, and various products based around popular characters. This is referred to as "media mix" in Japan, roughly equivalent to "transmedia" in the West. Through these collaborations, a character from a successful manga series, for example, can end up bringing in far more money than what's genrated by sales of the original manga itself.

The Pokémon Train

Hello Kitty rice balls

At Kyoto Seika, my classmates were very much aware that creating popular characters was a crucial part of the manga-making process, and, as you can imagine, skilled character designers in Japan are highly valued. There are artists like Kosuke Fujishima of the Tales of series of RPGs and Metal Gear's Yoji Shinkawa (a Kyoto Seika alumnus whose iconic art is seen to the left), who have achieved great fame and recognition thanks in large part to their work designing characters. Artists such as these have their work featured in exhibitions, and can sell expensive art books of their sketches and designs.

The Making of Japanese Characters

What then is special about these characters? What qualities, if any, do they share? Some people may be familiar with the term kawaii, which is usually rendered in English as "cute," and is often used to describe characters. Actually, it is not as simple as just being "cute"; my understanding of kawaii characters is that they are expressive, endearing, and easy-to-read. Large heads and eyes, simple, colorful designs, and exaggerated emotional reactions are some recurring stylistic elements of kawaii characters.

A term less well known in the West which is also very important is sonzaikan, which literally translates to "the feeling that something exists." In terms of characters, it means that they seem real -- not necessarily that they are just like real people with complex personalities, but more that they feel full of life, and provoke an emotional response from the viewer. In this way, people can feel a personal connection with their favorite characters, almost as if they were real friends.

In practice, then, how do designers make these kinds of characters? Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist and professor at MIT, describes one example in his paper, Anime Creativity: Characters and Premises in the Quest for Cool Japan. There, he interviews m&k, the design team who created the characters for a popular animated show called Dekoboko and Friends.

[T]hey developed the characters by "auditioning" about 60 of them, that is, drawing up a wide range and selecting from them. "We avoided average characters, and aimed instead for those who were in some way unbalanced," he explained... The creators also didn't start with the visual image of the character, but instead thought in terms of a character's distinctive flavor (mochiaji) or special skill (tokugi)... "[T]he personality (kyara) precedes the character itself, evoking the feeling of some kind of existence (sonzaikan) or life force (seimeikan)"... When m&k selected characters from among the many they auditioned, they emphasized the extreme: one character is extremely shy, another extremely speedy, another is an elegant older woman who sings traditional sounding songs, another is so big he can't fit through the door.

In other words, each character is defined by a simple concept, which in turn determines both their behavior and appearance. The result is that, though simplistic, each character feels likable and real, as reflected by the show's popularity.

Dekoboko and Friends 

What Characters Are: Characters in Games

In his game design blog "What Games Are," Tadhg Kelly explains characters' role and function in video games, and, based on his description, Japanese-style characters seem to me to be especially suitable.

First, it helps to understand his view on the role of story in video games. In his post On Player Characters and Self Expression, Kelly explains what he calls "storysense": 

"Storysense" is an approach to narrative which relies on the creation of an interesting world, a discoverable set of threads and bits of story, a minimalist approach to goal direction, but dispenses with dramatic plot and character development. It treats story as a backing track to the play of the game, and so the player can participate or not as he likes. There is no time given over to extrinsically rewarding the player for being in-character, and the only rewards are literal -- just as the game is. There is no elaborate characterization, no attempt to insert unnecessary meaning, and no emoting at the player to try and make him or her feel.

That's why, he explains in Character Establishment, characters in games don't need traditional development through a story:

Establishing character is not the same thing as character development. Character development in a dramatic arc is a long and complex process, but in a game it's completely at odds with what a world needs to achieve. The art of establishing characters is conveying an impression of who they are in totality, because they are just a part of a portrait.

A game character needs to be established with a light touch, so that it's the player's choice to like or loathe at their own pace. Take that away, or foist exposition on the player, and intended feelings of sympathy quickly turn to antipathy or boredom.

As he sums it up in his post on Character Development, "the world is what develops and characters are (for the most part) just resources within it."

Japanese characters, with their impression of being real (sonzaikan), and simple but engaging personalities (like the Dekoboko characters and many others), seem to me to be very well-suited for this kind of role. More so than physically and emotionally realistic characters, simplified and stylized kawaii characters help bring the gameworld to life for the "art brain" without distracting the "play brain" from trying to win with excessive dialogue or cutscenes.

Taking Care of Characters

Given characters' importance in terms of gameplay and larger financial models, it should come as no surprise that great care is taken in handling famous characters' image and use. I was personally surprised, however, to discover that there is an entire company, called Warpstar, devoted to managing Kirby. Warpstar collaborated with HAL Laboratory, for example, in the making of Kirby's Epic Yarn for the Wii. In that case, designers spent an incredible three months perfecting Kirby's appearance.

This careful attention to characters can also be seen in interviews with the team who made Zelda: Skyward Sword. The designers discuss working to make even the enemies kawaii, to give them "a touch of humanity" that makes you like them even as you want to defeat them.

I'd like to emphasize here that kawaii and sonzaikan are not inseparable, though they often go hand-in-hand in the case of Japan. Kawaii is certainly an important part of what makes Japanese characters feel alive and real, but I imagine that there are other approaches to giving your characters sonzaikan, too.

Sekaikan: Developing Your Game's "Worldview"

In addition to discussing characters, I would like to introduce the term sekaikan, which roughly translates to "worldview." It is, in my opinion, the single most important word in understanding Japanese game development.

I first encountered the concept of sekaikan on Hidenori Shibao's blog in a post about the development of Paladin's Quest, where he explains that his goal was to make the world the main character of the game. Toward that end, he tried to make everything feel novel and new -- from the battle menus, which can be navigated solely with the directional pad -- to the otherworldly character designs and concept art. He approached all elements of the game, he says, with the goal of creating a good sekaikan. 

I soon discovered that other developers and gamers in Japan often use the term in similar ways. But, I wondered, what does it mean for a game to have a good sekaikan? Through interviews, research, and my personal experiences, I have developed a definition of the term, which can be broken down into two parts:

  • First, sekaikan can refer to the feeling that a world exists beyond what you see onscreen. This is similar to characters' sonzaikan; the world feels alive and real, even though it may not be a physically accurate simulation of reality.

  • At other times, people use sekaikan to refer to the creator's vision for the game's world, which informs everything from the visual design, to the rules, to the controls, to the story. It is the overall "feel" of the world, created by the interaction of all these elements.

Having a good sekaikan, then, means that the game feels real in the first sense, but is also interesting and well-done in the second sense. Often this means that the player wants to re-visit the world, whether through replaying the game, playing other games in the series, or through other media. 

Sekaikan in the Western World

Given its frequent use in Japan, there is surprisingly little discussion of sekaikan in the English-speaking world. I found only a few mentions of it on the internet, here and here.

In Anime Creativity, however, Ian Condry touches on sekaikan and its role in the creation of anime, which sheds some light on its importance in video games.

He describes what it was like to sit in on discussions among the production team of an anime series called Zenmai Zamurai. What he noticed was that, rather than thinking about the anime in terms of the story -- which is the focus for many fans and reviewers -- the developers used a "premise + worldview + characters" model. As Condry explains:

More central than the story itself in organizing the collaborative production of anime was... the design of characters, the establishment of dramatic premises that link the characters, and the properties that define the world in which the characters interact. This combination of characters (kyarakutaa), premises (settei), and world-settings (sekaikan) generally came prior to the writing of the story.

Condry goes on to mention that a similar model could be used for games, and although he doesn't specify what that might be, his research shows the crucial role of sekaikan in the development of popular culture like anime and video games. It is established in the beginning of the process, and it informs secondary elements like the story and visuals.

In addition, although Kelly never uses the term sekaikan on What Games Are, he emphasizes points similar to those that Japanese developers consider when addressing sekaikan. First, he essentially offers a definition of sekaikan in his post titled Numina:

We often infer more from a game experience than is actually on the screen. We have the capacity to use the game as an imaginative springboard, inferring personality traits, characters, behaviors and a sense of a larger game world beyond even what the developer intended. We make cognitive leaps, little observations and associations that contain the quality of empathy, and so it feels like there is more there than meets the eye.

In another post entitled Worldmakers, he goes on to insist that game developers are "worldmakers," and that "the art of game design is all about the place," explaining that:

Creating a world is a complex task that demands not just imagination, but elegance, form and direction... It is not just geography or art style, and it has very little to do with story. It's a balance of dynamic, audio-visual and pace-changing elements all intended to achieve a kind of engagement.

Worldmaking is the act of creating a canvass... Much of my book talks about the art of games as worldmaking because I believe that worlds are where the true art of games lies.

To me, this sounds similar to the focus in Japan on the world experienced through a game. Kelly is the only person I am aware of in the Western world with a theory of games that takes this into account and explains the fun of games in a way that applies to both Western and Japanese games, FPSs and RPGs, The Sims and Harvest Moon. 

Game Design at Seika

Finally, I wanted to share some practical lessons that I learned in Kenichi Nishi's game design class at Kyoto Seika University.

As each student came up with their own idea, he instructed us to assign a theme to our game, such as "getting bigger" or "becoming friends." At first, I thought it was ridiculous to summarize an entire game in such a way, but I soon realized that, as a simple expression of your "worldview," it can actually help provide the game with structure and consistency. He said that in Katamari Damacy, for example, the basic theme would be "getting bigger," which is reflected in the story, visuals, and gameplay.

At the same time, Nishi encouraged us to consider the world in our game from all angles: What is the political system? What is the weather like? What is the source of energy? What types of clothes do people wear? And so on, even if the element in question doesn't have anything to do with gameplay and won't appear in the game.

In this vein, he encouraged us to think carefully about what items we would include in the game's world. In one class, we discussed a student's idea for a game about a cute character that flies through the sky, collecting hearts while avoiding obstacles like eye masks. When Nishi questioned her inclusion of eye masks, however, she didn't have an explanation. Eye masks, he said, changed everything -- they bring in the existence of human beings who wear eye masks at night, adding a whole world of associations.

His point was that each object changes the user's understanding of and response to the game's world, and so it is dangerous to thoughtlessly include something just because it would make sense in reality or because other games have done the same thing. Each element must fit with your game's sekaikan in order for the world to feel real and make sense on its own terms.

A Concrete Example: Cafe Murder

Though I have been using phrases like "Japanese characters" and "the Japanese approach to video game development," I don't want to imply that these things are fundamentally Japanese or inaccessible to people outside Japan. On the contrary, I think that while Japan has developed these techniques and approaches, anyone in the world can learn from and utilize them.

In fact, as artist and designer for an upcoming iOS game called Cafe Murder, I have had the chance to try to put these concepts into practice over the course of the past year.

Twelve Unique Customers

Cafe Murder, which began as a Kickstarter project, is a restaurant simulation game with a chef who attacks the customers. I built each of the twelve customer characters around a simple concept that defines their appearance and how they behave, similar to what Condry described with "Dekoboko and Friends." Visually, I tried to make each character colorful and easily recognizable, expressing their emotions in a way that suits their personality and concept.

Frantic Fred, for example, is the "busy" one, a rushed businessman who has to be served right away. Sharkeeta, the wealthy and corpulent connoisseur, represents gluttony, and Pincushion, unlike all the others, will both survive and enjoy a stabbing.

Frantic Fred, Sharkeeta, and Pincushion

I also tried to keep in-your-face dialogue to a minimum, while adding a customer feedback menu that can be viewed at the player's leisure if they choose to read through and learn about each customer's personality. 

Sekaikan, Cafe Murder-style

I started designing Cafe Murder in the game design class at Kyoto Seika, and at that time I chose the theme "to serve and protect." Although the basic gameplay revolves around using quick reflexes to catch ingredients and assemble sandwiches, getting good at the game requires understanding and catering to each character's individual behavior in order to serve sandwiches with maximum efficiency and satisfaction.

Knowing, for example, that you should serve that imperfect sandwich to Fred before he gets too impatient, whereas it is worth taking longer to get Sharkeeta's sandwich just right because of her generous tips -- all while protecting them from the insane chef's rampages.

In terms of concrete design decisions related to sekaikan, I remember one in particular. When designing the "Speed Shoes" upgrade for Rainy the waitress, I originally began drawing sneakers with Hermes-looking wings on them; I soon realized, however, that this felt too mythological, reminiscent of an action platformer like Kid Icarus.

It didn't feel right to have speedy wing shoes in the world of Cafe Murder, whereas cute, speed-boosting hearts made a lot more sense. Cafe Murder, I realized, is a place where loving care for customers is more powerful than magical wings. If you'd like to check it out for yourself, Cafe Murder is free to download in the App Store.

Speed Shoes with Hearts

In Conclusion...

In terms of both the approach to characters and the use of sekaikan, I see one overarching theme in Japanese game design: simplification and stylization as a means of creating a sense of reality and expansiveness.

The characters, both in terms of personality and appearance, are simplified and exaggerated, expressive and easy-to-understand. Game-worlds are organized around simple concepts, and items in the world are chosen or rejected with great care.

The effect of these measures, however, is to create the feeling that there is more than meets the eye; characters feel endearing and real, and popular ones are consumed almost endlessly. Similarly, the worlds in games feel alive, and players want to visit them again and again through different media.

I hope I have been able to convey clearly what I learned during my years in Japan. Thank you for reading, and please let me know if you have any comments, criticisms, or insights about the ideas I presented here.

You can read more analysis from Zack at his blog, and also check out Beaver Toad Software -- the official site for the team behind Cafe Murder.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like