Traces of the West in Japanese Games
"Disney’s world view is starting to lose its edge," writes former Kingdom Hearts producer Shuji Utsumi. This was his assertion following Disney’s decision to allow Square Enix to develop Kingdom Hearts. Utsumi saw this as Disney’s attempt to appeal to new audiences through video games. Utsumi, now CEO of his own company, Q Entertainment, in his blog entry dated April 6, 2012 shares the difficulties of starting the Kingdom Hearts project, 10 years ago. Now, the series has launched its seventh title; Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream, Drop, Distance, which released on March 29th 2012. The latest in the series celebrates its 10th anniversary. Due to be released in the US this summer, Kingdom Hearts is an example of the perfect marriage between Eastern and Western gaming.
Usually East and West present contradictory gaming traditions and gamers are left to choose their particular favorite – FPS or JRPG being the most obvious examples. In researching this article, I saw all the stereotypes that get thrown at games from the East and games from the West. There’s the perception that Japanese games depend on anime style visuals, whilst Western games are rooted in gritty realism. Alternatively, Japanese role-playing games are seen as restrictive in contrast to the narrative freedom of Western games.
The difference in gaming styles can be traced to the cultural differences between the West and East. In an interview, Capcom game producers Keiji Inafune and Hiroyuki Kobayashi gave an insight into how gaming preferences differ in the east and west and how that is in relation to their cultures.
Growing up reading manga, Inafune and Kobayashi both say it’s natural for Japanese gamers to prefer bright, anime-style visuals, as opposed to their western counterparts, who grow up with Hollywood movies as their main cultural influence.
Inafune also makes the point that as an agricultural and island nation, the Japanese like to plan, and feel uncomfortable with the unknown, suggesting this explains the emphasis on linear stories and the turn-based battles favored in JRPGs, rather than the sandbox gaming preferred in the West.
However, after entering the new millennium, the age of globalization and the domination of the Internet, gamers all over the world have started to familiarize themselves with a wider range of playing experiences than ever before. Games that used to be favored in one part of the world have become the norm in other regions.
For instance, I grew up loving Japanese role playing games, but my brother prefers western first person shooters. Rather than arguing about which games are the best, I have become more familiar with western style games, through my brother and I think that’s happening more and more in Japan.
Although Western games aren’t even half as successful Japan as they are in Europe and the US, that’s not to say that their influences are absent. Japanese gamers continue to play the games they have always liked, but now we are also exposed to more western media, such as movies, comics, TV, as well as clothes and other forms of pop culture. This means brands like Disney and Marvel are more familiar in Japan than they once were. This blurring of the borders between east and west has opened the door for projects such as Kingdom Hearts or Marvel versus Capcom. Disney gets to expand its business by reaching out to a new audience and a few of those gaming stereotypes break down.
An article on western gaming influences in Japanese games explains how Japanese games are trying too hard to be like Western games and failing. But I think the article is mistaken. It’s not that Japanese developers are trying to copy western games, it’s just a natural shift in gaming culture, as we are exposed to more American and European pop culture. Although there are same cases of mimicry, it’s more the fact that Japanese developers and publishers are recognizing the strength of the audience in the west and want to cater to both the changing home consumers and new consumers in other regions. In short, Japanese games are evolving.
On the subject of gaming evolution, Japanese games never began life as the masters of cyberpunk they became known for in the 90s with titles like Metal Gear Solid. That evolution started with the influence of western science fiction elements, such as movies. It’s always been clear that the western aesthetic is a Japanese ideal. You only have to look at characters such as Sephiroth from Final Fantasy or Aya Brea from Parasite Eve, who look European and live in European settings. The influence of the west has always been there, but today it’s greater than ever.
Japan has successfully packaged and exported its culture, which makes it the ideal for other Eastern gaming regions. Hong Kong based developer Spicy Horse, which is famous for Alice:Madness Returns, has adopted Japanese aesthetics for the upcoming "Akaneiro." This game is based on Red Riding Hood and uses a classical Japanese backdrop. So, you see, everyone is looking for new influences. I am not very familiar with North American or European games, but I would love to hear about any titles that you know with a Japanese influence.