Editorial: Aging Gamers and Japanese Weirdness

Gamers, I may be getting old.

Not in the conventional sense; I am still spry enough not to go on a final, 1980s sci-fi inspired run. But I think rather that in my maturity I am no longer able to dismiss as merely conventional to the artform that which my younger self might. I am speaking, of course, of the convoluted story that permeates modern RPGs, many of them falling from that increasingly senile Square Enix.

Like many of us, I have the nostalgic love of SE that could only be fostered by a nerdy NES/SNES addict. My first exposure to role-playing games came from a console, not a pen and paper, and as such, my love of fantasy grew from the Oriental, rather than the Occidental, tradition. This continues to shape my vision of fantasy today, as the fantasy I write owes much less to Tolkien and his imitators and more to the Eastern standards like Final Fantasy or Record of Lodoss War. As my appreciation for Western fantasy tropes has evolved through engagement with good fantasy literature, however, my tolerance for Eastern weirdness has slackened some.

I begin to wonder: is it me? Or have the major Japanese/Korean studios just lost it?

Monkeys!
Haha... monkeys.

Consider the first Final Fantasy game: my juvenile mind found no complications in its paper-thin plot. After all, bad guys need killing and worlds need saving, so hand me a sword and get out of my way. I was astounded by the relative depth of Final Fantasy IV in regard to its earlier cousin: named characters, progression, romance (what my younger self would have called “mushy stuff”), family betrayals. This was real story!

But by modern standards, even that august game’s story is showing its long teeth.

Somewhere around Final Fantasy VI, however, the series began its descent. Final Fantasy II introduced gamers to the aspect of a plucky group of rebels sticking it out against the evil empire, but VI was the one (and only) game in the series that gave that theme some actual gravitas. Rather than the empire being cartoonishly bad, it was merely a greedy empire… only a certain laughing lieutenant was really “evil” in the cosmic sense, and all he wanted to do was exploit a non-human race’s powers to become a god. Gotta love that subtext!

Final Fantasy VII attempted to continue this theme of Othering and colonialization by ham-fisting its way into the arena of environmentalism, telling us that it was not groovy to drain the planet’s lifestream (oil? Mother Earth has oil for blood?) and unleash cosmic mayhem upon the world through genetic manipulation and cloning. Or something.

I wonder how much is lost in translation (since my Japanese language skills are not on par to tackling a video game) and how much of if the story really is muddled and badly-told.

The successive iterations of this theme through the ages of Final Fantasy (and Square’s numerous other games) have only further solidified that I have no idea what the hell is going on in the writer’s heads.

At the same time, Western studios, once purveyors of material not worthy to grace the tables of cheeto-bedusted Dungeon Masters basement-wide, have started producing modern material that is not only moving and significant, but feels like it can meaningfully engage the minds of players (see the Mass Effect series). Why the difference?

It bothers me on a deep level; I feel at once driven by a sense of brand loyalty to defend Square, and indeed, I do not need much prompting. I can feel the edifice of story surrounding recent releases (XII and XIII come to mind) but I cannot find a way to engage with it, to interface with the game in such a way that the story becomes meaningful and personal to me again. I wish to share the triumphs and sorrows of the characters; I wish to feel elated when they (I) succed, and crushed when one of our own falls.

Monkeys
Monkeys... monkeys... MONKEYS!!!

But with recent news that gaming giant Capcom might be shutting off its Western operations to anything but ports and translations, what does this mean for the East/West split in games? Are we forever bound to be one demographic divided by a large cultural and language barrier? Does the terminal weirdness of everything Japan mean that only those who engage with its pop art (anime, manga, video games) on a very deep level will be able to “get” its games? Is the reverse true? Will we ever see a normalization of game styles and the gaming life between the sometimes creepily obsessive video gaming population of the East (I am looking squarely at you, Korea, and your crazy Starcraft obsession) and the more laconic West?

Or am I just being paranoid? Does this post have too many rhetorical questions? Are they really rhetorical? Do I expect readers to attempt to answer them? Does anyone even read this? Or could I just talk about silly monkeys? Haha… monkeys.

0 comments

  1. i think its a cultural thing. im a “westerner” but i think that mass effect is pretty mediocre at best for example.
    99.9% of the best scfi authors are westerners (arthur clarke, asimov,bradbury,etc), but western video game scfi stories suck ass. WHY?
    another example: all those halo/modern warfare2/ghost reacon (the one where the US invades Mexico OMG) pseudo-facist/nazi messages may look pretty normal for us , but the rest of the world find them pretty scary or Fu%$& up.

  2. also i think we are getting too old for this and we try to justify our hobby by playing more “mature” games. I can watch a halo/uncharted/gears of war or a god of war movie with My friends without any problem. thats more sociable accetable(at least in my case)
    But if i try to watch a Final Fantasy/Jrpg movie with them, they are going to tell me “How old are you?” “this is for girls” “Lets play a men´s game where we shoot something”
    These are just theories and not rules or anything.

  3. That has to do with perceptions of “masculinity” and an association of violence/gore with being manly. I enjoy fantasy anime as much as the next guy (perhaps more), and I detest machismo, so I’m perhaps not the best source for this, but while I find certain Japanese fantasies to be among the highest expressions of the art (Juuni Kouki or Twelve Kingdoms is beyond excellent), other times it just leaves me baffled as to what the directors/producers were thinking (see recent TriAce game Infinite Undiscoverability).

  4. I agree, Japanese Fantasies are getting worse, but that doesnt mean that western fantasies are getting better.
    the best monment in Fable 2(the F word) is when they send your main character to this prision island for 10 years.
    The same thing that happened to your main character in Dragon Quest V like 15 years ago.

  5. Infinite Undiscovery is an awful game by any metric, and has less to do with the East/West split than it has to do with the bad/good split.

    My first exposure to RPGs also came from my NES console, though my first experience with fantasy storytelling significantly predated that. I felt that the gameplay of early NES JRPGs allowed me to experience the fantasy settings which I had experienced in the works of Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander. After all, neither of them created particularly deep villains. What do we know of Sauron’s motivation from the text of Lord of the Rings? I don’t know that they ever even mention that he was Morgoth’s Lieutenant, or whom Morgoth is, or what the Valar are, and so on. So, given that was the case, Chaos (who actually speaks–a step far more than Sauron ever did!) seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Later iterations of evil (Golbez, Zeromus, Gestahl, Kefka, Shinra, Sephiroth) were even more so.

    Personally, I didn’t find FFVII confusing, though I think it was muddled at points due to some very weird translations. And it’s mako, not oil. Mako =/= Oil! I appreciated the environmentalist undertones–it gave the fantasy setting something real and current which one could connect with. After all, we have our own environmental discourse–now, more than ever.

    Speaking for myself, Juan, I do not try to justify my hobby by playing more “mature” games, where “mature” is just a codeword for “Western, gore-filled, and gritty”. Mass Effect holds nothing for me, Bioshock is barely interesting, and games like Dragon Age and Oblivion have not and never will appeal to me. Sorry, I guess I’m a JRPG fan at heart. If that makes me less ‘mature’, then the definition of mature needs work.

    It’s worth pointing out that generally speaking I am not an anime fan (with two exceptions: I enjoy Hayao Miyazaki movies, and I love Fullmetal Alchemist). I have little patience for Japanese pop culture, and even less patience for its rabid proponents. That’s why I hired Biggs to make fun of them once a week.

  6. another example: I love tales of vesperia, but the story and that sephirot´s brother character make no sense.

  7. Fable’s stories are always crap. More Molyneux-evil.

    Fullmetal Alchemist works, I argue, because it eschews the obscurantism of something like Evangelion (which I also like, don’t get me wrong) for a more straightforward presentation. And I like JRPGs, but I’m concerned that big studios like Square are mistaking “weird” for “innovative.” Case in point, compare Dragon Age (real dark fantasy worthy of the name) with something like Oblivion (godawful hackery of the highest degree). People who don’t understand the pulp mindset assume if you stack up a bunch of titillating words and gore next to each other you get to the essence of Western fantasy. BUT THIS IS FOLLY. “Oh no demons and bad people are out to destroy the worldz!!11” doesn’t work, but “blood mages have summoned demons to this realm because demons feed on the emotional energies released by these mages, and that’s fuckin’ shit up for everyone” does.

    And while I understand that mako is no oil, wasn’t that the parallel to be drawn? I mean, kudos to Square for wanting to tackle a theme. But it just gets so bogged down in the heavy-handed nature of that story. Everyone gets all weepy-eyed and soggy pants over Aeris dying. I honestly did not care. I sort of hoped Cloud would commit seppuku at that point for being a bad hero. But we all know that my dislike of Final Fantasy VII is legend. LONG LIVE THE STORY OF THE ESPERS.

  8. Stop saying that word!

    I’m not certain one can draw exact parallels between Mako and Oil. Rather, I think that it is better to say that the general concern about the future of the world being exploited for technological progress and immediate monetary gain is something which connects the world of Final Fantasy VII to our own. In both cases, the assault on the planet is seen as something bad, but I would argue that the focus of FF7 quickly shifts away. Once Sephiroth enters the picture, the fearsome prospect of a Mako-drained world seldom comes up again. Far more pressing are immediate concerns such as Meteor and Jenova, and these remain the centre of the plot until the last moment of the game, when we see that 500 years later, nature has triumphed.

  9. FABLE! :D

    If you want environmentalist hippie spew, look back even further than FF7 to Square’s Secret of Mana for the SNES. While I love the game dearly (it was my first), it was grossly heavy-handed in its message. “The evil guys are tampering with the elements of nature! Go stop them! Oh wait, too little and too late… suddenly, rainbow dragon that will destroy all so nature can prevail!” And while it wasn’t exactly the best storyline, at least they finished it; like Lusi said, Sephiroth shows up and who gives a damn about Mako anymore, Rufus who? That pissed me off to no end, I wanted to know what was going on with Shinra Inc…..other than Midgar getting blown to smithereens. And no, Advent Children did not help answer these questions, it just helped me want to strangle the creator.

    I think part of the reason Japanese games have gone so downhill is the proliferation of the obsessive gamer and the *need* for achievements. When you played the old Final Fantasies, we all knew that when we were told to go left, we should go right first to get some sweet loot, then you go left and get back along with the plot. But now? You go right and seven hours later you realize that you have been doing a series of mindless quest and mini-games and trying to get this outfit and this piece of armor and now you have no idea where you’re supposed to be going to what the plot was advancing to. Western games are doing this as well, but current JRPGs are suffering from a terminal case of ADHD.

    This is only worsened by, as Lane said, this silly idea that weird = good. I’m sorry, Persona 3 and 4 were weird as fuck, but the highlight for me was not the gameplay or the plot, it was Mitsuru and Rise….and even then, not really as characters of particular interest, but as “oooh, pretty girls.” Yes Japan, you got me interested with Rise’s shadow dancing around of a stripper pole then attempting to kill me, but when that is the memorable part of your game rather than the game as a whole, you’re doing something wrong.

    And I sadly don’t have much to add about Western game. Like Grandpa said, I’m here to mock the Japanese and act as the spare tits when Ginia’s deflate. I will, however, agree that when I think of Western game, the unfortunate association is Halo, Modern Warfare, pull-trigger-receive-brain-bacon type of game.

    So hours of shiny sidequests and tits, or lots of blood and gore and bullets? When can I have one with both?

  10. Jen, that game was called Bayonetta, and it was just bloody awful. I got halfway through the introduction before turning it off.

    I would like to draw a line in the sand between Western games like Halo (which has promise, if only Microsoft would get off Bungie’s throat) and some really good games like the God of War series or just about anything BioWare puts out. And, may Odin forgive me, the lore of Warcraft (and Diablo… and Starcraft)… say what you will about Blizzard and their desire to own our souls and wear them as gaudy costume jewelry to fashionable cosmic parties, but the motherfuckers know story.

  11. Our tastes become more discerning as we age, but JRPG narratives have been steadily retreating into their own banality for the better part of a decade. I see it as a cultural movement in Japan, narratives matured during the 90’s and now they’re rebalancing toward the early teen anime crowd. I would have thought that a declining birthrate would have been cause for more maturity in Japanese gaming narrative, but it seems to have led game devs to fight even more fiercely to capture this finite mindshare (I guess Japanese salary men must not have enough free time to constitute a viable market, they’re probably all playing Rapelay anyway).

    On the upside, SMT games contain consistently good writing, and Tales Of remains the same, as Tales Of always does. But most of the JRPG industry along with many other Japanese games have really entered a narrative downward spiral …

  12. Bayonetta *could* have had potential if someone told the guys at Platinum that there is such a thing as too much sexual innuendo. If they didn’t focus on rendering her ass and giving her cheesy porno lines, some time could have been spent on fixing the battle system and making it something other than a gauntlet of quick time events.

  13. I need not choose between gaming and fapping ever again!

  14. I object! Final Fantasy IV is a great game, but it’s story is utterly preposterous! Which party members didn’t do a heroic sacrifice and then show up five minutes later with a mild headache or betray Cecil every twenty minutes?

    “The Power of Cheese” covers the US FF2 release in hilarious detail and is an awesome read if you haven’t seen it: http://pixelblip.studiogcs.com/ffiv/episodes.html
    :P

    I’ve been catching up with SMT titles for the past year and a half or so and found them to be about as enjoyable as I did Squaresoft titles back in the NES/SNES/early PSX era. Aside from Persona 4 which I think was close to flawless for what it was (except it could have benefitted from being ~20 hours shorter), they all have problems, but there’s exploration, challenging battle systems, interesting characters/plot, etc. You can usually get deep into how the game works or just speed through and enjoy the sights.

    My biggest problem with most JRPGs I’ve played recently is that they either have a fucking card game (I don’t like real or videogame card games), some pointless super boss that I don’t give a crap about beating, and/or the characters are all 13 and irritating. There’s lots of games to play I don’t want to spend 150 hours getting 100% completion and all the characters to level 99 anymore. I’d rather move on and play something else.

    @Lusipurr, did you play Mass Effect long enough to become a Spectre? You get to choose-your-own-inspirational-speech to give the crew about “humanity going out among the stars” that I thought was pretty cool. (Of course I’m playing it on PC and also like the driving the vehicle around planets looking for mineral deposits, so what the hell do I know?)