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Lost in Transnation: A Reaction to Tom Battey

Tom Battey's latest piece on his Gamasutra Blog 'Lost in Translation' was emblematic of Westerncentric views stagnating narrative based game design. This piece seeks to remind readers that in comparison to Japan, Western games have a lot to live up to.

Battey's blog post, 'Lost in Translation' sought to answer the question 'Do Japanese Games Suck?' I found the piece incredibly interesting as, although I have not had my head completely buried in the sand over the last five years of game sales and industry progression, I was still unaware that this was a feeling shared widely among Western gamers. The first time I had my attention called to this fact was the Penny Arcade strip referencing the troubles between Microsoft gaming efforts and Japan. Their cry of 'Japan is where games come from' has been echoed by Bob 'Moviebob/Gameovertinker' Chipman. I largely empathise with both of these sources as Japan, at least in my upbringing, was where all the interesting games did come from. 

Now, please note that I have not resorted to ontologies just yet. Japan is and was not the place where 'good' games come from. I'm not sure if there has ever been a game so universally loved that it could be called 'good' without exception. Perhaps some of the 1997-9 generation N64 games now so steeped in nostalgia that if there were any hiccups we have come to know them as interesting if not innovative quirks.  Although even those games now garner much negative commentary due to their beloved status. Importantly however, these games - the first that jump into my mind, undoubted entries in the roster of good videogames that will undoubtedly come to form the 'canon' of this medium in years to come - are Japanese. 

Yet, these games are not so steeped in a 'cultural odour' that they would appear Japanese in the way that say, Okami would appear Japanese. Not on their surface aesthetics anyway. Mario for example deals with entirely American subject matter while Ocarina of Time deals with an oddly Tolkien-esque interpretation of Elven fantasy harkening back to British fantasy. Yet, these games are part of specific historical moment in video game history as, although it was not overt at the time, they are a part of Shigeru Miamoto's auteuristic videogame output. I believe we have come to recognise this with time. And while there have been and continue to be western videogame auteurs, their approach to being just that greatly differs to their Japanese counter-parts. 

This, I believe is where the distinctions between Western and Japanese videogame creation starts to become very interesting. If we take game creators such as Peter Molyneux or Richard Garriot, their empahsis on game making has always been that transportive quality of fantasy as highlighted by the Extra Credits serial in their recent episode on national RPG's (also cited by Battey). What these game auteurs (and auteurs they undeniably are) chose not to do was focus on was fixed narrative. They instead chose emergent or user generated narratives.

Well, that's not entriely true to state as a division between the two countries' specific output. While we may not think of the Zelda series as having a narrative style similar to that of the work of Garriot or Molyneux, their are many more similarities than first meet the eye. Both types of work have emergent narratives only one much more streamlined than the other. What is also important to note is that Miyamoto has been ever vigilant to ensure the cohesive aesthetic stability of his games while Garriot and Molyneux have 'experimented' with many different types of game aesthetics and mechanics creating a much more varied, perhaps indistinguishable auteuristic thread. 

What this leads me to believe is that the Japanese have been, from the inception of videogames as a medium, much more conscious of the ways in which videogames are a legitimate art form that require care and time in their construction. The entire Final Fantasy series, including the most recent entries would not have been created had it not been for this core idea of expanding upon a singular vision over time, honing down the essence of a game into something that goes beyond the confines of mechanics and emergent story into truly transcendent, emotionally engaging experiences.

Games produced by the venerated Team ICO would not have been produced if it were not for this tendency and videogaming as a medium would be much the poorer for it. This leads me to the overarching point of what I'm attempting to say. In Japan, since the beginning of videogame production as something that could handle a story line of any kind, the producers there have been accutely aware of the emotional potential that these products could have. 

Now, today, Japan - to our eyes - has lost its way. We feel increasingly distanced from the newer versions of the Final Fantasy series while other games are denied release here altogether. Is there a dwindling interest in Japanese games among the gamers of the West? No. There is not. There has simply been a huge increase in the number of gamers there are. As a part of this, the original contingent of gamers - people often intellegent and introverted with a love of role play and transportive story - have become marginalised in favour of a new breed of video game player. The massive influx of gamers who lust for cheap thrills as opposed to emotional engagement is truly baffling. But then, that is to set aside the very quality that makes this medium so great - user dependent mechanics that are not possible outwith this medium. 

Yet, I ask, how is it that we can possibly rate mechanics above the qualities that have been the focus of every other medium since the dawn of time? The basic needs we have to relate experiences and tell stories? One of the great reasons for this is the creation of multiplayer. The function of stories briding gaps between one and another member of a community has been replaced by the ability to play endlessly with each other in a safe, digital environment. The qualities offered by the story for empathy are replaced in favour of an odd form of interaction that seems to surpass any need for discussion as there is a new language of capability and interaction.

I think, however, history cannot be ignored in the case of videogames. This medium is still developing and its development will (within reason) still follow the same chart of ascent of every medium in its stead. It will develop out of its ability to shock a paying audience and mature into a medium with the power to move a single reader or user. The reason for this is the same reason behind the current FPS favouring tend in videogame sales - expansion of the market. If videogames do continue to grow as a medium - if there become genres in the true sense of the word spanning from comedy, tragedy, thriller, horror, experimental etc. - the audience seeking experiences from a videogames will demand more than the currently favoured violent thrills. When those millions of humans more concerned with romance than violence begin to create and buy videogames, great romances will emerge. And it that time it will begin to come clear just how behind the Western video game creators are now.

Western videogame creators are creating great refinments on a single idea. The shooting mechanic is being polished to a mirror shine and the currently dominant market force are pushing this advance. Meanwhile, in Japan, games that do not sell to those western masses (Ni No Kuni for example) remain untranslated and unshipped. But this time will pass. There will be games created in this part of the world that will expand beyond the boyish power fantasies that the medium is currently mired in. It happened to literature. At that time, we too will begin on the Japanese path towards multiple virtual narratives and experiences. 

Though, as a closing note to Tom Battey, I must admit - Bionic Commando did plain suck. 

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