What's Up With Japan?

By Jonathan Barnes, 6 years ago
Last week, an interesting discussion broke out in the Newshound offices. Two intrepid Newshounds (Dog of Thunder and me, osubluejacket) both weighed in with thoughts that would drive a man insane, were they not so rational and well-spoken. Verbal barrages were exchanged back and forth in a style that has not been seen since Lincoln-Douglas and after many hours of harrowing debate, many broken pieces of office furniture and more than a few drinks, it was decreed that the discussion should be brought to a larger forum for further analysis, thoughts and comments. With that in mind, please sit back, relax, read, think and let us know your opinion.
osubluejacket :

I know I've said this multiple times in multiple ways and I know it's not the best thing for me to think as a game critic, but...

Japanese games are weird.

After writing last week's Lollipop Chainsaw and Aero-Cross stories, I'm pretty confident in saying I just don't get it and don't think I ever will.

It seems that (as years go by) Japan gets further and further away from rational thought in game narrative, theme and marketing. Whether it's Bayonetta having a suit made of hair and riding missiles while fighting, or the gratuitous sexual exploitation (see Devil May Cry 4 's cutscene that should be subtitled "Tits on a Bridge" (go to 23:07 for specifics, you dirty, dirty boy) or the entire Dead or Alive series), I just can't seem to find any logical explanation for the massive amounts of weirdness, hyper-sexualization and general feeling of "What the hell is this?".

*looks at Dog and waits for his verbal abuse*

Dog of Thunder :

One thing Japanese developers of this generation have done is make it very clear that what you are playing at this very moment is a game. Part of what strikes you as "weird" is simply how the games, in your example, are very upfront and honest about what they are at all times: Games. The games you cited as examples, Devil May Cry 4 and Bayonetta in particular, are stylish action games that, first and foremost, are about the combat. It's clear that not only is combat the primary aspect of the title beyond story, characterization, etc. but each is also widely over-the-top on purpose. In fact, when Bayonetta was being developed, Platinum Games publicly stated the mission statement of the game: "Bayonetta is sexy." The whole game may seem to drip sex but that was a design choice made early on in the process of creating the title that helped shape everything, from combat to character design.

By the same token, Epic Games stated that the mission statement for Gears of War was "Marcus Fenix is a badass." Everything about Gears of War centers around making Marcus Fenix and, by extension the player, out to be baddest dude on the planet. One stereotypes a female character, the other stereotypes a male character, except one of them makes an attempt to show the grim realities of warfare on a potentially dying planet and the other shows a witch killing angels by summoning an iron maiden with her hair. I'll briefly take on the topic of "exploitation of female characters" in Japanese games by asking you to play a drinking game; don't worry, it's the world's worst drinking game:

Take a shot whenever a female character is shown on screen in any Call of Duty, Halo (not 4) or Gears of War (1 and 2 only) title. Don't worry, you can play this game and still drive to work in the morning! "Exploitation" in Japanese games is up front, overt and, frankly, refreshingly honest. You KNOW that Bayonetta or Lollipop Chainsaw, two games with playable female leads, will have a lot of fan service. Is that actually worse then what Western developed games do in being less upfront about the exploitation and instead just sweep female characters under the rug? Did you know that the Mass Effect franchise allowed you to play the whole game with a female Commander Shepard? According to the box art and official trailers that was not the case, as it wasn't until the third game that the female Shepard even appeared on the cover.

Japanese games are easy to poke fun at for being exploitative because they don't hide it — at least Bayonetta, Lollipop Chainsaw and, hell, even Onechanbara have a female-heavy cast of characters. Western games do hide it. According to the Modern Warfare titles, I don't think women are allowed to serve in the military. Sure, the costume maybe over the top in that Devil May Cry 4 clip, but aren't Nero and Dante, who are shirtless for a portion of the game, also unrealistically depicted? If you're going to target a whole group of developers for being exploitative, at least recognize that they show *everyone* to be widely stylized and unrealistic with body proportions, outfits and even hair (hello Dragon Ball Z)! At least Japanese developers have given us games with female leads: Bayonetta, Lollipop Chainsaw, Final Fantasy XIII, http://www.trueachievements.com/FINAL-FANTASY-XIII2/ach....htm, Final Fantasy X and multiple Fire Emblems.

Japanese games seem weird to you because they embrace being... games.


osubluejacket :

Point taken. However, I will challenge the assertion that the sexual exploitation of female characters in Japanese games is justified simply because it was the concept narrative. To me, that further shows the HUGE difference and disconnect between Western and Eastern development. One cannot say “it’s OK to have a game focus on T&A because that’s what we wanted to make at the concept level” and expect it to fly in modern society without a shred of narrative justification.

Furthermore, I stipulate that you can’t condemn Western titles for not including female characters while also negating their current advances. BioWare (amongst other developers) has always done an admirable job of integrating strong female characters into their games. 343i also did an incredible job of utilizing female characters in Halo 4 (we could easily spend this time chatting about the sexualization of Cortana, but that’s for another day). Before them, Bungie took steps forward by including female Spartans and commanders in the previous titles. You could also look to games like Borderlands (and its sequel) for good Western uses of female characters in both lead and supporting roles. The crux of the argument is that the majority of the time you hear about gross hyper-sexualization, it comes from Japanese games and justifying it as “it was the design concept” just doesn’t cut it.

Rather than getting bogged down in the (oft-discussed/dissected/disseminated) side discussion about Japanese developers use of sex, I’d like to shift back to the salient point you were making: Japanese games are about “being games” and always having fun. To this I say “and”?

While gamers come from all areas of life and love different game types, styles, and genres, I postulate that we deserve more. When I look at games, I tend to judge them on three legs: gameplay, aesthetics, and story. You can have a "game" with just one of those three points being solid. You can have an “OK game" with two of those three points being well-executed (insert the furor about The Walking Dead being named “Game of the Year” by the VGAs here), but you cannot have a "great game" without all three forming a great trident of excellence. In my mind, I can’t just give the majority of Japanese games a pass for only focusing on gameplay and aesthetics and leaving a story to either wither on the vine or become so wrapped up in its own hype (hellooooo, Resident Evil franchise) that it makes Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole look like a divot on a golf course.

I’ll actually help you and give you a silver bullet: Dead Rising (Xbox 360). While I was not a super-huge fan of the game, I actually got it. Its story was simple, unobtrusive and didn’t devolve into “WTH-land”; the gameplay was solid and anchored to the story in a real way and the aesthetics were perfectly passable for an early-generation title. The game also “felt” Japanese with its focus on perfecting your skill with its punishing end-game. The best thing about it, though, was that it had accessibility for the casual/Western fan. You didn’t have to go for the highest challenge in order to finish and enjoy the game.

The best part about this silver bullet is my own silver bullet: Keiji Inafune, the EP on Dead Rising. Not long after Dead Rising shipped, the man behind Mega Man (an old favorite of little-obj), was quoted as saying the following back in 2010:

I look around T.G.S. and everyone's making awful games. Japan is at least five years behind. It's like we're still making games for the last generation of game consoles.
Then, he said this to Chris Kohler of Wired back in April of this year:

It’s impossible for Japan to win with just Japanese power. Everybody in Japan should work with foreign developers. Not just paying them money and letting them make whatever they think is good but really working together, coming up with new ideas together and discussing how to make something brand new. That would result in a chemical reaction in a good way. There’s no way that Japan can be on their own anymore.

In America, developers who used to love and who have learned from the Japanese games in the past have re-engineered that to fit the American market. But in Japan, Japanese people only learned from former Japanese games and they haven’t admitted that American games are more fun right now. So they’re not learning from the foreign market at all. They’re only learning from former Japanese titles. That’s why they’re only selling in Japan.

And they’re starting not to sell in Japan either. Japan has to admit the loss and start anew, and they have to have the courage to ask you guys to let us learn from your success and then re-engineer that back to Japan. I’m sure that American people won’t walk away. They have respect for Japan so they will let us learn from their success.
I’ll be the first to admit that Inafune is seen as something of a renegade in Japan now and that many of the established developers harangue him for his outspoken views, but I feel that it speaks directly to the major problem with Japanese games… they’re just not learning and evolving with modern tastes.


Dog of Thunder :

Wait, was I supposed to arguing that the Japanese gaming industry is still churning out quality products, or why it is that you just don't get the games that they do produce? If I'm supposed to be defending the developers as a whole, then that's going to be unfortunate as Keiji Inafune may go a little far with his views, but he's right. You only have to look at Nintendo, which failed to provide proper internet support for the Wii because they did not believe anyone would want to play games online in their own home. The argument is that if gamers wanted to play with or against other people, they'd go to an arcade. Partially, this is a cultural response, as when you have a nation with the population density of Japan, it's easy to see why playing locally with others is still a big draw. On the other hand, it's also a failure to recognize emerging trends within the industry.

I could bring you deep down the rabbit hole and start breaking down corporate structures, exchanges of information, development cycles and an independent gaming scene that is not nearly as developed as that of the West. The reason for declining sales or, well, the declining quality of the games that are released is much more complicated than "Japanese games have lots of boobies and crazy stuff". The simplest reason is one that I will briefly touch on, but it boils down to how North American movie studios should not attempt to make a Godzilla movie and Japanese game studios should not attempt to make Gears of War.

Broad generalization, of course, but it's not like that's the first one out of the previous 1,000 words. I'll narrow it down even more and state that the issue with game quality comes down to multiplayer. Name the last great Japanese developed title with amazing multiplayer. It's easy for me anyway; among what I have personally experienced: SoulCalibur V (great netcode, little to no lag at any time), the BlazBlue franchise (perhaps the best with regards to connectivity) and http://www.trueachievements.com/SUPER-STREETFIGHTER-IV/....htm. All are fighting games, all centered around basically taking the arcade experience online. None of them are lengthy co-op experiences that, with the exception of Capcom (Dead Rising 2 (Xbox 360), Resident Evil 5 (Xbox 360), 6 and ORC, Lost Planet 2), no developer has even attempted extensive online play. Well, with the exception of DLC, isn't online play the defining trait of this generation?


osubluejacket :

That’s a really great point, Dog. I agree that online functionality and downloadable content have been the hallmarks of this generation and that the social/cultural differences in Eastern/Western gamers probably have a lot to do with Japan lagging behind, so to speak. Arcade culture is still alive in Japan and has (unfortunately) been long-dead in the United States. If gamers can go to arcades to get a social/co-operative/competitive gaming experience, the need for quality multiplayer on a home console is greatly diminished.

I think we may have found a common ground here. The tragic fact of the matter is that I used to love games out of Japan. Like most children of the 80’s, I grew up with the 8- and 16-bit systems and loved games like Dragon Warrior, Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden and the Nintendo staples, but have fallen in line with Inafune’s line of thinking that Japan has completely lost touch with Western audiences. I think that is my main reason for disillusionment. I think they’ve lost their way in what used to make them great and have gorged themselves on what they THINK we want (giant knockers and crazy stuff). Rather than giving gamers a coherent story with solid gameplay and visuals, they’re focusing on ridiculous (not in the good way) action and gonzo stories and are trying to cram as much as they can into a game.

One needs to look no further than Resident Evil 6 (Xbox 360) as the best example. I see this as both an indictment on Japanese design while also a source of hope for the future.

The downside to the game was that (seemingly) Capcom couldn’t figure out a direction so they threw EVERYTHING into that game. Like Gears of War? Play Chris’ campaign! Like the “old-school” Resident Evil? Start up with Leon! Want something a little different? Fire up Jake! In short, they were listening too much and ended up spreading themselves too thin with too much, and none of it well-done.

The upside to that game was that Capcom was actually listening. They’re starting to realize that many Western gamers (like myself) are becoming more and more disinclined to pick up an Eastern-developed title and are trying (boy are they trying) to bring us back.

My feeling is that the next generation of consoles is going to see a greater collaboration between Western talent/leadership and Eastern designers. When I see a developer like Cliff Bleszinski say how he wants to help make a good Resident Evil game, it gives me hope that there is a collaboration on the horizon that helps get Japan back on the right track, allowing them to retain aspects of their core cultural development identity while also re-engaging Western audiences.

I’ll leave it to you to bring it on home, Dog.

Resi6 October24th

Dog of Thunder :

Are you familiar with Bollywood movies? This particular type of movie from India is an amazing collection of every concept and genre under the sun. Bollywood movies are typically, from my experience working in a movie theater that hosted festivals, six hours long. They include musicals, murder mysteries, sci-fi concepts, romance, comedy... everything in one movie. This is done because the paying audience *wants everything* and the result is a movie that is incomprehensible to those outside of the target audience but is incredibly loved by the people the movies are made for in the first place.

Resident Evil 6 is a Bollywood movie (and that is a line no one ever thought would be typed).

Despite internet opinion, some people did want Resident Evil to be more of an action game and, yes, others wanted it to be slower and more of a survival-horror game. The end result is a terrific effort as far as giving everyone what they want and, really, Capcom remains one of the best (if not the best) of the Japanese developers. Sure, http://www.trueachievements.com/STREETFIGHTER-X-TEKKEN/....htm was a bit of a dud, but http://www.trueachievements.com/SUPER-STREETFIGHTER-IV/....htm and http://www.trueachievements.com/U-MARVEL-VS-CAPCOM-3/ac....htm are still heavy-hitters on the pro fighting game circuit. In fact, this year alone they released Asura's Wrath, Dragon's Dogma, Resident Evil 6, Street Fighter x Tekken and dipped into the back catalog by putting out Marvel vs. Capcom Origins and JoJo's Bizarre Adventure HD. Every single one of their new releases tried to push the envelope in different directions, from the fighting system of SFxT to the structure of Resident Evil 6 or the... everything... about Asura's Wrath. Whether they were successes or failures is in the eye of the beholder, but Capcom at least attempted something new in each game.

At the end of the day, gaming is just a fun hobby for all of us, and whether or not we enjoy something is entirely subjective. Sure, we read reviews, commentaries, blogs etc. but no two people will ever agree 100% on the same titles being fun for all the same reasons. That's part of why I like this hobby; there is always something to discuss, always something new and interesting and, in this case, while I love the over-the-top style of most modern games coming out of Japan, I can easily see why that would be off-putting to someone. At the end of the day, I can't really explain why I like the things that I do. I only know that if given a choice between something published by Atlus (anything really) and a game from BioWare (for example) I'm going with the game from Atlus. You would go with the game from BioWare. Nobody's wrong, nobody's right, we're just different.

That's why I love gaming and why I do hope that not only the Japanese developers but all of them worldwide continue to push the envelope and are able to find a modicum of financial success for their efforts.

Thus ends our discussion. Now that you've heard the opinions of two Newshounds, we cede the floor to comments and thoughts from the community... just keep it civil, eh?
Jonathan Barnes
Written by Jonathan Barnes
Jonathan has been a news/views contributor since 2010. When he's not writing reviews, features, and opinion pieces, he spends his days working as an informal science educator and his nights as an international man of mystery.