Editorial: Lost in Translation (Now With Less Bill Murray)

At a recent Japanese game developer’s conference, Square developers discussed some things they have learned from the West.

Constant readers know that this space often devotes precious inches of text to the extant and growing gap between game design philosophies of North America and the Japanese/Korean markets. The pet theory of this writer is that gamer culture and gamer habits differ so starkly between the two markets that savvy developers have correctly read the prevailing winds and designed games to match the expectation of the customers.

That, paradoxically, has lead to designers failing to serve the very real need for innovation. North America does not need, for instance, more gruff space marines busting bad guys in the balls with bullets; nor does Japan or Korea need another repetitive grindfest filled with mini-games and annoying, bubbly voice acting. These things are possessed by each market in spades.

And shifting between the two is not necessarily a simple task; a one-to-one port of an Asian grindfest to the Americas will be met with derision as lacking engaging mechanics. Space marines do not fare well against tentacle monsters, whatever their proficiency at ganking Martians.

Shiokawa-san’s exegesis, that Western game developers stress “believability” in lieu of “realism,” is off-base, but only slightly so. Western game developers often choose an art motif and color palette that reflects a “grittier,” more “real-world” presentation. Chalk it up to Americans’ general preference for live-action over animation, and the Japanese more general acceptance of animation as suitable for all ages. But color palette alone does not define a game.

All fictional stories (of which games are a subset) require the suspension of disbelief. Add in fantastical or speculative elements (which almost every game has) and the amount of disbelief that must be suspended increases. As long as most story-driven games follow a consistent internal logic, players will accept them.

Assassin's Creed II is a Canadian-developed game.
Assassin's Creed II is a Canadian-developed game, featuring stealth-based gameplay, a leveling system, and a complex storyline.

Where games (from both schools) have traditionally failed us in this regard is the thrust of game mechanics, user interfaces, button pressing, and so forth into our faces. At some point, we become aware that what we are doing is playing a game rather than experiencing a story first-hand. The traditional Asian use of text-based menus, for example, stands as a glaring example. The repetitive dialogue trees of a morality-system (and that system’s obvious transparency) is another example from this side of the Pacific Pond.

Counterbalance this with the fact that artifice and mechanics are necessary to add difficulty to the game. Simply experiencing a story with random button presses thrown in to give the player some form of interaction is easy; the sort of twitchiness and rapid response for combat necessary to overcome a game like Demon’s Souls, on the other hand, represents a significant challenge to the player.

Some balance must always be struck between the artifice of game mechanics (which break the fourth wall) and the challenge players expect from a game. The best way of handling that that I have experienced in recent months was Assassin’s Creed II, where the “computerized” nature of the interface is explained in a way that is organic to the story. Not surprisingly, AC2 gets high marks for me in every category I care about: immersion, inventive storytelling, complex characters I care about, fun mechanics, a decent amount of challenge without being punishing, and a climactic scene that made the entire journey worth it. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood cannot come out soon enough.

So, let us take AC2 as the ambassador from the West for a major, story-driven game. For ocmparison, we should select Japan’s equivalent, a game I think is satisfied by Metal Gear Solid 4. Both games were very highly reviewed; both have rather similar gameplay elements. Both deal with very involved stories… and in that regard, they are entirely similar. One was developed by French Canadians, the other by one of Japan’s most-respected design teams.

Why are these so similar, if we are to believe Shiokawa’s critique?

Solid Snake certainly fits the archetype Shiokawa proposes of the quintessential Western hero: older, male, experienced (that reads like a creepy personal ad). Ezio does not; when the game begins, he is young and untrained (though he learns over time). Desmond, the hero-behind-the-hero, is similar youthful, ignorant of his true parentage, and waiting to be trained by a shadowy organization to fight against another organization to save the world. It would seem that Shiokawa’s conventions have been inverted.

Metal Gear Solid Four is a Japanese-developed game
Metal Gear Solid Four is a Japanese-developed game, yet features substantially the same kinds of gameplay as Assassin's Creed II

Yet each game was very well-received as a great expression of the gaming artform, because each game successfuly convinced players to suspend the belief that they were “just” playing a game to become involved in a story, the same way film directors or novelists or playwrights do.

Each side of our metaphorical divide can, and regularly do, produce transcendent works that stand out as “good” games despite artifice, despite cultural conventions, and despite something that is inevitably lost in the translation. Tales of Vesperia, for example, is an exciting action-RPG that uses anime-styled graphics, bright color palettes, and conventions familiar to Japanese gaming/anime fans that managed to be a successful game in the Western market. And Asian gamers are known for their love of space-marine-infested Starcraft and Starcraft II. The trick is in the power of the narrative, the beauty of the presentation, and the minimization of the breaches of the fourth wall that will suck any gamer in to the game, not “realism” or “believability” or some other high-minded concept. The consumer wants a diversion that diverts, that transports one to fantasy and imagination.

So, what should an enterprising game designer ask herself when she considers how best to engage players? My advice is that ultimately, superficial choices such as the age of the protagonist, the protagonist’s gender, and the art style are all secondary considerations to the backbone of the story: are the characters well-developed and three-dimensional? Does the plot involve the characters in such a way that the player has emotional reactions to what happens to them? Do the game mechanics give the player some measure of narrative control over character development? If the answer to those questions is yes, then things like age, gender, and art style are window dressing on top of an already solid story structure. They may add style and flair (such as performing a Shakespearean play in an eccentric time period) without necessarily changing the substance of the story.

And that malleability of style to serve substance is what makes entertainment truly entertaining.


  1. Lane, have you ever seriously considered giving up this justice/lawyer nonsense in favour of a career in video game design?

  2. Sure. But I lack technical skills. I can’t code for shit, and I have no CAD or drawing skills. Maybe if I could be the Steve Jobs of games, I could do it. But for now my armchair is comfy.

  3. @Lane – I’m finally starting my C++ classes. maybe we can work somethin out once I know what the fuck I’m doin?

  4. -I pretty much agree with this article. Japanese devs confect all these elaborate theories as to why their industry is now failing, when in fact the answer is quite a simple one. The problem isn’t that they failed to move with the times, the problem is that they stopped giving audiences what they wanted. The vast majority of Japanese scenarists have forgotten how to write believable and compelling characters, and instead recycle thrashed out anime clichés with all the emotional veracity of a morality play!

    I much prefer the JRPG aesthetic, but I’ve been moving ever closer to WRPGs because they at least tend to get the fundamentals right.

  5. WRPGs have grown beyond Bethesda’s graphics style and gameplay (and thanks for that!). I don’t think BioWare has ever made a bad game, and if you’ve never done it, go get the old AD&D games for PC (Icewind Dale I and II, Baldur’s Gate, Pools of Radiance, etc.), because if you like Forgotten Realms, they’re superb.

    A good game has cross-cultural appeal; I think that each “camp” or whatever has grown accustomed to its own stylistic conventions, like mini-games or morality systems, and has forgotten that gimmicks aren’t a substitute for actual depth.

  6. I have the Baldur’s Gate games and their expansions, but I haven’t found time to play them yet. My favourite Bioware game is Jade Empire because it’s colourful like a JRPG but good like a Bioware game.

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